Nielsen Hayden genealogy

Jonathan Longfellow Cilley, U.S. Representative from Maine

Male 1802 - 1838  (35 years)

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  • Name Jonathan Longfellow Cilley 
    Suffix U.S. Representative from Maine 
    Birth 2 Jul 1802  Nottingham, Rockingham, New Hampshire Find all individuals with events at this location  [1
    Gender Male 
    Death 24 Feb 1838  Bladensburg, Prince George's, Maryland Find all individuals with events at this location  [1
    Burial Elm Grove Cemetery, Thomaston, Knox, Maine Find all individuals with events at this location  [1
    Siblings 1 sibling 
    Person ID I35343  Ancestry of PNH, TNH, and others
    Last Modified 19 May 2021 

    Father Maj. Greenleaf Cilley,   b. 1 Mar 1767, Nottingham, Rockingham, New Hampshire Find all individuals with events at this locationd. 24 Feb 1808, Nottingham, Rockingham, New Hampshire Find all individuals with events at this location (Age 40 years) 
    Mother Jennie Nealley,   b. 22 Sep 1772, Nottingham, Rockingham, New Hampshire Find all individuals with events at this locationd. 26 Mar 1866, Nottingham, Rockingham, New Hampshire Find all individuals with events at this location (Age 93 years) 
    Marriage 22 May 1788  Nottingham, Rockingham, New Hampshire Find all individuals with events at this location  [1
    Family ID F20758  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    Family Deborah Prince,   b. 6 Jul 1808   d. 14 Aug 1844 (Age 36 years) 
    Marriage 4 Apr 1829  [1
     1. Commander Greenleaf Cilley,   b. 27 Oct 1829, Thomaston, Knox, Maine Find all individuals with events at this locationd. 5 Feb 1899, San Isidro, Buenos Aires, Argentina Find all individuals with events at this location (Age 69 years)
    Family ID F20761  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart
    Last Modified 19 May 2021 

  • Notes 
    • From Wikipedia (accessed 19 May 2021):

      Jonathan Cilley [...] was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maine. He served part of one term in the 25th Congress, and died as the result of a wound sustained in a duel with another Congressman, William J. Graves of Kentucky.

      Cilley was a native of Nottingham, New Hampshire, and was educated at Atkinson Academy and Bowdoin College. He settled in Thomaston, Maine, where he studied law and attained admission to the bar in addition to editing the Thomaston Register newspaper. A Democrat, Cilley served in the Maine House of Representatives from 1831 to 1836, and was Speaker in 1835 and 1836.

      In 1836, Cilley was elected to the United States House of Representatives. He served part of one term, and died as the result of a gunshot wound caused when he engaged in a duel with Representative William J. Graves. They fired at each other with rifles three times, and on the third shot, Graves hit Cilley's femoral artery, causing blood loss which resulted in Cilley's death. He was temporarily interred at Congressional Cemetery, and later reinterred at Elm Grove Cemetery in Thomaston.

      Jonathan Cilley was born in Nottingham, New Hampshire, and was the son of Jane (Nealley) Cilley and Greenleaf Cilley. He was the brother of Joseph Cilley, grandson of Major General Joseph Cilley, and nephew of Bradbury Cilley.

      Cilley attended Atkinson Academy and Bowdoin College. He was a member of Bowdoin's famed class of 1825, which included Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. While at Bowdoin, Cilley also became close friends with future U.S. President Franklin Pierce, a member of the class of 1824. Deciding to stay in Maine after graduating from Bowdoin, Cilley studied law with John Ruggles, was admitted to the bar in 1828, and practiced in Thomaston.

      In 1829, Jonathan Cilley married Deborah Prince, the daughter of local businessman Hezekiah Prince. Jonathan and Deborah had five children, two of whom died very young. Their surviving children were Greenleaf (b. 1829), Jonathan Prince (b. 1835), and Julia (b. 1837). Jonathan Prince Cilley became a Brigadier General by Brevet in the Union Army during the Civil War. Greenleaf was a career officer in the United States Navy. He married Malvina Vernet, the daughter of Luis Vernet, a former Argentinian governor of the Falkland Islands in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1861 and died in San Isidro, Buenos Aires in 1899. Julia was the wife of Ellis Draper Lazell (1832-1875). [...]

      Cilley died in office after sustaining a fatal wound in a duel with Congressman William J. Graves of Kentucky. The climate surrounding the Twenty-fifth U.S. Congress was one of increasing political partisanship. Majority Democrats fought with minority Whigs over the response to the Panic of 1837, which was generally blamed on the policies of Democratic President Martin Van Buren. Underlying this conflict was lingering bitterness over the decision of Van Buren's predecessor, Democrat Andrew Jackson, not to re-charter the Second Bank of the United States. One of the pillars of the Whig press was the New York Courier and Enquirer, a newspaper edited by James Watson Webb.

      Democrats, including Jonathan Cilley, considered Webb's coverage of Congress to be biased and unfair; Cilley vented some of his party's bitterness in remarks made on the House floor, and suggested that Webb's change from opposing to supporting the re-chartering of the bank came about because Webb received loans from the bank totaling $52,000. Webb, who considered himself insulted by Cilley's suggestion of quid pro quo corruption, persuaded a Whig friend, Congressman William J. Graves, to deliver Webb's challenge to a duel. Cilley refused to accept the letter, in terms which Graves decided were an insult to his honor; Graves then challenged Cilley, and Cilley felt honor bound to accept. Dueling was prohibited within the boundaries of the District of Columbia, so the participants and their seconds – George Wallace Jones for Cilley and Henry A. Wise for Graves – arranged to meet on February 24, 1838, at the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, just outside the city limits and inside the Maryland border.

