Monthly Archives: August 2022

The day my distant cousin talked Abraham Lincoln out of his autograph and fingerprint

Matiles aren’t really known for their pursuit of fame and really haven’t done much over the centuries since the late 1300s to seek it. That was the year two Matile brothers with military training from Lombardy in what’s today northern Italy, Jean and Jacques, signed on as mercenaries in the service of Jean d’Arberg de Vlangin in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel. The two had enough experience to be hired as as military officers or governors of du Locle and La-Sagne in the canton.

Suggesting that my penchant for never moving farther than several hundred feet from my childhood home may be genetic, Matiles still live in that area today.

The Matiles’ ancestral home at the Castle of Valangin. It’s not elaborate as castles go, but we find it comfortable and cozy.

As a reward for the brothers’ services, the Matile family was given the hereditary title of Burghers of Valangin. Valangin–the name of both a castle and town–is located about three kilometers north of the city of Neuchâtel. The castle of Valangin was the military seat of government during Neuchâtel’s Prussian ownership. It was built in the Middle Ages as the main defensive works on the main route into the Val-de-Ruz, a fertile valley.

Matiles became local governmental officials, farmers, and, yes, Swiss watchmakers. In 1867, for reasons no one in the family ever recorded, my great-grandfather, Henri Francois Matile decided to immigrate to the United States with his wife and children. They first settled in Erie, Pennsylvania where my grandfather, William Matile, was born. Shortly afterwards, the family, strangely enough, moved west to the area near the eastern Kansas hamlet of Wellsville. Granted, land was cheap in the Kansas of the 1870s, but a spot more different from the Val-de-Ruz valley of Neuchâtel could hardly be found. There, Henri Francois farmed outside of town and made and repaired watches in his Wellsville shop. I still have a few of his watchmaking tools.

My grandfather married and settled on a farm just south of Emporia, Kansas and there my father lived until about 1919 when the combination of the post-World War I farm depression and the increasingly severe dust storms persuaded him to head east to Illinois to find work. Which he found, along with my mother and a new farming community to call home—and where I still live today.

Here in Illinois, we have a special fondness for President Abraham Lincoln, the Springfield lawyer and 16th President of the United States who refused to acquiesce to Southern blackmail over the slavery question, and who fought a bloody war to keep the Union strong and undivided.

And strangely enough, it seems one of my distant cousins, Gustave Matile, served for a few months as one of Lincoln’s private secretaries during the Civil War. How that happened is a bit of historical serendipity itself. And how Gustave added an interesting chapter to the lore of Abraham Lincoln is another.

Gustave Eugene Matile was born Aug. 11, 1839 in the Canton of Neuchatel, Switzerland. Neuchatel, as I noted above, is the homeland of the “modern” Matile family.

George Agustus Matile, Gustave’s father, was a well-known Swiss academic. Among other luminaries, he was a good friend of Louis Agassiz, a fellow native of the French-speaking portion of Switzerland who science historians have dubbed one of the founding fathers of the American scientific tradition (he’s also an ancestor of tennis legend Andre Agassiz).

George Matile taught history at the University of Neuchatel as well as in other European universities before immigrating to the U.S. with his family in 1849. That branch of the family settled in New York State. He had two sons who made names for themselves, Gustave and Leon Albert. Gustave, we’ll get to in a minute. Leon Albert enlisted in the Union Army, served as a private during the Civil War and subsequently served during the Plains Indian Wars and in the Spanish American War, eventually retiring as a brigadier general.

George mostly worked for the U.S. Government with the exception of one year during which he worked as an “antiquarian” for the museum at Princeton University in New Jersey. After Lincoln’s election, George served as an advisor to Secretary of State William H. Seward, who he met while participating in New York Republican politics.

It’s likely George, with his connection to Seward, was able to get Gustave, who had just turned 21when the Civil War began, a job as a clerk at the Interior Department. Then, as now in Washington, it was who, not what, you knew that counted when seeking a job. Gustave apparently read law during his government service as well as carrying out whatever duties he was assigned at the Interior Department.

In 1863, the Lincoln Administration was not only fully engaged in fighting the Civil War, but it was also trying to start Lincoln’s reelection campaign. Today’s giant Presidential staff did not exist at the time, and, in fact, Lincoln’s staff consisted, essentially, of just two men. John Nicolay and John Hay. The two young men from Illinois loyally served Lincoln throughout his Presidency. But in 1863, with the press of campaigning, they needed some help with the day-to-day business of the office of the President. So they apparently put out feelers for a dependable temporary assistant, and Gustave’s name popped up.

