Wells, Hezekiah G.
Pioneer Attorney, Judge and Scholar
Hezekiah G. Wells holds the distinction of having served as Village President more than any other citizen (1857-58, 1864-65, 1867). When asked to participate on a committee to organize and draft a city charter, Wells refused, saying, “I am not satisfied that it is the interest of our citizens to abandon the village charter. I do not favor a change in the municipal government, and therefore, could not serve on a committee to re-vamp the charter.” One ponders what Wells may have thought in seeing his beloved village government become a city a year before his death. Despite these misgivings regarding the change from village to city, Wells thought much of his community and state, and cared deeply about its measured growth. Wells was a pioneering attorney, statesman and scholar whose political and legal contributions to the young village loom large.
Arrival in Kalamazoo
Born at Steubenville, Ohio on June 16, 1812, Wells received his education from Kenyon College, and was later admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1832. That same year, Wells’ father Bezaleel fell into financial ruin, leading both father and son to leave their home on the banks of the Ohio River, arriving in Kalamazoo County by horse-drawn wagon in the summer of 1833. The two men brought along with them:
“a team of oxen, a wagon with plows and other farming utensils, and two or three boxes, one of which contained a miniature library: Paley’s Moral Philosophy, Burns’ Poems, Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and a half dozen law books. The personal possessions of Hezekiah consisted of a blanket overcoat and a pair of woolen socks, one shirt, one razor, and one small type, red morocco bound New Testament, all contained in a pair of saddle-bags.”–Biography of Hezekiah G. Wells, p.1
Before settling in Kalamazoo in 1846, Wells first lived in Texas Township with his brother James, and then Schoolcraft in 1835. Wells’ brother James had already been in Texas Township farming before Hezekiah arrived in 1833. The fertile, rich land found in Texas Township won over Wells and his father, and the two turned their visit into a permanent stay. Wells father eventually returned to Ohio, where he died in 1846.
While settled in Schoolcraft, Wells married Achsah Strong, a native of Perch River Village, NY in 1840. Around 1834, Wells was admitted to the Bronson circuit court, and despite residing in Schoolcraft, established his law practice in the new village. His long connection to state and local politics began in 1835, when he was elected a member of the convention which drew up Michigan’s first state constitution. Wells was the youngest member of the convention which was held in Detroit. The members were tasked with the all important work of creating a successful framework for the territory’s future governance. He voted for ratification when the final draft came before a vote. Wells also served the township of Schoolcraft as supervisor and treasurer, and the county as a judge.
A rising name in politics throughout the state, Wells was nominated by the Whig Party in 1837 and 1838 to represent the brand new state of Michigan in congress. Wells, who was criticized for his poor oratory skills, lost both elections to the Democratic candidate Isaac E. Crary. Despite the back-to-back electoral losses to Crary, Wells’ enthusiasm for public service was not diminished. In 1840, and then again in 1860, Wells was appointed the Presidential elector for Michigan.
Wells focused much of his law practice on representing land owners from out of state who had real estate within the county, an area of law which kept him busy and financially stable. One of the more notable cases he helped to resolve centered around a property dispute involving the heirs of S.H. Richardson and the county over Bronson Park. Wells, representing the interest of the county, was able to obtain the release of the property.
Abraham Lincoln’s Visit
By 1856, Wells joined fellow Kalamazoo citizen David S. Walbridge as delegates to the first Republic National Convention held in Philadelphia on June 17, 1856. One of the political figures who garnered votes for the vice-presidential nominee, despite losing out to William L. Dayton of New Jersey, was Abraham Lincoln. It is thought that Lincoln’s strong showing during the convention led to Wells’ invitation to be part of the Michigan Republican Party’s Kalamazoo rally, held a month later at Bronson Park, on August 27th. As chairman of the rally, Wells clearly saw in Lincoln, a captivating voice despite being relatively unknown to residents of Michigan. After his afternoon speech, Lincoln stayed in Kalamazoo, likely at the home of Wells, located on the corner of Cedar and Rose Street.
Civil War Years and Alabama Court of Claims
Wells remained active during the Civil War years and the decade after. While he did not serve in the military during the Civil War, Wells assisted the organization of Michigan’s 25th Infantry unit, led by Col. O.H. Moore and Lieut. Col. Benjamin F. Orcutt. A popular statesman under both the Lincoln and Grant administrations, Wells was considered for several diplomatic posts. Wells was offered to serve as minister to Central American states and consul to Manchester, England. He declined both appointments. In 1861 he was elected by the Michigan legislature to serve on the board of agriculture. Locally, he volunteered as a trustee on the board of the Michigan Female Seminary School. Wells was known for his scholarly interests, one of which was Michigan history. In 1880 he served as president of the Michigan Pioneer Society, a group dedicated to the collection, preservation and publication of the young state’s 19th century history.
In June of 1874, Wells headed to Washington D.C. as a federal judge appointed to oversee over 2000 cases involving litigants seeking financial relief from England; who during the Civil War had aligned with the southern Confederacy to allow their ports to be used by southern pirate ships that successfully preyed on the north’s navy.
By 1877, Wells had returned to Kalamazoo, where he lived until his death on April 4, 1885. Wells is buried in Mountain Home Cemetery.
“Judge Wells was an aristocrat of the old school, a Beau Brummel in his attire, always faultlessly groomed. He stood six feet in his stocking feet and was straight as an arrow. He was always a gentleman, dignified and courteous under all conditions. It was the writer’s privilege as a school boy to know Judge Wells and to spend many delightfully instructive hours in his study, listening to dissertations on the many phases of English law, the constitution of the United States, and other matters of an historical nature.”–Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 January 1930
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, April 2023