1857: James William Denver to his Louis Catherine (Rombach) Denver

These letters were written by James William Denver (1817-1892), the son of Irish emigrant Patrick Denver, Jr. (1787-1858) and Jane Campbell (1794-1874) who lived in Winchester, Virginia, at the time of James’ birth but settled on a farm near Wilmington, Clinton county, Ohio, in the 1830s. Denver studied civil engineering, briefly taught school in Missouri, and then studied the law, graduating from the Cincinnati Law School in 1844. He practiced briefly in Xenia, Ohio, also purchasing and editing a newspaper, the Thomas Jefferson. In 1845, Denver returned to Missouri, where he practiced law at Platte City. In March 1847, he organized Co. H of Missouri’s Twelfth Infantry Regiment, serving as captain until the close of the Mexican War in July 1848.

James William Denver (1850s)

Not long after the war, Denver moved to California. He was elected to the State Senate in 1851 and appointed California State Secretary in 1852. In 1855, he was elected as a Democrat to the 34th US Congress as a representative from California, serving from March 4, 1855 – March 3, 1857. He was not a candidate for renomination in 1856. Rather, he returned to Ohio where he married Louise Catherine Romback in 1856 and not long after, on 17 April 1857, President James Buchanan appointed him as Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

On June 17, 1857, Denver was appointed by Buchanan as Secretary of the Kansas Territory. In December 1857 he was appointed as Territorial Governor. On the day that Denver assumed the territorial governorship, citizens in the territory voted on the Lecompton Constitution, which opened the territory to slavery. The vote offered a choice only between full slavery and limited slavery in the territory and was thus largely boycotted by Free-Staters who were in favor of abolishing slavery. The pro-slavery constitution passed by an overwhelming margin. Later it was discovered that several thousand votes were cast fraudulently by “Border Ruffians” who had crossed into the territory from Missouri in order to cast pro-slavery ballots (The vote was overturned by a subsequent election in August 1858, and Kansas was later admitted to the Union, in 1861, as a free state. See Bleeding Kansas for details.).

In November 1858, while Denver was still serving as territorial governor, William Larimer, Jr., a land speculator from Leavenworth, planted the townsite of “Denver City” along the South Platte River in Arapaho County in western Kansas Territory (the present-day state of Colorado). Larimer chose the name “Denver” to honor the current territorial governor with the intention that the city would be chosen as the county seat of Arapaho County.

Denver retired as territorial governor in November 1858 and was reappointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs, serving until his resignation on March 31, 1859.

A few months after the start of the American Civil War in early 1861, President Abraham Lincoln commissioned Denver a brigadier general in the volunteer army on August 14. In November 1861, he was ordered to report to Fort Scott in Kansas and in December, he assumed command of all Federal troops in Kansas. During March and April 1862 he commanded the District of Kansas until he was transferred to the District of West Tennessee. On May 16, 1862, Denver assumed command of the 3rd Brigade/5th Division under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman in the midst of the Siege of Corinth. The very next day Denver’s brigade participated in the fight for Russell’s House. Though his brigade suffered no casualties in this engagement it was nonetheless one of the two brigades leading the attack. On May 27 General Sherman again selected Denver’s brigade to be one of the leading units in an attack against the Double Log House. Denver and Morgan L. Smith’s brigade successfully stormed the log cabin turned block house. During this engagement Major General Ulysses S. Grant was present on the battlefield and indicated his approval of the handsome manner in which the troops behaved. After the fall of Corinth Denver continued in command of his brigade, serving on garrison duty in Mississippi. During the early stages of the Vicksburg Campaign Denver was in command of the 1st Division, XVI Corps, until his resignation from the Union Army on March 5, 1863.”

Letter 1

This letter was written just nine days after President James Buchanan appointed Denver as Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Addressed to Mrs. L. C. [Louise Catherine] Denver, Wilmington, Ohio

April 26, 1857

My Dear Wife,

Another Sunday is here—a bright, clear, cheerful Sunday, not like the last which was a dirty, wet, murky day, making one feel dreary even to look out into the streets. For two or three days we have had delightful weather—bright and balmy.

I have changed my quarters and taken rooms on 9th Street just below E Street—No. 464—over Willner’s upholstery establishment. They are elegantly furnished with almost a superabundance of furniture (including a piano) and a nice little bath room attached to the bed room. I don’t know whether you will like them, for as yet I have made no arrangements about board but understand that it can be had furnished at the rooms from restaurants in the neighborhood for $4.50 to $5.00 per week. I pay $25 per month for the rooms. Cheap.

I have had several “talks” with my “red children” and you would be amused to see with what gravity I can sit and listen to a long speech from a denizen of the western wilds in which he always addresses me as “Father” and speaks of the President of the United States as his “Great Father.” When you come on here I’ll try to arrange it so as to let you be present at one of these “talks,” and thereby let them see their “little mother.” Now don’t you like that idea?

