Nathan R. Leonard: Editor, Educator, AuthorApr 8th, 2009 | By Leonard Legends & Legacies | Category: Real People, Real Stories
Think an autobiographical sketch is an exercise in vanity? Think again.
Nathan R. Leonard is a truly inspirational example of why everyone should jot down a few notes about their own lives and families. Oh, and he’s also our newest cousin’s great-great-grandfather. Welcome aboard, Reeve!
I came across Nathan’s 28-page autobiography whilst browsing the Daughters of the American Revolution catalog a few years ago. The appearance of the name “Leonard” and the word “Iowa” (my home state) in the same sentence piqued my interest, so I ordered a copy. Wow. What a story.
Nathan was a descendant of Caleb Leonard the elder, through Isaac, Abner, and Hiram. (I just added his family tree this week.) His great-grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War, his grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, and his father was a junior in college at age 16, before he was called home to work the farm. His grandmother’s family was made up of ministers, scholars, and physicians. Nathan came from very good stock.
Perhaps more importantly, Nathan had a near-photographic memory, recalling the stories/details of his ancestors and the physical descriptions of his father and grandfather. (Oh, if someone had only recorded the height, width, weight, strength, hair and eye color of my ancestors.) Nathan wrote about divisions in the church which split some of his family, land sales that produced saddlebags full of silver and gold, elementary school rivalries and the girl that captured his heart… at age nine. We’re talkin’ 1840s, people.He remembered his family’s migration to Iowa Territory, by wagon and steamboat, terrifying prairie fires, and the “Mormon trouble” that arose after they arrived. The latter resulted in a very public execution by hanging, which Nathan described in detail.
He wrote about the secret society of the Know Nothing Party, the rituals involved in joining it, how he recruited his own father, and how the party completely usurped a local election. It paved the way for the formation of the Republican Party and the rise of Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War brought Nathan’s father a Captain’s commission in the Union Army, and then a promotion to Major.
For his part, Nathan put his God-given talents to good use, graduating from the college his father helped found, then teaching at Kossuth (Iowa) College, then studying under the nation’s leading mathematician at Harvard. By the fall of 1860, Nathan, at age 28, was holding a full professorship in mathematics at the newly-opened University of Iowa. He was elected university vice president in 1865, then acting president from 1867-68 and 1870-71. His house (picture in the database) is in the National Register of Historic Places.
Nathan eventually lost his position, in large part, because of his other position… as president of the local Temperance Society. In his own words:
“It has never yet been published to the world and probably never will be published, but I have it set down that in the legislature which met in January, 1867, the liquor men of the State exacted from certain Trustees a promise that certain Professors, viz., Prof. Fellows and myself should be dismissed, as a condition precedent to their voting for the appropriations asked for the University.”
-Nathan Leonard, 1908
Undaunted, Nathan moved on to become the Editor of the of the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Gazette from 1887 to 1897 and, at age 67, President of the Montana State School of Mines in 1900. He held that position until 1906. Nathan finally found time, in August of 1908, to write his autobiography, in longhand, while on vacation in Seattle. His descendants found it among his papers after his death in 1917.
So here’s the deal… technically, I’m not even related, except by extension. But the humble yet poignant document Nathan Ransom Leonard left behind spoke volumes about the times. The state of education, religion, politics and transportation all rolled into one. This is where family history lives and I’m ever-so grateful for it. Thank you, Nathan. And welcome to the party, Reeve!