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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Louise Williams, First Woman Notary Public

As a girl in the 1840s, Louise Westover joined her family in reforms centered around Milwaukee's First Congregationalist Church -- the so-called "Free Church." They welcomed into their congregation impoverished immigrants, sailors from the docks, and other social outcasts. "I can remember vividly at one service the portentious silence after the sermon," she later recalled, "when the Rev. Curtis stepped down from the pulpit, saying 'Brethren, there's something on hand for the friends of freedom. Come, George.' A Negro man got up from under the pulpit. Without a word, Mr. Avery Hill took the black man by the hand and led him out of the church... This was my first view of the Underground Railroad."

When the Civil War broke out in 1861 her sweetheart, James Williams, enlisted in the Fourth Wisconsin cavalry, led by Halbert E. Paine (who would soon be demoted for refusing to return escaping slaves to their owner). Williams asked her to please come south and marry him while she had the chance. She did, and shortly afterwards he died in battle. She never remarried.

After the war, when her brother opened a law office in Oconomowoc, she joined him, hoping that work would provide solace. For the next five decades, long after her brother departed for Chicago, she gave legal advice to women who lived all over southern Wisconsin. From behind a sign simply reading "Louise Williams", she drew up contracts, wrote wills, probated estates, drafted insurance polices, and provided business and legal counsel. She was the first woman recognized by the state as a notary public. "I always believed in Women's Rights," she said in her old age, "and I have tried to see that my friends received their just dues under the law."

Born into a world where slavery was legal and women could neither own property nor vote, Louise Williams lived to see many of the idealistic causes of her childhood succeed. Read more about her and view her portrait in our collection of Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles.

:: Posted in on March 8, 2006

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