Idaho politics with Mason Brayman and the Boise Ring

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Mason Brayman was born in 1813 in Buffalo, N.Y., and knew Abraham Lincoln - and also Stephen A. Douglas, who debated Lincoln and lost to him in a U.S. Senate race. He was a successful lawyer, newspaper editor, major general in the Union Army during the Civil War and wrote poems and church hymns. Then he was appointed governor of Idaho Territory and everything started going wrong.

The rough and tumble style of frontier politics was a lot different from political life in the East and Illinois. When he was appointed to the governorship by President Ulysses S. Grant and arrived in Boise City, he was already 63, and locals sized him up as "a somewhat pompous greenhorn who was otherwise harmless," according to one commentary.

He certainly didn't know he was walking into a hornet's nest.

Government corruption was rampant and Brayman came face-to-face with the Boise Ring, a band of influential Republican politicians who were against the mostly Democrat Mormons. Also, there was still friction between North and South sympathizers, and Indians and whites. Keeping the peace wouldn't be easy.

His early life in New York was productive. He was raised in a Calvinist family, became a printer's apprentice at age 17 and five years later became editor of a local newspaper, opposed drinking liquor, studied law in his spare time and was admitted to the New York Bar at age 23.

A year later, he married Mary Williams of Chautauqua County, N.Y., a descendant of Roger Williams, an English Protestant theologian born in 1603 who came to America during colonial days and believed in religious freedom, separation of church and state, was an abolitionist and advocated that Native Americans be treated fairly. He was also founder of the First Baptist Church.

Soon after Brayman took office, Stephen S. Fenn, a man of good reputation and an old-time Confederate Democrat and Idaho delegate to Congress briefed him on the "evil Boise Ring," accusing one of its leaders, Territorial Secretary Edward J. Curtis, of drunkenness, fraud and misuse of public funds.

After an investigation, the governor decided to go after Curtis, planning to replace him with his son-in-law. He confronted the Secretary and suggested that he save his reputation by retiring quietly and avoid being brought before the magistrate. Curtis accepted the suggestion but reversed himself several months later - claiming he was tricked into resigning - and was reappointed.

The Boise Ring railed that "Egypt was cursed with frogs, lice, and locusts; Idaho Indians, Mormons, and Brayman," while U.S. Attorney Joseph W. Huston denounced the governor as "A convicted liar and slanderer; an established fraud and bilk, without character or morality or integrity ... a stench in the nostrils of this people."

Then a number of Boise territorial officials fought to have the governor disbarred on some absurd trumped-up charges.

On top of those troubles, the Indians were restless: the Nez Perce War had General Oliver O. Howard chasing down Chief Joseph, and the Bannock War was just around the corner. Then there was that matter of a murder trial charging some Chinese with killing an Irishman who had killed a Chinese.

What did Brayman do before coming to Idaho?

Before the Civil War started, he was a lawyer for the Illinois Central Railroad working on obtaining railroad rights-of-way, later joining Cairo and Fulton Railroad. When war erupted in 1861, he was appointed colonel of the 29th Illinois Infantry Regiment, and later promoted to brigadier general commanding the 43rd Illinois Infantry Brigade, fighting in Tennessee and Mississippi.

Twice his horse was shot out from under him, and at Shiloh he fearlessly charged between the Union troops and the Confederates, rallying his men.

At the Battle of Fort Donelson, Brayman stopped shaving, eventually allowing his signature beard to grow down to his waist. It was also the battle where after the Union Army captured the fort, and Ulysses S. Grant rose to fame.

Also serving under Grant at that time was John Baldwin Neil who some 18 years later would replace Brayman as governor in Idaho Territory.

At Vicksburg he suffered heatstroke and was reassigned to desk duty, and by the end of the war was serving as head of a claims commission in New Orleans before leaving the Army.

Like many war veterans, he had a tough time readjusting to civilian life. Returning to his old job at the Cairo and Fulton didn't work out, so he returned to newspaper editing in Springfield and Quincy, Ill., before going into semi-retirement on a farm in Ripon, Wis. Then the Panic of 1873 wiped him out financially and he was begging for a patronage job.

That brought him to Idaho.

An Idaho State Historical Society report states that "some citizens of Idaho began to wonder if Brayman was more effective fighting the Boise Ring or the Indians." Probably neither. The Boise Ring was still in business after he was gone and the Indian Wars were decided on the battlefields.

When the Indian troubles escalated, Brayman had to rely on General Howard and the Army. There was no state militia at the time. The governor called for volunteers and among those answering the call were 27 men under the leadership of Rube Robbins, later Ada County sheriff and warden of Idaho State Penitentiary. They joined Howard in the hunt for Chief Joseph.

