The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Thomas Mather, a celebrated business owner and statesman with a keen sense of social responsibility, will be inducted into the 2020 class of honorees.
Thomas Mather, a descendant of the famed New England family of ministers and scholars, was born in Connecticut in 1795. As a young man he moved to New York to embark on a mercantile career, partnering with a Manhattan-based merchant who had property interests in Illinois. Inspired, Thomas moved to Kaskaskia in 1818. The new state capital had a robust and growing economy, as well as a prized location with easy river access for shipping goods. For a young merchant like Thomas, the territory offered exceptional promise. He joined a mercantile community that already included William Morrison’s bustling dry goods firm and Pierre Menard’s fur trading enterprise. With three fellow eastern transplants, Stacy Opdyke, Edmund Roberts, and James Lea Lamb, Thomas established a new mercantile business, Mather, Lamb, & Co. The firm not only supplied goods locally but also sent merchandise as far as New Orleans.
Thomas was also drawn to another prominent aspect of life in Kaskaskia: politics. In 1820, he was elected to represent Randolph County in the Illinois General Assembly. He would go on to serve multiple terms as both a state representative and state senator, including a term as speaker of the house. In 1822, pro-slavery advocates attempted to call a constitutional convention, planning to fully legalize slavery in Illinois. Thomas was firmly allied with Governor Coles and the abolitionist faction that opposed a convention. He supported anti-slavery publications like the Edwardsville Spectator both publicly and financially, and he was a key leader for his cause in the General Assembly. In 1824, Illinois voters rejected a call for a constitutional convention, ultimately paving the way for the end of both slavery and indentured servitude in the state.
In 1825, Thomas resigned his seat in the state legislature to take on a new challenge. He was appointed by the Adams administration as one of three commissioners tasked with making an official survey of the Santa Fe Trail, a trading route that stretched across the western United States to Mexico. The commission journeyed through Missouri and Kansas, platting and surveying the road itself as well as making treaties with native tribes, like the Osage and the Kansas, whose lands were crossed by the trail. Thomas kept a detailed journal during the mission; the entries are full of wonder at the natural world he saw, including animals like bison, wild horses, prairie dogs, and wolves, tall grasses and sand hills, beautiful rivers and springs, and violent prairie thunderstorms.
After the survey was complete, Thomas returned home to Kaskaskia, where he married Hannah Gibson Lamb, the sister of one of his business partners. The mercantile firm thrived, opening a store in the new settlement of Steeleville and expanding to a river landing south of Kaskaskia. Thomas and his partners joined with Samuel Smith to purchase land along the Mississippi riverfront. Eventually Smith’s wife, Jane, named the new settlement after her English hometown: Chester. Along with a new store, Thomas’s firm constructed a warehouse at the corner of Wall and Water Streets. The building, which has since been expanded, now houses the St. Nicholas Landmark. Chester was important to Thomas throughout his life. In 1839, he donated land for the construction of a local school, and in the 1850s, he was part of the group that helped support the building of a new court house.
In 1835, Thomas and Hannah decided to leave Randolph County, moving to the up-and-coming city of Springfield. There, he diversified his business interests. He was named president of the newly-established State Bank of Illinois and invested in railroads. He also became a trustee of Illinois College. The Mathers’ circle of friends grew to include Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln; they worshiped alongside the future president and first lady at First Presbyterian Church in Springfield. Their home also became a social center, hosting dignitaries like social reformer Dorothea Dix amid the busy group of nieces and nephews that lived in the house.
Thomas died in 1853 during a business trip to Philadelphia. He was remembered for his impressive accomplishments in the field of business, his benefactions to his church and educational institutions, his love for his family, his strong abolitionist convictions, and his service to his government. After his death, the Mather property in Springfield was sold, initially as a possible burial site for President Lincoln. The land that had belonged to Thomas Mather, who spent years of his life working on behalf of the people of Illinois in their state government, ultimately became that government’s permanent home: the site of the sixth and current Illinois State Capitol Building.