By Judy Deeter TROY Historical Society
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Elihu S. Williams was respected Troy resident. He had been a school teacher, an attorney, a United States Army Captain, a Tennessee State legislator, a United States Congressman, a newspaper owner and editor, and a favorite speaker at local events. Throughout his life, he had the ability to communicate both verbally and in writing. Now—more than 100 years after his death—Williams is still remembered for his skillful use of words. He was a gifted communicator.
He was born near New Carlisle (Clark Co.), Ohio on January 24, 1835 to Rev. Henry and Elizabeth (Pettigrew) Williams. The couple eventually had five children; Elihu has been referred to in some records as their “eldest son.” Elihu’s paternal grandparents had come to the New Carlisle area from Virginia sometime around 1806-1807. The family is considered as pioneers in the area.
Perhaps the earliest record regarding Elihu Williams’ use of words has to do with a conversation he had with his father about his schooling. Young Elihu wanted more education than what was offered through the “winter” schools in his neighborhood. When he was 16, he decided to talk to his father about the matter. The book 1880 HISTORY OF MIAMI COUNTY by Beers states: “...he demanded of his father that he should be sent regularly to school; his father told him if he wanted a better education than he was getting at home, to get it himself; the boy took him at his word, and with $1.50 in his pocket, started out in life for himself....”
Upon leaving the home, he went to work for farmers near Troy: Major McCain, Joshua Peck and John Peck, Jr. He labored with the farmers until he saved enough money to pay for his board to study with a Professor Arnett in Troy. Through his studies with Professor Arnett, he passed an examination to get a teaching certificate. It is interesting to note that his teaching certificate was given by Miami County examiners Professor William Norton Edwards and Barton S. Kyle. (Both Edwards and Kyle would later have Troy schools named in their honor; Edwards School and Kyle School.)
Williams began his teaching career at the Brandt school in 1851-1852 and continued teaching at a school house named Kepper in 1852-1853. While teaching, he also “recited” to a Professor Thomas Harrison as he struggled to further his own education. In the spring of 1852 and 1853 he attended the Linden Hill Academy in New Carlisle. His life in those years seems to have been a pattern of working and saving his money for school, going to school and then working again to pay for more education. The book A GENEALOGICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL RECORD OF MIAMI COUNTY OHIO (1900) says, “...when he again went to work until he earned enough money to pay his tuition for the first and second years in the preparatory school at Antioch College, when his money gave out, and he became discouraged and gave up (much to his regret in after life) his plan or hope of obtaining a college education.”
Although he gave up on getting his college degree, he continued to work and save money. Keep in mind that in the mid-19th century an individual could go far in life without a college degree. In 1858, he began a law career reading in the office of F.P. Cuppy in Dayton, but still continued teaching in winter and working with farmers in their crop fields. In February 1861, the Ohio Supreme Court admitted him to practice law. He traveled to Illinois to look for a place to practice law, but while he was there so the Civil War began.
He returned to Ohio to sign up to fight in the war, but the quota needed for men from Ohio was filled. He then moved to Celina in Mercer County. Soon, however, a second call came for more Ohio men for the war; he enlisted as a private and helped to organize Company A of the 71st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He began his military service as a Private but quickly became a First Lieutenant of the Company. According to his obituary, “He was at Ft. Donnelson, led the company into the bloody battle of Shiloh, and was soon promoted to the captaincy. In 1863 he was placed in charge of the post at Carthage, Tenn., and soon after detailed by Governor Andrew Johnson to raise troops.” For the much of his life after the war, he was known as Captain Williams.
At the end of the war, he remained in Smith County, Tennessee (where he served during the war) and began a law practice there. In April 1865, he was appointed as District Attorney for the 6th Judicial District. He held the post until 1867 when he resigned to run as a Republican candidate for the Tennessee legislature, representing the counties of Smith and Macon. He won the office by a large majority of votes.
During those years, he also married a woman named Alice Gordon and became involved in farming. He worked on his farm until 1875 when he moved to Troy to be in a law partnership with his brother younger brother Henry. (Henry too had served in the 71st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He was wounded in the hip at the battle of Shiloh and held as a Confederate prisoner of war about four months. He was released to the Union Army in a prisoner exchange. In 1863, he was discharged from military service because of his wounded hip. He was admitted to the bar in 1864. It is believed that Elihu and Henry Williams had a close relationship for most of their lives.)
The first mention of Capt. Williams as an orator are found in records from the 1880s. Though he probably used his communication skills in prior years as a teacher, Army Captain and attorney, we known very little about what he said during those years.
In the spring of 1880, he was one of about a dozen orators who participated in a series of lectures at the Troy Opera House raise money for the Troy library.
He is listed as “Orator of the Day” in a published article the laying of the cornerstone at the Miami County Courthouse on July 16, 1885. (Source of the article is not known.) A copy of the speech he gave that day is in the files of the Troy-Miami County Public Library Local History Library in Troy. Prior to the laying of the cornerstone, there had been a nearly century-long battle over where the courthouse should be located—Piqua or Troy. There were strong feelings on both sides about the location. Yet Williams said, “...I trust and hope that that the corner stone of the Temple of Justice this day laid will bury forever under its ponderous weight the bitterness of strife that has existed for eighty years, and that henceforth beneath the shadow of the Dome that will crown and ornament the Court House of Miami county, the historian of the future can truthfully write of Piqua and Troy, as the poet of the past has written of lovers betrothed, ‘To (sic) souls but a single thought, Two hearts that beat as one,’ (by poet John Keats) united for the interest and welfare of its grand old county of Miami—friendly rivals in the race for public enterprise, population and wealth.”
In 1886, Capt. Williams was elected as a United States Congressman from what was then Ohio’s 3rd congressional district (an area that would part of the 8th congressional district today). He served for two terms from December 1887 to March 1891.
On July 4, 1887, he gave an oration as the district-elect Congressman at the West Milton 4th of July festivities. That speech was published on July 7, 1887 in the Buckeye newspaper and is also available for reading at the Local History Library in Troy.
On October 27, 1891, he introduced the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Thomas B. Reed of Maine when Reed paid a visit to Troy. Reed gave a speech on the Public Square.
In the spring of 1891, Capt. Williams bought an interest in the Buckeye newspaper. His partner Dr. H.J. Pearson had previously been the sole owner. After all his years giving speeches, it is interesting that his opening words to Buckeye readers were: “To the readers of the Buckeye, I freely confess that I have but little skill and experience as a writer, no training as a newspaper man and it is too late in life for me to have ambition as a Journalist.” His full statement is in the Buckeye newspaper of March 26, 1891. Though he may not have been a writer, he had long been an orator and was widely known for his skillful use of words.
Another unusual statement about a man who had given countless speeches and always seemed to have something to say is printed in the Buckeye edition of April 2, 1891. It says, “During his two terms of service in Congress few men have said less and done more for his constituents than Capt. Williams.”
Williams sold the Buckeye newspaper in 1899. It should be noted that for years his daughter Olive wrote columns of local news for the paper. She was considered a very good writer, but loved traveling and often did so. Once, she and her father’s brother Judge Henry Williams made a trip around the world.
Though Williams died on December 1, 1903, he “lives on” through the many words he spoke and wrote so long ago. Williams life demonstrates to us today the power found in words and good communication skills.
To view copies of the Buckeye newspaper or read Elihu Williams speeches, visit the Troy-Miami County Public Library Local History Library at 100 West Main Street in Troy.