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John Scott Horner, from Edward Merrill's "Biographical Sketch"

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The city of Ripon, illustrated
by A. Ruger, Chicago
Lithographing Co., 1867
(Library of  Congress  - 
G4124.R7A3 1867 .R8 Rug 198)

By Edward Huntington Merrell, D. D.



In the early years of our nation’s history Dr. Gustavus Brown was a celebrated physician, and became surgeon-general of the Revolutionary army. This fact is of interest in the present connection, for the reason that he was the patron and educational guide of Dr. Gustavus Brown Horner, the father of the subject of the present sketch. The acquaintance of the two men had this beginning: Surgeon-General Brown was, by the special order of General Washington, inspecting the Maryland troops and enrolling the names of the able-bodied men, when he discovered the youth Gustavus Brown Horner, and recognized him as his nephew. He took this nephew from the ranks, educated him in his marquee, or surgeon’s tent, and made him an associate and assistant during the entire Revolutionary War. Thus, enlisting as a patriot soldier at the age of seventeen, young Horner soon achieved success in the medical profession, and in 1778 received from the continental congress a commission as surgeon’s mate. Connected with the army in the North, he was for a time stationed at Valley forge. During an illness of the Marquis Lafayette, the general was placed under his especial care.

Soon after the close of the war (1783), Horner emigrated to Virginia and settled at Farquier Court House (now Warrenton), where he married Frances Harrison Scott, a daughter of Captain James Scott, a Revolutionary officer. Scott had clothed and armed his company at his own expense, and served gallantly in the regiment commanded by Col. Thomas Marshall, father of the famous chief justice. Among the eight children born to Dr. Gustavus Brown Horner and Frances Harrison Scott, John Scott Horner was the third son. At the age of ten he was sent to a private boarding school conducted by the Rev. William Williamson, near Middleburg, Loudoun County, Virginia. Here the youth learned many wholesome lessons, for Mr. Williamson was a Scotch Presbyterian clergyman with considerable local celebrity as a man of learning, and a master of rigid discipline in morals, manners, and even diet.

By the death of his father young Horner’s school education was interrupted; but in 1817 he entered Washington College, Pennsylvania, and two years later was graduated with good standing from that institution. He immediately began the study of law with the Hon. Thomas L. Moore, of Warrenton, Virginia; was admitted to the bar in due course, and until1835 continued practice with profit and success in the counties of Farquier, Loudoun, and Rappahannock. He achieved a wide reputation, especially as an advocate and criminal lawyer, and in October, 1834, was married to Harriet L. Watson, daughter of James Watson, of Washington, D. C.

Horner’s public life began in September, 1835, when without personal solicitation he received a commission from President Andrew Jackson as secretary and acting governor of the territory of Michigan. The territory had at that time not been very definitely bounded, and extended practically from the city of Detroit, the seat of its government, to the Rocky Mountains. (1) The office of governor involved many difficulties, the settlement of pending questions requiring a delicate sense, skill, and courage in their handling. It is noteworthy that President Jackson selected Governor Horner as a man after his own mind, to meet the peculiar responsibilities of the situation.

In particular, the boundary dispute between the state of Ohio and the territory of Michigan was then at its most acrimonious stage. Troops of the two parties were in the field, and a serious crisis was hourly expected. In briefest statement, this dispute arose as follows: the act by which the territory of Michigan was organized described its southern boundary as a line running due east and west through the southernmost point of Lake Michigan. But the constitution of Ohio gave to that state, as its northern boundary, a line from the southernmost point of Lake Michigan to the northernmost point of Maumee Bay. Should the Ohio line be accepted, Michigan’s territory would be reduced. The case was complicated by the accepted boundary lines of Indiana and Illinois, the details of which it is needless here to describe.(2)

The part enacted by Governor Horner at this crisis is both interesting and important. His aim was to persuade the contesting parties to delay action and allow the differences to be settled by congress, and in this he succeeded. The conditions at the time were primitive, and the border life rough and aggressive. Threatened by mobs, unaccompanied by military escort, he made his way to the scene of strife, addressed and disbanded the troops, and from them obtained definite action binding them to abide by the action of the congress at its approaching session. This was a bold and successful stroke of administration, and for these services he received the approbation of General Jackson and his cabinet, and a vote of thanks from the state of Ohio.

