Columbus Delano

Mount Vernon's Columbus Delano was a political mover and shaker of the mid-1800s, though his legacy remains mixed.

MOUNT VERNON -- On the quieter days around Mount Vernon, it's easy to forget that this town provided the nation a major mover and shaker in the mid-1800s. There is no question about how influential Columbus Delano was.

What remains mixed is his legacy, which held both good and terrible things.

Born in Vermont, Delano lost his father when he was still a toddler. He moved to Ohio with his uncle a few years later, but then the uncle passed away as well. By the time Delano was a teenager, he was living on his own and working hard at a wool mill in Lexington to make ends meet.

Somehow he also found enough energy to begin independently studying law, and Mount Vernon lawyer Hosmer Curtis was impressed enough with the enterprising young man to take him on as an assistant.

After successfully passing the bar exam, Delano established himself as a lawyer in Mount Vernon, then ran for county prosecutor and served two terms in the 1830s. In the 1840s, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives by a 12-vote margin.

Instead of pursuing reelection to the House, Delano made a run for the Whig nomination to become the party's gubernatorial candidate for the state of Ohio. Alas, he lost to Seabury Ford in the nomination process by only two votes. Ford went on to win the election.

Delano stepped back from politics for a few years, focusing on his business interests — which now included banking and railroads — while expanding the size of his sheep farm, which is today the land on which Mount Vernon Nazarene University sits. But as the Whig party fractured from the tensions leading up to the war, Delano jumped back in, eagerly joining the new, progressive Republican party.

He was a delegate to the party's 1860 convention, and he was very active in the behind-the-scenes discussions that led to the bold nomination of a highly controversial candidate: Illinois Senator Abraham Lincoln. Delano quickly seconded the nomination of Lincoln, forcing the vote which led to Lincoln becoming the party's selection for the presidential election.

He returned to the House of Representatives and remained there for most of the decade, becoming very influential. He supported the presidential bid of his distant cousin, Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant, and was rewarded with a position as the Commissioner of Internal Revenue in 1869.

When Grant's Secretary of the Interior resigned in 1870, the president moved Delano into this job. Delano's great accomplishment in this role was the creation of the country's first national park, Yellowstone.

But it was also in this job that Delano promoted policies that were to become a very dark side of his legacy. Looking at it from his biased perspective, one can say that Delano did have a certain humane angle in mind for his policies toward American Indians, but in practice, it was brutal.

As Delano (and many others at the time) saw it, the westward movement of white settlers was inevitable. As long as the natives were free to roam in a migratory lifestyle, they would come in conflict with the settlers.

Delano's stated aim was to protect the Indians by granting them reservations which could not be taken away from them by settlers, giving them a sanctuary despite the encroachment of the Whites.

On paper, it even has a sort of noble ring to it, if you can get past the patronizing attitude. But in reality, it denied a way of life that the native tribes had pursued for thousands, possibly tens of thousands of years.

To end the native migrations following the vast herds of bison that criss-crossed the Great Plains, Delano created bounties — rewards — for hunters who would bring in skulls of bison. A massive slaughter of bison began in the Plains, everywhere except in Yellowstone National Park. Hunters killed bison by the thousands in order to end the Plains Indians' way of life.

In practice, the policy was monstrous. Indians were forced to integrate into White life and live on reservations with poor lands and limited resources. The social trauma rendered on the natives is something that their culture still has not recovered from.

Delano's other dark legacy was the spoils system. Others were trying to begin implementing a civil service system in the 1870s, by which governmental jobs would be awarded to those most suited for the jobs.

Delano, on the other hand, was a firm believer in the spoils system, where winners would hand out jobs to their supporters. While Delano himself appears to have been honest, he tolerated many corrupt deals in his department whereby unqualified people were given jobs based on their political support.

The Department of the Interior became a sprawling mess, the largest and least transparent section of the government, and many politicians criticized Delano's refusal to reform.

Finally, President Grant had enough and asked for Delano's resignation in 1875. Delano briefly remained in Washington, D.C., until one evening when he received minor injuries after a former Interior Department employee attempted to attack him and beat him with a walking stick on a city sidewalk. After this, Delano returned to Lakeholm, his Mount Vernon home, and focused on his work as president of the First National Bank of Mount Vernon.

He passed away in 1896.

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