Delegation Of Kaw (Kansas) Native Americans At Conference With The Commissioner Of Indian Affairs George W. Manypenny Under President James Buchanan At Washington DC March 1857—just weeks before Denver became the Commissioner.

I saw Edgar Peebles yesterday. He brought the latest intelligence from you, as I was disappointed about getting a letter today. He said that “some Democrats” in Wilmington [Ohio] thought that [James] Steedman 1 ought to have been appointed Commissioner [of Indian Affairs] and didn’t know what entitled me to it. He wouldn’t tell me who said so, or said he would rather not; and as it was a matter of mere curiosity on my part, I did not press it. No doubt, however, but it was some of those who were so exceedingly interested in your welfare. What is it that envy and unmeaning malice engendered without cause will not do. Not one of those persons who have been spitting out their spleen and venom at me whenever an opportunity has presented itself, has the slightest positive cause to complain of my conduct towards them. With several of them I never had more than a passing acquaintance and no intercourse further than that acquaintance would permit, never interfered with them in any way, socially, politically, or pecuniarily, and yet they seem stung to the quick whenever they hear of any good fortune falling to my share, and can’t help giving expression to their displeasure. Now there is one thing very certain, and that is that the Almighty will alter none of His decrees because they don’t suit these creatures, and if He wills that I shall have fortune, fame and happiness, it will be very difficult for them to change His determination. Thus far through life I managed to do without them and with the blessing of God, I will continue so to do, and I cannot but return thanks to that Providence which directing my footsteps abroad carried me beyond the reach of their influences, however trifling they may be.

But enough of this. Even the contemplation of such themes is calculated to disgust our natures.

Miss [Jennie] Holman is still here but expects to leave on the 1st prox. for Texas in company with Com[mander Edwin Ward] Moore, late of the [Republic of] Texas Navy, an old friend of her father’s. Her Campbell speculation [romance] is understood to have bursted up and vanished in smoke. She seems to have taken a fancy of late to the handsome Gen. Rust of California.

Mr. and Mrs. Walworth are holding on as usual. Just the same—half laughing, half sneering, dissatisfied air, on her part, and the chuckling laugh, uncertain expression, and semi-genteel language on his part. Mr. and Mrs. Fuller are as usual. She has been all over the City to find rooms but can’t please herself & he doubts whether it is better to —-“give up present ills and fly to those we wot not of” 2 or not, and therefore is inclined to stay at the Kirkwood. Your friend Ross Fish has gone to Minnesota. Gen. Anderson (Von Alderson) is here and has been very kind and clever, as know he always is.

Well, I must wind up. Give my love to all relatives, and do try and write oftener. It is horrible to be so long without a letter from you. Believe me as ever your own, — Will

Mad Lupton & J. Campbell will be out West this spring, they say. Doubtful.

1 James Steedman was an Ohio businessman, editor and politician who, like Denver, sought a political patronage job from the Buchanan Administration. He was given the post of Public Printer of the United States instead of Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

2 Denver has paraphrased a line from Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1 which reads:
“And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?”

Native American (Ponca, Pawnee, Potawatomi, and Sac & Fox) men pose with white men near the White House in Washington, D. C. The Native American men wear leggings, blankets, bead necklaces, fur pelts, hats, feather roaches, and headdresses. 31 December 1857 (Digital Collections, Denver Public Library)

Letter 2

Addressed to Mrs. L. C. Denver, Wilmington, Ohio

May 3rd 1857

My Dear Wife,

The cheerful tone of your letter of the 28th ult. pleases me very much. I hope and trust that will be ever thus. A light heart and cheerful disposition makes life a perennial springtime. There is nothing like it. Keep up your sprits ever thus and besides being the pride of my life, you will be my light also—the polar star of my existence.

Louise Catherine (Rombach) Denver—“the polar star of my existence,” J. W. Denver

O Lou! how lonely I feel here at times without you! Were we only together, how much more pleasantly would the time pass away. Still I have no great reason to complain of fortune, but ought rather to be thankful for the great boon she has vouchsafed to me in making you mine for life. To know this, it is easy to imagine a good angel always hovering near me, giving warning of besetting dangers and urging me on to greater usefulness, and then to dream of the bright approving smiles of her I love so well. And though distant, I doubt not but they are as sweet and as kind as though present and palpable to my vision. Well, well, what must be, I suppose, must be, and we must grin and bear it; but I wish you were here, and not the subject of mere dreams and imaginings.