Unofficially, Gustave was seconded from Interior to be employed as Hay’s undersecretary. While Nicolay was away on campaign and other business, Matile and Hay carried on the Administration’s staff work, the kind of work that now employs hundreds of people.

Because his transfer was unofficial and temporary, Matile’s name apparently does not appear on the White House employment roster. One of the only clues he worked for Hay at all is a passing reference in an Oct. 10, 1864 note from Hay to Nicolay published in Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay, compiled by Tyler Dennett and published in 1939. Wrote Hay: “Here are your mails for this morning. We are very busy. Mr. Matile is sick.”

And then, of course, there’s the Lincoln fingerprint.

A copy of the note Gustave sent along with Lincoln’s autograph and fingerprint to Samuel Holmes in 1864. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

In late August 1864, Samuel Newell Holmes, one of Matile’s New York friends wrote to him asking if he could get an autograph from the President. Agreeable with doing a friend a favor, Gustave went ahead and asked the President. The accommodating Lincoln dipped his pen in his inkwell and signed his familiar “A. Lincoln” autograph on a scrap of paper and gave it back to Matile. But when he signed, Lincoln’s pen apparently left a drop of ink on the scrap, and as he handed the scrap back to Matile, Lincoln left his thumbprint in the ink on the paper.

When Matile sent the autograph back to Holmes, he included a short note explaining that the fingerprint inkblot was Lincoln’s: “The finger marks are also his. They will do as the olden times seals that were made by impressing the thumb on the wax.”

Holmes kept the autograph and passed it to his daughter when he died. It was sold upon her death and was acquired in 1949 by William A. Steiger, a Springfield, Illinois Lincoln collector. In 1953, Steiger sent our family a letter seeking information on Gustave, but since he was only a distant cousin of our branch and from the New York branch of the family to boot of which none of the Kansas Matiles even knew about, my parents were of no help.

Clipping from the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Jan. 28, 1957 illustrating the Lincoln fingerprint obtained by Gustave Matile.

For his part, Gustave continued reading law after the war and became a lawyer. He moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1865 where he practiced law. He also practiced law in Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota before moving back to Green Bay where he was appointed to the federal bench. There, he served as U.S. Court Commissioner for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. He was a member of the Wisconsin Bar and the Brown County Bar Association in Wisconsin and also served a stint as the Swiss counsel at Green Bay.

A cigar smoker, he died of cancer on June 17, 1908. The Green Bay Gazette, in Matile’s obituary, described him as “one of the best known lawyers who practiced during Green Bay’s early history.”

As a side note, when Gustave died, he left some of his possessions to the Green Bay public library. One of those possessions was an autographed photograph of Lincoln and his son, Tad. Only two original prints of the image are known to exist. The photograph was sold to a community group in 2006 as part of a collection of other historic materials, including a painting by the famous artist Howard Pyle, from the library for $1.2 million. The collection is on permanent loan to the Brown County, Wisconsin historical society where portions of it are occasionally placed on exhibit.

Today, while periodic questions arise about them, the Lincoln autograph and fingerprint firmly reside in the collections of the Illinois State Historical Society, proof positive that some mistakes, even ink blots, can have a historical value all their own.


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Chief Shabbona’s ghost still searching for justice 170 years after his land was stolen

For those of us interested in local history, it’s always fascinating when a bit of it pops up out of the time stream to intrude on modern life.

That’s what’s going on now as our friends west of the Fox Valley in DeKalb County find they’re having to deal with a bit of mid 19th Century chicanery that led to the illegal theft of land from one of the region’s most revered Native American leaders.

Ask someone to name a local Indian chief, and you’re likely to hear the names of either Waubonsee or Shabbona. Both men were influential leaders of their tribal groups and historically important, but it was Shabbona who was dubbed “Friend of the White Man” by the American settlers that flooded into northern Illinois after 1832. It wasn’t, however, necessarily a compliment from the viewpoint of Native Americans.

Ambrotype was made of “Chief Shaubonee” on June 7, 1857 at Morris by image artist H.B. Field. Little White School Museum collection.

Although sources differ about his birthplace, Shabbona himself told historian Nehemiah Matson he had been born about 1775 along the Kankakee River in what is now Will County near Wilmington. The son of an Ottawa father and a Seneca mother, he grew to be just under 6 feet in height, and was powerfully built, his name meaning, according to various sources, “Burly Shoulders,” “Indomitable,” “Hardy,” or “Built Like a Bear.”

