A celebrated business owner and statesman with a keen sense of social responsibility, Thomas Mather made a name for himself as someone willing to put his own power and prestige on the line to advocate for policies that were morally right, even when they were politically unpopular.
Thomas Mather was born on April 24, 1795, in Simsbury, Connecticut. He was the eldest of five children born to Revolutionary War veteran William Mather and his wife, Anna Lewis, who were both lifelong residents of the picturesque New England town. Indeed, Thomas’s roots in New England were both deep and notable. He was the great-great-great-grandson of Increase Mather, the son of Puritan migrants from England who had sought out religious freedom in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Increase, who became an influential minister, served as president of Harvard University for two decades. His son, Cotton Mather, also became an important clergyman, writer, and scientist. Both Increase and Cotton became embroiled in the fervor surrounding the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, as religious writings by both men were thought to have influenced ministers to accuse men and women of practicing witchcraft. However, both also had a more wide-ranging legacy. Cotton’s scientific endeavors, for example, included important early advocacy for smallpox inoculation; his work on the topic earned him election to the prestigious Royal Society in London.
One nineteenth-century profile of Thomas notes that he inherited “much of the intellectual ability and integrity of character of his ancestors.” His family members described him as also having a “generous and kind” spirit. He spent his childhood in Connecticut before embarking on a mercantile career in New York in the 1810s. Later letters suggest that he may have worked in some capacity with another Manhattan-based merchant, Stephen B. Munn, who also originally hailed from Connecticut. Munn owned his own store on Pearl Street, selling dry goods. Following the War of 1812, Munn invested in land holdings in Illinois, then a territory on the western frontier. By the spring of 1818, Thomas took Munn’s example a step further, leaving the bustling business of New York behind for a new life in Randolph County, Illinois.
Thomas arrived in Kaskaskia at a point of great importance for the community. The town had served as the territorial capital for almost a decade, and when Thomas arrived there in 1818, it was poised to become the first capital of the new State of Illinois. Both Europeans and natives of the Kaskaskia tribe had lived in the community for more than a hundred years, and the area had a robust and growing economy, as well as a prized location with easy access to the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers. The concentration of political leaders made it a lucrative place for those seeking influence. In the early nineteenth-century, according to one historical chronicle, “a large floating population poured into the town. Immigration to Illinois had set in rapidly, and every new settler directed his course to Kaskaskia, from which point he explored the country and selected his location. From 1810 to 1820 the town probably contained more people than at any other period of its history.” And those people needed easy access to goods and merchandise.
For a young merchant like Thomas, the territory offered exceptional promise – but it also came with established competition. An 1883 history of the community noted that Kaskaskia’s “merchants carried on a heavy trade, and an air of bustle and activity pervaded the streets.” One of the most successful early mercantile businesses was run by William Morrison, who had opened a Kaskaskia branch of his uncle’s successful Philadelphia firm in 1790. Morrison’s store supplied goods to customers throughout the region, trading across the river in Ste. Genevieve, as well as St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, and New Madrid. Pierre Menard, a French-Canadian transplant who became Illinois’s first Lieutenant Governor, was also engaged in an extensive trading enterprise in the region. He and his business partner, Jean-Baptiste Valle of Ste. Genevieve, owned stock in the American Fur Company. They amassed an impressive amount of wealth by trading weapons and ammunition with tribes like the Shawnee and the Peoria in exchange for fur pelts.
Thomas quickly became integrated into the Kaskaskia community. He formed a business partnership with two Kaskaskian residents: Stacy B. Opdyke, a carpenter who had come to Illinois in 1816 from New Jersey by way of Kentucky, and Edmund Roberts, a fellow New Englander who had moved to Illinois in 1811. Shortly after Thomas’s arrival in Illinois, Edmund headed back east, where he married Susannah Lamb, part of a prominent Quaker family. When they newlyweds returned to Kaskaskia, they were accompanied by Susannah’s brother, James Lea Lamb, a merchant who had been trading in Cincinnati. He joined Thomas, Stacy, and Edmund in their mercantile partnership, which became known as Mather, Lamb, & Co.
As Thomas’s business prospects improved, he was also drawn to another prominent aspect of life in Kaskaskia: politics. In 1820, when he was twenty-five, he was elected to represent Randolph County in the Illinois General Assembly. He finished second in the election to Raphael Widen, a Swedish immigrant who served as a justice of the peace in the county; the top two vote-getters won the race to serve as state representatives. The unpredictable nature of the river in Kaskaskia had led the people of Illinois to seek out an alternate location for their state capital. A new town, Vandalia, was founded for the purpose, and Thomas was part of the first meeting of the General Assembly held there in December 1820. He was reelected to the position two years later, accompanying Widen and John McFerron as the state representatives from Randolph County. The 1822 session would be a divisive and important one. Following the narrow election of an abolitionist, Edward Coles, as governor, the pro-slavery faction in the state government attempted to call a convention to change the state’s constitution, with the aim of legalizing slavery in Illinois.
