William A. Howard is little-remembered today but he very nearly was a witness to one the most pivotal events in US History.
Howard was governor of Dakota Territory from 1878 until his death in 1880. (The only territorial governor to die in office). Like most territorial governors, Howard was not a native Dakotan. He was originally from Vermont but settled in Michigan, where he held a number of political posts.
At the 1876 Republican National Convention, Howard chaired the Michigan delegation. He switched Michigan’s support to Rutherford B. Hayes at a key juncture, helping Hayes secure the nomination. In return, President Hayes had offered Howard an appointment as minister to China. Howard turned that down, but agreed to be Governor of Dakota.
Earlier, in the 1860s, Howard was the postmaster for Detroit, at the time an appointed political position. He was in Washington and went to the White House to see President Lincoln. (Lincoln had an open door policy to the public most days.) It happened that Lincoln was looking for someone to go with him and Mary to the theater that night, and he invited Howard to go. Howard begged off; he was leaving town that afternoon.
That meeting happened on April 14, 1865. So Howard narrowly avoided being a witness to Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater.
This story according to “Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald. Donald goes through Lincoln’s last day in some detail. He mentions Howard as the Detroit postmaster, but does not mention his future role in Dakota Territory. The book also has a couple mentions of Dr. William A. Jayne, Lincoln’s friend and physician who he appointed as Dakota’s first territorial Governor.
I posted a version of this earlier today on Facebook and thought I should add it here as well.