History is a little like a panther. A totally awesome panther that leaps out at you from the most unexpected places and mauls you with mad knowledge.
I was attacked by the history panther this past weekend when I visited Prettybird in Carrollton, Missouri. Being a rural Midwestern town, there’s only a handful of people who have ever heard of it that don’t currently live in Carrollton. But if the courthouse and the grand old buildings of the town square are any indication, Carrollton was once a hoppin’ burg. It is also the resting place of a very interesting character in American history.
James Shields was born in Ireland in 1810 and immigrated to the United States in 1826. He originally settled in Kaskaskia, Illinois. (Kaskaskia has an interesting history, too. It was actually the original capitol of Illinois but held that status for only a year after gaining statehood in 1818. In 1881, the town was devastated by flooding from the Mississippi River and was effectively cut off from the Illinois “mainland.” Thus, while it is technically still Illinois territory, the 14 residents of the village have Missouri zip and area codes, but vote in Illinois elections.) Shields studied law in Illinois and served in the state’s House of Representatives and sat as a state Supreme Court justice.
In 1842, while Shields was on his third job as State Auditor, he challenged fellow lawyer Abraham Lincoln to a duel over a series of inflammatory letters that Abe had supposedly published in the Springfield newspaper. Meeting on a small island near Alton, Illinois, the two were all set to slash each other to death with swords, but it turned out that Lincoln’s fiancee Mary Todd had actually written the letters, and her future husband was only there defending her honor. The duelists’ seconds intervened and cooler heads prevailed, leaving Lincoln unscathed for his destiny.
Shields would later count the 16th President as a good friend, but that was far from his only claim to fame. In 1846, he started his military career and served under Zachary Taylor in the Mexican-American War and was wounded twice. After the war, he was nominated to serve as Governor of the Oregon Territory, but declined the position so he could run for Senator of Illinois. He was elected, but he hadn’t been a naturalized citizen long enough, so the results were thrown out. Oddly enough, he ended up winning the special election held to replace…himself.
Following a defeat in 1855, Shields moved to Minnesota and was eventually elected Senator of that state and served four years. When the Civil War reared its ugly head, General Shields again rode off to battle. His army inflicted the only strategic defeat that “Stonewall” Jackson ever suffered at the Battle of Kernstown, but Shields was again wounded and his performance in the overall campaign was so dreadful that he resigned his commission.
Shields then bounced around between California, Mexico, and Wisconsin before finally settling in Carrollton, Missouri in 1866. He became railroad commissioner and a member of the state’s House of Representatives. In 1879 he served the rest of a dead Missouri senator’s term but declined to run for re-election when his three months were up. Shields remains the only person to serve as a senator from three different states. He died later that year and his remains were laid to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Carrollton.
So! I hope you’ve enjoyed being savagely attacked by history. And if you’re wondering how you can prevent Random History Encounters…you can’t. There is history in every tree, perched on every limb, waiting to strike at the slightest provocation! So gird your fucking loins, Sally.