The question of slavery in Illinois was a complex one. A system of indentured servitude, which was essentially slavery in all but name, was already legal in the state. The “French slaves,” descendants of the enslaved people brought to Kaskaskia and the surrounding settlements by French colonialists, also continued to be legally enslaved. For those in favor of legalizing slavery in the state, however, these concessions weren’t good enough. They argued that the prohibition on slavery was damaging the economy of Illinois. Settlers heading west, they claimed, would bypass Illinois because slavery was not legal, choosing instead to put down roots in states like Missouri where slavery was the law of the land. Coles and his allies dismissed these arguments. According to historian David Ress, the anti-slavery faction pointed out that free states boasted higher land prices and better wages for workers: “Ask any man who moved from a slave state why he left … and he will tell you it was because it was impossible for free men to thrive by honest labor among slave holders and slaves.”
Over an eighteen-month period, the two factions battled to win over the opinion of the people, who would have to approve a referendum to call a constitutional convention. The majority of citizens of Randolph County held strong pro-slavery sentiments, including Thomas’s local colleagues in the legislature, State Representatives Raphael Widen and John McFerron and State Senator Samuel Crozier. In February 1823, Thomas made his stance on the issue clear, registering a vote against calling a convention and legalizing slavery. He was unbowed in his support of the abolitionist cause, serving publicly and conspicuously as a leader for the anti-convention faction in the General Assembly. But Thomas found himself in the minority; the measure passed, and a statewide referendum was scheduled for August 1824.
Throughout the state, pamphlets and newspapers disseminated both pro-slavery and anti-slavery views to prospective voters. Thomas joined with Henry Starr and Curtiss Blakeman on a committee to launch a new anti-slavery newspaper, the Edwardsville Spectator. Edited by Hooper Warren, the new newspaper was an attempt to counter pro-slavery propaganda published by most of the state’s press and supported by Randolph County residents like Elias Kent Kane, Shadrach Bond, and Ninian Edwards. Historian Norman Dwight Harris writes that the “opponents of the convention worked together in complete harmony. They displayed everywhere the greatest activity. Societies with secretaries of correspondence, and financial committees were organized in many counties,” including Madison, Monroe, and St. Clair — but not, unfortunately, in Thomas’s home, pro-slavery Randolph County. With the motto “No Convention and Freedom,” Harris adds, “every energy was devoted to the task of agitation,” often aided by local ministers and clergymen. Ultimately, he argues, the “chief strength of the opponents of the convention lay in the number of gifted writers and thinkers who enlisted in their cause. Many of the articles written by them were so exceedingly well conceived and so cleverly put that the Conventionalist writers were never able to controvert them.”
In the midst of the contentious climate of 1823, Thomas received a commission in the militia and recognition from Governor Coles. The governor, as commander-in-chief of the militia, named Thomas as one of his aides-de-camp. The position came with the rank of colonel, a title that Thomas would use for the rest of his life. The new Colonel Mather was at the heart of the political turmoil that embroiled both Vandalia and the entire state. Future governor John Reynolds, who was on the pro-convention side of the debate, remembered, “The convention question gave rise to two years of the most furious and boisterous excitement and contest that was ever visited on Illinois. Men, women and children entered the arena of party warfare and strife, and the families and neighborhoods were so divided, and furious and bitter against one another, that it seemed a regular civil war might be next.” A writer for the Alton Courier later reflected that the issue was “the most bitter contest which ever aroused the feelings of philanthropy and justice, as well as the worst passions of our nature in this state,” stating simply that the “dogs of political war were … let loose.” Inflamed opinions led to literal flames. In December 1823, the state house at Vandalia was burned to the ground.
