“Beyond the Bronze: The Ninian Edwards Statue in Context” was a webinar that offered a look into the life of Ninian Edwards, a former Illinois governor, and his actions, which included attacking Native American villages.
Actions such as these are why Our Edwardsville, the group who hosted the webinar, has been calling for a statue of Edwards in downtown Edwardsville to be relocated.
Public Historian Brian Ellis, one of the speakers on the panel, was already familiar with Edwards’ story. About 12 years ago, Ellis was chosen to portray Edwards in a presentation from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and researched Edwards for that role. Ellis said his own Indigenous heritage made Edwards’ story even more disturbing, and led to him asking to change the production he was in.
“Being Cherokee, my family narrowly avoided the Trail of Tears by moving West and denying our [American] Indian heritage,” Ellis said. “When I started reading about Ninian Edwards’ outright disdain and destruction of Native Americans in Illinois, I’m like ‘How can I do this show?’”
Ellis said he then chose to focus on two perspectives, rather than just Edwards’. Ellis found letters sent between Potawatomi Chief Gomo and Edwards, which he said he used to write this story.
According to Ellis, a few people from the Winnebago tribe in Wisconsin came down to Southern Illinois and killed and scalped a few settlers, including children. Ellis said Edwards demanded Gomo to turn in the men who committed this act, but Gomo told him that they were not from his tribe, and his people did not know them.
“[Edwards then] goes from Southern Illinois to Peoria, and en route, he found American Indian villages … and he destroys the villages, and even digs up their seed-corn, which destroys their food for next year. And then he finally comes to the village near Peoria, and murders and mutilates women and children, and it’s a really horrific account,” Ellis said.
The path Edwards took to destroy these Indigenous villages is known as The Edwards Trace, and is now a hiking path.
Ellis said accounts from Indigenous people on this trail were tragic, and according to some accounts from Edwards’ men, they were horrified, too. However, according to Ellis, Edwards’ account of this story is celebratory..
Ellis also said Edwards burned down the French village of Peoria, Illinois, despite the U.S.’s alliance with France at the time.
“[Edwards] arrests all the French men, and takes them to St. Louis, and leaves the French women and children … in the town square, where their houses, and even the church and warehouses are burned down around them. And who rescues these women? Potawatomi Chief Gomo,” Ellis said. “He takes the French women and children back to his village, and arranges for them to be safely transported to St. Louis so they can be reunited.”
This story about Edwards, along with other similar accounts, are why Our Edwardsville wants this statue relocated. The statue in question was put up in 2008, and the surrounding plaza was then named after him. Alderman S.J. Morrison was not on the Edwardsville City Council when the statue was erected, and he said he was curious why the statue and plaza were created as well.
“The idea was to take a corner of downtown, a prominent corner of downtown, and convert from a bit of an eyesore, there was a vacant building there and a gravel parking lot, to a signature park for our community. And in many ways, I think they were successful in doing that. They created a nice park, green space, lovely trees, a fountain and so on,” Morrison said. “To be honest, I really don’t know why a statue of Ninian Edwards was chosen for that particular location. When I have asked a similar question, what I have learned is that … there really wasn’t anything recognizing Ninian Edwards, and so this was an effort to do so.”
At city council meetings in recent months, Edwardsville residents have spoken out both for and against the relocation of the statue. Those opposed to its relocation have often said statues and monuments like this one play an important role in reminding people of the past.
Ben Dickmann, who was city administrator when the statue was unveiled, spoke in support of keeping the statue at one of these city council meetings. Dickmann said Edwards’ achievements should be acknowledged alongside recognizing his more deplorable actions and beliefs.
Professor of Sociology Florence Maätita said the reason the discussion of Ninian Edwards has received so much attention is partly because of the notion of white fragility, which is similar to white guilt. According to Maätita, white guilt is the guilt felt by some white people for the horrendous actions of their ancestors, while white fragility is the knee-jerk reaction of anger and disagreement some white people feel when forced to acknowledge these actions.
“I think that guilt is part of the response that some people, namely white people, have when it comes to these kinds of issues, like race relations or introducing a different lens to understand a history, but … chances are, it’s not just guilt that you’re experiencing. It’s guilt and something else that is the source of this discomfort. And what is the source of that discomfort? It’s having your experiences and your very existence questioned,” Maätita said. “This discomfort is often interpreted as guilt, but you can also say that this discomfort also contributes to this notion of white fragility.”
President of the Lincoln School Alumni Foundation and Longtime Community Leader Herman Shaw said he was very grateful for the support that the youth have given to Black Lives Matter and to Our Edwardsville. Shaw said that if we want these young people to remain active in politics, they need to see that their voice can be heard.
“If we expect [young people] to contribute and try to help us build our community, I think that we need to do something relatively soon because … I think they might lose their interest and their motivation, and I don’t want to see that happen to these young people,” Shaw said. “I think that they took it upon themselves to bring this to our attention, and I think that they need to feel like their thoughts matter … I think it’s important that we thank them.”
Visit the Our Edwardsville website for more information.