Lowell Daily Citizen & News, 4 May 1857

We have great times on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. For a long time past, merchandise has been lost along the line, by being thrown out of the cars while under way, some of the confederates being ready to pitch them up and sell them. To put a stop to this, the Directors ordered the cars when loaded to be sealed up and not to be opened until they should arrive at the place of destination. The conductors took offense and said that this was a reflection on them, quit the trains and would not let anybody else take their places. In order to prevent this, they attacked the trains passing Ellicott’s Mills and succeeded in turning back all but one. Today it was rumored that the Plug Uglies had possession of the track between Baltimore and the Relay House, but this is hardly so as a train has, I am told, arrived here this evening. This is a very extraordinary affair as it is in fact an effort to give greater license to stealing, and from the way they have acted, there is not much doubt but the conductors were engaged in the plundering.

Judge [Stephen A.] Douglass intends leaving here with his family tomorrow. Nat Cartmell was here on Friday. He said they were all well in Virginia except cousin John Lupton who was convalescing. Tell your father I will keep him posted, and tell your mother to keep you at work—if she can. My love to all. Goodnight. God bless you, my own dear Lou. Adieu. — Will

Letter 3

Addressed to Mrs. L. C. Denver, Wilmington, Ohio

May 18, 1857

My Gentle Love,

To hear from you thus twice a week is something, but a tiny sheet half filled so neat might be improved in one thing. My little wife is all my life and charming is she ever, but if she’d tried a sheet more wide and filled it, t’would been more clever. And then each day if she’s wiled away an hour or so at writing of what she’s read and what she’s said, I’d think it worth indicting.

James William Denver

You think I date the hour late to excuse myself for haste, but you mistake for I try to make the most of time, not waste. The crowd will come and each one some important matter must talk about, his case is pressing—“it’s very distressing to be compelled to walk about, depending on others, while children and mothers are looking to him for bread to eat—and hotel bills to pay, which every day runs up an account that’s hard to beat. I passed through that mill and you know it will ruffle the temper of any man, to say nothing about the undisguised pout t’will put on the phiz. of sweet woman. So I think it but right to let them off light so far as regarding their pocket, for to keep them tied up when they can’t dine or sup, is to injure and then laugh and mock at. Thus I listen to all whenever they call and strive to remove all their troubles, in or out of time—from every clime—just or unjust, real claims or but bubbles. This being the case, with what kind of grace can you blame me for acting so promptly? and that in a wee letter of two pages of matter. Can you doubt that I write you correctly?

I’ve been stopped here again by some half dozen men, and among them is Michael Delaney. He wants me to dine—“but himself, wife and wine,” and excuses—he will not take any.

Well, dinner completed, in the porch we were seated and puffed at cigars for an hour, then taking a walk, with smoking and talk, I am back here and writing at four. Mrs. Delaney sends her love to my “sweet little dove,” and said she’d “a long yarn to tell her, if she’s ever come back, nor too far fly the track from the home of her disconsolate lover.”

Goodbye, fr the day is waning away, and my paper comes out about even. May you rest well tonight. May God bless you and light your steps soft through life up to Heaven. One more adieu! my own dear Lou, and believe me still as ever your, — Will

Letter 4

Addressed to Mrs. L. C. Denver, Wilmington, Ohio

June 21st 1857

My Dearest Son,

I was sadly disappointed at not receiving a letter from you yesterday or today. So sure was I of getting one that I ordered the mail to be brought to my room this (Sunday) morning, but it did not come and so I had to console myself with the supposition that you hadn’t time. Was I right?

The Kirkwood House was a five-story hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue at 12th Street in WDC.

Today we have had a terrible hail storm. All the uncovered windows fronting the west were smashed. Kirkwood’s [Hotel] 1 had upwards of eighty panes broken, while those elegant hot houses you have seen are all in ruins. That one on the corner of thirteenth and E streets had every glass broken, and the one near the Treasury Building has only three left whole. I have not heard from Corcoran’s or the public gardens, but no doubt they have fared as bad. I was in Kirkwood’s parlor at the time the storm came up and so sudden was it that I did not have time to close the shutters at the west end of the room, I then contented myself with holding the shade down so as to keep the hail and rain out of the room, the glass being smashed in almost no time. While doing so, my hand was a good deal pelted and some of the hailstones were driven entirely through the window shade. A great many of the stones were as large as the egg of a Guinea hen, and the ground was literally covered with ice when the storm ceased. The leaves were broken off the trees until the sidewalks at a little distance looked as green as a grassy lawn. Great was the feast after the rain passed over in the shape of mint juleps—hail being substituted instead of ordinary ice. The storm must have been very destructive to crops.

