Birth and Early Life
Wilson Shannon was born on February 24, 1802, on his family’s farm near Barnesville in Belmont County in the part of the Northwest Territory that soon became Ohio. He was the youngest of George and Jane (Milligan) Shannon’s nine children. A first-generation Irish immigrant, and a veteran of the American Revolution, George Shannon froze to death while on a hunting trip before Wilson reached age one. Jane and her older children subsequently assumed responsibility for rearing the Wilson family.
Wilson Shannon spent his youth working on the family farm and attending the local one-room schoolhouse. Aided by the financial support of his older brother James, Shannon attended Ohio University during the 1818-19 academic year and then transferred to Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where he studied for two years but did not graduate. Instead, he left college to study law with his brothers, George and James, in Lexington. In 1822, Shannon moved to St. Clairsville, Ohio, to continue his legal training. Four years later, he passed the requisite exams and joined the Ohio bar. He immediately established a successful partnership with William Keenon in St. Clairsville.
Marriage and Family
Shortly before being admitted to the bar, Shannon married Elizabeth Ellis of St. Clairsville on November 30, 1825. Their marriage, which produced one son, ended tragically on October 1, 1831, when Elizabeth died after an extended illness. One year after Elizabeth’s death, Shannon married Sarah Osbun of Cadiz, Ohio, on November 25, 1832. Their marriage, which lasted until Shannon’s death in 1877, produced seven offspring, four sons and three daughters.
Ohio Politician and Governor
After establishing his first law partnership, Shannon became active in Belmont County politics as a Jacksonian Democrat. By 1827, as one of five members of the county’s Democratic central committee, he was a key political figure in the area. After several years of managing the campaigns of his political allies, Shannon made his first bid for public office in 1829, running unsuccessfully for the office of the resident judge of the Fifth Circuit of the Court of Common Pleas. A year later he failed in his attempt to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives by a mere thirty-seven votes out of over 6,000 ballots cast. In 1833, he scored his first electoral victory, winning his run for the office of Belmont County prosecutor. Shannon’s first two-year term in office was so successful that when he ran for re-election the opposition Whig Party endorsed him.
Following four notable years at the county level, Shannon decided to fish in bigger waters. The economic recession caused by the Panic of 1837 made the incumbent Ohio Governor Joseph Vance ripe for the picking in 1838. Because of Shannon’s lack of political experience at the state level, he was a dark-horse candidate when the Democrats began searching for a challenger to Vance. Gradually, the other choices began falling to the wayside because of political vulnerabilities from their past. By the time the Democratic State Convention adjourned in January 1838, Shannon was the last man standing. The neophyte Shannon was unencumbered by past political sins. Blame for the personal hardships caused by the economic decline hindered Vance. It was not surprising that Shannon upset the incumbent governor at the ballot box on October 9. Shannon’s final margin of victory was over 5,700 votes (107,884 to 102,158). When Shannon took the oath of office on December 13, 1838, he became the first native Ohioan elected as the state’s governor.
Most of Shannon’s focus during his first term as governor was easing Ohio’s serious economic problems. Because of prior commitments to internal improvement projects (roads, canals, and railroads), the state faced serious financial problems when Shannon assumed office. By the end of his term in 1840, Shannon had done an artful job of keeping the state afloat financially. Despite his successes, however, Whig gubernatorial candidate Thomas Corwin rode the coattails of his party’s presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, to victory over Shannon in the 1840 election. Corwin garnered 145,441 votes compared to Shannon’s 129,312. Soon after Harrison’s death on April 4, 1841, after just one month in office, the Whig Party began to splinter. By the time of the next gubernatorial election in Ohio in 1842, the Whigs were in such disarray that Shannon turned the tables on Corwin. On October 11, 1842, Ohio voters cast 129,064 ballots in favor of Shannon compared to 125,621 for Corwin.
Minister to Mexico
Shannon did not complete his second term as Governor of Ohio. At odds with other members of the state’s Democratic Party, he accepted an appointment from President John Tyler as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Mexico on April 9, 1844. He arrived in Mexico City on September 1, 1844, and his tenure lasted until March 29, 1845, when the new President James K. Polk recalled him.
California Gold Fever
Shannon returned to St. Clairsville, where he resumed his law practice in July 1845. In 1849, when news of the discovery of gold in California traveled east, gold fever seized Shannon. He quickly assembled a company of investors who struck out to seek their fortunes. By August, they were actively mining a claim near Sacramento that failed to yield much gold. Following seven months of disappointments, the company disbanded and Shannon moved to San Francisco to practice law long enough to recoup his losses. By March 1851, he was back in St. Clairsville.
