WILLIAM LEE D. EWING, Governor of Illinois Nov. 3, to 17,
1834, was a native of Kentucky, and probably of Scotch ancestry. He had a fine
education, was a gentleman of polished manners and refined sentiment. In 1830
John Reynolds was elected Governor of the State, and Zadok Casey Lieutenant
Governor, and for the principal events that followed, and the characteristics of
the times, see sketch of Gov. Reynolds. The first we see in history concerning
Mr. Ewing, informs us that he was a Receiver of Public Moneys at Vandalia soon
after the organization of this State, and that the public moneys in his hands
were deposited in various banks, as they are usually at the present day. In 1823
the State Bank was robbed, by which disaster Mr. Ewing lost a thousand dollar
The subject of this sketch had a commission as Colonel in the Black Hawk War,
and in emergencies he acted also as Major. In the summer of 1832, when it was
rumored among the whites that Black Hawk and his men had encamped somewhere on
Rock River, Gen. Henry was sent on a tour of reconnaissance, and with orders to
drive the Indians from the State. After some opposition from his subordinate
officers, Henry resolved to proceed up Rock River in search of the enemy. On the
19th of July, early in the morning, five baggage wagons, camp equipage and all
heavy and cumbersome articles were piled up and left, so that the army might
make speedy and forced marches. For some miles the travel was exceedingly bad,
crossing swamps and the worst thickets; but the large, fresh trail gave life and
animation to the Americans. Gen. Dodge and Col. Ewing were both acting as
Majors, and composed the “spy corps” or vanguard of the army. It is supposed the
army marched nearly 50 miles this day, and the Indian trail they followed became
fresher, and was strewed with much property and trinkets of the red-skins that
they had lost or thrown away to hasten their march. During the following night
there was a terrific thunder-storm, and the soldiery, with all their
appurtenances, were thoroughly drenched.
On approaching nearer the Indians the next day, Gen. Dodge and Major Ewing, each
commanding a battalion of men, were placed in front to bring on the battle, but
the savages were not overtaken this day. Forced marches were continued until
they reached, Wisconsin River, where a veritable battle ensued, resulting in the
death of about 68 of Black Hawk’s men. The next day they continued the chase,
and as soon as he discovered the trail of the Indians leading toward the
Mississippi, Maj. Ewing formed his battalion in order of battle and awaited the
order of Gen. Henry. The latter soon appeared on the ground and ordered a
charge, which directly resulted in chasing the red warriors across the great
river. Maj. Ewing and his command proved particularly efficient in war, as it
seems they were the chief actors in driving the main body of the Sacs and Foxes,
including Black Hawk himself, across the Mississippi, while Gen. Atkinson,
commander-in-chief of the expedition, with a body of the army, was hunting for
them in another direction.
In the above affair Maj. Ewing is often referred to as a “General,” which title
he had derived from his connection with the militia.
It was in the latter part of the same year (1832) that Lieutenant Governor Casey
was elected to Congress and Gen. Ewing, who had been elected to the Senate, was
chosen to preside over that body. At the August election of 1834, Gov. Reynolds
was also elected to Congress, more than a year ahead of the time at which he
could actually take his seat, as was then the law. His predecessor, Charles
Slade, had just died of Asiatic cholera, soon after the election, and Gov.
Reynolds was chosen to serve out his unexpired term. Accordingly he set out for
Washington in November of that year to take his seat in Congress, and Gen.
Ewing, by virtue of his office as President of the Senate, became Governor of
the State of Illinois, his term covering only a period of 15 days, namely, from
the 3d to the 17th days, inclusive, of November. On the 17th the Legislature
met, and Gov. Ewing transmitted to that body his message, giving a statement of
the condition of the affairs of the State at that time, and urging a continuance
of the policy adopted by his predecessor; and on the same day Governor elect
Joseph Duncan was sworn into office, thus relieving Mr. Ewing from the
responsible situation. This is the only time that such a juncture has happened
in the history of Illinois.
On the 29th of December, 1835, Gen. Ewing was elected a United States Senator to
serve out the unexpired term of Elias Kent Kane, deceased. The latter gentleman
was a very prominent figure in the early politics of Illinois, and a county in
this State is named in his honor. The election of Gen. Ewing to the Senate was a
protracted struggle. His competitors were James Semple, who afterwards held
several important offices in this State, and Richard M. Young, afterward a
United States Senator and a Supreme Judge and a man of vast influence. On the
first ballot Mr. Semple had 25 votes, Young 19 and Ewing 18. On the eighth
ballot Young was dropped; the ninth and tenth stood a tie; but on the 12th Ewing
received 40, to Semple 37, and was accordingly declared elected. In 1837 Mr.
Ewing received some votes for a continuance of his term in Congress, when Mr.
Young, just referred to, was elected. In 1842 Mr. Ewing was elected State
Auditor on the ticket with Gov. Ford.
Gen. Ewing was a gentleman of culture, a lawyer by profession, and was much in
public life. In person he was above medium height and of heavy build, with
auburn hair, blue eyes, large-sized head and short face. He was genial, social,
friendly and affable, with fair talent, though of no high degree of originality.
He died March 25, 1846.
Source: Portrait and Biographical Album of Whiteside Co., Ill.; Chicago: M. A.
Leeson & Co., 1887, pages 127-128
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