Smith, William Rudolph 1787 - 1868 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Smith, William Rudolph 1787 - 1868

Smith, William Rudolph 1787 - 1868 | Wisconsin Historical Society

lawyer, author, politician, b. LaTrappe, Montgomery County, Pa. He was educated by his grandfather, William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia. After being admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1808 he practiced law in Huntingdon, Pa., for several years. In Pennsylvania, Smith rose to the rank of brigadier general in the state militia, and was active in state politics as a Jeffersonian Democrat. In 1837, Smith and Governor Henry Dodge (q.v.) of Wisconsin Territory, were appointed commissioners to negotiate a treaty with the Chippewa Indians. Although the treaty was concluded before Smith reached Wisconsin, he continued his trip, toured the southern portion of the territory, and subsequently published a diary kept during his journey, Observations on the Wisconsin Territory, Chiefly on That Part Called the "Wisconsin Land District" (1838). In 1839 he was appointed adjutant general of Wisconsin Territory by President Martin Van Buren, and moved to Mineral Point. He was adjutant general of the territory (1839-1848) and continued to serve in this office for the state (1848-1851). He also served as district attorney for Iowa County (1840-1848), secretary to the territorial upper house (1845-1846), and in 1846 was a delegate to the first state constitutional convention. In 1855 he was elected state attorney general, serving in this capacity from Jan., 1856, to Jan., 1858. Although important in the state politically, Smith also contributed to Wisconsin as an organizer of cultural institutions. He was among those who reorganized the dormant historical society in 1849, and was elected first president of the newly chartered State Historical Society in 1854, and was re-elected annually until his resignation in 1861. In 1840 Smith was an incorporator of the Trinity Episcopal Church in Mineral Point, and in 1841 organized the first Masonic Lodge in southern Wisconsin. Under commission from Governor L. J. Farwell (q.v.) in 1852, Smith, as state historian, began the compilation of a projected three-volume history of Wisconsin. Although two volumes (a narrative history and a collection of documents) were eventually published (1854-1855), the third was never completed. After retiring as president of the Historical Society in 1861, Smith spent his remaining years collecting information on Wisconsin history. He died while visiting in Quincy, Ill. Wis. Mag. Hist., 36; J. G. Gregory, ed., Incidents of a journey from Pa. to Wis. Terr. (Wooster, Ohio, 1927); WPA MS; W. R. Smith Papers.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has manuscripts related to this topic. See the catalog description of the William Rudolph Smith Papers for details.

View a related article at Wisconsin Magazine of History Archives.

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[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin biography]