Ninian Edwards, Governor from 1827 to 1830, was a son of Benjamin Edwards, and was born in Montgomery County, Maryland, in March, 1775. His domestic training was well fitted to give his mind strength, firmness and honorable principles, and a good foundation was laid for the elevated character to which he afterwards attained. His parents were Baptists, and very strict in their moral principles. His education in early youth was in company with and partly under the tuition of Hon. Wm. Wirt, whom his father patronized and who was more than two years older. An intimacy was thus formed between them which was lasting for life. He was further educated at Dickinson College, at Carlisle, Pa. He next commenced the study of law, but before completing his course he moved to Nelson County, Ky., to open a farm for his father and to purchase homes and locate lands for his brothers and sisters. Here he fell in the company of dissolute companions, and for several years led the life of a spendthrift. He was, however, elected to the Legislature of Kentucky as the Representative of Nelson County before he was 21 years of age, and was reelected by an almost unanimous vote.
In 1798 he was licensed to practice law, and the following year was admitted to the Courts of Tennessee. About this time he left Nelson County for Russellville, in Logan County, broke away from his dissolute companions, commenced a reformation and devoted himself to severe and laborious study. He then began to rise rapidly in his profession, and soon became an eminent lawyer, and inside of four years he filled in succession the offices of Presiding Judge of the General Court, Circuit Judge, fourth Judge of the Court of Appeals and Chief Justice of the State,—all before he was 32 years of age! In addition, in 1802, he received a commission as Major of a battalion of Kentucky militia, and in 1804 was chosen a Presidential Elector, on the Jefferson and Clinton ticket. In 1806 he was a candidate for Congress, but withdrew on being promoted to the Court of Appeals.
Illinois was organized as a separate Territory in the spring of 1809, when Mr. Edwards, then Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals in kentucky, received from President Madison the appointment as Governor of the new Territory, his commission bearing date april 24, 1809. Edwards arrived at Kaskaskia in June, and on the 11th of that month took the oath of office. At the same time he was appointed Superintendent of the United States Saline, this Government interest then developing into considerable proportions in Southern Illinois. Although during the first three years of his administration he had the power to make new counties and appoint all the officers, yet he always allowed the people of each county, by an informal vote, to select their own officers, both civil and military. The noted John J. Crittenden, afterward United States Senator from Kentucky, was appointed by Gov. Edwards to the office of Attorney General of the Territory, which office was accepted for a short time only.
The Indians in 1810 committing sundry depredations in the Territory, crossing the Mississippi from the Territory of Louisiana, a long correspondence followed between the respective Governors concerning the remedies, which ended in a council with the savages at Peoria in 1812, and a fresh interpretation of the treaties. Peoria was depopulated by these depredations, and was not re-settled for many years afterward.
As Gov. Edwards’ term of office expired by law in 1812, he was re-appointed for another term of three years, and again in 1815 for a third term, serving until the organization of the State in the fall of 1818 and the inauguration of Gov. Bond. At this time ex-Gov. Edwards was sent to the United States Senate, his colleague being Jesse B. Thomas. As Senator, Mr. Edwards took a conspicuous part, and acquitted himself honorably in all the measures that came up in that body, being well posted, an able debater and a conscientious statesman. He thought seriously of resigning this situation in 1821, but was persuaded by his old friend, Wm. Wirt, and others to continue in office, which he did to the end of the term.
He was then appointed Minister to mexico by President Monroe. About this time, it appears that Mr. Edwards saw suspicious signs in the conduct of Wm. H. Crawford, Secretary of the United States Treasury, and an ambitious candidate for the Presidency, and being implicated by the latter in some of his statements, he resigned his Mexican mission in order fully to investigate the charges. The result was the exculpation of Mr. Edwards.
Pro-slavery regulations, often termed “Black Laws,” disgraced the statute books of both the Territory and the State of Illinois during the whole of his career in this commonwealth, and Mr. Edwards always maintained the doctrines of freedom, and was an important actor in the great struggle which ended in a victory for his party in 1824.
In 1826-7 the Winnebago and other Indians committed some depredations in the northern part of the State, and the white settlers, who desired the lands and wished the exasperate the savages into an evacuation of the country, magnified the misdemeanors of the aborigines and thereby produced a hostility beteween the races so great as to precipitate a little war, known in history as the “Winnebago War.” A few chases and skirmishes were had, when Gen. Atkinson succeeded in capturing Red Bird, the Indian chief, and putting him to death, thus ending the contest, at least until the troubles commenced which ended in the “Black Hawk War” of 1832. In the interpretation of treaties and execution of their provisions Gov. Edwards had much vexatious work to do. The Indians kept themselves generally within the jurisdiction of Michigan Territory, and its Governor, Lewis Cass, was at a point so remote that ready correspondence with him was difficult or impossible. Gov. Edwards’ administration, however, in regard to the protection of the Illinois frontier, seems to have been very efficient and satisfactory.
For a considerable portion of his time after his removal to Illinois, Gov. Edwards resided uon his farm near Kaskaskia, which he had well stocked with horses, cattle and sheep from Kentucky, also with fruit-trees, grape-vines and shrubbery. He established saw and grist-mills, and engaged extensively in mercantile business, having no less than eight or ten stores in this State and Missouri. Notwithstanding the arduous duties of his office, he nearly always purchased the goods himself with which to supply the stores. Although not a regular practitioner of medicine, he studied the healing art to a considerable extent, and took great pleasure in prescribing for, and taking care of, the sick, generally without charge. He was also liberal to the poor, several widows and ministers of the gospel becoming indebted to him even for their homes.
He married Miss Elvira Lane, of Maryland, in 1803, and they became the affectionate parents of several children, one of whom, especially, is well known to the people of the “Prairie State,” namely, Ninian Wirt Edwards, once the Superintendent of Public Instruction and still a resident of Springfield. Gov. Edwards resided at and in the vicinity of Kaskaskia from 1809 to 1818; in Edwardwville (named after him) from that time to 1824; and from the latter date at Belleville, St. Clair County, until his death, July 20, 1833, of Asiatic cholera. Edwards County is also named in his honor.
Source: “Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County, Illinois,” Chapman Brothers, Chicago, 1887.