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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.

WILSON, David S.

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WILSON, David S. (Steubenville, OH, Mar. 18, 1825--Dubuque, IA, Apr. 1, 1881). MAYOR. Wilson, the brother of Thomas S. WILSON, bought into the ownership of the Miners' Express in 1841. (1) He remained the newspaper's editor until 1845 when he sold his interest and resumed his study of law. (2) 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. (3)

Returning to Dubuque, Wilson was elected county attorney for two terms. (4)

Wilson served as mayor from 1856 to June 1, 1857. (5) During his first term along Main street cisterns holding 1,000 barrels each were built for fire protection. New market grounds were secured in January, 1856, at Iowa and Clay streets — the present DUBUQUE CITY HALL now stands on these lots. A private house was converted into a jail in April, 1856. In the fall of 1856 gas lighting was extended to the leading side streets. By proclamation of Mayor Wilson December 13, 1856, was set as the date of the special election to decide whether the city should borrow five hundred thousand dollars for railroad purposes. The election was held with the following results: For the loan, 1,456; against the loan, 4. (6)

In 1857 Wilson was elected to a term of four years in the Iowa Senate and 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. (7)


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 an old friend, Secretary of War Stanton. 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. Disappointed that he was not able to serve in more action and frustrated by the little action, Wilson resigned his commission and returned to Dubuque in 1864. (8)

He soon 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 a 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. (9)

Cemetery marker



1. "Dubuque Sought Business Methods From Beginning," Telegraph Herald, March 27, 1921, p. 14. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=bi5eAAAAIBAJ&sjid=SmANAAAAIBAJ&pg=6644,4092622&dq=james+fanning+dubuque&hl=en

2. Hoffman, M. M. "The Wilsons of Dubuque," Des Moines: Annuals of Iowa, Vol.XXI No. 5, July 1938, p. 323

3. Oldt, Franklin T. History of Dubuque County, Iowa.Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1880, p. 899-900

4. Hoffman, p. 329

5. Mayors of the City of Dubuque. Online: http://www.cityofdubuque.org/DocumentCenter/Home/View/2977

6. Oldt, Franklin T. and Patrick J. Quigley, History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Goodspeed Historical Association, 1911, p. 245

7. Hoffman, p. 330

8. Oldt.

9. Ibid.