Illinois voters, including those registered in Randolph County’s three precincts, went to the polls on August 2, 1824. As expected, a majority of the county’s voters – 357 of the 641 ballots cast – were in favor of the calling of a constitutional convention. (Only the precinct of Plum Creek, which included the abolitionist communities of Sparta and Eden, voted against calling a convention. More than two-thirds of the voters in that part of the county aligned with the anti-convention cause.) In the state as a whole, however, the picture was quite different. More than 11,000 ballots were cast statewide, and 57% voted against calling a new constitutional convention. The push to fully legalize slavery in Illinois ended with the vote, though efforts to abolish indentured servitude continued for decades more. The election of 1824 asked voters to consider not only the referendum but also the election of federal and state office holders. Though he was an outspoken abolitionist advocate living in a pro-slavery county, Thomas managed to win reelection to a third term as a state representative. Strong support from the abolitionists of Plum Creek helped Thomas to secure the post. The results were close, with only two votes separating Thomas from the next closest candidate, Samuel Walker. Both were elected, along with pro-slavery candidate Elias Kane, to serve in the state’s fourth general assembly. Thomas’s support for the anti-slavery and anti-convention cause also didn’t appear to have affected his relationships with his fellow representatives, as he was elected speaker of the house for the 1824-25 session.
In 1825, Thomas resigned his seat in the General Assembly. He had been appointed to a position that would take him away from Illinois for some time. In one of the final acts of his presidency, James Monroe had signed a bill authorizing an official survey of the Santa Fe Trail, a trading route that stretched across the western United States to Mexico. President John Quincy Adams took up the project following his inauguration, appointing three commissioners to carry out the survey. George C. Sibley, the factor of Fort Osage, and Benjamin H. Reeves, Missouri’s lieutenant governor, were the first two appointees. The third was Pierre Menard of Kaskaskia, whose knowledge of the fur trade industry and experience working with native tribes were significant qualifications for the job. But Menard turned down the appointment, citing prior business commitments. The Department of War (then home of the Bureau of Indian Affairs) turned to Thomas to take over as the third commissioner. He resigned from the Illinois legislature and prepared to head out on the mission, which involved not only platting and surveying the road itself but also making treaties with the native tribes whose lands were crossed by the trail. The selection of a commissioner from Kaskaskia was an appropriate one: William Morrison had been one of the first merchants to send a trader, Jean Baptiste LaLande, along the Trail. (LaLande, who was born in Ste. Genevieve, made the journey from Kaskaskia in 1804. When he arrived in Santa Fe, which was then Spanish territory, he was arrested and Morrison’s goods were confiscated.)
The commissioners assembled at Fort Osage on the Missouri River in July 1825 to begin their expedition. They were supported by an official government surveyor, Joseph C. Brown, and a secretary, Archibald Gamble of St. Louis, as well as several other men who helped with the business of piloting the wagon train, hunting for food, and interpreting. It was a massive undertaking. Historian James A. Crutchfield writes that the caravan that set out from Missouri included “seven baggage wagons, fifty-seven horses and mules, and forty men.” Thomas had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday, and he was accustomed to traveling regularly from Illinois to the east coast. But this adventure was something different, and his correspondence demonstrates his excitement for the challenge. The letters also show, however, that something else was on his mind.
In 1823, two new residents had arrived in Kaskaskia: the mother and sister of Thomas’s business partner, James L. Lamb. Susannah Gibson Lamb and her daughter, Hannah, had followed James and his sister, Susannah Roberts, from Pennsylvania, hoping to start a new life in Illinois after the death of their husband and father, George Lamb. Both James and Susannah had started families of their own; Susannah had given birth to her first son, George Lamb Roberts, and James had married Cincinnati native Susan Cranmer. Twenty-five-year-old Hannah, who was a devoted Quaker like her parents, appears to have adjusted effortlessly to her new life in Illinois. When the Marquis de Lafayette made his famous visit to Kaskaskia in April 1825, Hannah danced in a pair of satin slippers at a grand ball held in Lafayette’s honor in the home of William Morrison. But it wasn’t merely the social world of Kaskaskia that made Hannah so fond of her new home. By the summer of 1825, she found herself deeply in love with her brother’s business partner, Thomas Mather.
The expedition on the Santa Fe Trail delayed the couple’s courtship. As he was about to leave Fort Osage to head out on the trail, Thomas hastily wrote a letter to Hannah, which survives today in a collection of his papers at the Newberry Library. He told her that he was impressed by the other men who had been selected to travel alongside him, and added that “there is nothing in the prospect before me that gives me a single pang, except the consciousness that every day’s journey carries me further from those allied to me by the ties of kindred affection, and particularly from you my loveliest and dearest friend.” He warned her that it was possible that the expedition might be forced to spend the winter in Mexico – which would mean postponing their wedding until the summer of 1826. “Should this be the case,” he wrote, “the only consolation I should experience would be the conviction, that nothing short of doing all the duty I owe my government and country, would meet your approbation.” In Hannah, Thomas had found a partner who both shared and understood his keen sense of responsibility to others. He closed the letter, “Adieu then dearest girl, but remember that those anticipations which beguile the tediousness of my way, and strews my path with flowers, are those which you and you only can say shall be realised.”