Since Shabbona could neither read nor write English, the spelling of his name varied widely with its pronunciation. Ellen M. Whitney in The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832, records his name variously spelled as Chabone, Chaboni, Chabonie, Chabonne, Chaborne, Chamblee, Chamblie, Chambly, Shabanee, Shabanie, Shabehnay, Shabenai, Shabeneai, Shabeneai, Shabonee, and Shaubena. There were undoubtedly many more.

Shabbona was introduced to the Native Americans’ struggle against European encroachment by his father, reportedly a nephew of the charismatic Ottawa leader Pontiac. Pontiac conceived of and then conducted 1763’s Pontiac’s Rebellion, designed to drive the British and American victors of the French and Indian War out of the area north and west of the Ohio River. The effort failed due to the disinterest of the French in getting reinvolved in a war with the British and the effective military response of British military officers.

Decades before that, some Ottawas had closely allied themselves with bands of the Potawatomi and Chippewa tribes. In 1746, the three related tribal groups formed a loose alliance, the Three Fires Confederacy. That year, taking advantage of the vacuum created by the rapid disintegration of the once mighty Illinois Confederacy, the Three Fires, moved south from their current homes in Wisconsin and Michigan into northern Illinois where they settled along the Kankakee, Illinois, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Fox rivers.

Waubonsee was the principal war chief of the Potawatomi tribal bands in northern Illinois. Little White School Museum collection.

The three tribal groups mixed and intermarried freely. Shabbona’s first wife was Pokanoka, the daughter of a Potowatomi chief. Likely based on his skill as a warrior and his leadership ability, Shabbona, although an ethnic Ottawa, was elevated to chief of that Potawatomi band upon his father-in-law’s death.

The Three Fires remained mostly neutral during the Revolutionary War, although they leaned towards the British, and it’s likely individual members of the confederacy may have participated on the British side.

After the Revolution, and despite the British crown ceding the region to the new United States, British military and trading forces stayed on in the Old Northwest, where they kept the area in turmoil by supporting such anti-American Indian chiefs as the Shawnee military and political leader Blue Jacket.

It’s likely Shabbona participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 when Blue Jacket fought U.S. government forces under Gen. Anthony Wayne in modern Ohio. The U.S. Army won that battle, and broke Blue Jacket’s alliance. Shabbona’s name appears on the Treaty of Greenville signed between the western tribes and the Americans that ended that phase of the conflict, suggesting he had more than a passing interest in the outcome.

Despite that setback, agents working on behalf of both the British Government and British fur trade companies continued to support Native American defiance of U.S. government and economic control. Starting in the early 1800s, the influential Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother, called the Prophet, established the Wabash Confederacy. Comprised of tribes in Ohio and the Illinois Country, its goal was to evict the Americans from the area northwest of the Ohio River—the Northwest Territory. In 1810, Tecumseh made a recruiting trip to Illinois, when he visited Shabbona’s village, then located southwest of Chicago on the Illinois River. Shabbona was won over by the Shawnee chief’s political vision, and joined him, traveling throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin lending his local prestige to recruit more members of the Wabash Confederacy.

The Native American nationalist leader Tecumseh was killed in action during the Battle of the Thames in Canada during the War of 1812. Granger Collection, New York.

In 1811, when Gen. William Henry Harrison marched on Tecumseh’s base at Prophetstown in Indiana, Shabbona, along with local chiefs Waubonsee and Winamac, led their Potawatomi contingent alongside Tecumseh’s other allies against the Americans. At the Battle of Tippecanoe, like Wayne before him, Harrison’s forces prevailed, and the tribes scattered back to their homelands.

But just a year later, war again broke out again, this time between the U.S. and Britain, and the Old Northwest became one of its major theatres of operation. Shabbona and other Potawatomi chiefs allied with the British and participated in the battle and subsequent Fort Dearborn massacre at Chicago. After the battle, Shabbona and Waubonsee both used their influence to save lives of several captured Americans.

Then they led their forces to Canada where they joined Tecumseh’s Native Americans fighting the invading U.S. Army, again under the command of Harrison. At the Battle of the Thames in Ontario Province, Shabbona fought beside Tecumseh until the Americans prevailed, the allied Indian and British army was beaten, and Tecumseh killed in action.

Following that defeat, Shabbona returned to Illinois to think things over. After much deliberation, he concluded further military opposition to the Americans was fruitless. In 1827, when the Winnebagoes decided to fight the incursion of American settlers on Indian land in southern Wisconsin, Shabbona and other Three Fires chiefs helped defuse hostilities.

