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Kane, Thomas Leiperlocked

(27 January 1822–26 December 1883)
  • David J. Whittaker

Kane, Thomas Leiper (27 January 1822–26 December 1883), lawyer, soldier, philanthropist, entrepreneur, and defender of the Mormons, was born in Philadelphia, the son of John Kintzing Kane, a jurist, and Jane Duval Leiper. He attended school in Philadelphia and from 1839 to 1844 traveled in England and France, studying and visiting relatives. While in Paris he served for a time as an attaché of the American legation. Small in stature and never robust, he would spend most of his life struggling with ill health. In Paris he met Auguste Comte and others who surely encouraged his social conscience, which would be manifested later in his concern for philanthropic causes. In 1844 Kane returned to Philadelphia, where he studied law with his father. Although he was admitted to the bar in 1846 and clerked briefly for his father, who was a federal judge, his interests and activities generally moved in other directions.

One of Kane’s most important associations began in 1846 when he read Philadelphia newspaper accounts of the forced exodus of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly called Mormons) across Iowa from their Illinois homes. Kane sought out local Mormon leaders, learned more of their western hegira, and—after obtaining letters of introduction to Brigham Young—headed west to the Mormon encampments on the Missouri River near present-day Omaha, Nebraska. Moved by earlier Mormon requests for federal aid, Kane’s father used his influence to obtain help for the Mormons from the Polk administration, which came in the form of government assistance (advance pay and equipment) in return for Mormon men enlisting to fight for the United States in the Mexican War. Kane himself delivered the president’s instructions to the military officials at Fort Leavenworth and then helped to recruit the individuals who would eventually make up the Mormon Battalion. He assisted the Mormons in getting a post office established for their settlements, and in 1848, in tribute to his work on their behalf, they named their main settlement on the east side of the Missouri River, located within Iowa Territory, Kanesville (which was changed in 1853 to Council Bluffs).

Kane, who was made a U.S. district commissioner for the eastern district of Pennsylvania, remained a powerful advocate for social justice. An active supporter of the abolitionist cause, he was appointed chairman of the Pennsylvania Free Soil State Central Committee in 1848. In 1849 he advised Brigham Young to apply for statehood for Utah (proposed as “Deseret”) rather than for territorial status, but Utah’s future became caught up in the Compromise of 1850 and entered the Union as a territory. In March 1850 Kane, although very ill, delivered an address to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania titled “The Mormons.” In printed form it was widely distributed and helped to modify public opinion about the Latter-day Saints. Kane’s close friendship with newspapermen like Horace Greeley also helped in shaping more positive public perceptions of the Mormons.

In 1850 Kane resigned as a U.S. district commissioner in protest of the Fugitive Slave Law. His father ordered him jailed for contempt of court, but he was soon released by a Supreme Court ruling. He joined the Free Soil Movement in the 1850s and worked with the underground railroad. Despite his departure from public office, he maintained an influential presence in the U.S. government; when President Millard Fillmore was being politically attacked in 1851 for his policies toward the Mormons, Kane wrote several important letters to Fillmore supporting the Mormons.

In the winter of 1852–1853 Kane traveled to the West Indies to observe the progress of slave emancipation there. Returning to Pennsylvania in April, he married his sixteen-year-old second cousin Elizabeth Dennistoun Wood, who later attended the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia and became a doctor (graduating in 1883). They had four children.

In 1854 Kane rejected Brigham Young’s offer to be the territorial delegate in the U.S. Congress from Utah. A grave crisis arose in 1857–1858, however, and he again went west to assist Young. President James Buchanan, acting on various reports claiming various kinds of illegal behavior by the Mormons and their leaders, had dispatched a federal military expedition to Utah and appointed a new governor to replace Young. Kane, who managed to moderate Buchanan’s views, obtained presidential support for an unofficial attempt at peace-making, helped soften Mormon defensiveness, won the confidence of the new governor, Alfred Cumming, and thus helped to bring a peaceful end to a potentially bloody confrontation. His personal travel to Utah, and then to the winter encampment of the army in Wyoming, and his moderating approach to all major parties revealed his communication skills at their best.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Kane organized a volunteer regiment, the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves (also known as the Kane Rifles or “Bucktails”), for the Union army. Commissioned a lieutenant colonel in June 1861, Kane took part in engagements in mid-December at Dranesville, Virginia, and then at Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley, after which he was taken prisoner in June 1862. Released a short time later as part of a prisoner exchange, he fought at Chancellorsville in May 1863 and at Gettysburg in July 1863. He authored in 1862 a military manual, “Instructions for Skirmishers,” which he planned to be the first volume of a series on tactics. But wounds and continued ill health led to his resignation in November 1863; before the end of the war in 1865, he was brevetted a major general for his gallantry at Gettysburg.