The expedition began their journey on July 17, 1825. One of their first important stops came three weeks into the trip, when they held a summit with representatives of the Osage tribe, who signed a treaty granting safe passage future travelers on the trail in exchange for goods and credit. (The meeting would later be immortalized in the name of the town that developed on the site: Council Grove, Kansas.) The party later held a similar diplomatic meeting with members of the Kansas tribe. Throughout the commissioners’ journey, which took them through the present-day states of Missouri and Kansas, Thomas kept a detailed journal. The entries are full of descriptions of the natural world that he experienced: animals like bison, wild horses, prairie dogs, and wolves, tall grasses and sand hills, beautiful rivers and springs, and violent prairie thunderstorms. The lovesick explorer also at one point noted that he spent a day reading Cowper’s poems while encamped on the Kansas prairie. The party arrived at the Mexican border (then the Arkansas River) on September 11, 1825, having traveled a distance of 400 miles from Fort Osage. Without clear instructions from the government telling them whether or not to proceed into Mexican territory, the party decided to split up. George Sibley led a small band of men further along the route to Santa Fe, while Benjamin Reeves and Thomas returned with the rest of the group to Missouri.
By the late autumn of 1825, Thomas had returned to Illinois. His job as a commissioner wasn’t over, however; he had been tasked with traveling to Washington in January 1826 to deliver copies of the treaties that the expedition had negotiated with the native tribes along the trail. But before he could leave again, he returned to Kaskaskia, where he and Hannah were married on December 4, 1825. In Vandalia, only a few days into his journey to the nation’s capital, he paused to write a letter to his new wife, telling her to “be assured of the unceasing devotion of him who now for the first time subscribes himself your affectionate husband.” The official survey completed by the members of the expedition was submitted to the government in 1827, by which time the road they had marked was already in heavy use by merchants and traders.
When Thomas returned to Illinois, he ran again to reclaim his old seat in the state house. This time, however, Randolph County voters did not elect him. Thomas placed third in the August 1826 election, losing out to the two top vote-getters, Thomas Reynolds (who had previously served as chief justice of the state’s supreme court, and would later become governor of Missouri) and John Lacey (who had served as captain of the county’s militia). Thomas’s strongest support, once again, came from the abolitionist precinct of Plum Creek. Two years later, those voters returned Thomas to the General Assembly. He and John Lacey earned the top two places in the election, beating out Pierre Menard’s brother, Hypolite, and John Atkins for the seats. (When John Lacey died before the end of his term, Hypolite Menard was elected to fill the seat.) Though his political career was a significant part of his life, Thomas’s mercantile business was also a priority. The thriving firm of Menard, Lamb, & Co. expanded at the end of the 1820s. Their territory had broadened widely, with shipments of goods sent to ports as far as New Orleans. Thomas and his partners decided to expand into new parts of Randolph County as well. In 1828, they opened the first store in the emerging settlement of Steele’s Mills, which would later become Steeleville.
Next, the entrepreneurs turned their attention to a river landing near Kaskaskia. In 1829, Thomas and his brother-in-law, James Lamb, joined with Samuel Smith to purchase the land along the riverfront, which became known as Smith’s Landing. Eventually Smith’s wife, Jane, renamed the settlement after her English hometown: Chester. In his 1859 history of Randolph County, E.J. Montague wrote, “In the fall of 1829, Mather, Lamb, & Co. (then merchants of Kaskaskia) built a slaughterhouse [in Chester] for the purpose of slaughtering and packing the beef of the county, which was then plenty, and of good quality. In the same year Mr. S.B. Opdyke, representing the house of Mather, Lamb, & Co., built a storehouse and opened a stock of goods. A large warehouse was erected at the same time.” That warehouse, then just a single-story building located at the corner of Water and Wall Streets, was expanded into a three-story building at the end of the nineteenth-century. Over the years, it housed apartments, a boarding house, and a hotel. In 1953, the building became the Landmark Inn, and today, it is the home of the St. Nicholas Landmark, a brewpub and restaurant. Thomas and his business partners were some of the earliest founders of the town of Chester, transforming it from a landing along the river to a growing settlement of businesses and homes. In the spring of 1831, Samuel Smith laid out lots for purchase on his land below Wall Street, and lots were also offered on land owned above Wall Street by Mather, Lamb, & Co.
