Gardner D. Williams was a pioneer Saginaw fur trader, lumberman, politician and land developer of renown.
Williams was born in 1804 in Concord, Massachusetts. His family was among the first New England colonists. An ancestor, Ephraim, was the founder of Williams College. “Gard” Williams, as he was known, grew up on a wilderness farm near Detroit and learned the Chippewa Indian language as a boy. This served him to good purpose when he came to Saginaw in 1828 at the age of 24 to become business agent for the American Fur Company. Its trading post was conducted in part of the old Fort Saginaw building at what is now Court and Hamilton. Williams was a rugged, hard-fisted fellow respected by the Indians with whom he traded. He had a reputation for fairness. With a brother, Ephraim, he took over interests of the American Fur Company post in 1828 and also bought the rival trading post of Louis Campau, the volatile Frenchman who helped arrange the Treaty of Saginaw with the Indians in 1819. When Gard Williams first came here he immediately won the confidence of the Chippewas by living as they lived. He wore their clothes and spoke their language.
Years later he became the first mayor of Saginaw City. He also was a judge, postmaster, and first supervisor of Saginaw Township. Historians also give him credit for owning the first farm in Buena Vista Township. He also operated a ferry across the Saginaw River. In 1829 Williams married Elizabeth Beach, daughter of another Michigan pioneer.
There then was little growth in Saginaw. A traveler who visited the community in 1831 counted only about 30 persons, including Indians and half-breeds. But about 1834, some development began to stir. Gard Williams asked a cousin, a Detroit blacksmith, to build a sawmill for him in Saginaw. It was the first sawmill on the Saginaw River. It was a crude affair powered by an old steamboat engine. The mill was on what now is S. Niagara near Mackinaw. The mill which Williams operated with his brother was known as the “G. D. & E. S. Williams Mill.” For a number of years it furnished all of the lumber needed in Saginaw and shipped some to Chicago on lake ships. They soon added a grist mill, also first of its kind here, to grind wheat, corn and buckwheat grown by their fellow pioneers.
Gard Williams used his vast influence with the Indians to help the government negotiate the biggest land deal ever recorded in Saginaw. In 1836 the Chippewa and Ottawa Indian tribes turned over to the Federal government a large part of the northern Lower Peninsula and all of the Upper Peninsula for $1,601,600.
As Saginaw City (Saginaw’s present west side) grew, so did Williams’ influence and popularity. In 1830 when Saginaw Township was organized, Gardner was elected supervisor. When a seat of justice was established at Saginaw City in 1831, he was named a justice of the peace. Both on his own, and with brother Ephraim, he owned considerable property in the community. The brothers owned and platted almost all of the village south of what now is Cass, a total of about six hundred and forty acres. They also held land on the forested east side of the river. When Saginaw County was organized in 1837, he became its first circuit judge. In 1840 he started a ferry across the river before there was a bridge.
He was elected to the state Senate in 1844 and appointed circuit court commissioner the same year. When Saginaw City was incorporated in 1857 as a city of 563 residents, he was elected its first mayor. In 1834, his brother Ephraim was appointed postmaster when a post office was assigned to Saginaw. When Ephraim moved to Flint in 1840, Gardner was named to succeed him. He held the office nine years. Politically he was a life-long Jeffersonian Democrat.
The city Williams headed was small, but large compared to the hamlet he had come to as an early fur trader. There were some 65 offices, stores and shops, four churches, three schools, a courthouse and a jail. The fur trade in which he had been prominent had dwindled. The lumber industry he had started had begun to expand toward the staggering production peak it would reach in later years.
Williams and his wife owned one of the finest homes on the old west side. It stood on the site of what would later become the Arthur Hill Technical High School at the corner of Mackinaw and Michigan. Williams’ home had five fireplaces. A total of 9,000 bricks were used in the main fireplace.
Williams and his wife had four sons.
Williams died at his home December 10, 1858. He was only 54 years old but already had filled his life with noteworthy accomplishments.