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Kane, Thomas Leiper
(January 27, 1822–December 26, 1883)

–foreign service officer, lawyer, civil rights crusader, Civil War officer, and town founder—was the second of four sons and one daughter of Philadelphia District Court Judge John Kintzing Kane and Jane Duval (Leiper) Kane. He completed college in 1840 with dangerously taxed health from over-study. He was sent to England to recuperate, where an elderly relative wanted to make Kane his heir. Kane excused himself gracefully from that dependency by accepting an appointment in Paris as an attaché in the American legation.

    Kane was admitted to the court of Louis Phillipe, became friends with the renowned philosopher August Comte, and was tutored by a former secretary to the revolutionary Robespierre. Kane enjoyed the company of Frenchmen still caught up in the spirit of the French Revolution. But his body broke down. Neither French nor Americandoctors could control what later became pulmonary tuber culosis. He went home to live with his mother and father. Though weak and bedridden, he studied under the direction of his father and was admitted to the Philadelphia bar as a lawyer on March 4, 1846.

    Kane became a lifelong crusader. He resigned a government post and the bar in 1850 rather than uphold the Fugitive Slave Act, and he was an active supporter of the Underground Railroad. He chaired the Free-Soil State Central Committee and worked to abolish capital punishment, improve conditions in American prisons, and open higher education to women. He also established a school for tots, much like a modern kindergarten.

    Kane's most challenging crusade arose unexpectedly. War broke out between the United States and Mexico in May 1846 as about 15,000 Mormon refugees were struggling westward through Iowa's mud. Kane likely learned through his father and President James K. Polk that these Mormon refugees included about 4,000 former Illinois militiamen from west-central Illinois and southeastern Iowa. Kane attended, unannounced, a conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, or Mormon) in Philadelphia that was scheduled to discuss the migration. At the end of the conference, Kane invited Mormon elder Jesse C. Little, who had presided at the conference, to explain more about the Mormons and their plans. Little mentioned that he was on his way to Washington, D.C., to learn if there was some building the Mormons could do along the Oregon Trail as they moved west. Kane offered, through his father, who was a confidant of American presidents from Andrew Jackson to James Buchanan, to try to arrange high-level interviews for Little. Kane also asked permission to go west with the Mormons–a bold gambit for a man of frail health who thought that the Mormons might be going to fight for Mexico against the United States.

    Meeting with President Polk, Elder Little said that the Mormons would like to earn money for their migration by building forts or blockhouses along the Oregon Trail, an unfulfilled plan of the War Department since 1839. President Polk replied that he needed soldiers, not builders. Would some Mormons volunteer for service in the U.S. Army for a year? Soon thereafter Kane and Little left Washington, D.C., together for St. Louis. From there, Little went north up the Mississippi River to join the Mormon exodus to the west. Kane went northwest up the Missouri River to Fort Leaven-worth, Kansas Territory, to hand deliver War Department orders to recruit between 292 and 545 Mormon men for the army.

    U.S. Dragoon (mounted infantry) Captain James Allen, former commander of Fort Des Moines, with five aides, was sent immediately from Fort Leavenworth to intercept and solicit volunteers from Mormon refugees in south-central Iowa. Those Mormons sent Allen and his recruiters on west to talk with LDS leader Brigham Young. Kane meanwhile rode alone up the Missouri River to the advanced LDS camps in time to help Allen and Young recruit about 489 men, nine boys as aides to officers, and 20 women volunteers as laundresses. Kane met frequently with LDS leaders, traveled unescorted through scattered camps, and sent letters back to the Polk administration in Washington, D.C. He became convinced that the Mormons were loyal citizens who had no intention of fighting for Mexico against the United States. For much of his life, Kane worked hard to refute false reports about the Mormons. Impressed with Kane's integrity and desire to help them, the Mormons renamed Miller's Hollow, one of their earliest settlements, Kane in 1847 and then Kanesville in 1848. Later settlers, after the Mormons had left, renamed it Council Bluffs and changed every street name. Yet however briefly, idealist Thomas Kane was etched into the history of Iowa.
Sources Thomas L. Kane, The Mormons: A Discourse Delivered before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, March 26, 1850 (1850), clearly depicts the environs of what became Council Bluffs as it was in 1846. See also genealogical files in the Family and Church History Department, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City; Albert L. Zobell Jr., Sentinel in the East: A Biography of Thomas L. Kane (1955); and Daniel Tyler, A Concise History of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War (1881).
Contributor: Gail Holmes