As giving the shades of local and temporary coloring to this transaction, I quote at length an article published in the wheeling (Va.) Gazette, under the date of February 27, 1836:

We were a little startled two or three weeks ago on observing in the Columbia "Hemisphere," under the head of "Renewal of Hostilities," a letter from Toledo, giving the account of the perpetration of fresh disorders in the disputed territory, from which we apprehended a reacting [reenacting] of the exciting scenes of last summer. The account represented that the Michigan State authorities had attempted to collect taxes from the residents of the territory in question; that this has been resisted by the persons taxed, and that the Michigan Authorities had thereupon seized the cattle and horses, which they proceeded to sell at public auction; that in addition to this seizure, a dwelling house had been broken open and a large amount of personal property taken and sold; that the Ohioans had in consequence collected in some force, and seized the officer, who being set at large on bail had sworn vengeance, and was prepared to raise a mob to carry his threats into effect. Such was the substance of the account, and the history of the last summer having proved the utterly lawless character of the people in the disputed territory, we daily expected to hear of these threats being carried into execution, and were at a loss to know why they were not. The last Ohio papers, however, give the reason, and in so doing so furnish testimony to the gallant bearing of the pacificator.

It seems that as soon as intelligence of the excitement reached Detroit, the Governor, unaccompanied, so far as we are able to learn, by a single person, set off with all possible speed to the disputed territory. Though politically obnoxious to the turbulent spirits he had to meet, he threw himself among them at the hazard of his life, and commanded them to disperse and abandon their design. The hearts of the sternest cowed under his rebuke, and the agitators of war became the suppliants of his clemency. In a word, the men quietly returned to their homes, and perfect order was restored. No parleying, no delay was admitted; the whole was the work of the instant, and the tumult was thus subdued by the heroic bearing of the Executive, but for which the frontier might, and probably would, have been desolated, the militia been called upon to repair to the field of action at this inclement season of the year, and if blood were not shed an immense pecuniary loss would at least have been sustained. Though politically opposed to the appointment of the Governor, and though we wrote a paragraph or two at the time and aided in the circulation of others, which reflected upon the sagacity of the President in making it, yet we have not been prejudiced observers of that gentleman’s public career. We have watched it impartially, and are compelled to admit that on all occasions Governor Horner has proved himself equal to every emergency. It will be recollected that he repaired to Michigan shortly after the mission of Messrs. Rush and Howard, in which those gentlemen, among the most talented and distinguished in our country, utterly failed to make any impression upon the semi-barbarians whom they went out to pacify and subdue, and immediately after another distinguished citizen, Judge Shaler, of Pittsburg, Pa., had declined a similar service. At this juncture Mr. Horner was appointed. He resided in the interior of Virginia and was, as we have learned, in possession of a very lucrative practice at the time of his appointment, and in accepting it made a great sacrifice of professional emolument and domestic repose, and we question, when his appointment shall expire by the recognition of Michigan as a State, if the National Executive can, by any offer her can confer on him, more than compensate him for this sacrifice. On arriving within the Territory in the prosecution of his duties, Gov. Horner’s address, as we learn from an eye-witness, was consummate. It was the combination of personal fearlessness, tact, and prudence. On one occasion, as we learn from the same authority, he appeared in the midst of the Michigan troops who had threatened to assassinate him, mounted a stump, and made an address which changed the lion of their natures into the gentleness of the lamb, and all separated on terms of amity. He had so far trenched upon the foothold of Gov. Mason, the popular idol, as to make it somewhat questionable whether he had not gained a standing with the people equal, at least, to that gentleman’s. Will not out Whig friends of the Richmond "Compiler," Fredricksburg "Arena," and the Culpepper paper in Virginia, who with ourselves have done this gallant officer inhustice, indorse the recantation of the wrong by copying this article?

By act of congress approved June 15, 1836, Michigan was admitted to the Union as a state, but only on certain conditions named in the act, these chiefly relating to boundaries. On account of the delay in the settlement of these conditions Michigan did not come into full fellowship as a state until January 26, 1837. Pending the transition from territory to statehood, Governor Horner in 1836, by direction of President Jackson, took up his residence and headquarters on the Mississippi River, in Wisconsin. He was needed there because of the hostility of the Winnebago Indians. In the spring of that year they had made depredations on the defenseless inhabitants of the counties of Iowa and Grant. Communications at this time were necessarily slow and difficult, and it was almost accidentally that Horner learned that hostile Indians had surrounded Fort Winnebago (Portage), apparently determined to capture the fort and its supplies, and if need be, massacre the garrison. The number of warriors gathered for this purpose was about three thousand.

