When I say “pioneers,” what picture comes to mind? The Oregon Trail? Covered wagons on a dusty plain? Maybe it’s an old and equally dusty western movie? Well — what about Illinois?
Maybe you’re like me and learned your earliest history in an Oregon schoolhouse. That’s where Lewis and Clark were the heroes, Sacagawea was a queen, and we were told to be very proud of our ancestor pioneers — pioneers who braved it all to settle in the West.
Imagine my surprise, while visiting along the Mississippi River a couple of summers ago, to hear a museum docent at the Black Hawk State Historic Site in Illinois say, “When our pioneer settlers arrived here in the 1820s … .” But, of course! How could I be so blind? They had pioneers, too.
At the museum, I learned more about the Black Hawk War than I ever had. I also saw the death mask of Chief Black Hawk, the Sauk leader, who led the fight against white settlers who were taking tribal land and forcing Black Hawk’s people west across the Mississippi.
Returning home, I discovered one person resting in the Jacksonville Cemetery who had been a volunteer soldier in that war, and eventually he came to Oregon.
Daniel Newcomb was born in Kentucky in 1804 and, as a young man, moved to what would become Decatur, Illinois. At the outbreak of the Black Hawk War in 1832, Daniel volunteered as a mounted ranger with Captain William Warnick’s company. Warnick was friends with Abraham Lincoln, who was a captain of another volunteer company. Neither company ever fought with the Indians.
In 1846, Daniel again volunteered to fight, this time in the Mexican War. He was elected captain of a company in the 4th Illinois Regiment of volunteers. The regiment’s commander was Col. Edward Baker, also a close friend of Lincoln who, in 1860, would become one of Oregon’s senators. Baker successfully led his regiments against the Mexican Army, first at the coastal city of Veracruz and then at Cerro Gordo. It was the first direct clash between Mexican General Santa Ana and the American forces.
In 1852, Daniel left Illinois for Oregon, leading a wagon train over the Applegate Trail. His granddaughter said Indians attacked the caravan and Daniel negotiated a truce, believing “he was crossing their territory and should pay his way with cattle instead of fighting.” That gesture didn’t stop Daniel from fighting in the 1855 Rogue River Indian War. He had moved from the Corvallis area to Southern Oregon in 1853.
With Oregon statehood approaching in 1859, Daniel was part of the delegation from Southern Oregon to the Constitutional Convention. There he voted for slavery for Oregon. He had to strongly deny rumors at home that he actually favored a Free State. Oregon voters refused slavery, but banned free blacks from living in the state.
In quick succession, Daniel was appointed State Brigadier General and also Indian agent at the Siletz Reservation, but with the election of Abraham Lincoln, Daniel, a Democrat, lost both positions. He returned to private life with his large family, living near Williams.
After losing his wife at the end of 1863, his health began to decline. In March 1867, pioneer Daniel Newcomb died.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,”a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or WilliamMMiller.com.