The son of Benjamin and Electa Briggs, Ansel Briggs was born on February 3, 1806 in Shoreham, Vermont. The eldest of five sons and two daughters, Ansel’s name is listed in a two volume work entitled “Clement Briggs of Plymouth County and His Descendents, 1621-1965.”
His education began in Vermont’s public schools and moved on to Norwich Academy in Connecticut. Moving to Cambridge, Ohio with his family, Benjamin began a stagecoach business during his six years of residency there. In addition, he acquired a freight hauling business on the Wheeling Road. This road ran easterly between the towns of Cambridge, Ohio and Wheeling, West Virginia, a 55 mile stretch. It was also here that Briggs first ran for office, though unsuccessfully, as a member of the Whig party, seeking the position of County Auditor for Guernsey County.
On November 11, 1830, Ansel took Nancy M. Dunlap for his wife. Four sons were born to the couple, but only the youngest, John, lived to maturity. In the fall of 1839, Ansel and Nancy moved to (Andrew) Jackson County in the Iowa Territory upon learning of new opportunities available there. When he moved, he took with him a letter of introduction from Ohio Governor Wilson Shannon, dated June 9, 1839. Before leaving, Ansel sold his portion of a store he owned in Cambridge to his partner, Joseph Pollock.
Here Ansel began another stage coach business, many times driving the coaches himself in the beginning in an effort to map out the safest routes. After establishing his business, the opportunities to expand it were limitless. After securing contracts with the Post Office to transport the mail between Dubuque, Davenport and Iowa City, additional routes were made available to him. He later subcontracted the mail routes on January 1, 1841 to George Atherton and Thomas Dillion.
In 1843, Briggs began to purchase many of the county’s empty lots, then set about making a number of improvements by constructing commercial buildings and a number of roads. The stone house he built for his family on N. Johnson Street still stands. One of Briggs’s commercial sites was a sawmill on Brushy Creek. Consisting of mill buildings and a dam, the complex was powered by water.
With the encouragement of his father-in-law, Major James Dunlap, a veteran of the War of 1812, Ansel Briggs entered Iowa’s political scene as a Democrat. His business travels throughout the state made him a recognizable figure and his willingness to be active in public affairs led to him being chosen to represent Jackson County during 1842 in the Iowa’s Territorial House of Representatives. He held this position until 1846, while serving concurrent terms as sheriff of Jackson County from 1844-1846 and Jackson County Deputy Treasurer in 1843.
As Iowa moved from territory to statehood, the road traveled was roughly paved by the political scraps between Democrats and Whigs. Being in the minority, the Whigs sought to delay Iowa’s admission to the Union, in hopes of first strengthening their numbers, and thereby increasing the likelihood their candidates would have a better chance to win future elections. They also supported a state banking system, an idea which received strong Democratic opposition.
As Iowa began the formation of a state government, the first constitution drafted by a convention in 1844 was rejected by voters. In May 1846, the second constitution was proposed and adopted. Territorial Governor James Clark then proclaimed October 26th as the date for the election to choose state officers.
Briggs’ name was added to a list of potential gubernatorial candidates which also contained those of William Thompson and Jesse Williams during Iowa’s first Democratic Convention on September 24, 1846 in Iowa City. His campaign centered around the idea of no outside business influences in Iowa with “No banks but earth and they well tilled” his campaign slogan. Much to the surprise of many, Briggs won, receiving 62 votes. 32 votes went to Jesse Williams and William Thompson received 31.
Iowa’s first gubernatorial election took place on October 28, 1846 between Briggs and his Whig opponent, Thomas McKnight, a well known lawyer from Dubuque. Prior to the election, the typical mud-slinging ensued. In this case, the Whigs let fly with a number of personal attacks upon Briggs, one of them coming from an individual who stated he had “seen Mr. Briggs drunk in Dubuque for the last three weeks, and that he was bantering Mr. McKnight to stake their respective pretensions to the gubernatorial chair on a game of poker.” Added to that were statements by Whigs proclaiming Briggs to be ignorant and unqualified for the office of governor. Briggs, however, enjoyed the last laugh, winning the election by 247 votes. The majority of the election went to the Democratic candidates; however, the Whigs gained the majority in Iowa’s House of Representatives.
Briggs’ inauguration was a relatively simple affair. Two Senators and two Representatives escorted Governor-elect Briggs into the House Chamber of the Capitol. There, he received the oath of office from Charles Mason, Chief Justice of the Territorial Supreme Court. Governor Briggs was then seated and his Inaugural Address was read to those in attendance by State Senator Philip Bradley, a close friend of the governor. Within the text of the speech, Governor Briggs told the citizens of Iowa, “From my want of experience in the affairs of civil administration, I must naturally feel a great degree of embarrassment in my present position; but that feeling will be greatly lessened from the hope and belief which I entertain, that in your character of representatives of an enlightened constituency, you will kindly extend to me your aid and indulgence." On December 28, 1846, President James K. Polk signed the admission bill into law which made Iowa the 29th state in the Union.
In an effort to live up to the campaign promise he had made about no outside influence in the state, Governor Briggs quickly sold his contract with the Post Office. His administration would be known as “one void of any special interest . . . exhibited an independence of principle, characteristic of his nature.” Briggs’ term in office also witnessed the formation of the state’s public school system, in which he invested $2,000 of his own money. His skillful diplomacy also played a part in the resolution of the Missouri-Iowa boundary dispute.
Iowa lost its first First Lady, Nancy Briggs, during Ansel’s term. Her death occurred on December 30, 1847. Described as “an ardent Christian woman who adhered to the Presbyterian doctrine, Nancy was well educated and endowed by nature with such womanly tact and grace as to enable her to adorn the high estate her husband had attained.” On October 27, 1849, Ansel remarried, taking as his second wife Frances Carpenter. She was the sister-in-law of Philip B. Bradley, Ansel’s political advisor and close friend.
Leaving office on December 21, 1849, Briggs embarked on a number of business trips. In 1860, he traveled to Colorado and was joined by his son, John, on a trip to Montana in 1863. Here he remained until 1865, then returned to Iowa in 1870 where he settled in Council Bluffs for a time. From here he helped to found the town of Florence, Nebraska, while John made his home in Omaha.
It was at John’s home on May 5, 1881 Ansel Briggs died due to ulceration of the stomach. News of his death resounded throughout Iowa, leading Governor Gear to issue a proclamation citing Briggs’s numerous services to the state. On the day of Briggs’s funeral, the American flag above Iowa’s capitol building flew at half mast and guns were fired every half hour. He was originally buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery in Omaha following his death. His body was later moved to Andrew, Iowa and buried in the Andrew Cemetery.
During his life, Ansel Briggs developed a reputation for honesty, frugality and dedication which continued well past the time he served in office. Though he accomplished a number of things in office, Briggs’ greatest contribution to Iowa during his term in office was likely in respect to education. It was during his administration that Normal Schools was launched for training teachers. The University of Iowa also began; with the main campus built in Iowa City and branches in Fairfield and Dubuque with land grants established to finance them.
In 1909, Iowa’s General Assembly provided the necessary fund to erect a monument to the state’s first governor, fondly remembered as “The stage driver who became Governor.”