American History and Genealogy Project


Washburn Family Maine Cradle

Not often hear a locality spoken of as the cradle of a race or family. The word cradle, except in this sense, bids fair to become obsolete. If you look in your dictionary you will see that the cradle means a rocking or swinging bed for an infant. It is no longer the fashion to rock babies in cradles. In fact it is considered unhygienic to rock them at all. We seldom see cradles, except, perhaps, as exhibits in a collection of antiques, or it may be, far back in the country, some cradle has been brought down from the dust and obscurity of the attic and restored to its original use.

I want to tell you about a certain cradle. In appearance it is a very ordinary, wooden cradle, but it has rocked many distinguished men, and it was the same mother who rocked them all. Of this mother Hannibal Hamlin, himself a famous Maine man, said: "Rome in all her glory never produced such a mother as the mother of the Washburns." In this cradle were rocked four members of Congress from four different states, two foreign ministers, two governors of two different states, one major-general in the United States Army during the Civil War and one captain in the navy.

Did you ever hear of the War Governor of Maine! Not the Governor who was in office when the World War broke out, but the governor who held that position when the Civil War was declared. His name was Israel Washburn. He was one of the babies who was rocked in this cradle. His father's name, too, was Israel Washburn, and his grandfather was a Revolutionary soldier, a member of the convention that adopted the first constitution of Massachusetts. At that time, as you know, Maine and Massachusetts were one state.

Israel Washburn, as well as his distinguished brothers, was born in the town of Livermore in Oxford County, now Androscoggin. The district school that young Israel attended was an old-fashioned, unpainted, wooden building. It contained two enormous fire-places in which great fires were kept burning in the winter. Wood, in those times, cost nothing but for the hauling, and the boys took turns in building the fires. It was in 1820, or thereabouts, that a hurricane swept the roof off the schoolhouse and landed it in a field nearby. So great had been the down-pour of rain that the boys waded in the puddles up to their knees on the way home.

Israel did not have the privilege of going to college, but he was a diligent student and fine classical scholar. He afterward became a lawyer and a strong opponent of slavery. He began his law practice in the town of Orono, where the University of Maine now is, and married a daughter of a prominent family in that town. In 1842 he was elected to the State Legislature.

It was no wonder that the people of Maine chose such a brilliant young man to represent them in Congress, and so he was sent to Washington in 1850, where he served five years. So well pleased were Maine people with his record in Congress, where he stood always on the side of right and justice, that they decided they wanted him for governor of the State, and he was elected to that office in 1860, just as the country was about to enter upon that terrible conflict, the Civil War. The first gun was fired at Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861, and in two days' time Governor Washburn issued a proclamation calling the Legislature together so that active measures might be taken to crush the rebellion.

Home of the Famous Washburn Family at Livermore

Governor Washburn served two terms, but refused to serve a third. He was successful in guiding the affairs of the State through one of its most critical periods. At the close of his administration, President Lincoln, in appreciation of his fine services, offered him the position of Collector of the Port of Portland. He filled this office honorably and with ability until he resigned in 1877. He spent the remainder of his life in literary pursuits. For many years he lived on the beautiful estate of the Washburns, called ''The Norlands" in Livermore. The house was burned down twice, but was rebuilt and is now a fine mansion.

We have more interest in Israel Washburn, perhaps, than in his brothers, because he was one of the governors of Maine, but several of his brothers were as distinguished as himself. Cadwallader, who was a major-general in the Civil War and who had removed to Wisconsin in 1841, became governor of that state in 1871. Elihu, another brother, settled in Illinois. He was Secretary of State during General Grant's administration, and afterwards resigned that position to become United States minister to France. Here he had a wonderful experience, as he was in Paris during that terrible period, the reign of the Commune, and the siege by the Prussians.

Charles A., after graduating from Bowdoin College, went to California, where he published and edited a newspaper. In 1861, he was appointed Minister to Paraguay, where he lived for eight years. He wrote a history of Paraguay in two volumes, and other books.

Samuel B. Washburn was a ship-master in the merchant marine and a captain in the navy during the Civil War. William David was also a Bowdoin graduate. He settled in Minnesota and at one time was president of the Minneapolis and St. Louis railroad and later a member of Congress. The remaining brother, Algernon, was a merchant and banker of note.
Such is the story of the seven Washburn brothers. Of the sisters of this remarkable galaxy we know little, but we may be sure that they were women of character and ability.

The descendants of the Washburns still live at "The Norlands. " Here is a beautiful little memorial library containing many mementoes of the Washburn family, and here is still to be seen the famous wooden cradle.

Rose D. Nealley

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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