The History of Genesee County, MI
Chapter XVII
Bench and Bar
Part I

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Clayton




The thing we are too dull to master is the thing we are most apt to undervalue. Perhaps this is one reason they the threes learned professions, medicine, theology and law, have been unappreciated from time immemorial by the average mind. To attain eminence of any of them, a man must have brains, morality and commonsense in a superlative degree. Oliver Wendall Holmes says: "Lawyers are the brightest, ministers know the most, and doctors are the most sensible." It is with the lawyers of Genesee County that this chapter will deal.

By act of the Legislative Council of the territory of Michigan, setting off certain parts of Oakland, Shiawassee and Lapeer counties to form Genesee county, approved March 28, 1835, the partial organization of the county was effected. It was, however, provided by this act that it should, for judicial purposes, be attached to Oakland county. The county seat of Oakland was than at Pontiac, and subsequently the litigation from Genesee county above justice's court proceedings went to Pontiac for trial.

The State Legislature, by an act approved March 8, 1836, declared the county to be a municipality, having all the rights and privileges of other counties. This act of the Legislature of the state of Michigan made Genesee county a de facto county, and as such was entitled to have its courts within its territorial limits, and its county was established at Flint. A saving clause provided that any and all suits then pending in any of the courts of Oakland should be continued in that county and prosecuted to their determination, and that all justice cases pending should also be determined in the court, the same as though the new county had not be organized. There was, in consequence of this, an element of uncertainty in the status of the county, the Legislature of the state of Michigan passing this act in March, 1836. However, as there was no state of Michigan until January 1, 1837, this act had been passed by a premature and unauthorized body. The de facto conditions, however, gave sanction to the status of the county.

At this time, from March 28, 1835, until March 8, 1836, while the residents of this county were judicially within the county of Oakland, the principal practitioners at the bar of that county, from examination of the records of the cases then pending, were Walker & Bates, Morgan S. Drake, Howard & Sawyer, Drake & Whittemore, William Draper, Goodwin & Hand, and Thomas J. Drake, the latter being at that time a resident of, and, perhaps, the only practitioner at, Flint.

The first court ever held in the county of Genesee was in the Flint store of Stage & Wright, directly across the street from John Todd's tavern, or the southeast corner of the intersection of Saginaw street and the right of way of the Pere Marquette Railroad. This court was held in the summer of 1837 and was presided over by Judge George Morrell, of the supreme court. The state was at that time divided into circuits and several justices of the supreme court held court in the various circuits. There were four causes on the calendar for the first term of court, Thomas J. Drake appearing as attorney in all of them, Bartow & Wilson appearing in one of them, P. H. McOmber in another and George Wisner in another. The first case on the calendar was that of Chauncey Bogue versus Timothy J. Walling, attachment, began on February 24, 1837, by Thomas J. drake, attorney for plaintiff. The date of commencement of this suit would seen to contradict the statement made in Abbott's history that this term of court was held in February. It might be said, parenthetically, that this case was dismissed by an order of Judge Mark W. Stevens, presiding at the term of the circuit court for Genesee County held in April, 1916. This possibly will silence forever those facetious individuals who infer at time that a law suit is interminable. This venerable case, although it lasted nine years beyond the three score years and ten allotted to mankind, and, it is to be presumed, long after all the litigants and lawyers had gone to their final reward, has been duly and properly laid to rest by the order of the court having jurisdiction there in, duly made and entered in the records of the court.

Philip H. McOmber was the first resident attorney of Genesee county. He came to Michigan from Saratoga County, new York, settling first in Groveland county, in 1832, and removing to Fenton in 1834, Fenton at that time being in Oakland county. Mr. McOmber kept a tavern in Groveland before he went to Fenton, his reputation as a genial landlord soon being established. Of his legal talents, they were said to be of a superior order. He was the first prosecuting attorney for Genesee County.

