Seth Kinman’s presidential gift

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

During the summer, this column took the opportunity to feature a number of historical artifacts that were preserved in the Tazewell County Courthouse’s 1914 cornerstone time capsule. This week we’ll take a look at two more artifacts from the courthouse’s cornerstone – a pair of printed cards featuring a California “mountain man” named Seth Kinman (1815-1888).

One of the cards shows a photograph of Kinman himself, looking a lot like Kinman’s contemporary John “Grizzly” Adams (1812-1860), a much better known California mountain man who inspired a 1974 feature film and a 1977-78 NBC television series entitled “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.” The other card shows a unique piece of furniture – an elk horn chair that Kinman presented as a gift to President Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 26, 1864. As sharp as the antlers of the chair’s back and arms appear to be, it seems the president would have had to take extra special care if he ever tried to sit on it. Presumably the piece was meant to be decorative only.

The two cards identify Kinman as “the California Hunter and Trapper,” but tell us nothing else about him, nor do they provide any clues that might explain why these two curious photo cards were selected for inclusion in the Tazewell County Courthouse time capsule.

The explanation may be found on page 25 of the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory, where we find the following colorful anecdote related by Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates, under the heading “’FIRST-CLASS’ HOTELS”:

“The year 1848 witnessed the establishment of two ‘first-class’ hotels. The ‘Eagle,’ which stood on the site now occupied by the Bemis House [Note: the site is near the corner of Court and Front streets in Riverfront Park], was kept by Seth Kinman, who afterwards acquired considerable celebrity as a hunter and trapper in the far west, and by presenting buck horn and bear claw chairs, of his own make, to Presidents Lincoln and Johnson . . .

“The manner of welcoming guests to these hotels was somewhat peculiar, as the following instance will illustrate: A traveler came off a boat one day, and went to the Eagle Hotel. There had been a little western ‘scrimmage’ at the ‘Eagle’ the night before, and though things had not yet been put in order, the proprietor, Seth Kinman, was sitting in front of the door, playing his favorite tune, the ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ with the greatest self-satisfaction. The stranger, stopping, said to Seth: ‘Are you the proprietor here?’ Seth, without resting his bow, replied, ‘Wall, I reckon I be, stranger.’ ‘Do you keep tavern?’ ‘Of course I do; keep tavern like h-ll,’ said Seth, fiddling away with all his might. ‘Just pile in; hang your freight up on the floor, and make yourself at home. The boys,’ continued Seth, ‘have been having a little fun, but if there’s a whole table or plate in the house, I’ll get you some cold hash towards night.’ The stranger didn’t like the place, and took his departure, leaving the ‘proprietor’ still enjoying his violin.”

Additional biographical information on Kinman may be found in various articles published online, including an extensively researched biographical article at the Wikipedia online encyclopedia website. These sources tell us that Kinman arrived in Tazewell County with his father in 1830, later heading out to Humboldt County, Calif., around the time of the California Gold Rush. Cultivating the life and somewhat eccentric image of an uncouth and brutal wilderness hunter, mountain man, and teller of tall tales (mostly about his own adventures, or alleged adventures), Kinman would become something of a national celebrity. Besides his 1864 visit to Lincoln’s White House, Kinman claimed to have witnessed the president’s assassination the following year, and contemporary newspaper accounts say he took part in Lincoln’s funeral cortege. Kinman afterwards operated a hotel in Table Bluff, Calif., where he died after accidentally shooting himself in the leg.

Kinman was known to hand out copies of the photo cards such as were preserved in the courthouse cornerstone, and the pair of cards from the cornerstone presumably were given by Kinman to Bates, who oversaw the selection of artifacts for the 1914 time capsule.

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