With his characteristic promptness Governor Horner set out for the scene of trouble. He was accompanied by Dr. Hill, a brave man and later one of the heroes of the Black Hawk War, and by Gen. (afterward President) Zachary Taylor, who had under his command a hundred and twenty men. The party ascended the Wisconsin River in open boats. On arriving at the fort, Horner quickly took in the situation. With Jacksonian promptness he demanded a council with the Indians, who represented through their chiefs that they were not receiving from the United States the annuities long past due, and that they were "falling to pieces" from lack of food. Upon hearing this, Horner set aside all formalities, and promptly assumed the responsibility of issuing an order to deliver to the starving Indians a half of the pork and flour in the military stores of the fort. By this courageous and just act an Indian war was averted, and the governor received the personal approval of President Jackson; what was more significant, congress granted him a thousand dollars as a suitable recognition of his services.

As secretary of the new territory of Wisconsin, Mr. Horner organized the same on the fourth of July, 1836, by administering the oath of office to Gov. Henry Dodge and the judges of the supreme court—Charles Dunn as chief justice, and Alexander Frasier and David Irwin as associate justices. He discharged the duties of secretary of the territory from the date of its organization to June 18, 1837, under a commission signed by General Jackson.

A misunderstanding arose in 1835-36 between Mr. Horner as acting governor of Michigan and the legislative council representing the "contingent remainder" of ancient territory that was not included in what became the state of Michigan. This "contingent remainder" consisted of the counties of Brown, Milwaukee, Iowa, Crawford, of our present state, and Dubuque and Des Moines, in Iowa, and had a total population of not more than fifteen thousand. For the details of this misunderstanding the reader may be referred to the extended account to be found in Moses M. Strong’s History of the Territory of Wisconsin. The trouble arose from fixing what was assumed to be an impossible date for the meeting of the legislative council.

It was charged that Governor Horner had by proclamation changed the time of meeting of the council from the first day of January, 1836, to the first day of December, 1835. The proclamation was dated only twenty-one days before the time therein fixed for the meeting, and it was claimed that from the uncertainty of the mails and the inclemency of the season, "it was impossible for the members to receive the necessary information to reach Green Bay by the time fixed in the proclamation." None of the members were present on the first of December. A quorum assembled on the first of January, 1836, but Governor Horner himself did not appear at the session, and the members (with what now appears to have been unseemly haste, for they did not await explanations) proceeded to pass resolutions severely censuring the governor. In this connection the historian records the significant fact that "the resolutions had no effect upon General Jackson," who doubtless saw that hasty action by men who could not wait for explanations is not statesmanship. George H. Walker, of Milwaukee, one of the members-elect of the Green Bay council, who did not attend the session, published in the Chicago American the following communication, which throws light on the case with Governor Horner:

Having just seen a copy of the proceedings of the Legislative Council of Michigan Territory, I perceive that the Council have passed strong censures on J. S. Horner, Acting Governor and Secretary of said Territory. In justice to Governor Horner I feel it my duty to state my belief of his intention to have gone to Green Bay, for on my passing through Detroit, Mr. Horner communicated to me his intention of meeting the Council as soon as possible. He then expressed a desire that I should remain , if convenient, at Chicago or Milwaukee until his arrival. I have accordingly remained here in the daily expectation of seeing him, and with the design of affording him such facilities on the route as my knowledge of the country would afford, but have just learned of a gentleman from Detroit that Gov. H. has been prevented from coming on by sickness which no human ingenuity could foresee. These observations I make public, not with the view to throw the least blame on the Council for passing the vote of censure. For, had I taken my place at the Council, I would have added my vote to their resolutions, having no other information than such as was before them. But I am desirous that all the facts should be known, so that the citizens of the Territory may be able to view impartially the explanation which Governor Horner will undoubtedly feel it his duty to make.

Respectfully, Your Obedient Servant,
George H. Walker

It is pleasant in these days of graft to put on record the official acts of a man whose life is absolutely clean of defaults and peculations. As governor of the territory of Michigan, and later still as register of the land office at Green Bay, no case has ever been found in which he took advantage of his position and knowledge to enrich himself at the expense of the general interests, or in such a way as to oppress or wrong his poorer neighbor. The cases are many in which he succored the poor in their misfortunes or mistakes, and no one in his trouble appealed to him in vain. As secretary of the territory of Wisconsin he received the public money from the land office at Mineral Point to pay the civil list of the territory and the legislative assembly, and that too without bonds. At one time he was offered a bonus of a thousand dollars if he would exchange for bank paper the gold and silver received for payments. He might with this paper have discharged his obligations to the government and its employees. He declined the offer from a "stern sense of duty," and paid all in good metal. At the termination of his office as secretary his accounts and vouchers were returned to the treasury department and found correct.

