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Daniel Pope Cook Defended Indians ...
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Daniel Pope Cook Defended Indians ...
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Among the earliest of Illinois’ noted men were Daniel Pope Cook and his uncle, Nathaniel Pope, the territorial secretary and later territorial delegate. It was through the efforts of these two stalwarts of early Illinois territory, that the territory became a state and with boundaries that have since redounded to its immense advantage.

Daniel Pope Cook was the brilliant and lovable young protege of Nathaniel Pope and Ninian Edwards, the territorial governor; he deliberately chose the issue of entrance into the union as most likely to make his political fortune. After returning from London, whither he had been sent with dispatches, he made his way to Illinois, where he had already acquired an interest in the Western Intelligencer. By some well-written articles he soon gained attention of the people most interested. He pointed out that the many difficulties under which Illinois was laboring would soon be straightened out if the citizens controlled their own destiny. Governor Edwards recommended Cook’s suggestions in his message, and the legislature which assembled on December 1, 1817, took it under advisement and in ten days a petition to Congress was passed unanimously.

Who was this Daniel Pope Cook?

On October 3, 1821, in the dingy log courtroom at Coles’ Grove, first county seat of Pike county, at the first session of circuit court in the county, which was also the first session of a circuit court north of the Illinois river, there appeared, among the buckskin-clad attendants of the court a remarkably handsome and immaculately dressed young man.

The first criminal case called in all that vast region of Illinois lying north and west of the Illinois river, was at bar, with John Reynolds, justice of the supreme court and later governor, upon the bench. Two Indians named Pemesan and Shonwennekek were charged with murder, in the first county indictment returned by a Pike grand jury. Justice Reynolds appointed this immaculately dressed and handsome young man to defend the Indians. This was Daniel Pope Cook, greatest leader of the early days and long unbeatable in the political arena in this state. He was what Commodore Vanderbilt might have called “one of those literary fellers.” He possessed a keen mind and a facile pen. But his race was short. He flashed into the political firmament of the new state with the suddenness of a meteor, and his flare of glory was almost as brief.

He hailed from Kentucky, came to St. Genevieve, Mo. in 1811, worked as a clerk in a store. Poor and without friends, contending with the incipient ravages of a dread disease, he left Missouri for Kaskaskia, the ancient capital of the Illinois country. There he studied law under his illustrious uncle, the great territorial delegate, Judge Nathaniel Pope. He passed his bar examination in 1815, at the age of 22. His health failed and he traveled in warm climes. He was sent as special messenger by President Monroe to John Quincy Adams at the Court of St. James. On his return he was appointed to a judgeship here in western Illinois.

He became the first attorney general of the new state; then, in unbroken succession, he defeated the greatest leaders of the day for Congress, beating John McLean of Shawneetown for the 16th congress, Elias Kent Kane for the 17th, McLean again for the 18th, and Shadrach Bond (the first governor) for the 19th. He had already been elected to Congress when he arose to defend the two Indians at Coles’ Grove and was at that moment at the zenith of his popularity.

Editing the early Kaskaskia Herald, he changed the name of that paper to the Western Intelligencer, and in editorials and articles therein, even as early as 1816, he fulminated the most powerful arguments in favor of the admission of Illinois into the union, which was finally consummated by his uncle, Nathaniel Pope. Following the state’s admission he labored incessantly to keep it out of the clutches of slavery, stumping this county for freedom in the bitter election of 1824. He married the daughter of Ninian Edwards, third governor of Illinois, and even after the popularity of Edwards began to wane, he continued to head the Edwards party in the state. He lost his hold on the public, when, as the congressman from Illinois, with the presidential election of 1824 thrown into the house (neither of the four candidates therein having received an electoral majority) he cast the vote of the state for John Quincy Adams instead of for the popular hero, Andrew Jackson, who had received both a popular and an electoral plurality.

This young man, whose career in Illinois was brief but elevated and conspicuous, died about 1830. No picture of that early court scene at Coles’ Grove is complete without the figure of that courtly young gentleman, already marked by disease for an early grave. What a contrast he must have been to those rude surroundings! How he must have stood out, the observed of all, when, in unruffled garb despite the tolls of pioneer travel on horseback, he arose to defend the Indians with a sort of ethereal light playing upon a countenance of refined and poetic beauty. In his honor the county of Cook was named.

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Submitted: 01/26/08

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