D. Leigh Henson introduces new works focused on the Gilletts of Elkhart

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[March 22, 2019] 

In 2018 the sale of the Gillett Mansion near Elkhart and in 2017 the sale of vast tracks of Gillett heritage farmland concluded a chapter in the near-epic family history of John Dean Gillett--the 19th-century Cattle King of America. That family history ties to three-term, Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby and his descendants. Oglesby married the oldest daughter of John Dean and Lemira Gillett. The Oglesbys’ older son, John Dean Gillett Oglesby (twice elected lieutenant governor of Illinois), later managed thousands of acres of Gillett heritage farmland.

Members of the Gillett-Oglesby families have contributed significantly to the economic, political, and cultural history of central Illinois. Much has been written about these families, but the Gillett story especially needs to be told more completely. Accordingly, I have created a research-based, collaborative webpage as a pictorial history of the Gillett family from its beginnings in the 1850s to the present. After Mr. Gillett's death in 1888, his family endured several scandals, including the 1900 divorce of his only son, whose mother then had him arrested on a charge of insanity. In 1904 two of John Dean Gillett's daughters went to war over ownership of the family real estate. The resulting civil trial split the family into two factions and was one of the most expensive in Illinois judicial history.

William Maxwell, the native Lincolnite and acclaimed author, had written about the 1904 Gillett estate trial in Ancestors: A Family History (1971).

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His grandfathers were attorneys on opposing sides in the trial, but Maxwell admitted he had limited knowledge of the dispute: “What was being fought over was, at a rough estimate of its present-day value, five or six million dollars. I still don't know anything like the full details of this immensely complicated story; the broad outlines I got partly from a newspaper clipping in my grandmother's scrapbook and partly from a Lincoln lawyer, a man of my father's generation. He was a schoolboy when all of this happened and was present at the trial” (p. 161).

My research rediscovered detailed newspaper reports of the trial that Maxwell had not seen, and I transcribe them in my Gillett family history webpage. I also provide information about the ironic site of the trial in Gillett Hall in Lincoln, the trial lawyers, and judge as well as questions unanswered by the trial. My webpage presents extensive Gillett-Oglesby family history before and after the trial, including other scandals and how the heirs have managed their heritage farmland.

Visit the website: Finding Lincoln Illinois

The Real Estate Empire of the John Dean Gillett Family of Elkhart, Illinois; 
the Gillett Great Estate Trial of 1904 at Lincoln, Illinois; and Gillett History to the Present

[D. Leigh Henson]

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