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This Week In Illinois History: The Complicated Legacy Of Ninian Edwards (July 20, 1833)

Ninian Edwards
Ninian Edwards’ official governor portrait. He had a reputation for wearing extravagant 18th-century attire long after it went out of fashion.

From 1809 to 1818, Illinois was not yet a state but a territory, and in those nine years, Illinois Territory had only one governor: Ninian Edwards. When Illinois became a state in 1818, it sent its first two senators to Washington DC. One of those senators: Ninian Edwards. And when Illinoisans chose their third state governor in 1826, who did they elect? Ninian Edwards.

Edwards first entered public service in Kentucky in his teens. He was chief justice of the state’s highest court by age 33. He became governor of Illinois Territory at 34. From that point on, he had his hands all over early Illinois politics.

He used his legal expertise to sidestep the territory’s anti-slavery laws, keeping all his slaves when he moved. He simply rebranded them as indentured servants, then sold or rented them as such. Many of Illinois’ early governors did this.

In 1812, he introduced voting reforms, bringing more Illinoisans into the Democratic process. It benefitted only white males but still made Illinois one of the country’s most progressive territories.

During the War of 1812, he led a militia raid on Native Americans near Peoria, killing several and burning their villages, only to find out he had attacked tribes friendly to the United States.

He oversaw the long, complicated political process that allowed Illinois to achieve statehood, though he bristled at the idea of Illinois being a free state.

After a long political career, Edwards retired to Belleville, Illinois, to spend his days as a gentleman farmer. When cholera swept through Belleville in 1833, Edwards offered free medical care to the sick. He caught the disease himself and died on July 20.

Ninian Edwards left behind a complicated, contrary legacy. Therefore, a statue of Edwards was removed last month from Ninian Edwards Plaza in Edwardsville, a city named after him, and the park renamed City Plaza.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.