A native of New York, Josiah Davis Ensign was educated in Ashtabula, passed the Ohio bar exam, served as clerk of court of Ashtabula County, and practiced law there. He arrived in Duluth before 1870, wearing “a light-colored coat and a low-crowned, broad-brimmed leghorn hat,” according to Duluth News Tribune founder Robert C. Mitchell. He married Rose Watrous of Bay City, Michigan, in 1872. (Rose was his second wife; his first, Kate Jones of Jefferson, Ohio, died in 1868 after they had been married ten years.) A voracious reader, Ensign’s personal library was considered one of the largest in the city.
Ensign was instrumental in the legal fight concerning the Duluth Ship Canal, which lasted from 1871 to 1877 and involved both the state of Wisconsin and the city of Superior. His 1898 history of the Duluth Harbor development in the 1860s and 1870s is the seminal work on the topic. Ensign served as Duluth’s mayor from 1880 to 1884, as the St. Louis County Attorney, and spent thirty-two years (1889–1921) as a district court judge.
He also served as Duluth’s first “juvenile judge” and reportedly loved children. Duluth’s Ensign Elementary in Piedmont Heights was named for him in recognition of his service of many years on the city’s school board, and it became a tradition for the Ensign Elementary schoolchildren to send him bouquets of flowers on his birthday. President William Howard Taft, after an encounter with Ensign, told friends, “It was worth crossing the continent to meet him.”
Hon. Josiah Davis Ensign, who for twenty years has been on the Duluth district bench, and is now senior judge of the district, has been a resident of the city of Duluth for forty years, having come here in the spring of 1870. He was born in Erie county, New York, on May 14, 1833. His father was R. S. Ensign, who died in 1896, and his mother lived to pass the ninety-year milestone.
One of his great-grandfathers was a soldier in the War of the Revolution, and he comes of an old American family. His education was obtained in the common schools of northeastern Ohio, and by a three years’ attendance at Farmington And Orwell academies, in Ohio. When he was only a little past the age of fifteen he began teaching school, and taught during every winter and frequently in summer, for several years, meantime engaging, at intervals, in the study of law. When he was twenty-two years of age he was appointed auditor of Ashtabula county, Ohio, to serve out an unexpired term. In 1857 he was admitted to the bar, but before beginning practice he was elected clerk of the common pleas and district courts of Ashtabula county. He held this office for six years, and after the expiration of his second term he commenced the practice of his profession at Jefferson, the county seat of that county, in partnership with an old schoolmate, Stephen A. Northway, who was subsequently for eight years a member of congress. He continued in the practice of law at Jefferson until 1868. Upon the death of his wife, September 4, 1868, he removed to Rochester, Minn., where he had previously spent two summers with his wife for the benefit of her health. He has ever since been a resident of Minnesota. In 1869 he made a brief visit to Duluth, then a place with the proportions and character of a frontier village, but remained only a few weeks. Not long afterward he returned, but not with the purpose of becoming a permanent resident. The owners of two hundred and forty acres of land in Duluth desired to change the plat to conform to the other portions of the city, and they selected Judge Ensign to receive the title of the entire tract, to replat the same, and to distribute and convey the lots to the owners according to the new plat. This work occupied his time for more than a year, and in the meantime he also engaged in the practice of his profession. In 1870 he was elected county attorney of St. Louis county and held the office for two years, continuing in the general practice during his term. In 1872 he associated himself in partnership with Hon. O. P. Stearns, and this partnership continued until 1874, when Judge Stearns was appointed to the bench of the eleventh judicial district. He then continued the practice of law alone for some time, finally forming a partnership with Mr. Daniel G. Cash under the firm name of Ensign & Cash.
The firm became enlarged on January 1, 1886, by the addition of Mr. John G. Williams as a partner, the style of the firm being then changed to Ensign, Cash & Williams. In 1889 Mr. Ensign was appointed judge of the district court. He was duly elected to the position in 1890 and re-elected in 1896, in 1902, and again in 1908, and is now senior judge of the district. His present term will expire by limitation in 1914. Of Judge Ensign’s character as a lawyer and of his career as a judge, one of his old friends and former law partners says: “As a lawyer he is exceptionally well qualified and equipped.
Gifted with a legal mind, original in thought and expression, with an intense love for his profession, and industrious and methodical in his business habits, he devoted himself assiduously to the study and practice of his profession, and was well prepared and confident in every emergency. It was always a pleasure to listen to his strong, eloquent and logical arguments. Since his elevation to the bench, his uniformly patient and courteous treatment of the bar, and his careful and conscientious consideration and decision of all matters brought before him, have won the universal commendation of all who have come in contact with him.” Judge Ensign has always been an active and public-spirited citizen of Duluth, and ever since he came to the city has been prominent in its public and official affairs. He was mayor of the city for two terms, served on the school board for many years, was for eight years a member of the city council, for several years a member of the library board of trustees, and has taken an active part in every movement for the advancement of the interests of the city.
Judge Ensign has been twice married. His first wife, to whom he was married while serving as clerk of the courts in Ohio, was Miss Catharine A. Jones, a daughter of Col. Lynds Jones and a niece of Hon. Joshua R. Giddings, the well-known statesman and pioneer abolitionist of the Western Reserve of Ohio. Of this marriage there were two daughters, Julia Maria and Mary, the latter now the wife of James C. Hunter, of Duluth.
The first Mrs. Ensign died in 1868, as has been stated, and in December, 1872, Judge Ensign married Miss Rose Watrous, of Bay City, Mich. Of the latter marriage there is one daughter, Katharine W. Ensign, who is the wife of County Attorney Warren E. Green, of Duluth.