From the office of secretary of Wisconsin Governor Horner was transferred to that of register of the Green Bay land office, to take place on the first day of June, 1837. Of this change Governor Horner writes" "I was, without my assent or knowledge, and not at the instance of friends, but by the machinations of enemies, by a fraud perpetrated upon General Jackson during the last hour of the term of General Jackson, transferred to the office of Register of the Green Bay Land Office. This order was made without a moment’s notice of such an intention on the part of General Jackson, and occasioned the loss of a fine Estate in the Mineral Country."

In the spring of 1837 Governor Horner made his way through was was then an uninhabited waste, from Mineral Point to Green Bay, having no escort other than his Indian guide. The emoluments of the land office at this early date were of course practically valueless, and the governor therefore resumed the practice of law at his new home in Green Bay. This practice proved lucrative, and with the money thus gained he became the first purchaser of agricultural lands west of the city of Fond du Lac. These lands were choice parcels in the counties of Marquette and Fond du Lac, and among them the land on which the more important part of the present city of Ripon is built, including the water-power thereof, which he purchased on November 5, 1838. The exact boundaries of the original tract owned by him in the present Ripon are as follows: Beginning at the C., M. & St. P. R. R. on the North side of Oshkosh street, and running thence west to a point midway between Hamburg and Washington streets, thence south to Blossom street, thence east to the C., M. & St. P. R. R., and thence north to the point of beginning, being eighty acres which it will be seen includes the land originally platted as the village of Ripon. Thus Governor Horner is fairly the original proprietor, and in a sense the founder, or Ripon. His connection with Captain Mapes as promoter will be spoken of later.

We have seen that Governor Horner received his first appointment as register of the Green Bay land office, from President Jackson; but by subsequent appointments from Presidents Van Buren and Tyler he held the office for eleven years. During the earlier of these years the office was both laborious and practically profitless, but afterwards it became valuable enough to be a prize for political scheming. It was the habit of Governor Horner personally to perform the duties of the office, and this he is said to have done "without the loss of a single day from either sickness or absence." From an old record I quote the following complimentary words:

During his administration the rights and interests of settlers were secured and protected by his adjudications from the grasp of the speculator. He often rose at midnight responding to the call of a settler anxious to prove up or enter his pre-emption before the arrival of the speculator, and fed him at his table free of "charge." This was a time of "wildcat" banking, but Governor Horner, to save the settler trouble, would take the settler’s bank bills and give him in return a draft on the Receiver. In such ways of human kindness he was always on the side of the poor man. Governor Horner has often been heard to say that "the pleasure in after-life of thus having assisted and befriended the poor settler afforded him more real happiness, in his retirement, than all the honors and profits of office."

Having served under five presidents, and in conjunction with five receivers of the land office, when his position became of real value to him he was removed from office on the flimsy representation made to President Polk, that "he was an enemy of his administration and a political disorganizer." The representation was so foolish that the sagacity of Jackson would have seen through it at once; but Polk was not a great man. Governor Horner was possessed of a sincere mind, and he never let himself down to intrigue with political adventurers. His office had become profitable and was capital for demagogues to trade upon, consequently matters took their normal political course.

At this time we find a decided change in the life of the subject of this sketch. He was importuned by friends and relatives to return to Virginia or the city of Washington, and begin life over again on the old fields. But he would no longer be an office-seeker, and the instinct of true Virginia pride forbade his returning a comparatively poor man to his wealthy relatives with a young family. In 1847 he removed to what is now known as Westwood, a place of his own selection, the beautiful Horner farm on the south shore of Green Lake, Wisconsin. Here in the winters of 1848-49 he felled the trees for a clearing, and in the sprint-time held the plow, cultivated his garden with his own hands, and courageously wrought as a thrifty husbandmen. But he was called forth from his retirement by the needs of the public service. Although nominated for office by Democrats, we was elected probate judge for the county of Marquette, which at that time included the present Green Lake County, in spite of the opposition of a populat candidate, by the concurrent votes of both Whigs and Free-Soilers. This was the fall of 1849, and he held the office until the court was abolished, as to probate jurisdiction, in 1854, serving with ability and fairness.

