Thursday, April 2, 2009

Caleb Lyon: the great train robbery

Image from lincolnbicentennial.idaho.gov

Proving a capable politician on both sides of the country, Caleb Lyon was condemned to besmirched obscurity after an unsuccessful junket on the frontier.

Born in Lyonsdale, New York in 1822, Lyon graduated from Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont in 1841. Six years later, he was appointed as the U.S. consul to Shanghai, before traveling to South America and thence to California. There, he became a member of the California constitutional convention and designed a state seal.

Lyon went against the gold rush tide, returning in 1849 to New York. He was elected to the state assembly in 1850, but resigned after encountering opposition to enlarging the Erie Canal, a project he supported. In 1851, he served in the state senate, and was elected to the U.S. Congress as an independent for one term in 1852. His Lyonsdale home was destroyed by fire in 1860, and he moved to Staten Island.

By 1864, Lyon had become a Republican supporter and was appointed by Abraham Lincoln to be the second Governor of the Idaho Territory. The first Governor, William H. Wallace, had to leave after he was elected to Congress. Lyon held the office from March 1864 to June 1866, but by no means was he a consistent presence.

The Governor was also Indian superintendent of the territory, delegated to tour the land, make treaties where necessary, locate possible reservation sites, and send all pertinent information to the federal Indian commissioner. In October 1864, Lyon negotiated a treaty with a Shoshone Indian group where 23 Indian leaders consented to cede land for 30 miles along the Boise River along with all lands drained by tributaries of the river; the agreement also called for the Indians to turn over criminals they captured to U.S. authorities. In return, a reservation was to be set up along the river and the Indians were to have the same fishing rights as settlers. Criticized by the federal commissioner as not properly put together, the treaty was never ratified by the Senate.

Lyon was not a popular governor. Noted as a lecturer, poet, author, and foreign traveler, he was rather conspicuous in a roughshod Wild West territory populated mostly by miners. He referred to himself as "Lyon of Lyonsdale," a habit that led some critics to nickname him "Cale of the Dale." Another stance that did nothing to endear Lyon to at least some of the population was his support of moving the territory's capital from Lewiston in the north to Boise in the south. The matter proved important enough that some settlers persuaded a local judge to get an injunction against the move and keep Lyon under observation. Under the guise of a duck hunt, Lyon escaped the territory in a canoe on the Snake River. The territory's seal and archives were later moved under armed guard.

After his disappearance, Lyon returned to the East Coast. Back in Idaho, treasurer Clinton Dewitt Smith, also a native New Yorker, served for seven months before dying. The treasurer under Smith stole $4,000 in territory funds; Smith's replacement, Horace Gilson, looted some $33,000 (later sources say $41,000) from the treasury and fled the country.

It was in this atmosphere of embezzlement that Lyon was re-appointed as Governor in the fall of 1865, having been absent from the territory for 11 months. Admirably, he encouraged a peaceful relationship between the Indians and settlers and denounced those were were calling for attacks on Indian settlements. However, this stance did nothing to improve his popularity; the Idaho Statesman said only a "military escort could prevent him from violence or death." Further exacerbating matters was Lyon's support of a diamond mining venture which, a historian wrote in 1890, "ruined many a better man."

In April of 1866, Lyon negotiated a treaty with another band of Shoshone Indians. This agreement ceded lands south of the Snake River while leaving a 14-mile swath of the Bruneau Valley as a reservation. The treaty was also never ratified, as the reservation was deemed to be infeasible in an area of heavy settlement.

When he left the post again, this time for good, Lyon returned to Staten Island. Somewhere along the way, $41,148.40 that he was to give to the federal commissioner of Indian affairs went missing. Of that amount, $18,631 was to go to the Nez Perce Indians as compensation for their relinquishment of land. Lyon said that a thief had stolen the money while he was sleeping on the train during the trip from Idaho to Washington, D.C. The government sought to recover the money through Lyon's bondsman, but it wasn't until 1874 that a jury demanded that he repay the $50,000 bond he had given Lyon.

An official investigation against Lyon was evidently in the works around that time, but Lyon died in 1875 before any sort of prosecution. His tale of the theft was accepted enough that the New York Times reported it in his obituary with no hint of suspicion; however, secondary sources now generally dismiss the story as a fabrication.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Idaho Historical Society, "Heavy Judgment Against a Bondsman" in the New York Times on Nov. 21 1874, "Obituary; Caleb Lyon" in the New York Times on Sept. 9 1875, The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History by Carlos A. Schwantes, History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana by Hubert Howe Bancroft and Francis Fuller Victor, Official Opinions of the Attorneys General of the United States edited by J. Hubley Ashton, The Rockies by David Sievert Alexander and Duane A. Smith, History of Idaho: A Narrative Account of Its Historical Progress, Its People and Its Principal Interests by Hiram T. French, The Northern Shoshoni by Brigham D. Madsden, Index to the Executive Documents of the Senate of the United States Second Session Fortieth Congress 1867-68, Lyons Memorial - Massachusetts Families edited by Albert Brown Lyons and George William Amos Lyon and Eugene Fairfield McPike

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