Michigan Transportation History

B. O. Williams

Public PersonOwossoBusinessIndian TraderMiner

Benjamin Oliver Williams Sr. (1810-1887) who was known throughout his life as "B. O. Williams" was one of the pioneer settlers of Shiawassee County and a founder of Owosso, Michigan. He was also one of the founders of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society and an early historian of Michigan.

The fullest biography of B. O. Williams is to be found in Franklin Ellis?, History of Shiawassee and Clinton Counties, Michigan, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Their Prominent Men and Pioneers (Philadelphia: D. W. Ensign & co., 1880), pp. 159-160, but multiple references to Williams are to be found throughout the text.

Williams's biography is important, first, for his relationship to Chief Okemos. It is not yet clear to me how much Williams affected the telling of Michigan's Indian-Anglo history, but there probably is some impact. Second, I find Williams's foray into California gold mining fascinating. Williams and his brother literally washed away hills in order to find gold. Apparently, he was one of the pioneers in hydraulic gold mining.


Benjamin Oliver Williams was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on November 18, 1810. His father Oliver Williams? moved the family to Michigan, arriving in Detroit November 5, 1815.1

A description of Oliver Williams, the father, and founding pioneer of Oakland County, is found in Samuel W. Durant, History of Oakland County, Michigan, pp. 300-302. Most of this story is about Williams's War of 1812 activities. Benjamin also wrote a biography of his father published in the MPHS Collections in 1878.2

B. O. had two older brothers: Gardner D. Williams. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/micounty/4763144.0001.001/42 and Alfred L. Williams?, but it is "A. L. Williams" that partnered with "B. O." in most of their pioneering enterprises in Shiawassee County and is referenced almost as much as "B. O." He also had a younger brother, "A. F. Williams." A full genealogy of Oliver Williams is found in Ellis History of Shiawassee County, p. 159.

Williams married Sophia A. Smith, of Canandaigua, NY. They first lived in a house built by Williams near his brother Alfred. But later he built a house next to Amos Gould?. They later moved in 1869. Together, Benjamin and Sophia had at least four children. James A. Williams? and Charles S. Williams? apparently went into business together in Owosso. Benjamin Oliver, Jr.? went to work for the Great Western Railroad? at Detroit as a freight agent. And a daughter, Mary, who married William Marvin Kilpatrick on December 31, 1869, but who died less than a year later in October, 1870.

Land Speculation

Franklin Ellis?, History of Shiawassee and Clinton Counties, Michigan, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Their Prominent Men and Pioneers (Philadelphia: D. W. Ensign & co., 1880).

Williams as founder of Owosso (pp. 146-148).
Williams's land claims, (p. 212,p. 260, p. 262).

The Past and Present of Shiawassee County, Michigan, Historically Together with Biographical Sketches of Many of its Leading and Prominent Citizens and Illustrious Dead -- Illustrated. Lansing: Michigan Historical Publishing Assn., 1906.

Alfred and Benjamin staking claims in Owosso (p. 195).
The early history of Owosso (p. 198).

Beers, F. W. County Atlas of Shiawassee Co., Michigan: from recent and actual surveys and records. New York : F.W. Beers & Co., 1875.

Plat maps of A. L. Williams and B. O. Williams's holdings.

Daboll, Sherman B., and D. W. Kelley. Past and Present of Clinton County, Michigan. Chicago: The S. J. Clarke publishing co., 1906.

An account of the Dexter Colony led by Judge Samuel Dexter?, (pp. 482-483)
Ovid Indian Mound (p. 446).
Platting Ovid village (p. 507).

Michigan's Indians and John Okemos

By many accounts, B. O. Williams seems to have become one of Michigan's greatest authorities on Michigan's Indians, at least during his lifetime. When he and his brother A. L. Williams came to Shiawassee County, they established an Indian trading post and thus gained much first-hand knowledge of Ojibwe, Odawa, and Pottawatomie culture and society. For a history of B. O. Williams in Shiawassee County as Indian trader and as a mediator between Indian and American culture, see the Ellis, History of Shiawassee County, pp. 9-18.3

It was in his capacity as an Indian Trader that Williams came to know Chief John Okemos and recorded many conversations that they had together. Williams's recollections are thus often recounted when Okemos is the subject of research. See for instance, Williams recounting of the Battle of Sandusky in Albert E. Cowles's Past and Present of the City of Lansing and Ingham County, Michigan (pp. 510-512). There also seems to be a "reprinting" of the story in Samuel W. Durant's History of Ingham and Eaton counties, Michigan, with illustrations and biographical sketches of their prominent men and pioneers (see pp. 62-64.

Calhoun County Souvenir: Commemorating the Journal's Fiftieth Anniversary. Battle Creek, MI: Battle Creek Journal, 1901.

Williams, in a letter dated February 6, 1879, described the tracking and capture of an Pottawatomie named Muck-e-Moot (p. 16). The story is told from a different perspective in Ellis, p. 24.

