Braveheart, Inbreeding and Another Family Shoulder Rub with a U. S. President-The Story of John M. Cameron, Ann Mayes Rutledge and Abraham Lincoln
By Vernon Case Gauntt
Introduction. It was November 1950, Los Angeles, and the occasion a wedding shower for Joan Louise Westlund and Stanford Ellis Case. Barbara Case Gauntt—Stan’s much beloved older sister, my mother—was holding court and bragging about how her ancestors, the Camerons, boarded young Abraham Lincoln in New Salem, Illinois, and the future 16th President nearly married one of the clan. Joan’s grandmother, Nellie Berry Griffin, “Gaga,” exchanged flicks of cigarette ash with Barb and said, “Well, isn’t that interesting. I’m also a descendant of the Camerons and I heard the same story about Lincoln.”
Within a couple days the family trees were pulled out and, sure enough, the newlyweds-to-be were both direct descendants of the Rev. John M. Cameron and his wife Polly Orendorff. Joan’s 4th great aunt, Elizabeth Preston Cameron (b. 1813), was the eldest child of John and Polly, and Stan’s 3rd great aunt, Margaret Cameron (b.1836), their youngest. The wedding was allowed to proceed on December 27, 1950, notwithstanding the discovery they were first cousins, albeit five times removed. The match turned out to be a good one. Stan and Joan were married 67 years and produced four beautiful children, none of whom have displayed any tendencies to play banjo or make moonshine.
This is a story of the powerful Cameron clan from Scotland, trails they blazed across the frontiers of our young country with the esteemed Rutledge family, and how those families came so very close to having the 16th President of the United States in their family trees.
This story is dedicated in loving memory of my aunt, Joan Westlund Case (1930-2018), a beautiful, wonderful wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt and friend to many, and an avid genealogist and preservationist of our family history.
John M. Cameron (1791-1868)
Stan Case’s 2nd great-grandfather (Joan’s and my 3rd), John Miller Cameron, was born in Georgia in 1791. He was a successful landman, farmer, and millwright by trade, but his passion and mission was as a Cumberland Presbyterian minister who expanded and preached his faith over a span of 50 years in Illinois, Iowa and California. Fundamentally, he was a pioneer, forever moving west among the earliest settlers of those primitive territories before they became States. However, he is perhaps best known for his close relationship and mentorship of young Abraham Lincoln in New Salem, and that his cousin, Ann Mayes Rutledge, very nearly married the future President.
John’s grandfather, Thomas Cameron I (Thomas), was born in Inverness-shire, Scotland in 1735 to John Cameron and Mary Ann Fraser. Shortly after Thomas was born, John and Mary Ann moved the family to Ireland. Thomas married an Irish girl, Susannah Duncan, in 1859 and they had several children, including John’s father, Thomas Scott (Tom), born in 1865. In 1770, Thomas, Susannah and their young family boarded a small sailing ship in Ulster, Ireland and crossed the Atlantic for America. They landed in Charles Town Harbor in the South Carolina colony. Thomas was granted land in Fairfield County that he farmed for several years.
Tom worked with his father and in 1789 he married Nancy Miller. She, too, was originally from Scotland. A year later, the Cameron clan moved to Elbert County, Georgia. Thomas bought 1,857 acres of farmland from his son-in law, Robert Hawthorn. It was there that John M. Cameron was born in 1791. Before we pick up with John’s life, let’s return to Scotland for a moment.
Clan Cameron is a West Highlands Scottish clan whose roots go back to at least the 13th century. This infamous and powerful tribe settled in the Lochaber region of Inverness-shire in Northwest Scotland. The Clan has one main branch, Lochiel, and the Chief of the clan is by custom referred to as simply “Lochiel.” Legend has it that Clan Cameron fought for King Robert the Bruce against the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333. Fans of the film Braveheart will recall it was Robert the Bruce’s father who betrayed William Wallace, whose band of tribes waged war on the King of England, resulting in his capture and execution.
With some confidence, John Cameron and his descendants can trace their lineage back to Sir Allan Lochiel XVI Cameron, the 16th Chief of Clan Cameron. He was born in 1568 in Inverness-shire and married the Lady Margaret Stewart. That would also put other Lochiels who preceded him in our Cameron lineage. The current chief of the Clan, Donald Angus Cameron Lochiel XXVII, lives with his family in Achnacarry Castle in Inverness-shire.