Of Thomas J. Drake, it is said that he was man of a scholarly bearing and was careful and fastidious in his personal appearance. He was married shortly before he removed from Pontiac to Flint and took up his residence near the banks of the river in the third ward. Almost directly across from this spot was a settlement of Indians who still lingered about the site of the old Indian village of Muscatawing Soon after Mr. d Mrs. Drake came to their new home an epidemic of smallpox so isolated the Indians as to but them off from all intercourse with the whites, bringing them to the verge of starvation. Mrs. Drake is said to have each day, with her own hands, prepared food in large quantities and left it on the bank of the river, the Indians later paddling across the stream in their canoes to receive it, and thus their desperate condition was alleviated. Afterward when Mrs. Drake suffered a serious attack of typhoid fever, the Indians expressed their gratitude in every way to the white woman who had befriended them, by sending their squaws to care for her and in paying her the most assiduous attention. Mrs. Drake, however, died later, and Mr. Drake returned to Pontiac, where he passed away in 1875. In later years, after his removal to Pontiac, he was appointed by President Lincoln to the office of chief justice of the United States court in Utah.

In 1838 a two-story log house was built and the court room was installed in the second floor of the building, the lower floor being used for a jail. The location of this building was on the sire of the present court house.

Among the first lawyers who came to the little town of Flint was Mr. Rugg and John Bartow, experienced, able men, coming from different localities, but with a kindred purpose, to escape the influence of conviviality, which at that time permeated all classes in older settlements. Men of liberal education, of culture and refinement, gracious and urban in manner, they gave a tone and trend to legal practice quite unusual in small towns, where generally the pettifogger, with little knowledge of law and less of general culture, though the man who could use the most abusive language to his opponent in the case, was the best lawyer. A little later came William M. Fenton and Levi Walker, men with profound knowledge of law and gentle, dignified manner, and so it happened that early Flint escaped the blatant type of barrister.

John Bartow located in Flint in 1836 and enjoyed a high reputation as a legal practitioner. He was afterward associated with Edward H. Thomson, the firm name being Bartow & Thomson.

Edward H. Thomson, lawyer and scholar, was born in Kendal, in the county of Westmoreland, England. He came to this county at an early age with his parents, who made their home in Boston, Massachusetts. He was educated for his chosen profession principally in the law offices of Millard Fillmore in buffalo, new York, after having received an academic education at white Plains, New York. In 1837 Mr. Thomson emigrated to Michigan after having a few years' experience in the law business in Cleveland, Ohio. Governor Stevens G. Mason, Michigan's first governor, appointed him prosecuting attorney of Lapeer county. He remained there but one year, however, when he removed to Flint and entered into the law partnership with Mr. Bartow, who was then register of the United States land office.

With Mr. Bartow as a partner, Mr. Thomson acted as prosecuting attorney for Genesee county in 1845-46 and in 1847 he was elected to the state Senate, his district embracing Genesee, Oakland, Lapeer, Shiawassee Saginaw and Tuscola counties and the entire upper peninsula. By his activity in the advocacy of a foreign emigration bill he attracted the favorable notice of Governor Ransom, and was appointed state emigration agent, with headquarters in New York City. Subsequently his headquarters were removed to Stuttgart, Germany, and by his indefatigable efforts he was directly responsible for the removal of over twenty thousand hard working Germans to the Peninsula state.

While in London, in 1851, he received the appointment of United States deputy commissioner of the great industrial exposition in that city, generally known as the World's Fair. In this position his assiduous attentions to American visitors and his efficient aid and timely advice to exhibitors, gained for him high encomiums, while his distinguished bearing and scholarly attainments gave him entrée into the homes of many of the nobility. On his return to this country he remained in Washington for a time, but soon afterwards resumed his legal practice in Flint. When the War of the Rebellion broke out Governor Blair appointed him a member of the state military board, and later h was made president of the board.

