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Sheahan, James W. (James Washington) (1824-1883) | Lake Forest College Archives and Special Collections

Name: Sheahan, James W. (James Washington) (1824-1883)
Variant Name: Sheahan, J. W.

Historical Note:

James W. Sheahan, 1824-1883, was a major Chicago journalist and author from his arrival in the city in 1854 until his death in 1883, at the time in the employ of the Chicago Tribune , according to historian A. T. Andreas (History of Chicago..., Chicago: A. T. Andreas, 1885, v. 2, p. 494).  This was a critical three decades in the history of the rapidly growing but much-challenged city of that time, marked by Civil War and the Fire of 1871.  His authorship of the fifty-two essays on the prints in Chicago Illustrated... stands as one of his major and most lasting writing achievements. It stands as a link between his earlier career in the city as a Stephen A. Douglas-allied Democratic journalist and author (see Patricia B. Swan and James B. Swan, 2012, listed below) with his future career as a co-author of a book on Chicago immediately after the Fire of 1871 and then of an article in a national magazine, Scribner's, in 1875 proclaiming that Chicago, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, was back as a major city.

James Washington Sheahan was born of Irish parents in Baltimore, Maryland, February 22, 1824 (hence, Washington as his middle name, born on that president's birthday).  He received his education from the Jesuit school, Frederick, Maryland, and was admitted to the bar in the Distict of Columbia in 1845, about the age of 21.  He soon though turned to journalism, preparing reports of Congressional proceedings for the New York Associated Press.  A. T. Andreas  (History of Chicago..., Chicago: A. T. Andreas, 1885, v. 2, p. 494), cites George P. Upton's obituary of Sheahan who died June 17, 1883, in stating that Sheahan in 1847 "made his first trip to the West, to report the proceedings of the Illinois Constitutional Convention at Springfield, and there met Stephen A. Doulgas."  This report continues by stating that Douglas "suggested that [Sheahan] should inaugurate a Democratic newspaper in Chicago."  Sheahan indeed came to Chicago to join a fledgling Democratic newspaper in 1854, Young America starting July 4, 1854, with J. W. Patterson as editor.  The publishers, Cook, Cameron and Patterson asked Sheahan, still in the east, to join them (Andreas, v. 1, 1884, pp. 409-10).  With him on board they changed the name to the Chicago Times, beginning on August 20, 1854.  By the spring of 1856, with Sheahan in the editorial chair, the publishers were Isaac Cook, Daniel Cameron and Sheahan. By the fall of 1856 Sheahan and Cameron were listed as editors and proprietors.  Early in 1857, too, they named a city eidtor, Andre Mattson.  Andreas (v. 1, p. 410) reports that the publisher's run of the Times was sent to the binders in 1871, where it was destroyed by fire in October of that year, along with the binder's premises  (a microfilm run, though, is reportedly held by the University of Chicago).

1854  also was the year the Republican Party was organized and became the cause of the Chicago Tribune.  It was the next year, 1855, that Joseph Medill came to Chicago and joined the Tribune.  Sheahan's Tiimes  thrived through 1860, and Sheahan supported vigorously Democratic causes such as State Sovereignty as championed by U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861), who served in Washington beginning in 1847.  Frank Luther Mott, in his 1941 survey history American Journalism, cites the Times as "an honest Decomcratic journal," (p. 357), and states that even Lincoln "respected" Sheahan (p. 358n).

In 1860, Sheahan published an extensive, sympathetic biography of Illinois U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, then a candidate for President of the U.S., opposed by the winning Abraham Lincoln, also of Illinois.  In July of 1860 Sheahan sold the Times to reaper manufacturer Cyrus McCormick, a Southerner like Sheahan who also was of (Scots) Irish background and known for supporting his native state of Virginia.  By December of 1860, after the election, Sheahan had returned to newspaper work, as the war seemed imminent and his candidate had lost the election, with the Chicago Post.  Mott unfortunately does not mention existence of the Post prior to 1865.  But Sheahan published the Chicago Post through the rest of the war until April of 1865, when he sold that paper to the Republican Company.

Frederick Francis Cook, a journalist of the period, describes Sheahan's Post and its relationship to the Times, under McCormick's ownership, in his 1910 book, Bygone Days in Chicago: Recollections of the 'Garden City' of the Sixties (A.C. McClurg).  Cook saw the Times after Sheahan left it as a voice of a Buchanan wing of the Democratic Party (anti-war, Copperheads), while the new Post, edited by Sheahan and Andrew Mattson, was of the Douglas, pro-Union loyal but anti-slavery opposition to the hegemonic Republican Party.  Cook writes glowingly of Sheahan as a wartime writer: one "whose English was of the purest--simple, direct, and dashed with a quiet humor..." (p. 239). But the stance of the Post, with the war ending, "had no sustaining life of its own." Thus, by the close of the struggle, this reason for being had evaporated, by April 1865 (Cook, p. 332), and the Post  "died a natural death."  Sheahan joined the staff of the Chicago Tribune next, still a Republican paper: a natural evolution, with the slavery queston settled and the Democratic Party in the shadows.

