Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cordelia Wallace Butler

When Lew Wallace courted Susan Elston in the late 1840s and early 1850s, he was pursuing a daughter of one of the richest men in the State of Indiana. By all accounts, Susan adored Lew and was thrilled by his attention. Her very business-like father, however, was not so enamored. Lew had something of a reputation. He hadn’t embraced school, hadn’t been diligent about pursing a career that would provide a stable income, and loved to go off in pursuit of military excitement. Even the distinguished Calvin Fletcher weighed in on young Wallace commenting on Lew and his friends running around Indianapolis as rascals.

William Wallace

In the 1840s, Lew was not the only Wallace boy pursuing Hoosier heiresses. Lew’s older brother William caught the attention of Miss Cordelia Butler. Born in 1828, Cordelia (sometimes spelled Cordilia) was the oldest of Ovid and Cordelia Dyer Cole Butler’s six children. Her father, Ovid, moved to Shelbyville in 1817 and became an attorney. In 1836 he moved his family to Indianapolis where he opened his law practice with partners as prestigious as Calvin Fletcher. Butler was an accomplished orator who quickly gained a reputation for his business skill, for his politics and for his religious views. Butler was a vocal opponent of slavery and in 1849 he established a paper call Free Soil Banner in Indianapolis. Due to poor health and because of his financial successes, he also retired from his law practice about the same time. The Free Soil Banner continued until about 1854 and Lew Wallace, along with William B. Greer, is reported to have had some editorial input into the newspaper.

Although there were schools that had a founding based on Christian theology, there was no state university affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. In the 1840s, Butler and Fletcher became leading proponents for a Christian college in Indiana. In 1850, the State General Assembly authorized the formation of a school for the Christian Movement. The creation of this school became a driving force in Butler’s life and over the next five years he raised $75,000 for the school. In November of 1855 the North Western Christian University opened its doors. For the next sixteen years he served as the head of the Board of Directors and was then made Chancellor of the University. In 1877, the school received a new name, Butler University, in honor of his leadership.

As is common in research, women were much less recorded in historical documents than men. Available records detail much more about Cordelia’s husband and her father than they do about her. No images of Cordelia have come to light and all that we really know about her is that she was born on March 25, 1828 and during their marriage she had nine children. If the date of the birth of her first child is correct, she must have married William Wallace at or before the age of 17. The children of Cordelia and William were Esther (born 1845), Butler (born 1853), Zerelda (born 1854), Willie (born 1856), Lewis (born 1857), Ovid (born 1859), Anna (born 1859), Cordelia (born 1861), and William (born 1866). The birth of William on August 31, 1866 is particularly poignant because Cordelia died that same day at the age of 42.

Given the importance of her father, Cordelia Butler must have been considered one of the most eligible women in Indiana at the time of her courtship. With their limited means and their undoubted concerns about their eighteen year old son, Lew, David and Zerelda Wallace must have been pleased to see their oldest son happily wed to a woman of means with a strong Christian upbringing. As the daughter of Ovid Butler, the wife of successful attorney William Wallace, the daughter-in-law of Governor David Wallace, the sister-in-law to Lew and Susan Elston Wallace and with business associates like Calvin Fletcher and Benjamin Harrison, Cordelia travelled in powerful circles. She must have been a great contributor to the culture and society of Indianapolis during the pivotal years prior to and during the Civil War. While the relationships to the men she was surrounded by have assured that she is remembered to a degree, perhaps one day research will better define Cordelia Butler Wallace as a person in her own right rather just a reflection of those around her.

Tidbit extra: It is through the Butler family that the Wallaces can claim kinship with Booth Tarkington.

The General Lew Wallace Study & Museum celebrates and renews belief in the power of the individual spirit to affect American history and culture.

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