In spite of his busy life, he found time to cultivate a rare taste in literature and as a genial, scholarly gentleman occupied an enviable position in a community which included men and women of discernment and intellectuality. He was an ardent student of Shakespeare and his magnificent Shakespearean library ,which through the munificence of the late James McMillan, now graces the University of Michigan, is one of the finest collections ever made in the Central states. His Shakespearean readings and lectures, which were frequently delivered, not only in Flint, but in many other cities, won the highest praise from press and laymen. His wife was also a very intellectual woman and her private collection of rare Bibles, which numbered over three hundred volumes, were considered of sufficient value and rarity to have been acquired in later years by the University of Michigan.

James Birdsall began the practice of law in Genesee county in 1839, coming to Flint from Chenango County New York. He had been engaged in the banking business in his native state and had also been a member of the lower House of Congress. He died in Flint in 1856, at the age of seventy-three years.

James s. Goodrich, admitted to the bar in 1840, came to Atlas Township, and began the practice of law. He was a member of the Goodrich family for which the village of Goodrich was named. He is said to have possessed a wonderfully retentive memory, and Abott's history says that "he read 'Hume's History of England' through in forty-eight hours, and from that single perusal could give important events there in recorded, with dates." In the spring of 1851 he was elected judge of Genesee county, but contracted an acute disease from which he died in Detroit, in the fall of the same year, before beginning his term of office.

Morgan L. Drake, a brother of Thomas J. Drake, and a native of Pontiac, came to Flint in the late thirties and practiced his profession for some years. From 1840 t0 1842 he was prosecuting attorney of Genesee county, but afterwards returned to Pontiac, where re remained until his death.

William F. Mosely was one of the two pioneer lawyers of Fenton, the other being the above mentioned Philip H. McOmber. Mr. Mosely had previously been a member of the bar in Oakland county, but practiced in Genesee count for some years, holding the office of prosecuting attorney in 1841. He afterwards removed to Shiawassee county, where he died in1860.

Robert J. S. Page, attorney, settled in Flint in 1838. In 1850 and 1851 he held the office of justice of the peace and was later honored by being elected the second Mayor of the City of Flint, and also probate judge.

Alexander P. Davis, who was born in Cayuga County, New York, came top Flint in 1842, having previously, for a short time, been a resident of Livingston county. He was a partner at one time of John Bartow, but later removed to Fenton, where he died in 1871.

Chauncey K. Williams, attorney, first in Fentonville, and later in Flint, was practicing in 1850. He was the first high priest of the chapter of Royal Arch Masons, instituted in Flint in January, 1857.

In the year, 1850, the business directory of the county shows the following members of the bar:

J. K. Rugg

Justice of the peace, attorney and counsellor

J. Birdsall

Attorney and counsellor

John Bartow

Attorney and counsellor

Levi Walker

Attorney and solicitor in chancery

William M. Fenton

Attorney at law

A. P. Davis

Attorney at law and justice of the peace

Edward H. Thomson

Attorney and counsellor

Ellsworth Walkley

County judge

J. S. Goodrich

Attorney at Law, Goodrich

O. D. Richardson

Attorney at law, Flint

In the late forties and early fifties an active practitioner at the Genesee county bar was Moses Wisner, of Pontiac, who son, Charles H. Wisner, was for many years circuit judge of the county of Genesee. He was a native of Cayuga, New York, being born in 1815, and came to Michigan when a young man. After several years of farming he studied for the law and in 1841 was admitted to the bar. He proved to be a lawyer of great ability. In 1858 he was elected governor of Michgian and his first message to the Legislature was an able effort. He entertained extremely radical views of right and wrong and as an advocate had few equals. He was a great friend of Judge Baldwin, also of Oakland county, but became opposed to him in politics and, after party feelings ran high, became the most bitter enemy of his onetime friend. At his death, however, it was found that he had appointed Judge Baldwin administrator of his entire estate, thus demonstrating his high regard for the ability and wisdom of his opponent. When the call to duty came in 1861, Governor Wisner organized a regiment of infantry in Oakland county and accompanied it to the south, but the hardships of camp life made inroads upon his health and he contracted a malady from which he died in 1863.

