Guide to the Col. David S. Wilson Family Papers, 1847-1909


Col. David S. Wilson (1825-1881), originally from Ohio, was a lawyer and editor in Dubuque, Iowa. He served with the Sixth Cavalry of Iowa from 1862-1864 and also practiced law in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., during the 1860s and 1870s. He was appointed circuit judge and district judge in Dubuque and served until 1878. He and his wife, Henrietta, had four children: Henry, Gertrude, John, and David. The family's papers consists largely of personal correspondence between D.S. and Henrietta, as well as a significant amount of correspondence between the couple and their children. Also included in the collection are a selection of D.S. Wilson's legal and political materials, such as a diary from his 1860 term in the Iowa General Assembly, miscellaneous court case briefings, and some materials from his work as an attorney for the New Idria Quicksilver Mining Company.

Collection Details

Collection Number
Col. David S. Wilson family papers
2.5 Linear Feet
David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Materials in English

Collection Overview

The Col. David S. Wilson Family Papers document the activities of Col. David S. Wilson and his family of Dubuque, Iowa, from the mid-1850s through the early 1870s. The majority of the collection consists of the family’s correspondence. David and his wife, Henrietta, wrote frequent letters during his many absences from Dubuque; both parties are well-represented in the family's papers. Topics tended to center on the family's finances, personal and family news, and local events. Col. D.S. Wilson's military service during the 1860s was only mentioned in passing, as it related to the family's travels or finances. Later letters from D.S. Wilson's time in San Francisco discuss court cases and business news, and include details on family disputes between David and his brother Samuel M. Wilson, also a lawyer. D.S. Wilson repeatedly wrote about his unhappiness at being separated from his family in San Francisco. He finally returned to Dubuque to practice law there and in Washington, D.C.

Other major sources of correspondence are the couple's four children, particularly Henry (called "Harry") and Gertrude (called "Gertie") Wilson, who spent time at Kenyon College in Ohio and Brooke Hall in Pennsylvania. Henry and Gertrude regularly wrote home to their parents and included news about their activities and classmates. Nearly all of the collection's letters from 1873 and 1874 are directed to Gertie, who was actively courted by several men. Gertrude's suitors between 1870 and 1874 include James S. Donnell (Pittsburgh), John H. Rutherford (Cincinatti), Alonzo E. Wood (Dubuque), James H. Park, Charles Plunkett, and George Brock (Chicago); she eventually married Brock on March 2, 1874. The Wilsons' third child, John, appears to have attended school in Dubuque; letters between him and his classmates are also present in the collection and include many secret messages, codes, and nicknames. "Johnnie" was regularly referred to as the Champion Flirt of Iowa. Only a few letters remain for the youngest son, David Jr., nicknamed "Dada."

The collection includes interesting political and legal documents. A diary kept by Wilson in 1860 records his activities as a state representative in the Iowa General Assembly. Also present are miscellaneous materials from some of D.S. Wilson's court cases, including several from the U.S. District Court of Southern California relating to the case McGarrahan vs. the New Idria Quicksilver Mining Company. Wilson's materials also contain a cipher that appears to relate to that case, including code names for various parties and terms. There is also a 1855 General Land Office certificate for D.S. Wilson, signed by President Franklin Pierce.

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How to Cite

[Identification of item], Col. David S. Wilson Family Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Contents of the Collection

Correspondence, 1847-1866
Box 1
Correspondence, 1867-1869
Box 2
Correspondence, 1870-1871
Box 3
Correspondence, 1872-1907
Box 4
Correspondence, undated
(3 folders)
Box 5
D.S. Wilson diary re: State Assembly, Iowa, 1860
Box 5
Miscellaneous materials from D.S. and Henrietta E. Wilson, 1850s-1860s
Box 5
General Land Office certificate for D.S. Wilson, signed by Franklin Pierce, 1855 1 May
Box 5
District Court of U.S., Southern District of California – court documents, 1857-1858
Box 5
Legal documents and drafts, 1852-1863
Box 5
Cipher relating to New Idria Quicksilver Mining Co. court case, undated
Box 5
Miscellaneous materials from Henry E. Wilson, 1866 and 1885, and undated
Box 5
Miscellaneous materials from Gertrude E. Wilson, 1869-1873 and undated

Includes a lock of Gertrude's hair.

Box 5
Miscellaneous materials from John H. Wilson, 1871-1874

Includes school notes, class notes, report cards, etc.

Box 5

Historical Note

David S. Wilson was born in Steubenville, Ohio on March 18, 1825. He relocated to Dubuque, Iowa, in 1839, and began operating a newspaper, the Miners' Express, in 1841. He remained the newspaper's editor until 1845 when he sold his interest and resumed his study of law. Elected to the Iowa House in 1846, Wilson took an active role in re-submitting Iowa's constitution to the people. During the Mexican War he shared responsibility for moving the entire tribe of Winnebago from their reservation at Fort Atkinson into Minnesota.

Returning to Dubuque, Wilson was elected county attorney for two terms. Wilson served as mayor from 1856 to June 1, 1857. In 1857 Wilson was elected to a term of four years in the Iowa Senate. In 1861 he was nominated by his fellow legislators to deliver a lecture on "The Right of States to Secede from the Union." The lecture, considered the first of its kind, showed such depth of research that it was adopted as the war document of the state. The legislature printed and distributed thousands of copies.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Wilson became a "War Democrat," a supporter of the Union. When the loyalty of an Irish regiment being raised in Dubuque was questioned, Wilson left for Washington, D.C. to meet with Secretary of War Stanton, an old friend. Wilson received Stanton's permission for the Irish regiment to join the Union army. Wilson was also asked to return to Iowa as a colonel to raise a cavalry regiment. Turning away from his profitable legal career, Wilson accepted the commission and raised the Sixth Iowa Cavalry Regiment. This served in Dakota protecting settlers against the Sioux. Wilson resigned his commission and returned to Dubuque in 1864.

Later that year, Wilson left for California where he joined his brother, Samuel W. Wilson, in a legal practice for two years in San Francisco. Moving to Washington, D.C., he practiced before the federal courts for several years. Upon his return to Dubuque, Wilson was appointed in June 1872 Circuit Judge to fill an unexpired term. In July he was appointed District Judge to fill another vacancy. In 1874, he was elected to the position and served until January 1, 1879.

David married Henrietta E. Sanford in 1850 and the couple had four children: Henry, Gertrude, John, and David.

Portions of the historical note are excerpted from Encyclopedia Dubuque,

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The Col. David S. Wilson Family Papers were received by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library as a gift from the Kirby, Pfohl, and Quigley Family in March 2014.

Processing Information

Processed by: Meghan Lyon, August 2014.

Accessions described in this finding aid: 2014-0033.