Don’t let Iowa’s remarkable connection to Abraham Lincoln’s family fade

May 21, 2023 9:00 am

The Harlan-Lincoln House Museum is on the campus of the soon-to-close Iowa Wesleyan University in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. (Photo courtesy of the Harlan-Lincoln House)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.My father grew up in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. He was very proud of that.

I vividly remember the day back in the early 1960s when we were driving there to visit family, and he told me something about his hometown I literally could not believe.

It was the summer between my third and fourth grade years. At that age, most kids believe everything their parents tell them. I believed in Santa Claus with all my heart — because my dad and mom said he was real. The same with the Easter bunny.

But what he told me in the car that day, I just could not believe. It was too fantastic.

He told me Abraham Lincoln’s grandkids grew up in Mt. Pleasant, my dad’s home town.

Santa and the Easter bunny I could buy.

Abraham Lincoln’s grandkids growing up in Iowa — in my dad’s hometown, Mt. Pleasant, no less? No. There was no way that could be right.

I knew then as much about Abraham Lincoln as any grade school kid knew about him. So I asked my dad, “You mean Illinois, right? Wasn’t Lincoln from Illinois?”

“No, I don’t mean Illinois. I mean Mt. Pleasant,” my dad replied. “Yes, Lincoln was from Illinois. But his grandkids grew up in Mt. Pleasant. Lincoln’s grandchildren used to spend the summers there, with their other grandparents, the Harlans, who were from Mt. Pleasant.”

I remember on that same drive seeing a billboard on the side of the highway that advertised a hotel in Mt. Pleasant. It tried to lure travelers by boasting that it had an “Electric Elevator!”

Surely, I thought, if Lincoln’s grandkids grew up in Mt. Pleasant, the town would be advertising that fact, rather than that it had a hotel with an “Electric Elevator!”

For the first in my young life, I simply smiled and nodded at my dad. And wondered where he ever got that crazy idea.

But my dad was right.

Lincoln’s son — Robert Todd Lincoln — had married an Iowa girl.

Her name was Mary Eunice Harlan. She was the daughter of Iowa’s U.S. Sen. James Harlan and his wife, Ann Harlan. The senator was a close friend and political ally of President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln chose him to be his secretary of the Interior during his second term, but was assassinated before Harlan could begin serving in the post. He served a year as secretary of Interior under Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson.

Robert Todd Lincoln met Mary Harlan through the friendship of their fathers. Robert Todd Lincoln, in fact, escorted Mary Harlan to Lincoln’s inaugural ball, while Sen. Harlan escorted Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, to the same event, an arrangement that allowed the new president to spend more time greeting those who had come to celebrate his inauguration.

Sen. Harlan had deep ties to Iowa Wesleyan University, and through him, so did the next two generations of Lincolns who followed President Lincoln.

Iowa Wesleyan University — as an institution — was established in 1842. That’s four years before Iowa became a state. It is Iowa’s first co-ed institution of higher learning. It has operated under at least two other names since its founding, but since 1912 has been known as Iowa Wesleyan College. It 2016, it became Iowa Wesleyan University.

The university announced in March that it is closing. There are many reasons to mourn its passing. One of them is that it has carried forward over the decades the story of the remarkable connection the institution — and Iowa — has with the family of President Abraham Lincoln.

James Harlan’s service at the school began in 1855 and continued with frequent interruptions for public service — as Iowa’s U.S. senator, U.S. secretary of the Interior, and other posts — until his death in 1899. He served as president of the Mt. Pleasant school and in his later years served as a trustee of the school.

He always maintained his home in Mt. Pleasant.

With his daughter’s marriage to Robert Todd Lincoln, the history of the two families, the Lincolns of Illinois and the Harlans of Iowa — and the school in Mt. Pleasant — became linked and intertwined.

Robert Todd Lincoln and Mary Harlan Lincoln moved to Chicago, where Robert began building a very successful career as a lawyer, also frequently interrupted by periods of public service, including service in the cabinets of two presidents, and as the U.S. minister to the United Kingdom for two more presidents.

Robert Lincoln’s wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln, and their three children — daughters Mamie and Jessie Lincoln, and son Abraham (Jack) Lincoln II — used to travel from Chicago to Mt. Pleasant to spend their summers with her parents. Mt. Pleasant was a small town, much quieter, a lot more kid friendly — and a lot cooler — than big city Chicago in the summer.

My dad had been exactly right. Lincoln’s grandkids did spend their summers in his hometown, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. They did grow up in the same town he did.

After the July 1882 death of former first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, many of her personal belongings — including her large collection of dresses and gowns — wound up in trunks stored in the attic of the home in Mt. Pleasant as Robert, President Lincoln’s only child to survive to adulthood, and his wife worked to disperse and settle her estate.

Robert and Mary’s younger daughter, Jessie Lincoln, deepened the family’s ties with Iowa, with Iowa Wesleyan and with Mt. Pleasant. She fell in love with the Mt. Pleasant school’s star football player, Warren Beckwith. Her parents strongly objected to the match.

Jessie and Warren wanted to marry. Robert and Mary Lincoln said no.

So, in November 1897, Jessie simply told her mother she was going shopping with friends. Instead, she met up with Beckwith. They went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and were married there on Nov. 10, 1897.

They had eloped.

Miss Lincoln — now Mrs. Beckwith — was 22. Her husband was 23.

The elopement was huge national news, covered even by the New York Times, which noted in its headline that the Lincoln parents did not approve. The Times even sent a reporter to cover one of Warren Beckwith’s football games in Mt. Pleasant. People across the country clamored to know: who is this fellow Beckwith who just eloped with President Lincoln’s granddaughter?

The marriage lasted 10 years, until 1907, when the couple divorced after a rocky road that included at least two separations before the end.

Jessie moved her belongings into the Mt. Pleasant home, and moved back in with her parents in Chicago.

Eventually, Mary Harlan Lincoln donated the Mt. Pleasant house to the college.

The house Sen. Harlan and his family called home, as did the next two generations of Harlans and Lincolns, at least during the summer, served for a number of years as the home for the college’s presidents.

It now serves as a museum which documents the time the Harlans lived there, as well as the time President Lincoln’s son and daughter-in-law, and grandkids summered there. One of the artifacts at the museum is a door with markings on it measuring the heights of President Lincoln’s and Sen. Harlan’s grandchildren in 1883.

As Iowa Wesleyan University begins the process of shutting its doors and fading from the Iowa landscape, part of the public memory of its connection — and Iowa’s — to the family of Abraham Lincoln, arguably America’s greatest president, will likely dim a bit with it.

It’s worth remembering that story once captured the fevered attention of the entire nation, and years later still seemed so amazing that a kid who ardently believed in Santa Claus and the Easter bunny because his parents told him to — couldn’t believe what actually happened there when his own dad told him the story.

It’s a story worth working to keep present and fresh among us.

I hope folks find a way to do that.

This column was originally published by Barry Piatt on Politics: -Behind the Curtain. It is republished here via the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Barry Piatt
Barry Piatt

Barry Piatt has had a front row seat for state and national government and politics for over 50 years, working first as a political reporter in Iowa, and later as a senior advisor for members of the U.S. House and Senate and candidates for U.S. president. His blog, Barry Piatt on Politics: -Behind the Curtain, is on Substack.