William M. Fenton, prominent in the early life of the county, was another product of the East who came to his state. A graduate of Hamilton College, he entered the banking house of his father in Norwich, New York, but, his health failing, he went to sea, where he attained promotion and honorable mention. Giving up the life of a sailor, he married the daughter of Judge James Birdsall, of Norwich, New York, and came to practice in Dibbleville, Genesee county, the village which later changed its name in his honor to Fentonville. He engaged in the mercantile business, but studied for the law and was admitted to the bar in 1842. In 1848 he was elected lieutenant governor and re-elected in 1850. Upon removing to Flint, he was appointed by President Pierce as registrar of the land office. Early in 1861 he was made major of the Seventh Michgian Infantry, but before mustering was commissioned colonel of the Eighth Michigan Infantry. In the battle of James Island the loss to his regiment in killed, wounded and missing was one-third the entire number; the regiment was afterwards attached to the Army of the Potomac, and fought at Second Bull Run, Chantilly, South Mountain and Antietam. Colonel Fenton resigned his command at Newport News on account of impaired health. He was a member of the Flint volunteer fire department and it was while he was answering a call to duty as chief that an accident occurred which afterwards caused his death.

Colonel Fenton deeded to the city the land upon which was built the first city hall, provided that the site would never be used for any other but a city building, and the same site is not occupied by the handsome municipal structure erected a few years ago. He was also chiefly instrumental in procuring for Flint the location of the institution for the deaf, dumb and blind. Courteous, reserved in manner and skilled in his profession, Colonel Fenton exerted in many ways a lasting and wise-spread influence in the community.

Levi Walker came to Flint about the same time as William M. Fenton. He was born in 1803 in Washington county, New York, and received his literary training at several of the prominent academies of the East. He read law at an early age with Judge Reid of Homer, New York, and also in Utica, and began the practice of his profession in Genoa, New York, in 1835. He subsequently removed to Auburn and entered into a partnership with Hon. George H. Rathbone, then a member of the United States Congress. He was associated with Hon. William H. Seward as counsel in the memorable defense of the insane negro murderer, Freeman, to which Charles Francis Adams made eloquent reference in the Seward memorial services.

Mr. Walker was, while yet a young man, the editor of a paper at Brockport, New York he wielded a trenchant pen in the interest of what was then known as the National Republican party. It was the first anti-slavery paper published in New York. In 1837 he married Louise Meech, whose grandfather kept a tavern in Worthington, Massachusetts, where General Burgoyne was once brought while being taken a prisoner to Boston. In 1847 Mr. Walker removed to Flint where, ten years before several of his brothers had preceded him and where he became most actively identified with all business, educational and social interest of the growing town, the Walker school built near his residence, being named in his honor. His daughter, Helena Victoria Walker, one of the organizers of the Ladies' Library Association and a woman of scholarly tastes, was elected president of the Genesee County Historical Society in 1914. Her death occurred in 1916 at the age of seventy-three.

William Newton, who joined the law fraternity of Genesee county in the early fifties, was an able member of the bar, and was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1822. At an early age, he went to Baltimore, Maryland, where his boyhood days were spent and where he received his academic education. He studied law for several years in Ballston Spa, New York, and came to Michigan in 1848, locating in Detroit, where he entered the law office of Lothrop & Duffield. While in Detroit he was admitted to practice in the supreme court. Shortly afterwards, his health becoming impaired, he went to California, arriving there at the height of the gold excitement, and was one of the discoverers of "Gold Hill" in Yuba county. He returned to Michigan in 1853, taking up his residence in Flint and becoming associated with Col. William M. Fenton, this law partnership continuing up to the time of the death of Colonel Fenton in 1871.

In 1881, William Newton was elected judge of the circuit court of Genesee county, being re-elected in 1887. As judge of the seventh judicial circuit, he had few if any superiors among the circuit judges of Michgian. In the fall of 1892, he was nominated for justice of the supreme court and made a remarkable run against his Republican opponent, being defeated by the narrow margin of one hundred and sixty-six at a time when Michigan usually went Republican by about fifth thousand. A man of brilliant mind, though rugged exterior, he attained eminence as a lawyer and jurist, and the Genesee county bar lost a worthy representative when he passed away in 1903.