Shabbona’s reserve granted in the Treaty of 1829 was located in Section 23 and the west half of Section 26 and the east half of Section 25 of Somonauk Township, DeKalb County, Illinois. In this original U.S. Township Survey Plat, Shabbona Grove is outlined in green.

At least partly in return for his efforts to stop a shooting war, Shabbona received, in the Treaty of 1829, a land grant of two sections, 1,280 acres, that became known as Shabbona Grove, and where the chief maintained his village. When the land was finally surveyed, it was legally described as Section 23 plus the east half of Section 26 and the west half of Section 25 of modern DeKalb County’s Shabbona Township.

Then Black Hawk’s band of Sauk and Foxes crossed the Mississippi River back into Illinois in the spring of 1832. This time, thanks largely to Illinois Gov. John Ford’s incompetent military and political leadership, an actual shooting war broke out, with both state militia and U.S. Army troops marching against Black Hawk’s group of roughly 1,200 men, women, and children.

Just as in 1827, Shabbona again worked hard to defuse hostilities. While he was able to keep most of the Three Fires bands officially out of the conflict, he wasn’t entirely successful trying to keep individuals out of the war. Realizing the dangers angry individual members of the Three Fires posed when fighting broke out along Old Man’s Creek, he and his nephew, like a pair of latter day Paul Reveres, rode up the Fox River Valley warning settlers to flee to either Ottawa or Chicago.

One group of pioneers who had gathered at the Davis claim on Indian Creek in LaSalle County just south of Kendall County declined to leave, and were killed by Potawatomis in revenge for Davis’s brutal treatment of them.

Following the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Government decreed that in accord with President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, all Native People were to be removed from Illinois, and in 1836, most were moved west of the Mississippi under threat of military force.

Shabbona and his wife accompanied Three Fires groups who began leaving Illinois as early as 1835, although he did not give up title to the reserve he’d been granted for the benefit of himself and the Three Fires band he led. He returned to Illinois in 1837 and lived on his land at Shabbona Grove until 1849 when he left to visit Kansas. When he returned in 1852, he found that his reserve had been illegally sold at public auction. And the money from the sale, instead of being held in trust for him, apparently reverted to the government.

This 1871 plat book view of Shabbona Grove shows no evidence the chief used to own most of the grove. But it does show the numerous woodlots the grove has been subdivided into by settlers needing timber for firewood and building materials.

It’s never been adequately explained just how the theft of Shabbona’s land happened, either. After all, other reserves granted by various treaties—including two here in Kendall County—were owned until legally sold by their Native American owners, who were fairly paid for them. It’s also interesting, that official maps of Kendall County still sometimes show the outlines of those reserves, unlike Shabbona’s reserve in DeKalb, which was almost immediately erased from the region’s maps—almost like DeKalb’s leaders wanted to erase all evidence of the old chief’s ownership.

That the two sections of timber were extremely valuable to DeKalb County’s earliest settlers goes without saying. The county was almost entirely prairie with only a few groves, the largest of which was Shabbona’s grove. After its sale, early maps show that its new owners lost no time in subdividing the grove into dozens of valuable woodlots the settlers needed for building materials and firewood.

A few years later, a group of area citizens who remembered the contributions the old chief had made to the region bought him a small 20-acre farm near Seneca, where he lived for the rest of his life.

In an interesting historical sidelight, in 1858 he attended the first Lincoln-Douglas debate at Ottawa where he reportedly greeted his old Black Hawk War comrade, Abraham Lincoln, and where he was seated on the dais with the rest of the dignitaries.

Chief Shabbona’s granite marker purchased and emplaced by his former neighbors long after his death and the later plaque installed by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1983.

Shabbona died on his farm July 17, 1859, and was buried at Morris in Evergreen Cemetery. For many years, his grave was unmarked, but then his old neighbors took up a collection to place a huge boulder on his grave with the simple inscription: SHABBONA 1775-1859. Finally, in September 1983, a bronze plaque, donated by the Illinois State Organization of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, was placed in front of the boulder with the inscription, “CHIEF SHABBONA – Born in 1775, this gentle man of peace, friend of white settlers, died July 17, 1859, near Morris, Grundy Co., Illinois.”

In 2001, the U.S. Department of the Interior, after years of study, finally decided that, yes, the old chief’s land was stolen from him all those years ago. They have been in talks with the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi, the logical heirs of Shabbona, as well as the current owners of the land stolen from the chief as well as the local governments involved ever since, to see how that wrong done so many years ago might be at least partially righted.

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