REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
EDWARD J. C. KEWEN
By J. G. HOWARD.
Author of the “Blove Papers.”
This gentleman’s father, Captain Kewen, a native of the Emerald Isle, emigrated to the United States a short time previous to our last war with England, and acquired much military distinction at the battle of New Orleans. Locating a trading post upon the Tombigbee in 1820, in a region almost uninhabited save by savages, he succeeded in a very few years in accumulating a large fortune. By his marriage with a Miss Weaver, an accomplished lady from Tennessee, he had issue three sons, the eldest of whom, and the sole survivor, is our present subject.
Captain Kewen forfeited his life in a duel, leaving behind him a brilliant reputation as a soldier, and an unspotted name for integrity.
Edward J. C. Kewen was born at Columbus, Mississippi, Nov. 2d, 1825. At thirteen years of age he became a student in the Wesleyan University, located at Middletown, Conn. He had been there some three years, when the untoward speculations of his guardian hurried him to his Mississippi home; and he arrived there to learn that his once princely inheritance had dwindled down to a mere pittance. Thus reduced from affluence to comparative poverty, with his two younger brothers dependent upon his exertions for subsistence, he resolved upon the profession of the law. He betook himself to solitary study, with a persistence and assiduity almost unprecedented in those of his extreme youth.
He had reached the age of nineteen, with but few acquaintances and associations in his native town. This was in 1844, in the midst of a most exciting political contest. By some means he was selected to deliver the opening address before what was then styled a “Clay Club.” His primal effort on that occasion acquired for him at once an extraordinary reputation for oratory. His extreme youth, peculiarity of style, copiousness of diction, earnestness and polish of manner, gave him sudden and unwonted fame. He was seized upon by the leading spirits of the party to which he belonged, in a section of country distinguished for its eloquent men, as one of their most efficient speakers, and dispatched to remote sections.
The writer of the present notice has heard an incident illustrative of young Kewen’s daring and fervid elocution. At a prominent point in his native State the people of both parties has massed together to enjoy barbacued provisions and the attrition of oratory. Two whole days had passed away in the social and political revel, but very much to the discomfiture of Whig doctrines. Such giants as Geo. R. Clayton and H. L. Harris and Jno. B. Cobb, from unaccountable reasons, had failed to present themselves to effulge upon the beauties and strength of a protective tariff and other germane Whig topics. In despair, and at the very finale of the meeting, the young stranger Kewen, a beardless boy, was reluctantly thrown before them. He had now some experience, it is true, in public declamation, and youth has its magnetism and sympathy; yet, they say astonishment soon melted into earnest admiration and the comparative boy ran away with the hearts and the judgments of the serried crowd. Regardless of party discrimination, they did a strange thing for that region. They seized hold of the juvenile orator as he finished his glowing peroration, and bore him around upon their shoulders, and would not be content until he had given them another specimen of his eloquence the same night in a neighboring court-house.
Such triumphs are very rare. After the election of 1844, Mr. Kewen became the editor of the Columbus Whig, and remained in the occupation for two years.
Removing to St. Louis, Mo., for the purpose of practicing law, and meeting with peculiar success, we find him again upon the hustings after the nomination of Zachary Taylor for the Presidency. The papers of that day teem with the most extravagant encomiums upon his oratorical abilities. In commendation of his forensic efforts, partisanship lost its rancor, for praise flew equally from his opponents as his friends. In his fervid pilgrimage he traversed several of the Middle and Southern States.
The reader of this sketch has already detected in its subject a peculiar restlessness so characteristic of men of his ardent temperament, and will not be surprised to learn that he became one of the innumerable throng that hurried to this western El Dorado some twenty years ago.
Perhaps the blind boy, Dan Cupid, was one of the impelling causes of his sudden migration. It is very certain that he fell in with the caravan of Dr. T. J. White and family, and meandered across the “plains” in their companionship, and became the fortunate husband of the Doctor’s accomplished daughter upon their arrival at Sacramento, December 10th, 1849.
It would seem that his fame as an orator had anteceded him. Some occasion prompting it, he was summoned to the rostrum the very day his weary footsteps first traversed the then primitive city of Sacramento; and his instantaneous popularity was evinced by his election to the responsible office of Attorney-General by the State Legislature soon after his advent upon our coast. This office he resigned, as it compelled his residence at a distance from his adopted city, in which he had sprung into a lucrative practice in his profession.
If other evidences of moral and physical courage were wanting, his character in this respect was especially manifest in his enlistment against the Squatters, who, at that early period of our history had banded in murderous clans. Under threats of assassination, he boldly repaired to one of their convocations on the Levee, and succeeded by the audacity of his tongue in dispersing the threatening and insurrectionary crowd.