Sumner Howard, who began the practice of law in Genesee county in the late fifties, was one of the most prominent attorneys the county has ever produced. When a very young man he attracted the attention of William M. Fenton, and it was principally through the kindness of Colonel and Mrs. Fenton that Mr. Howard was enabled to acquire a knowledge of the law, being a student for some time in colonel Fenton's office and also a member of his family. Sumner Howard may be said to have been a self-made man in every sense of the word. He was a great wit and was utterly unmoved by the conventionalities of society. He was prosecuting attorney in 1864 and held the office until 1868. He was elected to the state Legislature and took his seat in 1883, being made speaker of the House in this, his first term. He later was appointed United States district attorney for the district of Utah and in this capacity prosecuted the persons implicated in the celebrated Mountain Meadow massacre, under the leadership of the notorious John D. Lee. His record in this case attracted so much attention that he acquired a national reputation as a criminal lawyer. He was appointed United States district judge of Arizona, and thus judicial honors were added to his reputation as lawyer and prosecutor. As sergeant of the Second infantry during the Civil War me saw service and was later promoted to a lieutenancy. Sumner Howard, a man of great forensic ability, stands out as one of the best examples of the pioneer lawyer of Michigan, one of those men whose energies were a potent influence in its formative period.

One of the most promising lawyers of the ante-bellum days was T. C. Carr, who, after a few years, practice, went to the war and died from a gunshot wound in battle. He was a member of the firm of Carr & Gulick and was considered a very talented member of the profession, his death terminating what promised to be a brilliant career.

The bar of the county before the war included Charles Hascall, Adams & Seeley, Sumner Howard, John Bartow, J. R. White, J. Z. Richards,. George R. Cummings, Levi Walker, Chauncey Wisner, J. H. C. Blades, A. Bump, C. P. Avery, W. J. Walker, Oscar Adams, and A. U. Wood. ("Bench and Bar", page 9)

William O. Axford, a brother of Dr. S. M. Axford, practiced at the bar of Genesee county from 1860 to 1868, afterwards removing to the West, where he died in 1876.

In the sixties the bar as augmented by the admission, or advent, of H. A. Sutherland, James A. Ransom, J. L. Topping, Henry C. Riggs, Henry R. Lovell, and Henry Fenton. Later additions to the bar were John H. Hickok, Henry C,. Van Atta, Ransom C. Johnson, George E. Taylor, Mark W. Stevens (now circuit judge of the county),. Edward E. Lee, D. D. Aitken, John W. Ingham, Zorrie B. House of Otisville, G. H. Williams, Clarence Tinker, George R. Gold, Leroy Parker, Charles D. Long, Charles H. Johnson, Charles H. Wisner, George M. Walker and E. M. Thayer.

The military service attracted members of the bar, especially at the outbreak of the Rebellion, and we find one of the most active practitioners, William M. Fenton, as colonel of the Eighth Regiment Michgian Infantry, going to the front. Sumner Howard, as sergeant, and T. C. Carr went also.

Later, the Spanish-American War found Lieut. James S. Parker in Cuba as the commander of his company, and in July, 1916, Major Guy M. Wilson was at the state camp at Grayling, accompanying the Michgian National Guard to Texas, ready and anxious to meet whatever demands the service has for him on the Mexican border.

Of the official services of the bar in various civil positions, we may mention that Thomas J. Drake as member of the Legislative Council of the territory of Michigan in 1834, and later in various important position. In the constitutional convention of 1850 John Bartow was a delegate from this district. In the convention of 1867, Sumner Howard, Henry R. Lovell and Thaddeus G. Smith represented this district. ("Bench and Bar", page 10.)


History of Genesee County, Michigan, Her People, Industries and Institutions
by Edwin O. Wood, LL.D, President Michigan Historical Commission, 1916

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Deb

You are the 4156th Visitor to this USGenNet Safe-Site™ Since March 1, 2002.