CAPT. THOMAS FRENCH 1815-1886
FRENCH, GRIFFEY, NEWTON, MASON, HILLHOUSE, GRAESSER
Posted By: cheryl Locher moonen (email)
Date: 3/6/2020 at 15:34:08
CAPT. THOMAS FRENCH, a very prominent citizen of Burlington, Iowa, now deceased, was born at Old Brighton, in Beaver County, Pa., Oct. 4, 1815 of Quaker parentage, and when he was a year old his parents removed to Beaver, the county seat. His early education was received in the public schools of the latter city, and there he remained until nearly sixteen years of age. when he went to Pittsburgh to learn mechanical engineering. After becoming proficient in that branch he engaged as engineer on one of the- Ohio River steamers, running from Pittsburgh to Louisville, Ky., and continued in that employment on the Ohio and other rivers of the Southwest until 1841, when he came to Burlington, Iowa. Traveling by wagon across the States of Indiana and Illinois to St. Louis, Capt. French there took a stage for this city. In the spring of 1842, he operated the Burlington ferry for Messrs. Gales & Seaton, of Washington D. C, proprietors of the National Intelligencer, continuing in that employ for twelve years, and also acting as general agent for those gentlemen, attending to all their extensive business in this locality. During the year 1854. in company with Gen. Fitz Henry Warren and others, Mr. French went to Washington, D. C, where he negotiated for and purchased about 700 acres of land, including the ferry property on the Illinois side of the river. He then superintended the construction of four steamboats, three of which were to be used for the ferry and one for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, and which were built at different points, viz: Cincinnati, St. Louis and Brownsville, Pa. In the fall of 1856. Capt. French sold his interest in the ferry to Gen. Warren, and was not again interested in this business until 1803.
During the year 1859, the Captain was elected a member of the City Council, in which capacity he served seven years. For five years, or during the entire war, he was Mayor of Burlington, and while holding that office did effective service for the Government. He took an energetic and prominent part in enlisting companies for service during the Rebellion, particularly in enlisting and organizing the First Iowa Battery, in which he met with the most violent opposition on the part of the opponents of the war, but with the able assistance of Gen. Warren, then in Washington, D. C, together with Dallman Gilbert and John Lahee of Burlington, he succeeded, and by the aid of the Secretary of War got the Government of the State to accept the battery on the 23d day of July, 1861, two days after the disasterous battle of Bull Run. In 1861 and 1862, Capt. French was re-elected Mayor, and again in 1864 and 1865. He also acted as Postmaster for some months. He was a thorough business man and an efficient city officer, and his terms of office were marked by a wise, orderly and economical administration, not a mob or single loss of life from violence marring the whole period. At the beginning of the war, the citizens of Burlington organized a society for the relief of the soldiers' families and widows, which organization was continued during the entire war. It was managed by a committee of three: G. C. Lauman, Mosly Ewing and Mr. French, who was President. This was an active institution, accomplishing much good. At the close of the war there was $95 in the treasury, which they appropriated toward a supper to the 25th Iowa Regiment on its return home from the field. The reception was given with much enthusiasm at Market Hall, and was a most enjoyable affair.
Besides carrying on the ferry, Capt. French was engaged in other business relations. He dealt in real estate, buying and selling city and other valuable property, and at one time he owned a farm of about 100 acres adjoining the city limits. In 1867, he again purchased an interest in the ferry, which he continued to operate till 1874, and then sold. Two years previous, he purchased about three acres of land on Angular street, near Warren, upon which is a large and elegant residence, which is one of the most beautiful places in the city, with a fine lawn, beautiful shade-trees and other attractions. In his political views, throughout his life, Capt. French was a staunch Republican, believing in humanity, justice and liberty for all classes, races and colors. He cared little whether his views were popular or not if he considered himself to be in the right, and in the days of slavery was not afraid to be called a black abolitionist, and he declared that the act of Abraham Lincoln in signing the Emancipation Proclamation was the greatest and most just act of any man on this planet.
On the 2d of December, 1849, Capt. French was united in marriage with Miss Delia E. Griffey, a daughter of William and Mary (Spitzer) Griffey, who were early settlers of Burlington, having settled here in 1837. She was one of a family of twelve children: Leannah, Henry Lee, Leavara, William Lee, Mary Jane, Serena, Delia E., Ellen, Laura, Martha, Charles and Caroline. Mr. French's father, Joseph, was born Nov. 3, 1771, in Mt. Holly, N. J., and died April 2, 1847, and his mother, Martha Newton, was born April 10, 1786, and died June 17, 1858. They also reared a large family of children: Newton, James, Charles, Joseph, Thomas, Samuel, Maria, Leander and Caroline.
Six children have graced the union of Mr. and Mrs. French: Clarence who died at the early age of two and a half years; Cleon, born in Burlington, 27th of April, 1852, wedded Maggie M. Mason of Chicago, resides in Maysville, Colo., and they have two children, a son and daughter; Kate, born March 25, 1855, in Burlington, became the wife of O. T. Hillhouse, a resident of Creighton, and one son was born to them, Oscar, now deceased; Ida, born Oct. 14, 1860; Lee N., born June 26, 1864; and Laura L., born July 14, 1868, are all natives of this city, where they yet reside. Capt. Thomas French departed this life Nov. 2, 1886. He was a man who loved his home and its relations intensely, and was a true and loyal friend. His integrity of character and firmness of purpose were unsurpassed, and he justly ranks high as a citizen and pioneer. His generous nature endeared him to the community in which for so long he was a prominent personage.
Source: Portrait and Biographical Album of Des Moines County, Iowa, Acme Publishing Company, Chicago, 1888, pp. 347-348.
Des Moines Biographies maintained by Sherri Turner.
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