In May, 1851, he was nominated as a candidate on the Whig ticket for Congress; and it was in that canvass that he displayed the full maturity and strength of his peculiar powers. Often speaking several times during the same day, he seemed exhausting in mind and body. Though unsuccessful, the small majority obtained by his opponent was a high compliment to the zeal and eloquence of Col. Kewen in a State Democratic at the time by many thousands.
Leaving Sacramento in the summer of 1852, for San Francisco, he practiced his profession in the latter city with eminent success, until his restless and daring mind drove him into a new career. His brother, A. L. Kewen, second in command to Col. Walker, was shot and killed in the first battle of Rivas, Nicaragua, in June, 1855. Thomas, the youngest of the three, had died the preceding year on the Island of Tabogo in the province of Panama. Alone in the world, and we may naturally suppose, brooding in deepest melancholy over the early death of his only and loved kindred, it is not surprising that one of his ardent and generous impulses would seek relief in the first daring enterprise that offered. He was an intimate friend of Col. Walker, and had hitherto resisted his earnest importunities to embark in his wild adventure. Walker, now the military head of the new government, welcomed him with open arms, and at once commissioned him as the financial agent of the Republic; and it was not long before he became a member of a judicial tribunal organized to adjust the rival claims of Vanderbilt and Garrison & Morgan. The result of the deliberations of that body was, that Vanderbilt was indebted to the Rivas-Walker government to the amount of one half million of dollars. Pending the decision, were fought the memorable battles of Rivas, Massaya, and Grandada, in each of which Col. Kewen took an active part as aid to Gen. Walker. Though disapproving the measure, Col. Kewen was instructed to take possession of the steamers belonging to Commodore Vanderbilt, plying on Lake Nicaragua. That arbitrary and impolitic act, in which he was made the unwilling agent, resulted in the disastrous consequences that he predicted to his superior. It drove the powerful capitalist to collide with the authorities of Costa Rica, and eventually caused the ruin of the Walker dynasty.
The Colonel was now dispatched upon an embassy to the Southern States of our Union for additional means and forces. Establishing his head quarters at Augusta, Georgia, he soon succeeded in rallying about him a force of eight hundred men, completely equipped with ample supplies of provisions. The enthusiasm with which he was greeted and the ready response made to his persuasive appeals, are part of the history of our country. He had just negotiated with his former friends, Garrsion & Morgan, the conveyance to their destination of his forces and implements, when the news reached him of the capture of Walker by Com. Paulding, under instructions from Washington. And so terminated the Rivas-Walker government, and with it were dashed the hopes of its most efficient and brilliant supporter.
In December, 1857, the Colonel returned to San Francisco, and in January of the succeeding year became a citizen of Los Angeles, where he has since resided. In his new abode the people have once elected him to the office of District Attorney, and have twice dispatched him to the lower branch of our State Legislature. In the Presidential campaign of 1868, he was complimented with the highest number of votes as an elector on the Democratic ticket.
We have thus sketched in brief the leading incidents in the life of one of our most prominent citizens. Perhaps no man is so thoroughly known within our State limits as Col. E. J. C. Kewen. Of manners peculiarly genial, and a temperament ardent, enthusiastic and restless, and impulses generous and noble, and a tested courage more often mettlesome than discreet; charitable to profusion, he is essentially the finest type of his combined Celtic and Mississippi origin. Such men often provoke enmities, but only to melt into enduring friendships.
His oratorical abilities, so eminently peculiar, have often been condemned by those most fascinated by their display. Criticism has always been launched at eccentricity. The scholar, while he wonders, condemns the strange affluence of diction that floats before him in such luxuriant profusion. Seldom before did man have such command of language. It is as exuberant as the monthly growth of the tropics—as gushing as the warble of the wild bird. Under proper control, and with the woof of logic, it is the richest gift of intelligence. Those that heard the Colonel ten years ago, wondered at and deplored this wild luxuriance, will not admire how he has subjected this verbal wealth to logical control. Had Colonel Kewen confined himself, without political and other deviation, to his profession, there is no doubt he would have attained in it the rarest eminence. He possesses strong reasoning abilities. He will yet, if his life be spared, and his ambition so lead him, occupy prominent positions in the councils of our country. He has not reached the full fruition of his powers. He has a reputation unequaled upon our coast as an advocate and a public declaimer. The storms of his life are over. Practising his profession, at Los Angeles, and surrounded, at his beautiful home at Lake Vineyard by his accomplished wife and his little ones, he is ever found the amiable and polished and hospitable gentleman.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 341-346.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.