In August 1832, Thomas was elected to a new position: the state senator representing Randolph and Perry Counties. His senatorial term coincided with a period of rapid change for his life. After more than a decade living in Kaskaskia, the Mathers, the Lambs, and several of their business partners decided to relocate to the growing town of Springfield, which would shortly become the state capital. They shuttered their mercantile businesses in Randolph County in 1833 before moving north in 1835. Thomas resigned his senate seat after moving away from the county; he was replaced in a special election by a prominent early citizen of Chester, R.B. Servant. In Springfield, Mather, Lamb, & Co. was reorganized and reopened. Thomas diversified his business interests as well; he was named president of the newly-established State Bank of Illinois and invested in railroads, including the Northern Cross and the Illinois Central. Historian Wayne C. Temple writes that by this period of his life, Thomas “attained great wealth, to the point of having his portrait painted by the noted artist, George Peter Alexander Healy.”
Though Thomas and Hannah never had children of their own, they were a beloved part of their extended families. When circumstances required it, they even took in several of their nieces and nephews, treating them as adopted children. Federal census records reinforce the boisterous and blended nature of the Mather home in Springfield. In 1840, the couple’s household also included Hannah’s seventy-five-year-old mother, Susannah, as well as Hannah’s nephew and niece, Robert Pennell Lamb and Susan Lamb. They had come to live with the Mathers after the deaths of their parents (Robert was the only child of Hannah’s brother and sister-in-law, while Susan was the daughter of her brother and his late first wife) in the early 1830s. By 1850, three more nieces and nephews – George Lamb Roberts, Mary Roberts, and Thomas Cox Mather – were living with Thomas and Hannah. The Mathers were deeply invested in education, not only of their own family members but also of the entire populace. Temple notes that Thomas and Hannah funded expensive out-of-state university educations for both Robert Lamb and Thomas C. Mather. In 1839, Thomas and his business partners donated land in Chester for the construction of a new school. Thomas also served as a trustee and patron of Illinois College, and according to one early history of Sangamon County, he contributed “liberally toward the endowment of that and other institutions of learning.”
Thomas and Hannah flourished, becoming a part of a prominent circle of Springfield. Their group of friends grew to include Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. The Mathers and the Lambs, though they came from Congregationalist and Quaker backgrounds, had become Presbyterians, and they worshiped alongside the Lincolns at First Presbyterian Church in Springfield. Thomas and Hannah also became important social hosts at Mather Hill, welcoming in variety of notable visitors. One niece, Hannah Lamb Palmer, described Mather Hill as “a haven for the gathering of choice spirits.” In 1846, the Mathers welcomed Dorothea Dix, the famous social reformer and advocate for mental health reform. When Dix became ill during her visit, they hosted her for the winter while she recovered, and in 1847, Illinois voted to establish the state’s first mental hospital on her recommendation. Thomas’s progressive politics were reflected in the conversations shared at Mather Hill. Hannah Lamb Palmer remembers in particular that the topic of the Underground Railroad, which was supported throughout the state by the Mathers’ fellow Presbyterians, was a frequent topic of discussion in the house. A platform near the house, in a part of the estate called “Mather’s Grove,” drew a range of speakers, including the abolitionist Cassius Clay.
Thomas lived out the rest of his life in Springfield, but he never forgot his Randolph County roots. He continued to own property in the area, and in 1850, he was part of a large number of businessmen who helped to fund the construction of a new courthouse in Chester. Late in life, poor health forced him to retire from the day-to-day work of business, but he continued to work and travel. On a trip to Philadelphia in March 1853, Thomas died suddenly at the age of 57. His body was taken to his native Simsbury, Connecticut, where he was buried near his parents. Thomas 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.
Back in Springfield, Hannah Mather continued to live at the couple’s estate on Second Street in Springfield. But after Thomas’s death, the family property took on another life, appropriately becoming part of the state’s political legacy. After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, many in Springfield moved to acquire the Mather property as a location for an immense tomb and monument for the fallen president. A temporary vault was partially constructed, but Mary Todd Lincoln and her son, Robert Lincoln, intervened, selecting Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery as the president’s final burial site. Even so, the city had bigger plans for Mather Hill. In 1867, Hannah decided to leave Springfield for good, moving to Chicago to live with her niece and adopted daughter, Susan Lamb Roberts. She sold her home and the surrounding land to the state for $75,000. The Springfield land that had belonged to Colonel Thomas Mather, who spent years of his life working on behalf of the people of Illinois in their state government, became that government’s permanent home: the site of the sixth and current Illinois State Capitol Building.
Thomas Mather was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2020.