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Henry County Historical Highlights

Portraits from the Past: An Artifact in the Harlan-Lincoln House Collection

Apr 04, 2018
Photo by: Submitted One of the many artifacts in the Harlan-Lincoln House are the portraits of the Harlan-Lincoln grandchildren (left to right) Abraham II, Jessie and Mary.

By Anna M. Villareal, Director of the Harlan-Lincoln House


In the west alcove of the Harlan-Lincoln House sits a display case holding a collection of artifacts from the family of Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, great grandson of Senator James Harlan and President Abraham Lincoln. At center, is a trio of children’s portraits. Without further knowledge, the viewer may comment on the similarity of the children’s features or their poised demeanor as captured by the photographer. On this level the artifact is similar to thousands of others in museums around the world, a snapshot of individuals captured in time. It is the artifact’s documented provenance and the identity of the pictured children that bring understanding to the historical significance of the images.

The artifact is a folding photographic album belonging to Mary Harlan Lincoln, the eldest daughter of Senator James Harlan and Ann Eliza Peck. On Sept. 24, 1868, Mary and Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of President Abraham Lincoln, married in Washington, D.C. The album depicts the couple’s three children, the Harlan and Lincoln grandchildren. At viewer’s right, the eldest Mary (Mamie), Jessie the youngest is at center, and at viewer’s left, Abraham II (Jack). The portraits, circa 1883, capture a time in their youth, when they were frequently visiting Mt. Pleasant and allow museum visitors to connect more deeply to the children’s stories.

Born in October 1869, Mamie was the first grandchild of both the Harlan and Lincoln families. She made many friends in the Mt. Pleasant community, taking classes and music lessons at Iowa Wesleyan University and becoming a member of P.E.O. Chapter A on Sept. 17, 1884, just one month before her 15th birthday. Jack embodied the dynamic middle child, participating in any and all activities he could; swimming in Cole’s Pond, formerly Boulder Lake, playing tennis, riding horses, and collecting natural specimens. Jessie, the youngest, is pictured more than a decade before her marriage to Warren Wallace Beckwith, Mt. Pleasant resident and Iowa Wesleyan University football player.

The album’s portraits allows museum visitors to envision these individuals in their youth and connect their faces to other artifacts in the collection; a door measuring the heights of the children in 1883, prints of Mamie and friends at the Leisenring Photography Studio, Jack’s tennis net and rock collection of “round pebbles” and “sharp stones”, and framed portraits of Jessie’s children Mary (Peggy) Lincoln Beckwith, born in Mt. Pleasant in 1898, and Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, born in Riverside, Ill., in 1904. What first appears as a collection of children’s portraits, becomes a touchstone of Mt. Pleasant history. This single photographic album, depicts the three grandchildren of the Harlan and Lincoln families who in their unique ways became fixtures in the Mt. Pleasant community.

The Harlan-Lincoln House at Iowa Wesleyan University is a museum with the mission of interpreting the home to the public for its significance to the Harlan and Lincoln Families, to reinforce the relationship to the University, and to fulfill the home’s vital role in the living history of the University and the Mt. Pleasant community. The museum is open Monday to Friday, noon to 4 p.m., and closed in conjunction with the Iowa Wesleyan University campus calendar. The museum requests groups larger than six individuals to contact the Harlan-Lincoln House in advance to schedule a tour. Please contact the museum with any travel questions or concerns. For more information visit or call (319) 385-6319.

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