Saturday, April 3, 2010

Pierre Irving and his Famous Uncle

Another Bend of the River article. Beyond the book cited at the end of this essay, Pierre Irving is as unknown today as Washington Irving is famous.

Pierre Irving and his Famous Uncle

Historians don’t agree on just why Toledo was named “Toledo.” It is common knowledge that there is a famous city in Spain named Toledo. All sources agree that our Toledo is named for Toledo, Spain, but who came up with the idea is cloudy. One of the theories has it that the famous author Washington Irving (1783-1859) suggested it because of his diplomatic service in the Spanish city. Irving, as I pointed out in a previous article, never visited our hometown, but was a Toledo landowner, buying and selling plots of land in the Lagrange Street area.

The story goes that his suggestion was transmitted to his nephew, Pierre Munro Irving. Pierre Irving was a Toledo resident. He lived three years in the fledgling city, served as editor of the Toledo Blade, participated in various Toledo civic organizations, and almost “went native.” Only an unforeseen illness brought him out of the swampy flatlands and prevented him from staying longer.

Pierre Munro Irving (1802-1876) was the son of William Irving, Washington Irving’s elder brother. A native of New York, he studied law in his youth. He did the research for his uncle’s book Astoria (1836), an epic of Western exploration. Researching, outlining, and writing notes gave Pierre some exposure to the literary life.

Pierre first heard of Toledo via the family of his first wife, Margaret Berdan. The first Mrs. Irving died in 1832, meaning that Pierre was free of domestic responsibilities during his work on the Astoria project. In 1836, he ran into John Berdan, his former brother-in-law, in New York City. Berdan had spent time in Toledo in the fall of 1835. He made a case for investing in Toledo. Berdan, who was in New York to buy Toledo property, and would later become Toledo’s first mayor, offered to sell Pierre a 1/5 share of Berdan’s Toledo property. Pierre Irving, who had purchased some land in Illinois, was convinced by Berdan’s glowing reports of Toledo’s future. He decided to invest in Toledo.

Pierre wrote to his brother that Toledo was “a new town at the head of Lake Erie...” where “fortunes are rapidly made.” He and John Berdan set out by the Erie Canal in February 1836, and arrived in Toledo on March 4. Upon his arrival, he found Toledo to be a “motley” swamp town of 1500 residents. Although some of his land deals fell through, he confidently expected that Toledo would rival London (!) in size and influence. He purchased land not only for himself, but also for his uncles Washington and Ebenezer Irving.

By the summer of 1836, Pierre was less optimistic. He could find no law work in Toledo, had few local friends, and thought Toledo less exciting than anticipated. Following his author-uncle’s lead, he joined an exploring expedition. From July 12 to August 12, he visited Detroit, Chicago, and Green Bay, Wisconsin. “I was beyond the limits of civilization...frequently camping out at night, and holding high converse with the Menomenies and Winnebagoes [sic] during the day,” Pierre wrote of his meeting Native American tribesmen.

Upon returning to Toledo, Pierre announced his engagement to Helen Dodge, a distant cousin. Pierre reported to his family that he would stay in Toledo to make money in support of his bride. After a trip to New York for the wedding, Pierre and his wife returned to Toledo, settling in rented rooms. Pierre continued to buy and sell land, but in the spring of 1837, a nationwide financial Panic clouded the horizon. Washington Irving advised his nephew to erect buildings on his “Toledo lots,” adding to their value. But Pierre weathered the storm by finding law work and by serving as the editor of the Toledo Blade.

At that time, the Blade identified with the Whig Party, which suited Pierre Irving. He fulsomely reported the visit to Toledo of Whig Senator Daniel Webster in July of 1837. But he was not afraid of trying new things editorially. He used the Blade to print “western” news at a time when most frontier newspapers relied on East Coast material. He showed his independence from the party stance in having the Blade condemn attempts to capture Canada from the British.

As the leading Toledo journalist of the time, Pierre Irving participated fully in Toledo’s civic life. He acted as vice president of the local educational society, and was one of the founders of the Toledo Young Men’s Association. He also played a behind-the-scenes role in Whig politics.

In the summer of 1838, Helen Irving suffered a severe attack of “bilious fever” (probably either typhoid or malaria). Pierre took his wife home to New York for medical attention, and contracted a lesser case himself during the journey. When Helen recovered she absolutely refused to return to swampy Toledo. Pierre was torn; he still owned land in Toledo, but had given up the editorship of the Blade in August of that year. He decided to settle in New York, working as a bank notary and later as the editor of his uncle’s correspondence.

In retrospect, his unexpected exit from Toledo did not leave a happy memory. Thinking of some Toledo friends who had defaulted on business deals, he wrote of Toledo: “There is a moral contamination in the atmosphere there far more infectious than its miasmas. If my wife had not got sick and driven me away, who knows but that I might have become a very respectable rascal by this time.” But for a brief period, Pierre Irving made his mark as a Toledoan. Never as famous as his uncle, Pierre Irving nonetheless contributed to the story of our hometown.

[The fullest account of Pierre Irving can be found in Wayne R. Kime, Pierre M. Irving and Washington Irving : a Collaboration in Life and Letters. (1977). The quotes in this essay come via Kime’s work.]

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