To his admirers, Gen. James Wilson of Keene, N.H., commanded respect and admiration. He acquired wealth and renown in the decades before the Civil War as a lawyer, politician, military man and adventurer. Truly a larger-than-life figure.
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.
He was born March 18, 1797 in Peterborough, N.H., the son of a congressman. 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 won election to the New Hampshire House of Representatives. He really made his mark, though, during the presidential election of 1840. Wilson 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 won election to Congress, where he served for three years. Then at 53 he suddenly resigned and left to seek his fortune in California. His wife, Mary, had died, and he left his children to run the household and keep his creditors at bay. Wilson didn’t quite abandon his children — Mary Elizabeth, 24, Annie, 18, Charlotte, 16 and Jamie, 13 — but he certainly left them in the lurch.
In California he had received a political appointment (in part due to his friend Daniel Webster) on the Land Commission. Eventually he was accused of corruption and removed. Wilson did strike gold, and sent his family samples from which they made jewelry. He supported himself, and occasionally his children, by lawyering.
A year after he left, his oldest daughter, Mary Elizabeth, or Lizzie, married John Sherwood, a New York lawyer. A socialite who wrote for various periodicals, she didn’t enjoy managing two households at once while her father sought his second fortune.
Money issues often troubled the Wilson sisters. On Aug. 3, 1853, Annie wrote her father:
I have been obliged to borrow fifty dollars of Mr. Newell, as the $450 received in May has given out. I had with it to pay Mr. Wheeler, church tax etc. which I have already written you, beside finding the wood shed empty (owing to Uncle Robert’s neglect) and having to fill it at this expensive season. I shall hope to receive some funds by the next mail.
Uncle R. informed me the other day that “our creditors have got a judgement against us” which I did not understand at all until he added, “if something don’t turn up money soon we must lose everything.” I was sick and nervous and out of money when he told me and the prospect of being turned out of house and home, of losing even this roof which covers us kept me awake a good many nights.
James Wilson Comes Home
James Wilson spent 13 years away from his family. Eventually his son Jamie joined him in California.
In 1861, a year after Jamie’s arrival, Wilson returned east on the steamship Golden Age. He had missed two daughters’ weddings, the birth of five grandchildren and his son’s graduation. He moved back to Keene and, in the early days of the Civil War, made speeches in support of the Union cause. Then, after eight months, he went back to California.
Five years later he returned to Keene at the age of 70. His daughters had managed to save the family home, a brick mansion on the corner of Main and Emerald.
In 1871, New Hampshire voters sent him to the state Legislature. Some said they did it to avoid the expense of supporting him in the poorhouse. He died on May 29, 1881, at the age of 85.
James Franklin Briggs gave him accolades after his death 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.
His daughter Lizzie had a clearer picture of his strengths and weaknesses.
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 questions. 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…
With thanks to Sisters of Fortune: Being the true story of how three motherless sisters saved their home in New England and raised their younger brother while their father went fortune hunting in the California Gold Rush by Nancy Coffey Heffernan and Ann Page Stecker. This story was updated in 2021.