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SIMPLOT, Alexander

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Family History: http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=breamefford&id=I16591

Alexander Simplot and his wife Virginia Knapp
SIMPLOT, Alexander. (Dubuque, IA, Jan. 5, 1837--Dubuque, IA, 21, 1914). Simplot was born in a log cabin on Main street, between Fifth and Sixth STREETS. His parents, Henry and Susan Simplot, were among the earliest settlers of Dubuque County. His father was engaged in the general mercantile business and was one of the first Board of Aldermen elected in Dubuque. He was one of the wealthiest men in Dubuque at the time of his death in 1847. (1)

Young Alex attended school conducted at the Dubuque Cathedral Parish. He then attended Rock River Seminary (equivalent to high school) at Mt. Morris, Illinois where classmates included John A. Rawlings and later Illinois Governor Cullom. (2) Simplot had special privileges among the Union forces when Rawlins became General Ulysses S. Grant's chief aide. Simplot entered Union College at Schenectady, New York, graduating from the Law Department in the class of 1858. He delivered a commencement address at his graduation entitled "Plea for Artists", however, his parents discouraged his desire to pursue an artistic career.

Alexander returned to Dubuque and taught school. He then took over his father's mercantile business until his interest in art led him to leave the business and open a patent shop and engraving business. (3) His drawing of volunteers boarding the steamer Alhambra at the harbor of Dubuque in April 1861, was the first sketch of the war published by the magazine. (4) Liking his work, the editors hired him to go to Cairo, Illinois and serve as a CIVIL WAR artist/correspondent. He was part of a group of writers and artists known as "The Bohemian Brigade," America's first war correspondents. (5)

In an article entitled "Story of the War" for the Dubuque Times, Simplot wrote of his experience at the camp in Cairo: (6)

                Some of these camps were eligibly located, always, of course
                on the inner side of two levees, whilst others, I have in my
                mind's eye, a regiment in the sweltering month of July, located
                at the back of Cairo, in a woody swamp, in the midst of logs
                and underbrush which swarmed with mosquitos (sic) and gnats,
                and whose supply of water was brought from the river, warm
                flat and dirty--emptied into a hogshead of sand a charcoal,
                from which it percolated at the bottom, not in a clear, cool
                pellucid stream, but in a clear and somewhat clearer condition.

During his tenure with Harpers Weekly, which had 115,000 subscribers, Simplot documented the efforts of General Fremont, Commodore Foote, and General U.S. Grant. During his two years with the magazine, he produced fifty drawings and earned $1,250. (7) At any given time the number of special artists covering the war numbered no more than twelve and during the four years of the war totaled only about thirty. Harpers still ranks him 13th among the 28 special artists to whom 10 or more published drawings can be credited. (8) He headquartered at Cairo, Illinois, and covered the battles along the Mississippi.

Simplot was the only artist present to cover the Battle of Memphis, Tennessee. (9) It was there that he made his most famous painting showing Union gunboats blazing away at Confederate forces. The painting was once sought by the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, but was purchased by a Chicago candy manufacturer. It was later bequeathed to the Chicago Historical Society. (10)

Collection of Dubuque pictures published by Simplot in 1891.
Sketch of machinery made by Alexander Simplot.

Due to ill health Simplot left the war in 1863 and returned to Dubuque. (11) Secretary of the OLD SETTLERS' ASSOCIATION and the JULIEN DUBUQUE MONUMENT Association, he has been credited with designing the Julien Dubuque Monument. He taught school for a few years and lost most of his inheritance in grain speculation. His artist abilities continued to bring him work. On November 4, 1879, for example, the Frank Leslie Illustrated Newspaper hired him to sketch scenes in Galena during a reception for U. S. Grant. (12)

Local residents who wrote about him remember Simplot as an "aristocrat" who vowed he would never work with his hands and neither would his daughters. In 1866, however, he worked as a dry goods merchant. (13) His speech often included quotations from the Bible, Poor Richard's Almanac, and the "classics." (14)

Many original pencil sketches came to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1958 after being discovered in garage belonging to one of his grandsons in Madison. Journalist John Patrick Hunter told how they were uncovered, and provided a short biography of Simplot, in his article, "Alexander Simplot, Forgotten Bohemian" (Wisconsin Magazine of History: Volume 41, number 4, summer, 1958: 256-261). (15) The Society also owns a complete set of Harper's Weekly that contains the published engravings made from Simplot's sketches. In 1961 the National Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D. C. held an exhibit of eyewitness drawings from the Civil War in which ten of Simplot's drawings were included. (16)

Gravestone in Linwood Cemetery
Carl Guthers, Simplot, Bilbrough, and R. S. Merrill ca.1878. Photo courtesy: Merrillyn Shaw

Civil War Sketches of Alexander Simplot

The Battle of Memphis. A painting by Alexander Simplot.



1. "Alexander Simplot," Linwood Legacies. Online: http://www.linwoodlegacies.org/alexander-simplot.html

2. Hunter, John. "Alexander Simplot: Forgotten Bohemian," Wisconsin Magazine of History: Volume 41, number 4, Summer, 1958, p. 258. Online: http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/wmh/id/26084

3. Ibid., p. 258

4. "Alexander Simplot,"

5. Hunter, p. 256.

6. Hunter, p. 259

7. "The Civil War Sketches of Alexander Simplot," Wisconsin Historical Society, Online: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Content.aspx?dsNav=N:4294963828-4294963805&dsRecordDetailS=R:CS3878

8. "The Civil War As Reported by Dubuquers at the Battlefields," Telegraph Herald, March 8, 1964, p. 21

9. "Alexander Simplot,"

10. "Pen, Powder and Sketchbook," Telegraph Herald, March 29, 1964, p. 21

11. "The Civil War As Reported...

12. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, November 5, 1879. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18791105&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

13. "Oil Painting," Dubuque Daily Herald, September 30, 1866, p. 4

14. "Simplot Comes Home to Dubuque," Telegraph Herald, April 5, 1964, p. 23

15. Hunter, p. 157

16. "The Civil War As Reported..."

Collection of Alexander Simplot Civil War Sketches. Online:http://www.cowanauctions.com/auctions/item.aspx?ItemId=13003

Great Naval Battle of Memphis, Tennessee. Online:http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Alexander-Simplot/Great-Naval-Battle-Of-...

The Civil War Sketches of Alexander Simplot. Online: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org › Wisconsin Historical Images › Galleries

Miller, Alan N. "The Simplot Family." Online: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~iabiog/othbios/simplot.htm

Missouri History Museum: "Alexander Simplot (26). Online: http://collections.mohistory.org/search/?addfacet=maker_facet:Alexander+Simplot