Mary Todd Lincoln and the ‘Wild Region’, by Larry Chabot

Rumors have circulated for years that Mary Todd Lincoln, tragic widow of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, was seen in as many as five Lake Superior communities in the late 1860s: Marquette, Munising, Ontonagon and Bayfield (Michigan) and LaPointe (Wisconsin). Was she really here? If so, who says so?

Historians have long claimed that Abraham Lincoln’s only Michigan visit was for a political speech at Kalamazoo in 1856. That may have been the only time he stood on Michigan soil, but he was here earlier. In 1848, while serving as a Congressman from Illinois, he took his family on a speaking tour of New England after Congress adjourned. In September, they boarded the steamship Globe in Buffalo for a sixty-hour trip to Chicago via Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan. They had to have passed through Michigan waters, and would have entered U.P. territory around the Straits of Mackinac.
So technically, both Abe and Mary were in the U.P. before. But did Mrs. Lincoln come back later on her own? The search began at the Marquette County Historical Society museum where librarian Rosemary Michelin produced some documents.
First was a 1988 article written for the society newsletter—Harlow’s Wooden Man—by noted Lincoln scholar, author and lecturer Weldon E. Petz, who wrote that, “Through the years, confusing rumors and reports found their way into” local history claiming Mrs. Lincoln visited Marquette. The year most often mentioned is 1868, but this was unlikely because all of her movements in 1868 had been accounted for.
Based on what he called “reliable evidence,” Petz concluded that she probably made the trip in 1867, in the month of July, with stops at Ontonagon, Bayfield and LaPointe.
After studying materials shown to him by Regis Walling, then with the Bishop Baraga Association, Petz found in the March 1868 edition of the Slovenian periodical Morning Star an article by Fr. James Trobec, who wrote that, “Even the wife of Lincoln…spent two days at LaPointe and when she heard the Indian girls sing so beautifully in the church, she was so touched that she shed tears. A son of Lincoln also was there and Father Chebul gave him a good reprimand because of his improper behavior in church.”
Who was Father Chebul and why was Mrs. Lincoln drawn to the Apostle Islands? Back in 1862, this same priest visited President Lincoln in Washington seeking approval to build a church at LaPointe. As we shall see, Mrs. Lincoln wanted to check on the mission church authorized by her late husband.
More evidence was found in a 1955 letter, also archived at the Marquette Historical Society, from Northern Michigan University professor Lewis Allen Chase to Kenyon Boyer, a local radio personality and historian. Chase told Boyer of his interview with Mrs. Henry Mather of Marquette, whose recollections went back to Civil War times. “She told me that Mrs. Lincoln came to Marquette after the assassination and used to ride on boats between Marquette and Munising…I could never find anyone besides Mrs. Mather who knew of this…I concluded that it had been a failure of memory on the part of Mrs. Mather.”
So he dismissed her recounting, but did get a major clue from Munising High School principal Ralph Jackson, who told Chase that he saw a letter from Mrs. Lincoln in the Lincoln Museum in Washington, D.C. in which she talked about a northern visit. Chase obtained a copy of the letter, dated July 31, 1868 and addressed to Dr. Robert King Stone (the Lincoln family physician), which Dr. Stone’s granddaughter had donated to the museum. It was definitely in Mrs. Lincoln’s handwriting.
Here is the pertinent part of that letter:
I request your acceptance of this “Indian medicine Pouch” which was presented me last summer as coming direct from our Indian Chief – I met with it [sic], in the Lake Superior region, some months since….I feel assured that you will look upon this relic of a wild region, with interest.
Petz figured the above mentioned medicine pouch (which also was in the Lincoln Museum) was given to Mrs. Lincoln during her visit to the mission church described by Father Trobec in 1868.
What do local historians have to say? Although sources in the Bayfield-LaPointe area had no new information to add, Mrs. Lincoln’s presence there seems to have been proven. There were no clues about Munising, and Marquette’s only witness was discredited by Chase. That leaves Ontonagon.
