Monday, June 21, 2010

General Lewis Cass, Michigan Territory Governor

I am a descendant of Elizabeth Case. Tracing her ancestors has proven to be somewhat troublesome for me. I was hitting walls until one day I discovered an article in the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society's Record, a quarterly publication. That article indicated that her grandfather was known as Nathan Case and Nathan Cass.

At this point, I began to search for information about Nathan Cass. I came across the Cass name in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island records. I am still trying to find the links among the names I discovered, but I am encouraged.

The name Lewis Cass cropped up frequently as I searched for information on the Cass family. I found several books written about this man, many written before 1900. I learned that he was appointed governor of the Michigan Territory from October 1813 to August 1931 when he resigned because President Andrew Jackson appointed him Secretary of War.

It did not surprise me to find a county in Michigan called Cass, named after Gov. Lewis Cass. Then I had an "ah ha" moment because my mother went to high school in Cass County, Minnesota. In addition, I recently found relatives who were living in Cass County, Iowa in the late 1800s. So I decided to see if these counties were named in General Cass' honor.

Indeed, they were. Not only did I learn that County in Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan were named in his honor, but I found counties in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Indiana and Texas named on his behalf. Bartow County, Georgia was called Cass County until the American Civil War at which time the name was changed. However, the county seat remained Cassville.

Cass County, North Dakota was not named for Lewis Cass but for his nephew, George Washington Cass. This revelation led me down another research expedition about which I will write at another time.

Curious to see what other places may have been named in Lewis Cass' honor, I came up with two lakes and one river: Cass Lake, Minnesota and Michigan and Cass River, Michigan. I found townships in Oklahoma, Illinois, 8 in Indiana, 10 in Iowa, 4 in Missouri, 3 in Ohio, and 2 in Pennsylvania. There is Cass, WV, Cass City, MI, Casstown, OH and the town of Cassville in Wisconsin. In addition to the city in Georgia, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio all have cities, Cassville, named after Lewis Cass.

Streets, schools and buildings have also been named for this man. However, I found the naming of a ship and a fort most interesting. The ship was a cargo ship built in World War II. These ships were called Liberty Ships and one was christened SS Lewis Cass. The fort near Charleston, Tennessee was established in 1835, during the time that Lewis Cass was Secretary of War under President Andrew Jackson.

With so many places named for Lewis Cass, I was driven to know more about him.

Lewis Cass was born in 1782 in Exeter, New Hampshire. His father, a major in the American Revolution, moved his family to Ohio in 1800 when Lewis was eighteen. It seems that Lewis followed in his father's footsteps and was a brigadier general during the War of 1812. In October of 1813, President James Madison appointed Cass governor of the Michigan Territory.

The territory was established in 1805 and existed until 1837 when Michigan became a state and the Wisconsin Territory was created. Prior to 1833, Michigan Territory encompassed an eastern portion of Minnesota and all of Wisconsin and Michigan. In that year the territory was expanded to include all of Minnesota and Iowa and the eastern portions of North and South Dakota. Of the three territorial governors of Michigan Territory, Lewis Cass was governor the longest, a few months shy of 18 years.

He resigned his governorship August 1, 1831 when he became Secretary of War, a position that he held until October 5, 1836. From that date to November 2, 1842, he was the ambassador to France. Lewis Cass retained this position under four presidents: Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison and John Tyler.

He ran for US Senator from the State of Michigan and was seated March 4, 1845. He resigned May 29, 1848 to run as the Democratic candidate for US President. After losing to Zachary Taylor, he ran again for the US Senate. Lewis Cass won the election and served as US Senator from March 4, 1847 through March 3, 1857.

President James Buchanan appointed Cass Secretary of State effective March 6, 1857. He disagreed with the way in which Buchanan was handling the Federal interests in the south and left office December 14, 1860. Political historians have generally classified James Buchanan as one of America's worst presidents.

General Lewis Cass retired to Detroit, Michigan where he died in 1866 at the age of 83. I found an account of his funeral that showed how much this man was beloved in Michigan.


Life and Times of Lewis Cass by William L. G. Smith. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1856.

Lewis Cass by Andrew Cunningham McLaughlin. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1891 and 1919.

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