Following the Civil War, Kane returned to his involvement in the McKean and Elk Land Improvement Company, of which he was a principal organizer. As early as 1856 he had been involved in land development in western Pennsylvania, especially in the area around the town of Kane. Now he opened roads, encouraged railroad construction, and worked to generally improve the area. Kane also remained active in public life. He was the first president of the Pennsylvania Board of State Charities, was a member of the American Philosophical Society, and was an organizer of the New York, Lake Erie, and Western Coal Railroad Company. He was also the moving force for the building of what was once considered the largest railroad bridge in the world, the 2,053-foot Kinzua viaduct that spans the 301-foot-deep Kinzua Creek Valley near the town of Kane.

In 1869 Kane lobbied the Grant administration unsuccessfully for appointment as governor of the Utah Territory, even though the president spent part of that summer as a guest at Kane’s house. Still a close friend of Brigham Young, Kane took his family to southern Utah for a sojourn during the winter of 1872–1873. Elizabeth Kane’s account of this journey, Twelve Mormon Homes Visited in Succession on a Journey through Utah to Arizona (1874), remains a classic description of Mormon social and religious history. At the time of the family’s visit, Kane and Young discussed expanding Mormon settlements into Mexico, a project that both actively pursued: Kane by trying to get a Mexican land grant and Young by dispatching a Mormon colony into Arizona. Kane’s pamphlet Coahuila, concerning the Mexican province of that name, was a byproduct of these efforts. He continued to encourage Mormon expansion in the West. Kane also provided direction for the preparation of Young’s will and counseled him to separate his personal property from that of the church. In addition, Kane helped Young in the founding of several colleges in Utah: Brigham Young College in Logan, Young University in Salt Lake City, and—the only one to survive—the Brigham Young Academy in Provo (now Brigham Young University). In spite of his close association with the Mormons, Kane never joined the LDS church.

When Young died in 1877, Kane traveled to Utah to offer his condolences to the Mormon people and to reassure church leaders of his own continued support of their cause. He continued to meet and correspond with various leaders of the Mormon church. He died in 1883 at his home in Philadelphia. Even though he had requested that his heart be buried in Salt Lake City, he was interred near the family chapel in Kane, Pennsylvania.


The largest group of Thomas L. Kane papers is housed in the Special Collections and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Thomas L. Kane papers can also be found in the library of Stanford University, the Beineke Library at Yale University, and at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City also has a significant collection of Kane papers, as well as the research collection of Israel Frank Evans on Thomas L. Kane. Some of the material at Stanford was published in The Private Papers and Diary of Thomas Leiper Kane: A Friend of the Mormons, ed. Oscar O. Winther (1937). In addition to Coahuila (1877), Kane published two privately printed books, The Mormons: A Historical Discourse (1850) and Alaska and the Polar Regions (1868). Elizabeth Kane’s diary after their arrival in southern Utah was published as A Gentile Account of Life in Utah’s Dixie, 1872–73: Elizabeth Kane’s St. George Journal, ed. Norman Bowan (1995).

A book-length study is Albert L. Zobell, Jr., Sentinel in the East: A Biography of Thomas L. Kane (1965), based on a master’s thesis (Univ. of Utah, 1944); the source citations are omitted from the published volume. See also Leonard J. Arrington, “ ‘In Honorable Remembrance’: Thomas L. Kane’s Services to the Mormons,” Brigham Young University Studies 21 (Fall 1981): 389–402, which includes a useful bibliography; and Richard D. Poll, Quixotic Mediator: Thomas L. Kane and the Utah War, Dello G. Drayton Memorial Lecture, Weber State College, 25 Apr. 1984 (1984). Kane’s Civil War regiment is the subject of O. R. Howard Thomson and William H. Ranch, History of the “Bucktails” (1906), and Edwin A. Glover, Bucktailed Wildcats, a Regiment of Civil War Volunteers (1960). Obituaries appear in the Deseret News, 2 Jan. 1884; Juvenile Instructor (Salt Lake City) 19 (15 Jan. 1884): 24–25; and The Press (Philadelphia), 27 Dec. 1883.