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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

Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald
Alexander Simplot and his wife Virginia Knapp

SIMPLOT, Alexander. (Dubuque, IA, Jan. 5, 1837--Dubuque, IA, Oct. 21, 1914). Simplot's parents came from France in 1836 and settled in Dubuque. Alexander 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, engaged in the general mercantile business and was one of the first Board of Aldermen elected in Dubuque, was one of the wealthiest men in Dubuque at the time of his death in 1847. (1) Alexander later recalled being the only boy in Dubuque with a drum shipped from St. Louis. (2)

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. (3) Simplot had special privileges among the Union forces when Rawlins became General Ulysses S. Grant's chief aide. In 1853 Simplot briefly attended ALEXANDER COLLEGE in Dubuque before he entered Union College at Schenectady, New York. He graduated from the Law Department in the class of 1858, although he delivered a commencement address at his graduation entitled "Plea for Artists."

Alexander returned to Dubuque and taught school. 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 Harper's Weekly. (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 under-
       brush 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 painted a scene 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) He also painted "Steamboat Taking on Wood." It belonged to the DUBUQUE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY when suffering damage and deterioration it was restored in 2012 by Faye Wrubel of the Art Institute of Chicago. (11)

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. (12) Among his mementos was the first Confederate flag ever seen in the community. This was displayed at the Randall store. (13) Secretary of the OLD SETTLERS' ASSOCIATION and the JULIEN DUBUQUE MONUMENT Association, he has been credited with designing the Julien Dubuque Monument. Although he 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. (14)

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. (15) In speaking, he often included quotations from the Bible, Poor Richard's Almanac, and the "classics." (16)

Many original pencil sketches came to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1958 after being discovered in a 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). (17) 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. (18)

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

See: John Richard SIMPLOT

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. "The Civil War as Reported by Dubuquers at the Battlefields," Telegraph Herald, March 8, 1964, p. 11

3. 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

4. Ibid., p. 258

5. "Alexander Simplot,"

6. Hunter, p. 256.

7. Hunter, p. 259

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

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

10. "Alexander Simplot,"

11. O'Neill, Tim, Brian Cooper, Brenden West, "Leading Lights of Visual Arts," Arts in the Tri-States (special publication), Telegraph Herald, May 23, 2019, p. 51

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

13. "The Civil War As Reported...

14. "Alex. Simplot's Interesting Life," Telegraph-Herald, October 25, 1914, p. 15

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

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

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

18. Hunter, p. 157

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