Random coincidences are some of the things that make the study of history so interesting.
For instance, in May 1804, Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark and their Corps of Discovery pushed off into the Mississippi River from Wood River, Illinois and headed up the Missouri River. The expedition’s goal was to explore the huge Louisiana Territory President Thomas Jefferson had bought from Spain and determine if there was a practical trade route to the Pacific Ocean.
Although just under way, Lewis and Clark decided to make a brief stop just a bit upstream from St. Louis. They had been told the old explorer, soldier, and settler Daniel Boone was living just a few miles away, and so they decided to stop by to see what the old pathfinder might be able to tell them.
So, the story goes, the pair visited Boone to ask about the techniques they might use and dangers they should be on the lookout for while exploring the West. The picture of the two eager young explorers conferring with the grand old man of frontier adventure is a fascinating one. But then Boone was a fascinating fellow in his own right, something you find right away when you visit his imposing three-storey Pennsylvania-style stone house (and you thought he lived in a log cabin!), which is still standing and lovingly maintained in the hamlet of Defiance, Missouri, just west of St. Charles. And thus did three of the three greatest explorers the U.S. has produced get together to chat.
Illinois history is sprinkled with such coincidences, and they are often the things that make reading about it so much fun.
For instance, a 1997 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society had an interesting article about Wyatt Earp’s father, Nicholas P. Earp. We all know the story about Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil and Doc Holiday at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz. But few of us know their introduction to law enforcement came from their father, Nicholas, who was the town constable of Monmouth, Illinois, located on U.S. Route 34 in western Illinois’ Warren County.
Just like his sons, Nicholas didn’t get along with the local power structure. He had continual run-ins with a band of local ministers, lawyers, newspaper editors, and officials from Monmouth College, at that time a strictly religious school. Nicholas not only had strong personal views, but was also distrustful of reformers of any stripe. His problems stemmed from his relative unconcern with enforcing Monmouth’s temperance ordinance, which was favored by local Republicans (the temperance party) and influential Presbyterian congregations. Liquor was supposed to be sold only by druggists for medicinal purposes, but Nicholas and his brother Walter Earp were in favor of a liberal interpretation of the law (including what “medicinal” really meant) and came down on the side of their friends, the drug store owners. One of the Earps’ antagonists was a fellow named Marion Morrison, a staunch Presbyterian and temperance man.
And that’s where the historical coincidence comes in. Marion Morrison, the political enemy of Wyatt Earp’s father, it turns out, was the great-uncle of actor John Wayne who made his name in western movies. In fact, the Earps’ enemy, Morrison, was the actor’s namesake. John “Duke” Wayne’s real name was, of course, Marion Mitchell Morrison. John Wayne never played Wyatt Earp in the movies, but if he had it would have made for some nicely symmetrical history.
The Illinois historical event that arguably had the most historical coincidences was the Black Hawk War of 1832. The unequal conflict was fought between a rag-tag band of Sauk, Fox, and Potawatomi Indians led by the influential Sauk warrior Black Hawk on one side and the Illinois militia and U.S. Army on the other. The coincidences abound in the roster of those fighting against the Indians, which appears to be a veritable Who’s Who of Civil War personages.
For instance, not only did Abraham Lincoln, future U.S. President during the Civil War, participate in the Black Hawk War, but so did U.S. Army Lt. Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy. Lincoln, a young Illinois storekeeper at the time, served in the militia, where he was elected captain of his militia
company. Davis served near the end of the war doing various administrative tasks. To add to the interest, both Lincoln and Davis were born in Kentucky, Davis to a moderately wealthy family and Lincoln to a very poor one.
In the aftermath of the Black Hawk War, one of the tasks Davis was ordered to undertake was to escort the Sauk and Fox prisoners, including Black Hawk, to prison. He was under the orders of another U.S. Army lieutenant named Robert Anderson. Almost 30 years later, Anderson, then a major, would be in command of Ft. Sumter when it was fired upon by South Carolina secessionist forces loyal to his one-time brother-in-arms, Jefferson Davis.
The aide-de-camp of Gen. Henry Atkinson, the U.S. Army commander on the scene during virtually the entire Black Hawk War was another young U.S. Army lieutenant named Albert Sidney Johnston. Johnston later served in the army of the Republic of Texas from 1834-37, and was named the Republic’s secretary of war in 1838. Later, he moved back to the U.S., rejoined the U.S. Army, and served on the western frontier with the U.S. 2nd Cavalry Regiment until the
Civil War broke out. He resigned his commission, went home and was appointed a Confederate major general to fight against his old comrades. A friend and favorite of President Jefferson Davis (with whom he had served during the Black Hawk War), Johnston was killed in action at Shiloh in 1862.
The other major Civil War personage to serve in the Black Hawk War was Gen. Winfield Scott. Scott led the U.S. Army reinforcements who arrived (carrying the dreaded Asiatic cholera disease with them) in Chicago in the summer of 1832, and he helped mop up after the Black Hawk War. When the Civil War broke out, Scott was the U.S. Army’s commander. And while’s Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” to squeeze the Confederacy into submission by dividing the Confederacy by controlling the Mississippi River and attacking it all around the periphery came in for derisive criticism at the time. In the end, the basic points of Scott’s strategy were adopted piecemeal and became the eventual strategy Abraham Lincoln adopted to defeat the South.
Historical coincidences can sometimes offer important insights into the motivations driving historical events. Mostly, though, they’re just plain fun.