The Rutledge Clan-No Slouches Themselves
By marrying Nancy Miller, Tom Cameron connected the Camerons with the Rutledges. Mary Ann, the younger sister of Nancy, married John James (“James”) Rutledge, Jr. in 1808, and he thus became John Cameron’s uncle. James’ father, John James Sr., was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1739, and was the eldest son of Dr. John Rutledge who brought his family from Northern Ireland to South Carolina in about 1735. John James Sr. was appointed as a justice to the United States Supreme Court by our first President, George Washington, and later became the Court’s second Chief Justice. His younger brother, Edward, holds the distinction of being the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence, and later was elected Governor of South Carolina.
The Cameron and Rutledge clans were very close and John Cameron hitched his wagon to the fortunes of his uncle James and the esteemed Rutledge family, migrating first from Georgia to Tennessee, and from there to Kentucky. It was Kentucky in 1811 where the young Cameron married Mary “Polly” Orendoff, a descendant of Prussian royalty. Two years later, John persuaded his reluctant new wife to join him as his father led the first wagon train across the Ohio River into the untamed Illinois Territory, where they settled and farmed.
There was another move to White County, Illinois, and in 1825 on to Sangamon County, close to what is now the State capitol of Springfield. It was there that John Cameron and his uncle James co-founded the town of New Salem on land purchased by Cameron. New Salem has retained its fame and historical status as the place young Abraham Lincoln lived and worked from 1831 to 1837.
Cameron and Rutledge received permission from the State to build a dam across the Sangamon River and erected a water-powered grist and sawmill. Settlers from all around brought their teams and wagons and, without charge, hauled rock to fill the log pens, side by side in the river to make the dam.
Cameron built a home in New Salem and there he and Mary Ann raised their one son and eleven daughters. He was prominent in the town’s business affairs and accumulated much land. We’ll come back to New Salem after we finish the rest of Reverend Cameron’s story.
In the early 1830s, John sold off his interests in New Salem, and moved his large family further west to the Iowa plains. John and Polly were happy in Jefferson County, Iowa. He was a horse-back preacher serving the ever-growing number of settlers arriving in the newly opened country. Polly began to create yet another home. But John soon began to feel the call of new lands waiting to be tamed. He could not settle down to the humdrum existence of a farmer when there was preaching to be done! So once again, it was onward to Oskaloosa, Mahaska County, Iowa.
In 1849, soon after gold was discovered in California, John organized a 40-wagon train. John was going there not for gold, but rather to expand his ministry to the flood of souls-to-be-saved pouring into the new State. And now, among his strong, young sons-in-law, he had two more preachers to aid him in his mission. The wagon train left Oskaloosa on May 1, 1849, for the six-month journey westward. There was much sickness along the way, but they reached the Mormon settlement at Salt Lake without losing a single member. Here, members of 36 of the wagons decided that they would continue no further westward until spring had arrived.
John felt that with his beautiful, unmarried daughters along, this was not the wisest choice of a place to spend several months. So, with the four wagons of his immediate family, he crossed the withering Nevada deserts and pushed over the high peaks of the Sierra mountain range. They arrived at Fort Sutter on the Sacramento River on the last day of October 1849. He and his son, Thomas, spent a few months in the gold mines and then the elder Cameron resumed his ardent and fervent preaching in the Sacramento and Martinez communities.
John was filled with an energy that could not be stilled. He built a house in Petaluma, and then another on his farm in Green Valley high on a hill above the plains near what is now Sebastopol in the heart of today’s California wine country. Rev. John led the vanguard of Presbyterians into Sonoma County, and he and his sons-in-law laid the foundation for the church. It was in Sonoma County that Polly finally found a permanent home.
Rev. Cameron continued his ministry up until his death on February 21, 1878. He was laid to rest in the Sebastopol Cemetery next to his wife, Polly, who died three years earlier.
Rev. Camron was eminently a pioneer. At the time of his settlement in Illinois in 1813, Iowa in 1837, and California in 1849, those States had not been admitted into the Union. His life has been spent upon the frontier, and his occupation practically that of clearing the way for those who were to follow.
[From the obituary of Rev. John M. Cameron]
Rev. John M. Cameron (1791-1878)
Abraham Lincoln, New Salem Illinois and Ann Mayes Rutledge
Abraham Lincoln in 1831, at the age of 22, left his rural Indiana family home and set out on his own. He and a couple of friends floated down the Sangamon River in a flatboat on their way to deliver a shipment to New Orleans. Upon reaching New Salem, their raft got hung up on the Cameron-Rutledge dam. The townsfolk helped free the boat. After delivering their cargo to New Orleans, young Lincoln returned to New Salem and spent the next six years.
