New Hampshire

New Hampshire’s James Wilson Had a Golden Tongue But Feet of Clay

To his admirers, Gen. James Wilson of Keene, N.H., was a larger-than-life figure who commanded respect and admiration. He was a lawyer, politician, military man and adventurer who acquired wealth and renown in the decades before the Civil War.

Typical of the accolades he received was this description by James Franklin Briggs in his adulatory Sketch of General James Wilson of New Hampshire.

There was a charm about his personality that made all who knew him ever hold him in loving remembrance. … He was six feet and four inches in height, well built, erect, with deep set bright blue eyes, a wealth of black, curly hair, stern and determined, yet fascinating, countenance” and often spoke of himself as a rough hewn block from the Granite State, and everywhere was spoken of by his friends as “Long Jim Wilson.” As a lawyer he was able and successful, and won a high reputation. As an advocate he had few equals and no superior. Before juries his eloquence was irresistible.

James WIlson

James WIlson

His children had more mixed feelings about him.

In 1850, James Wilson left three motherless daughters and a son, ages 13 to 24, to seek his fortune in California. He left behind chaotic finances and an elegant brick home in Keene – with a mortgage. He gave them little or no financial support. Their mother had died two years before he left, and for 11 years they sent him letters wondering when he’d come home.

James Wilson was born March 18, 1797 in Peterborough, N.H., the son of a lawyer. In 1820, upon graduating Middlebury College, he moved to Keene and enlisted in the state militia. He served for the next 18 years, rising to the rank of major general. He also took up his father’s profession.

At 28 he was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives, but really made his mark during the presidential election of 1840. He stumped for William Henry Harrison in all the New England States, in Pennsylvania and, for a month, in New York State. He was ‘one of the most eloquent and efficient popular orators of his time,’ wrote Briggs.

Harrison won, which earned James Wilson a patronage job as surveyor general in the public lands of Wisconsin and Iowa. There he made his fortune, which he eventually dissipated.

In 1846 he was elected to Congress, where he served for three years. Then he suddenly resigned and left to seek his fortune in California.

In California he served on the Land Commission, was removed for corruption and found gold.

A year after he left, his oldest daughter, Mary Elizabeth, or Lizzie, married John Sherwood, a New York lawyer. She was a socialite who wrote for various periodicals. She wasn’t thrilled at managing two households at once while her father sought his second fortune.

On Sept. 29, 1859, Lizzie wrote her father:

My dear Father,

It is a long time since I wrote you, and now I do it without having heard anything from you for several months. It was so severe a disappointment that you did not come home that I felt as if I never could write you again. I felt as if you cared for us no longer. Your reasons for not coming were so vague and unsatisfactory. The business at Keene is in such an undetermined state,–I wish you would explain to us a little of the business, position, and intentions of our father…

Oh! my Father! What are you thinking of, that you have left your daughters so many years in suspense, when one page would tell us all. Why will you not pay off the encumbrances off that house settle it legally on us four … No matter what the story is, do tell it rather than not answer my quetions. If I have never to go to Keene as my home again I want to know it. If I won’t I want to know that…

Oh! if you only knew how much we hoped you would come back! How we long to see you, to have you with us! If you knew how kindly we would treat you, anticipate your wants, make your days pass pleasantly, you would come home I am sure…

I am as always your affectionate and loyal daughter.


With thanks to Sister of Fortune by Nancy Coffey Heffernan and Ann Page Stecker.

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