Bruce Johanson, an Ontonagon County historian and writer, knew of the Lincoln rumors but hadn’t seen any documentation.
“The only newspaper in town [then] was the old Lake Superior Miner,” he said. “And they were sketchy, at best, in reporting local events….Old Abe didn’t carry Ontonagon County in 1864 and his prosecution of the war didn’t sit too well with some…Ontonagon County folks. If Mrs. Lincoln visited Ontonagon, it may have been ignored.”
Petz referred to Guy M. Burnham’s book The Lake Superior Country in History and in Story, which contains undated recollections of Eugenia “Jean” Prince Durfree of Ontonagon (the year had to be 1867 when she was about 13 years old). Ontonagon historian Andy Lockhart said Jean Prince Durfree’s family and their relatives played host to visiting dignitaries like Civil War generals William Sherman and Phil Sheridan, as well as Prince Napoleon.
Jean Durfree told author Burnham that after a boat named the Mineral Rock docked in Ontonagon, her father brought the five passengers to their house. One of the male visitors was a tall, gaunt man who looked somewhat familiar. Her father called Jean over and asked her to guess who he was.
“You look just like Abraham Lincoln,” she said. “But I thought he was ’sassinated?”
The man smiled and replied that his name was Gonkle, and he wasn’t the late president but acted as his double. “Truly I have his face. I only wish I had his brains,” Gonkle told Jean. Then a voice from across the room called out, “Come here, Jean, and tell me who I am.”
“I know you. You are Mrs. Lincoln,” Jean said. “You are prettier out of the paper.”
Jean had seen her picture in Harper’s Weekly. Her eyes filling with tears, Mrs. Lincoln kissed the young girl in gratitude, then introduced her to the wife of a Minnesota senator, who was accompanying her.
The women stayed at the Prince house all day while the men traveled to Rockland to see the copper mines. When they returned, everyone had supper on the boat, where Mrs. Lincoln informed Jean that her next stop was LaPointe.
“I told her: ‘Don’t stay at the Cramer Hotel,’” Jean remembered. “It’s full of knotholes and the men snore something awful.”
Mrs. Lincoln laughed and said she’d stay in LaPointe just long enough to see the church and the mission. Burnham’s has the party taking Jean’s advice and lodging instead at Smith’s Hotel in Bayfield, which he said had “entertained distinguished people like…Mrs. Abraham Lincoln and son Robert [who] were guests there for one day. Mrs. Lincoln was …making a trip up the Lakes,” he wrote.
Several witnesses saw her there, including Burnham. Mrs. Lincoln had promised Jean she would stop again in Ontonagon on the return trip, but the boat passed by at night and kept steaming east.
“Do you think I did not strut afterwards whenever I met anyone I knew, and tell them that Mrs. Lincoln… spent the day at our house?” Jean said.
Incidentally, Gonkle’s odd inclusion in the Mary Todd Lincoln traveling party led to persistent rumors around the LaPointe area that Abraham Lincoln himself had been there.
As for Mrs. Lincoln, she and son Tad lived in Europe from 1868 until 1871. Tad died shortly after their return at age eighteen, the third of her four sons to die young (Eddie was nearly four when he died, and Willie passed away at age eleven). The oldest son, Robert, lived to a ripe old age. When his mother’s already odd behavior became more bizarre, Robert arranged for her to be judged insane and committed to an institution for four months. Her strange conduct included attempts to sell her clothing and jewelry. Mrs. Lincoln died almost blind in 1882 at age sixty-three. The loss of her three young sons and the crushing experience of seeing her husband murdered while sitting beside her darkened her final years.
She left another intriguing letter behind, though. Writing from Waukesha (Wisconsin) in 1872, she told a friend that “I expect to leave here next Monday the 12th …at that time…I am going up to a WILD part of the country, North in Wisc.” There was no more discussion of this trip, nor is it known if a trip to Canada the following year involved a return trip through the Lake Superior region.
In the final analysis, her only questionable stops were Marquette and Munising. Maybe someone has an old letter, diary or photograph which could turn rumor into fact.
—Larry Chabot

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