He boarded with John and Polly Camron for a while. Rev. Cameron’s long talks with Lincoln are said to have had an influence on him all through life. Cameron gave young Lincoln his first grammar book and taught him surveying. Lincoln studied law and worked in town as a clerk, postmaster and surveyor. The main attraction at the Cameron home seemed to be “Aunt Polly’s” pies and the companionship of the lively Cameron daughters. The girls regarded Mr. Lincoln as a brother—and teased him like one, too. The youngest, Eliza, recalled Lincoln giving her the nickname “John.”
Lincoln also ventured into the retail business, but that didn’t work out so well. Cameron’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth, married Baxter Bell Berry in New Salem. One of Baxter’s kin, William P. Berry, bought a one-half interest in a general merchandise store in New Salem from the Herndon brothers. In 1832, Lincoln bought the other half for a promissory note. The following year, the Lincoln-Berry partnership bought another, bigger, store across the road and incurred more debt. The partnership didn’t last long. According to Lincoln “It did not prosper,” and only put him deeper in debt. He ended up selling his interest to his partner. However, when Berry died in 1835, Lincoln was once again saddled with the debts of the partnership, and it wasn’t until 1848, while serving as a United States Congressman from Illinois, that he was able to finally pay off what he referred to as “the national debt.”
It was the Rutledge home that held the lovely Ann Mayes Rutledge. Ann was born in 1813 in Kentucky and travelled with her folks and the Camerons on all of their adventures across the expanding United States. In an age when frontier girls were often only taught sewing, cooking and other housekeeping skills, Ann became the first girl to attend Mentor Graham’s New Salem School. She was ubiquitously described as bright and beautiful, with auburn hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion. Mr. Lincoln met 18-year old Ann shortly after his arrival in New Salem and for a while Mentor Graham tutored them both.
At the time, Ann was already promised to another gentleman from New Salem, John McNeil. McNeil had done well as a merchant and landowner in town. He had accumulated a good deal of property, including farms purchased from Cameron and Rutledge. In 1832, he left for an extended visit to New York to be with his parents, and as his separation from Ann grew into a couple of years, her pining for him died out.
Lincoln’s visits to Ann’s home and her father’s tavern where she worked became more frequent. As his courtship of Ann progressed, Mr. Lincoln was busy becoming a lawyer and taking his first plunge into politics. His first run in 1831 for the Sangamon County seat in the Illinois State legislature failed, but he was successful two years later. By 1834, Lincoln made known his feelings for Ann, and she confessed she had strong feelings for him.
Abraham and Ann were decidedly in love and began to make plans to get married. Although there is some scholarly debate as to whether the two were ever formally engaged, Ann’s family firmly believed their eventual marriage was a foregone conclusion. Their love for one another is indisuputable. According to her brother, Robert, “After McNamar left to visit his parents and during his prolonged absence, Mr. Lincoln courted Ann, resulting in a second engagement, not conditional, but absolute.”
Ann told Robert and her other brother, David, that the honorable course of action was for her to let Mr. McNamar know their engagement was off before proceeding with marriage to Mr. Lincoln. Ann also confided to her cousin, James McGrady Rutledge, that she and Lincoln, now 26, had promised one another to marry as soon he completed his studies of the law by the fall of 1835.
Tragically, that happy day did not arrive. In the summer of 1835, an epidemic of typhoid fever swept through the town of New Salem. Ann contracted the disease, also known then as ‘brain fever.’ As her condition worsened, she called for Lincoln and he made a final visit to her bedside.
Ann Mayes Rutledge died on August 25, 1835 at the age of 22. The Rev. John M. Camron returned to New Salem from Iowa to preach at his cousin’s funeral service. Ann’s father died a few months later, but it is not known if he, too, was afflicted with the same disease.
Mr. Lincoln was grievously affected by Ann’s death. Many said he became severely depressed, even suicidal. “The deepest gloom and melancholy settled over his mind. He would often say to his friends: ‘My heart is buried in the grave with that dear girl.’ He would often go and sit by her grave and read a little pocket Testament he carried with him.”
Twenty-five years after his first election as President in 1860, he admitted his love for Ann to his friend Isaac Cogdal. “I did really-I ran off the track: it was my first. I loved the woman dearly and soundly: she was a handsome girl—would have made a good loving wife—was natural and quite intellectual, though not highly educated…I did honestly and truly love the girl and think often of her now.”
The Rev. Cameron and Mr. Lincoln remained connected and corresponded up until the President’s assassination in 1865.
[Note: There is another Cameron connection to Abraham Lincoln. John Cameron’s father, Thomas, was first cousins with Simon Cameron. Simon was a United States Senator from Pennsylvania, and served as Secretary of War under President Lincoln at the beginning of the Civil War]