By the time of his ...Leading Men of Chicago... biography in 1868, Sheahan is reported to have been married with six children.  His spouse, whom he married while still in the east, was one of six siblings of the notable artist John H. Drury, who came to Chicago also after the Civil War.

In the process of describing the first plate in Part 7 of Chicago Illustrated..., the Douglas Monument, Sheahan, who is always descriptive and non-editorial in this series, stays matter-of-fact and even leaves the actual detailing of the monument's features to its architect.  But following Douglas's death on June 3, 1861, Sheahan had been among the first organizers of the committee to erect a monument, in October 1861.  He signed the call for the first meeting of the group, along with the eventual architect. L. W. Volk. (This information comes from a reprinted Tribune story on the monument's completion, published with a copy of Sheahan's 1861 eulogy for Douglas, given at the Chicago University in June).  Part 7 is for the month of July, 1866, but it describes the cornerstone laying ceremony of September 6, 1866, as a past event, while saying that the print is the artist's "anticipated" view of the finished structure.

Without himself praising his former ally and apparent patron Sheahan by describing all the dignitaries and their roles in the ceremony attests to the high regard in which Douglas was held, after the war--that Douglas wished to avoid--was over.  Indeed, President Andrew Johnson was present that day, as were his future successor U.S. Grant (president 1869-77) and William H. Seward, who had moderated his views on the South since his unsuccessful Republican presidential campaign of 1860, and was supporting the new president.  They were on a campaign swing, the three plus others, for Johnson that fall of 1866.  Thus, Sheahan's quiet decription of the corner-stone laying event September 6 marked a kind of postwar unity ceremony for former political combatants--with Sheahan by implication among them.  So this print was loaded with an undercurrent of contemporary politics when it appeared apparently at least a few months later than its July cover date.  The Douglas Monument took another decade and a half to complete, in August of 1881.

Sheahan's career continued after the 1866-67 publication of Chicago Illusrated... and after his 1868 biographical sketch appeared. Following the 1871 Fire his was one of the early books about the disaster, co-authored with a contemporary journalist, George P. Upton: The Great Conflagration.  Chicago: Its Past, Present, and Future. ... (Chicago: Union Publishing, 1872).  This history, written that winter, is illustrated too with post-Fire engravings of many of the buildings shown in Chicago Illustrated... five years earlier, but now destroyed with only some masonry remnants visible: the 1851-completed Wabash Ave. Second Presbyterian Church (the spotted stones of which by 1886 would become the walls of the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest), facing p. 286; City Hall, facing p. 178; the Chamber of Commerce and the Custom House, facing p. 268; and the Miichigan Southern Railroad... Depot, facing p. 322.

But by 1875 Sheahan could publish in Scribner's Monthly Magazine (vol 10, no 5, September) "Chicago," an illlustrated article (pp. 529-51) asserting and also showing that Chicago had rebuilt and once again was the business center of the continent.  The opening illustration was the phoenix bird rising from the ashes of October 1871 Chicago. By 1880 Sheahan also is listed as co-author with Joseph Medill of Illinois, a rare 22-page pamphlet apparently published By Scribner's, New York.  But it shows Sheahan still active with the Tribune''s publisher by then, Medill.  According to George P. Upton, cited by Andreas, Sheahan remained under Medill on the Tribune staff until his death in 1883.

Thus, most of his life after his early twenties Sheahan was engaged as a working journalist and writer, respected by those he wrote about such as Lincoln and by fellow journalists such as F. F. Cook and Joseph Medill.  If individually his short essays to accompany each of the fifty-two Chicago Illustrated... prints of 1866-67 were simple and direct, as Cook described his writing, still in the aggregate by their quality and cumulative impact they were a vivid testimony to the strength of post Civil War Chicago and also, it turned out, a good predicter of the ability of Chicago to overcome the adversity of the 1871 Chicago Fire and its aftermath. James W. Sheahan deserves to be recognized for his position as a notable and apparently influential early Chicago author.


Andreas, A. T. History of Chicago: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time. 3 vols. (Chicago: A. T. Andreas, 1884-86).

Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men of Chicago (1868).

Cook, Frederick Francis, Bygone Days of Chicago: Recollections of the 'Garden City' of the Sixties (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1910).

Medill, Joseph, and James W. Sheahan, Illinois (New York: Scribner's, 1880).

Mott, Frank Luther, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States Through 250 Years, 1690 to 1940 (New York: Macmillan, 1941), pp. 357-58.

Sheahan, James W. Chicago Illustrated: 1830-1866 (Chicago: Jevne & Almini, 1866-67, in thirteen monthly parts.

_______. The Life of Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1860).

_______. Stephen A. Douglas: An Eulogy Delivered Before the Chicago University, July 3rd, 1861 (Chicago: Fergus, 1881).

Sheahan, James W. and George P. Upton, The Great Conflagration: Chicago: Its Past, Present, and Future... (Chicago: Union Publishing, 1872).

Swan, Patricia B. and James B. Swan, " James W. Sheahan: Stephen A. Douglas Supporter and Partisan Chicago Journalist," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 105, No. 2-3 (Summer-Fall 2012), 133-166.

Note Author: Arthur H. Miller, Archivist, Lake Forest College, amiller@lakeforest.edu

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