Governor Horner was the co-founded of the city of Ripon. David P. Mapes, in his History of Ripon, p. 143, says:

At the time I purchased of Governor Horner he asked the privilege of giving the name to our embryo city. This I granted with restrictions. First, that it should not be a personal name. Second, that it should not be like any other name in the United States; for I had seen great confusion in locating towns of similar names. Third, that it should not be an Indian name, for our State was then being covered all over with "Waus" and similar names, which were perfectly confounding to strangers. And lastly, that the name should be short. The Governor’s ancestors came from Ripon, England: that name he selected, and as it came within all the restrictions, I adopted it as the name for this center.

Captain Mapes gives as the full title of his book, The History of Ripon and its Founder, for he was accustomed to take to himself the sole credit of being the founder of this city. The exact fact seems to have been that he and Governor Horner together agreed to found the city, the latter furnishing the land, and retaining the right to name the city and the principal streets, and the former acting as promoter, receiving for his service sundry alternate lots. The modesty of the captain never stood in his way; but he does not deserve the credit of having been a vigorous promoter.

Captain Mapes is right concerning the ancestry of the Horner family. They resided near Ripon, in Yorkshire, England, and among them was his paternal grandfather, who emigrated to Maryland at an early day, engaging in business as a wholesale importing merchant; also Francis Horner, the parliamentarian. Many of the streets of Ripon bear names given by Governor Horner in honor of members of his family, or of political friends, etc., as appears from the following, which will aid in the perpetuation of his name and place as founder: Watson, Blackburn, Jefferson, Cass, Houston, Washington, Henni, Spaulding avenue, and Doty.

The last years of Governor Horner’s life were spent in dignified retirement, his death occurring at Ripon on February 3, 1883, at the age of eighty-one years. His mansion-like residence in this city, now occupied by a daughter, Mrs. Elizabeth Burling, with her husband, is one of the ancient landmarks of a solid man’s good taste and strength. In the long years to come it will be pointed to as a fit monument for one of "the brave men who pushed their way into the Western wilds, and moulded out of the chaotic struggle of pioneer life, civilization, society, and government."

Personally, Governor Horner was a marked man. His form was erect even in age, his presence being at once dignified and winning. His manners were those of the cultivated gentleman of the old school, and his home life, surrounded by his three sons and two daughters, was gentle, but firmly authoritative and wise. His moral instincts were keen, as evidenced by the manumission of his slaves, his exact justice as an officer, and his intelligent patriotism. The poor were never turned from his door unfriended, and his hospitality to strangers was generous and free. His life was temperate, "abstaining from the use of ardent spirits." I find in a writing left by him this quaint and ingenuous confession: "I have deplored the early and continuous use of tobacco, and bear testimony to its injurious effect both on the mind and the body, and I attribute most of my sickness or failure in life to its effects." He was a sincerely religious man, a member of the Protestant Episcopal church, whose worship he steadily sustained, even in the primitive conditions of his Green Lake neighborhood.

I well remember him on one Sunday morning in the old white church of the Congregational Society of Ripon, which is traditionally supposed to be the place where the first organization of the Republican party was formed. President Merriman of Ripon College had preached one of his masterly sermons, in the course of which he had presented his view of the doctrine of the Trinity; Governor Horner tarried, not only to express his admiration of the sermon, but with fine and characteristic courtesy to thank the preacher for the help he had received toward comprehending one of the great doctrines.

I may fitly close this sketch by giving an extract from a brief biography found in Tuttle’s History of Michigan:

Early in life Governor Horner distinguished himself by his advocacy of slave emancipation, and the records of the Virginia courts show evidences of his success as an advocate for slaves suing for freedom. His sincerity in the cause was proved by his freeing the slaves descended to him from his father’s estate, an act performed soon after he became of age, and one as rare as it was commendable at that early day. Throughout his life Governor Horner was known as a man of great determination and courage. Andrew Jackson remarked when appointing Governor Horner to settle the Northwestern difficulties, "Now I have a man who will not fear." His utter fearlessness was a distinguishing trait of his early public life, and was shown in his liberation of his own slaves and by his adherence to the Federal Union during the late civil War.


(1) A. M. Soule, "Southern and Western Boundaries of Michigan," in Michigan Political Science Association Publications, ii, No. 2, p. 4, map; also Thwaites, "Boundaries of Wisconsin," Wis. Hist. Colls., xi, pp. 457-460.

(2) Soule, op. cit., pp. 15-37.

Last updated 5/12/1999

This site represents an ongoing effort to collect information related to the history of the town and city of Ripon. If you have information to share, please contact Bob Schuster by email at rmschust@facstaff.wisc.edu or at 6020 Kristi Circle, Monona, Wisconsin 53716 (608) 221-1421.