Next was trouble with Chief Justice Madison Hollister, a member of the Boise Ring. In Rocky Bar, Alturas County, where court cases - mostly mining disputes - were piling up and hurting the local economy, the governor suggested they consider arbitration. Hollister took personal affront and denounced the suggestion.

Another challenge for Brayman was when a hotheaded Irishman named John McGuinness had an altercation with a group of Chinese workers. Violence followed and McGuinness killed one of them. Then the rest of the workers stabbed him to death. An all-white jury found the Chinese guilty of second-degree murder, but Brayman believed they acted in self-defense and pardoned them. That caused a furor. His popularity plummeted and he began questioning his wisdom in ever coming to Idaho.

Then he had to fight the Boise Ring boys trying to throw him out of office. The governor survived that effort, but was humiliated in the process.

Adding to his failures were establishing a state militia and bringing the railroad to Idaho - both blocked by the legislature. The militia would wait for another day, and the railroads lost interest and planned their routes elsewhere.

War with the Indians was brewing mainly because of their mistreatment at Malheur Reservation by Agent William V. Rinehart combined with problems on Big Camas Prairie. Paiute leader Winnemucca (Bad Face) and several warriors dined as guests of honor with Brayman in Boise, pledging peaceful intentions. The governor took note of the Indian grievances and was sympathetic, but the Bannock War erupted anyway.

In the sunset of his governorship, he called for a reapportionment board, planning to give most of the seats in southeastern Idaho to the majority Mormons living there. His successor, John Baldwin Neil (appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes), heard of the move and hurried to Boise to be sworn in, block the plan, and start an anti-Mormon campaign.

Neil knew that despite existing federal law against plural marriages, juries in heavily Mormon areas would not convict fellow church members of polygamy. He sought to deal with the "Mormon menace" by disenfranchising LDS members in the territorial legislature, but didn't succeed.

Mason Brayman served his full term, and despite all the flak was a man of principle, "whose honesty of purpose could not be doubted," wrote James Hawley, Idaho's 9th governor after statehood.

On Aug. 19, 1880, Brayman left Idaho but Lewiston newspaper editor Alonzo Leland, anxious to topple the Boise Ring, nominated the ex-governor to be the territory's delegate to Congress. That effort failed and Brayman's public service came to an end.

He died in Kansas City on Feb. 27, 1895. Mason Brayman was a good man. He was not devious or corrupt. He served well in the Civil War even though he never made headlines like Grant, Lee, Sherman or Custer. It was Idaho that would become the headache of his life.

Unfortunately, Aspirin wasn't on the market until 1899.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. Contact him at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

The governor and the Church

The governor was a Baptist but created a problem for himself with the Boise Baptist Church: The church lost its minister and was struggling. They had an option to purchase a lot adjoining the church, but Brayman bought it, offering to turn over the deed to the congregation when they could repay him.

Idaho Statesman editor Milton Kelly attacked Brayman, accusing him of trying to sell the lot the Presbyterians - and offering to join their church if they did - instead of holding it for the Baptists. For three years after this brouhaha, there was no Baptist Church in Boise.

Those damn Yankees!

One report about the Civil War noted that after the Union Army captured Natchez, Miss., Ophelia Mayer, a local resident wrote a nasty letter complaining that General Mason Brayman was "a miserable tyrant." The report continued: "General Brayman was, in fact, a strict and unreasonable occupier.

"When a Natchez Catholic bishop refused to pray for Abraham Lincoln, the general exiled him to Vidalia, Louisiana, just across the river from the city."

The Civil War Poet-Warrior

After Shiloh, Mason Brayman wrote a short poem about the battle:

THE FLAG

Oft-times today, the flag went down,

In furious fray and wild retreat,

And Shiloh's crimsoned battleground

Was trod by traitors' feet!

But when the morrow's sun shone out,

High o'er the field it floated free;

And, trembling to the battle shout

Each star flashed glorious victory!

- April 1862

What happened to Brayman's successor?

John Baldwin Neil didn't last long as governor of Idaho Territory. Accused of "drunkenness, laziness, unpopularity, incompetence, and absence from office," he was replaced by President Chester A. Arthur - who some say likely may have done so for political reasons.

Posthumous reports

"Brayman died in Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 27, 1895. Obituaries printed at the time tended to praise his earlier years while giving only passing mention to his time in Idaho."

Brayman and the Nauvoo Mormons

In 1845, Illinois Governor Thomas Ford appointed attorney Mason Brayman to write the terms of the peaceful removal of the Mormons from Nauvoo and negotiate with them in accomplishing this purpose.

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