Yesterday commenced quite an adventure. Walking down the street after dinner, I met Maj. Holman who detained me about an hour relating the troubles and difficulties he had o get rid of Campbell. It seems that he and Miss Jennie had never broken their engagement, but would meet occasionally and talk matters over. They were discovered by Brewster, whom you may recollect, who Miss. J. says, got his information from Mrs. W—th, and her father was told of it. He immediately kicked up the very Old Harry—begged, plead, wept, and went down on his knees to Campbell and prayed him to give up his child. This Campbell would not agree to do, and then the old man said that he would rather go dishonored to the grave than see his daughter married to such a man, and that before such a thing should happen, he would kill him, believing as he did that even if he “should be hung for it, God Almighty would say it was well done,” and that he would do his duty. This brought matters to a crisis and Miss J. at last very reluctantly dismissed him, but it was a sore trial for her.

In conversation with her father yesterday, I incidentally remarked on Campbell’s popularity with the ladies and mentioned that I had heard of him waiting on other ladies. This he seems to have thought quite a point, and told her that I could tell her something, and told me that she desired to see me. After dinner today, I met her in the parlor when she asked me what I had to say to her. This rather took me aback, but a few words satisfied me as to how the matter stood, and repeated what I had said to her father, which was in fact not at all discreditable to Campbell. She then told me her side of the story and also that she had dismissed him this morning. It was a very hard thing for her to do and she felt it most keenly. During the interview she shed many tears, and, I tell you Lou, I could not help but pity her. However, the best I could do for her was to offer consolation, and before leaving got her to laughing, when she said she intended to treat the affair as philosophically as she could, and that a person might as well laugh as cry. I commended her philosophy and took my leave, satisfied that there was no immediate danger to life from steel, poison, hemp, gunpowder, drowning, or by catching cold. She urged me strongly to call again before they leave (Tuesday morning) for se said it was a great relief to have someone in whom she could confide.

Now what do you think of that? Don’t you think it rather dangerous times when I become the confidante of a beautiful young lady? No, I know you don’t, for you well know there is but one Lou.

I have been quite unwell all the past week since arriving here, being scarcely able to walk through the day, and able to sleep only when propped up in a sitting posture at night. Today I feel much better and will probably be well tomorrow. My illness was not at all serious but very painful, brought on by fatigue—my walk, mentioned in my last, proving anything but pleasant in its results.

I suppose your father has returned by this time and is expecting to hear from me. The business we were speaking of will not be ready for three or four weeks and it may be some longer. Land Warrants are down to 91 c. and as I gave 95, I don’t like to sell just now, but will arrange matters in time for him. Let me know the result of his Indiana trip.

How is Josephine? How are all the rest? My love to all and believe me as ever. Your Will.

Letter 5

Addressed to Mrs. L. C. Denver, Wilmington, Ohio

August 2nd 1857

My Dear Wife,

Since writing to you last, I have had quite a lively time of it. I caught one of the government officials in the act of appropriating some four thousand dollars to his own use and it became necessary to act with the rapidity of thought to intercept his operations. Every conceivable means had to be called into requisition and the excitement and anxiety of mind made me so nervous that I can hardly write sufficiently legible for you to decipher it. However, I succeeded in checkmating them so far as the money was concerned and then send off a messenger (Delaney) after him post haste and hope to have him back in a day or two. The scoundrel gave me a great fright for I have a pride to keep the affairs of my office in a good condition and protecting the government from losses.

There is but little of news here that would interest you unless it is the wedding which madame rumor says is soon to take place—Miss Holman to the man who wrote her down his “sister.” A short time since I did not think it would ever happen, but what I saw today satisfies me that it will. Well, I suppose she thinks she will have to marry some time or other, and that the sooner she gets at it, the better. But don’t you think it is a sudden transfer of affection? She told me one day in a most doleful mood that she had dismissed Campbell but that she could never think as much of another. I told her I thought she was mistaken, but she said no, she was sure she never could. That was only a few weeks ago. Now I think there is no doubt but that she is engaged to this M. D. and I believe that he is the same person who she so much delighted to annoy last winter by exciting his jealousy. Well, woman is a strange and incomprehensible being. There is no such thing as accounting for her likes and dislikes, her freaks and eccentricities—which way she’ll turn or what she’ll do.

I have now (August 3rd) merely time to request you to inform your father that all things are nearly closed up here in relation to the business I mentioned to him and will most likely be finished tomorrow. Thereforre, he has no time to spare in getting ready for his trip.

I presume that some time this week I will be able to know something about my western trip. As soon as ascertained, I will inform you.

Yours truly, — Will

P. S. I have just received yours of the 30th ult. All you say Lou is true. Forgive me for anything I have written that has made you feel unpleasantly and forget that it was ever written. Won’t you do so? Enjoy yourself as much as you can. I did very wrong to write at all when in such an unhappy mood, but it is all over now. Won’t you forgive me? — W

Front of the Rombach Place (now the Clinton County Historical Museum), located at 149 E. Locust Street (U.S. Route 22/State Route 3) in WilmingtonOhioUnited States. Built in 1831, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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