WILLIAMS, COL. JOHN (deceased), pioneer, leading business man and prominent citizen of Springfield and Central Illinois in early history, was born near Owingsville, Bath County, Ky., September 11, 1808, the son of James and Hannah (Mappin) Williams, his father being of Welsh descent and a native of Virginia, while his mother was of Scotch-Irish parentage and born near Pittsburg, Pa. Thus descended from Welsh and Scotch-Irish ancestry, he inherited the traits of energy, enterprise, and moral and business integrity which characterized the several branches of his family.
In 1823 his parents came in covered wagons with a party of friends to Illinois, first settling at Indian Point, three miles north of Athens, then in Sangamon (but now a part of Menard) County, there entered government land and building a log cabin, there spent the remainder of their lives. At this time the son John was employed as a store boy by J. T. Brian, of Owingsville, Ky., but in the fall of the following year, in company with several Kentucky neighbors, he came on horseback to Illinois. After spending two weeks with his parents he went to Springfield and there found employment by Major Elijah Iles, the first merchant of the place, receiving a salary of ten dollars per month with board. At that time the Iles store occupied a rough-hewn log house, the oldest building in Springfield, situated on what is now the southeast corner of Second and Jefferson Streets. In a book of pioneer reminiscences written by Major Iles in the latter years of his life, the pioneer merchant says: "Soon after opening my store my father sent me from Kentucky a youth, aged sixteen, a son of one of his valued neighbors, to act as store boy and clerk. This youth was John Williams, now better known as Col. Williams. He proved to be a valuable assistant, and lived with me as one of the family until 1830, when I sold my goods to him and established him in business.
Major Iles showed the appreciation of his employee's service by paying him $30 increase on his first year's salary, and continuing his employment for the next five at $200 per annum. During this period Mr. Williams was gaining a business experience and extending his acquaintance with early settlers of Sangamon County, which proved most valuable in his future mercantile career of over fifty years. At the end of his service with Major Iles, he bought the store of his employer, paying therefore in four quarterly payments, and starting out with a capital of $300, which he had saved from his salary during the preceding six years.
When the Iles store was first started, the good were bought at St. Louis and brought by flat-boats to what is now the city of Beardstown, and thence transported by wagon to Springfield, and this was continued for some years after Mr. Williams became proprietor. When going to St. Louis to replenish his stock he was accustomed to carry his money in saddlebags on horseback, and these were often dropped behind the door of the tavern or stopping place, but without suffering any loss. At this time it was often necessary to cut the silver coin in pieces to produce the needed fractional currency. For two years this store was without local competition, and customers were accustomed to come a distance of fifty to eighty miles to trade there. A large share of the trade was with Indians, who brought with them their furs and other pelts for traffic. The whites used silver coin or bartered home-made jeans, cotton and linen cloth, honey, beeswax and farm products in the purchase of goods. In 1823 a post office was established which was conducted in the Iles store, and for many years Mr. Williams officiated as Postmaster. Mr. Williams' residence in Springfield covered the period of the "deep snow" of 1830-31 and the Black Hawk War of 1832, and in the latter he served as a volunteer with Abraham Lincoln, Major Iles, John T. Stuart and other well-known citizens of Sangamon County.
About 1835, Mr. Williams' store was removed to the southwest corner of Washington and Fifth Streets, Robert Irwin (afterwards a banker) then becoming a member of the firm under the firm name of Williams & Irwin. Later the store was removed farther east on Washington Street, Jacob Loose being a partner for a short time, and this continued its location during the remainder of Mr. Williams' mercantile career, his son-in-law, George N. Black, becoming a member of the firm in 1850. During most of this period it was the most extensive mercantile establishment in the city of Springfield. The history of the dry-good store of Edward R. Thayer, still in existence in Springfield, is more nearly contemporaneous with that of Mr. Williams' than any other, and before the days of the railroad, mr. Williams and Mr. Thayer used frequently to make their trips in company by stage-coach to Philadelphia, to replenish their stock of goods.
Mr. Williams, was married March 31, 1840, to Miss Lydia Porter, a native of Lima, Livingston County, N.Y., but at the time of her marriage making her home with her sister, Mrs. Elijah Iles. Six children were born to them, namely: Louisa Iles (the late Mrs. George N. Black), Albert Porter, John Edward, Julia Jayne (the late Mrs. Alfred Orendorff), George and Henry Carter. The two older sons, Albert P. and John Edward, died before their parents, while Mrs. Black and Mrs. Orendorff died within the past two years. The sons Gorge and Henry are the only immediate descendants of Col. Williams still living, though several grandchildren survive.
While Col. Williams' prominence as a private citizen and business man was widely recognized, he also served in a number of important public positions. These included the treasurership of the Illinois State Agricultural Society, to which he was chosen on the organization of the Society in 1853, and in which he served six years, later being chosen Treasurer of the Illinois State Importing association. In 1856 he was nominated on the Republican ticket for Congress from the Springfield District, and although he failed of election, ran some 2,000 votes ahead of his ticket. On the outbreak of the Civil War he was appointed by Gov. Yates Commissary General for the State of Illinois, serving most efficiently in that capacity for some six months and until the commissary service was assumed by the General Government, although he continued to aid in caring for soldiers arriving in Springfield, either on the way to or from the field, during the war period; also served as head of the Illinois State Sanitary Commission for the last two years of the war. By appointment of President Lincoln he acted as Government Disbursing Agent in the construction of the United States Court House and Postoffice building in Springfield, during that time some $320,000 passing through his hands. While in the mercantile business he opened a private bank for the accommodation of citizens of Springfield which, soon after the passage of the National Banking Act in 1863, became the First National Bank of Springfield, of which he was President for eleven years. Other financial interests with which he was associated included the building of the Gilman, Clinton & Springfield Railroad (now a branch of the Illinois Central) and the Springfield & Northwestern (now a part of the Chicago, Peoria & St. Louis Line), serving as President of the latter. Williams Township in Sangamon County, and the village of Williamsville in that township, were both named in his honor.
At the time of the great Union Mass Meeting of September 3, 1863, Col. Williams acted as Grand Marshal of one of the most imposing processions ever seen in Springfield. Being a close friend of Mr. Lincoln, after the death of the latter in 1865, he was selected as a member of the committee to proceed to Washington and accompany the funeral cortege of the Martyred President to Springfield, also acted as one of the honorary pall-bearers at the funeral, and still later served as a member of the Executive Committee in supervising the erection of the Lincoln Monument. A man of simple, unassuming manner, but public-spirited of high integrity and sterling worth, Col. Williams commanded universal respect by his personal merit. His death occurred at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Alfred Orendorff, May 29, 1890, in the eighty-second year of his age.