John W. North started teaching school at the age of 15 and became a licensed lay preacher in 1833. He completed his post secondary education at Casenovia Seminary in New York and attended Wesleyan University. North first found his calling as an abolitionist, lecturing and organizing full-time for the Connecticut Abolition Society. Disillusioned by the church’s failure to take an active stand against slavery, he never became a minister. Instead, he studied law and was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1845.
He moved to the Minnesota Territory in 1849 where he continued to practice law. The first years in Minnesota were spent at St. Anthony. In the fall of 1850, North was elected a member of the second legislature of the Minnesota territory. He ran for reelection in the 1851 elections but was defeated. He was one of the founders of the Republican Party of Minnesota in 1855.
On August 17, 1855, North purchased 160 acres of land. The town he built was named Northfield, Minnesota. He invested heavily in land and built lumber and flour mills. He became president of the Minneapolis and Cedar Valley Railroad, although the railroad was unable to sell bonds to complete construction during North’s time. In 1857, he was a member of the Minnesota state Constitutional Convention.
When the Panic of 1857 hit, North was over extended and suffered financial failure. His business interests were purchased in 1859 by his friend, Charles A. Wheaton.
In 1860, he was a delegate to the Chicago Republican Convention which nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency of the United States. He was a member of the committee that went to Springfield to notify Lincoln of his nomination. In addition to his legislative career in Minnesota, North was influential in founding the University of Minnesota, wrote the act which became the University’s charter, and was treasurer of its board of regents (an appointed position) from 1851-60.
In 1861 President Abraham Lincoln appointed North to be the Surveyor-General of the new Territory of Nevada, whose silver had become critical to Union interests in the Civil War. North surveyed, invested in silver mining properties, began building an ore-treatment mill he named the Minnesota Mill, and practiced law.
In late 1863, upon the unanimous recommendation of the Virginia City Bar Association, he was appointed as the territorial judge responsible for Storey County. He was also elected president of the convention to draft a proposed state constitution for Nevada. One of North’s rulings supported the “many-ledge” interpretation of mining law on the Comstock Lode, which favored the smaller mining companies over larger companies. As a result he clashed with William M. Stewart, a lawyer representing many of the large mining interests. Stewart persecuted North, slandering him and accusing him of taking bribes, using the media as a weapon. North, while he had his own supporters, became ill and resigned from the bench after just a year, suing Stewart for slander and winning.
In 1865 North and his family moved to the northern California town of Santa Clara, and then to Tennessee where he intended to start an integrated colony of industrious people concerned with education. He started a foundry to make construction supplies and farm equipment. The business, however, was boycotted after North shamed a mob out of lynching an African American man. North lost everything, including all he had borrowed from his abolitionist father-in-law.
In 1869 he interested Dr. James P. Greves, who North had met in Nevada, in his plan for a colony, choosing California as the right climate for their venture. North issued a broadside entitled, “A Colony for California” from Knoxville on March 17, 1870. Greves issued a similar publication on March 25th from Marshall, Michigan.
It was to be a temperance colony, communitarian in design, North said, “We wish to form a colony of intelligent, industrious and enterprising people, so that each one’s industry will help to promote his neighbors interests as well as his own.” The colonists, to be 100 in number, were each asked to invest $1,000 toward the venture.
On May 18, 1870, a party of potential colonists left Chicago for California shepherded by Greves. North was so anxious he had gone on ahead, meeting them in San Francisco. Ebenezer Brown of Belle Plaine, Iowa, joined him in route. They looked at tracts of land in the village of Los Angeles, the areas around the San Gabriel Mission in Orange County, and in what would become Pasadena.
Then North met Thomas W. Cover and found the 8,600 acres that would become home to the colonists. The land was originally purchased from Louis Rubidoux by the California Silk Center Association for cultivation of mulberries for the establishment of a worm culture but this plan had failed with the death of one of the principals. Keltia Davis Shugart, another colonist from Belle Plaine, met the party and agreed with Brown and Greves that the Silk Center Association land was good. On September 15, 1870, they purchased the land from the California Silk Center Association. On September 19, 1870 John W. North, James P. Greves, and John Broadhurst and family formally took up residence. Judge North and his associates formed the Southern California Colony Association, incorporated in San Bernardino on September 20, 1870 with North, president; Greves, secretary; and Keltia Shugart, treasurer. Luther and Eliza Tibbets were also among the first colonists.
During the next two months the lands were surveyed and platted, the water system begun, and other active operations carried forward. The first building erected was the office of the company, built on the land located on the west side of Market Street, between Mission Inn and University Avenue. North’s son, John Greenleaf North, worked there too as the town telegraph operator when he was 19 years old.
The cost of the canal to provide water for the new town, more than $50,000, was underwritten by C.N. Felton, one of the wealthier colonists, and secured by Colony stock. The first plantings were made in the northern part of the city.
At the first meeting of stockholders on December 14, 1870, the name Riverside was chosen, a choice that reflected the nearness of the Santa Ana River. In July 1871, the water from the river was diverted to the town by canals, allowing Riverside to prosper.
In 1871, Greves became the first merchant, building a hardware store. The First Congregational Church was established, and in 1871 the first school was opened, a little pink house on the southeast corner of (current) University Avenue and Mulberry Street. At the beginning North’s younger children were a considerable part of student body. A library association was organized at the school and Riverside had the first public library in all Southern California. Land was given by the colonists for a cemetery at the southwest corner of the core of the town, called the Mile Square. That cemetery is Evergreen.
In 1874, a large area southwest of the Colony was purchased by William Sayward and S.C. Evans, who formed the Riverside Land and Irrigating Company. They planned to build a canal to bring water to their own land but discovered that they needed an easement from the Southern California Colony Association to do so, or the cost of the canal would be very high. The Colony Association, viewing the new development as a competitor, refused. Sayward and Evans then purchased C.N. Felton’s controlling interest in the Southern California Colony Association, bringing it effectively under their control. In 1875-76, the Riverside Land and Irrigating Company enlarged the upper canal and constructed the lower canal. In 1876, Evans replaced North as the president of the Colony Association.
North returned to practicing law and opened a law practice in Riverside and San Bernardino.
In 1879, North and his family moved to San Francisco and he joined a law firm. That year, North was nominated, but did not win the Republican nomination to the California Supreme Court. In 1880, he became the general agent for the Washington Irrigated Colony, near Fresno. He opened a law office in Fresno, built a house and started a farm in nearby small community of Oleander. His wife did not join him in this move. He died in Fresno in 1890.