BACK IN TIME TO 1858

menard home, Kaskaskia jpegHome, Pierre Menard ( LM’s grandfather ) Kaskaskia, Illinois

The Constitution of the United States of America had been in existence only four decades when Lucien Maxwell was born. His lifetime encompassed the physical delineation of a new nation and, at the same time, the developing expectations of a new idea – freedom.

Traveling back in time to 1858, we modern Americans catch a glimmer of the divisions that threatened to destroy the Union of States. Two centuries have passed since Lucien Maxwell’s life began in Kaskaskia, Illinois, the same year that the town of 8,000 became Illinois’ first capital. By the time the boy who left for the West at age 17 returned at age 40, Kaskaskia had long passed its prime, but the man was reaching his personal success. Having purchased majority ownership of 1,714,764 acres in northeastern New Mexico and builder there of the community of Cimarron, his home would welcome travelers on the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail for the next 12 years. During those years four presidents led the way through and into a nation’s new self realization.

James Buchanan had been in office only a year and a half when the entire Maxwell family traveled east from New Mexico, across the plains to Lucien’s childhood home in Kaskaskia, Illinois, some 50 miles south of St. Louis. The Transcontinental railroad lay years in the future. More than likely, Lucien Maxwell utilized used his own Concord coach. Tall and wide, custom made and individually numbered, the Concord would have made the three-week, 700-mile journey easier for Luz and the five children. Mark Twain described his trip west in the 1870 book Roughing It: “Our coach was a great swinging and swaying stage, of the most sumptuous description – an imposing cradle on wheels.”

Heading in the opposite direction, definitely not in Concord coaches, townbuilders hurried toward Pike’s Peak in the first rush for gold in Colorado. The Southwest was becoming American territory with an accompanying and broadening division among the 32 states over the “peculiar institution” that allowed one man to own another.

James Buchanan’s four years in office can be seen now as a turning point, at which time a different approach to the nation’s governance might have allowed a slower and less violent resolution of young America’s problem. In his nomination, after 14 ballots, as candidate of the Democratic party back in 1856, and his electoral victory with less than 50% of the vote, the coming climax was taking shape. Slowly and surely sectional division magnified, with slavery representing all cultural and economic differences between southern agrarians and northern industrialists.

For a brief moment, the Maxwell family stood at the crossroads where East and West came together. Having left New Mexico’s arid high altitude, traveling across level, grassy plains, viewing vast herds of bison, then leaving the Missouri River and the city of Westport, the family finally reached the Mississippi and the riverside trails where Lucien had ridden as a boy. There, Luz and the five children met Lucien’s mother for the first time. Ten-year-old Peter, and four younger sisters- Virginia, age eight; Emilia, six; Sofia, four; and Maria, almost two, experienced the spacious home their great-grandfather Pierre Menard had built as a young man half a century earlier. They certainly must have heard about his being the first Lt. Governor of Illinois and that he had welcomed Lafayette to Kaskaskia when Lucien was six years old. Past and present connected.

During the summer of the Maxwells’ extended stay, the upcoming November election of the state’s Senator made national headlines when the new Western Union Telegraph Company sent words to newspapers around the country. There, in Illinois, a young lawyer named Lincoln was gaining momentum that would eventually etch his face into history. In a statewide series of debates, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas met seven times. Argument centered around the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1850 that allowed extension of slavery in free territory and effectively ended the Missouri Compromise that had held the issue at bay for thirty years. Thousands heard the 49-year-old future president name slavery as “a moral, a social, and a political wrong.” In the upcoming November election Stephen Douglas would retain his Senate seat, but two years later, Abe Lincoln would be elected President, first Republican to achieve the nation’s highest office.

As autumn colored Kaskaskia’s oak trees, and cold winds blew in from the west, the Maxwells prepared to return home. On September 26, 1858, what many Americans saw as an omen of something terrible to come appeared in the shape of Donati’s comet. “ . . . a brilliant light with a prodigious tail curved like a scimitar” across the sky above the United States. White men and Indians alike watched in awe.” [ Marc Simmons- On the Santa Fe Trail, p.55 ] Within a few weeks, Kaskaskia’s cemetery claimed little Maria Maxwell, her death shadowing the long trip back to Cimarron. Within a little more than two years’ time, South Carolina seceded from the Union, and by the end of a war that pitted brother against brother, a million men would be killed or wounded. On the day after final surrender terms were agreed upon, Lucien and Luz Maxwell’s eldest son Peter would celebrate his 17th birthday. But that would be ten years in the future.
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Two centuries have passed and the United States of America continues to enlarge its potential. The future, again, depends upon its citizens’ ability to appreciate and build upon the foundation that supports continuing progress toward “the blessings of liberty for all.”