During the summer of 1852, the Ohio Democratic Party drafted Shannon to stand for election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Although Shannon did not seek the nomination and was an unenthusiastic candidate, the voters of the Seventeenth Congressional District elected him to represent them in the Thirty-third Congress (March 4, 1853–March 4, 1855). Shannon did not make any notable accomplishments during his two-year term. His most memorable action was voting in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. That legislation sanctioned the concept of popular sovereignty to settle the growing dispute over the extension of slavery in the western territories. It eventually led to a decade of violence that spawned the term “Bleeding Kansas.” It also eventually created a political opportunity that greatly altered Shannon’s life.
Kansas Territorial Governor
Almost immediately after approving the Kansas-Nebraska Act on May 30, 1854, U.S. President Franklin Pierce nominated Andrew H. Reeder as the first governor of the Territory of Kansas. The United States Senate approved Reeder’s appointment on June 30, 1854, and Reeder took the oath of office in Washington, D.C., on July 7. Before Reeder reached Leavenworth to assume his post on October 7, two groups of New Englanders, organized by the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society, arrived in Kansas and founded the town of Lawrence. At roughly the same time, pro-slavery settlers, mostly from Missouri, moved into southern Kansas and founded the towns of Leavenworth and Atchison.
Soon after Reeder’s arrival, officials scheduled an election for November 29, 1854, to choose a non-voting representative to Congress from the territory. On election day, hundreds of Missouri Border Ruffians crossed into Kansas to intimidate Free-State voters and to stuff the ballot box illegally for pro-slavery candidate John W. Whitfield, who won by a large margin. Border Ruffians flooded the territory again on March 30, 1855, when voters elected the first territorial legislature. When officials tabulated the results, they determined that the number of votes for pro-slavery candidates was nearly double the population of the territory. The results were so tainted that many Kansans referred to the elected body as the Bogus Legislature. When Governor Reeder attempted to intervene on behalf of the Free-Staters, President Pierce replaced him with former congressman Wilson Shannon.
Washington officials had announced Shannon’s appointment as Kansas territorial governor on August 10, 1855. He arrived in September, determined to work with the elected legislature and uphold popular sovereignty. His goals invoked the wrath of free-staters who immediately went to work undermining his authority. Anti-slavery newspapers and journals launched a campaign of character assassination that painted Shannon as a drunkard and a supporter of slavery. In fact, he was neither, but as a Jeffersonian Democrat who strongly supported states’ rights, he was no friend of the abolitionist movement.
During Shannon’s tenure as territorial governor, violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions continued to escalate.
- Impending violence near Lawrence led Shannon to mobilize the territorial militia and mediate a truce that diffused the Wakarusa War (November 21 to December 9, 1855).
- Lingering hostilities over that event led pro-slavery forces to sack Lawrence on May 21, 1856. In retaliation, on the night of May 24, 1856, abolitionist John Brown and his followers raided the homes of three families living near Pottawatomie Creek. They dragged five unarmed men and boys, believed to be slavery supporters, from their homes and brutally hacked them to death.
- In response to the Pottawatomie Massacre, U.S. Deputy Marshal Robert L. Pate organized a posse of nearly fifty men to capture John Brown and his followers. Toward the end of May, Pate’s men arrested two of Brown’s sons (John and Jason) and clapped them in irons. Pate and his men then went on a rampage, raiding the towns of Palmyra and Prairie City. When Brown learned that authorities had captured his sons, he led a surprise attack against Pate’s posse, encamped near Black Jack Creek on Monday, June 24, 1856.
- Following their victory at the Battle of Black Jack, Brown led a group of raiders into Franklin, a town where border ruffians often gathered when they crossed into Kansas from Missouri. Brown planned to recover the supplies pro-slavery forces had confiscated during the Sacking of Lawrence. During the attack, four pro-slavery defenders suffered serious injuries, one of whom later died, and one Free-Stater was injured.
These and similar events led President Pierce to lose confidence in Shannon’s ability to maintain peace in what was by then known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Upon learning that Pierce was preparing to dismiss him, Shannon resigned his post on August 18, 1856. In his resignation letter, Shannon acknowledged to Pierce that he had:
received unofficial information of my removal from office, and finding myself here without the moral power which my official station confers, and being destitute of any adequate military force to preserve the peace of the country, I feel it due to myself, as well as to the government, to notify you that I am unwilling to perform the duties of government of this territory any longer. You will therefore consider my official connection at an end.
Following his resignation, Shannon remained in Kansas where he practiced law in Lecompton, and later in Lawrence. As a Kansas resident, Shannon remained active in politics, serving as a delegate to the 1864 and 1872 Democratic state conventions. On August 30, 1877, Shannon died unexpectedly at his home in Lawrence at the age of seventy-five. His remains are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Lawrence, Kansas.