B. O. Williams was involved in an assault on an Indian at a trading post run by (probably) a relative E. S. Williams. W. B. McCormick, "Indian Stoicism and Bravery," in History of Tuscola and Bay Counties (Chicago: H. R. Page & Co., 1883), p. 13.

The story is reprinted in History of Bay County, Michigan (Chicago: H. R. Page, 1883), p. 13 and in Michael A. Leeson, History of Saginaw county, Michigan (Chicago: C. C. Chapman & co., 1881), p. 130.

Past and Present of Shiawassee County, Michigan, Historically together with biographical sketches of many of its leading and prominent citizens and illustrious dead. Lansing: Michigan Historical Publishing Association, 1906.

Williams describes Native American society as he found it in the 1830s (pp. 24-28).

Mining & Railroads

A. L. Williams? and Benjamin got the California gold bug and both went west in 1850. Together they established a mine in Nevada County, CA, named "Pontiac Hill." Williams proudly notes that they started hydraulic mining in Nevada County by building "the first water-race for gold-washing in the county." In the process they found some amount of gold. They sold out this claim in 1852 and returned to Owosso, ostensibly to outfit another expedition.4 Alfred and Benjamin returned to California in May of 1852 (by the overland route) with brothers Alpheus F.? and James M. Williams?. This time they established a claim in Sierra County, investing over a half-million dollars. The mine was again successful and sometime later, perhaps in 1853 or 54, Alfred and Benjamin returned to Owosso, leaving Alpheus and James in charge of the brothers' California gold-washing operations. In 1863, Benjamin joined with a Col. Hayden (from Ohio) to unsuccessfully prospect for gold and silver in Honduras.5

Amos Gould? and B. O. Williams owned all the rolling stock of the Amboy, Lansing & Traverse Railroad when it was first built.6

Alfred L. Williams? and B. O. Williams were awarded the contract to grub the right-of-way of the Northern Railroad of Michigan in 1838.7

Political and Social

Williams was elected as the director of the Owosso school district at its founding in 1837. He was serving on the Board of Education in 1879.8

He was a member of the Owosso Lodge, no. 81, of the F&AM.Mason9

Williams was a founding member of both the Old Settlers' Society of Shiawassee County and the Shiawassee County Agricultural Association (Ellis, History, pp. 139-140).

Williams was a DemocratDemocratic and served as justice of peace and Mayor Mayor of Owosso and as a delegate to state conventionsParty Delegate.10



1. History of Macomb County, Michigan: containing ... biographical sketches, portraits of prominent men and early settlers: the whole preceded by a history of Michigan, p. 120 -.

2. B. O. Williams "Sketch of the Life of Oliver Williams and Family." MPHS Collections 2 (February 1878), 36-40.

3. Ellis notes in his preface that the text was written “principally from conversations with the oldest residents and best-informed people” of Shiawassee and Clinton counties. And as Williams was the first biography in the biographical section, and the pioneer settler of Shiawassee County, and one of the “best informed people” about Michigan’s native Americans, it is highly likely that this first chapter was heavily influenced, if not written, by Williams himself. The textual evidence is that the Williams family is central to Ellis’s story (as they would have been having established the first Indian trading post in the county) and that the primary sources for Indian behavior and acts are either B. O. Williams himself or his brothers.

4. Pontiac Hill was the first hill to the west of the Manzinita Diggings in Nevada County, California. Further west were the Buckeye and Oregon hills. By 1870, all three hills had been destroyed by the hydraulic mining started by the Williams Brothers. J. D. Whitney [Josiah Dwight], "The Auriferous Gravels of the Sierra Nevada of California," Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology of Harvard College VI, part 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard College Museum of Comparative Zoology, May 1879), 188; see also Erwin Gustav Gudde and Elisabeth K. Gudde, California Gold Camps: A Geographical and Historical Dictionary of Camps, Towns, and Localities Where Gold was Found and Mined, Wayside Stations and Trading Centers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 272.

5. Ellis, History of Shiawassee County pp. 159-160.

6. Pioneer History of Ingham County, compiled and arranged by Mrs. Franc L. Adams (p. 550).

7. George N. Fuller, Local History and Personal Sketches of St. Clair and Shiawassee Counties, vol 3 of Historic Michigan: Land of the Great Lakes, by George N. Fuller (Dayton, OH: National Historical Association, inc, 1926), 161; and John S. Schenk?, History of Ionia and Montcalm Counties, Michigan (Philadelphia: D. W. Ensign & Co., 1881), 38-39.

8. Ellis, History of Shiawassee County pp. 152-3.

9. Ellis, History of Shiawassee County p. 153.

10. Ellis, History of Shiawassee County p. 160.

See also
B. O. Williams

Citation: When referencing this page please use the following citation:

R. D. Jones, "B. O. Williams," Michigan Transportation History (Ypsilanti, MI: 2020), www.michtranshist.info/.

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