      As the challenged party, Cilley had the choice of weapons. Because of Graves' reputation as an expert pistol shot, Cilley selected rifles, with the distance between the duelists to be 80 yards, a distance far enough apart to negate Graves' supposed shooting skill; in actuality, the marked off distance was 94 yards. After their first fire missed, the participants shortened the distance and fired again, but again both shots missed. On the third exchange of shots, Graves fatally wounded Cilley by shooting him through the femoral artery. Cilley bled to death on the dueling ground within a matter of minutes. He was buried at Congressional Cemetery, and re-interred at Elm Grove Cemetery in Thomaston, Maine.

      There is a cenotaph to Cilley's memory located at Congressional Cemetery.

      After Cilley's death, longtime friend Nathaniel Hawthorne published two biographical sketches of him. His colleagues paid tribute to him by passing a Federal law on February 20, 1839, which strengthened the strict prohibition against dueling in Washington, D.C. by making it a crime to issue or accept a challenge within district limits, even if the actual duel was to take place outside the district.

      Jonathan Cilley, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1838):

      The subject of this brief memorial had barely begun to be an actor in the great scenes where his part could not have failed to be a prominent one. The nation did not have time to recognize him. His death, aside from the shock with which the manner of it has thrilled every bosom, is looked upon merely as causing a vacancy in the delegation of his State, which a new member may fill as creditably as the departed. It will, perhaps, be deemed praise enough to say of Cilley, that he would have proved himself an active and efficient partisan. But those who knew him longest and most intimately, conscious of his high talents and rare qualities, his energy of mind and force of character, must claim much more than much a need for their lost friend. They feel that not merely a party nor a section, but our collective country, has lost a man who had the heart and the ability to serve her well. It would be doing injustice to the hopes which lie withered upon his untimely grave, if, in paying a farewell tribute to his memory, we were to ask a narrower sympathy than that of the people at large. May no bitterness of party prejudices influence him who writes, nor those, of whatever political opinions, who may read!

      Jonathan Cilley was born at Nottingham, N.H., on the 2d of July, 1802. His grandfather, Col. Joseph Cilley, commanded a New Hampshire regiment during the Revolutionary war, and established a character for energy and intrepidity, of which more than one of his descendants have proved themselves the inheritors. Greenleaf Cilley, son of the preceding, died in 1808, leaving a family of four sons and three daughters. The aged mother of this family and the three daughters are still living. Of the sons, the only survivor is Joseph Cilley, who was an officer in the late war, and served with great distinction on the Canadian frontier. Jonathan, being desirous of a liberal education, commenced his studies at Atkinson Academy, at about the age of seventeen, and became a member of the freshman class of Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Me., in 1821. Inheriting but little property from his father, he adopted the usual expedient of a young New-Englander in similar circumstances, and gained a small income by teaching a country school during the winter months both before and after his entrance at college.

      Cilley's character and standing at college afforded high promise of usefulness and distinction in afterlife. Though not the foremost scholar of his class, he stood in the front rank, and probably derived all the real benefit from the prescribed course of study that it could bestow on so practical a mind. His true education consisted in the exercise of those faculties which fitted him to be a popular leader. His influence among his fellow-students was probably greater than that of any other individual; and he had already made himself powerful in that limited sphere, by a free and natural eloquence, a flow of pertinent ideas in language of unstudied appropriateness, which seemed always to accomplish precisely the result on which he had calculated. This gift was sometimes displayed in class meetings, when measures important to those concerned were under discussion; sometimes in mock trials at law, when judge, jury, lawyers, prisoner, and witnesses were personated by the students, and Cilley played the part of a fervid and successful advocate; and, besides these exhibitions of power, he regularly trained himself in the forensic debates of a literary society, of which he afterwards became president. Nothing could be less artificial than his style of oratory. After filling his mind with the necessary information, he trusted every thing else to his mental warmth and the inspiration of the moment, and poured himself out with an earnest and irresistible simplicity. There was a singular contrast between the flow of thought from his lips, and the coldness and restraint with which he wrote; and though, in maturer life, he acquired a considerable facility in exercising the pen, he always felt the tongue to be his peculiar instrument.

      In private intercourse, Cilley possessed a remarkable fascination. It was impossible not to regard him with the kindliest feelings, because his companions were intuitively certain of a like kindliness on his part. He had a power of sympathy which enabled him to understand every character, and hold communion with human nature in all its varieties. He never shrank from the intercourse of man with man; and it was to his freedom in this particular that he owed much of his subsequent popularity among a people who are accustomed to take a personal interest in the men whom they elevate to office. In few words, let us characterize him at the outset of life as a young man of quick and powerful intellect, endowed with sagacity and tact, yet frank and free in his mode of action, ambitious of good influence, earnest, active, and persevering, with an elasticity and cheerful strength of mind which made difficulties easy, and the struggle with them a pleasure. Mingled with the amiable qualities that were like sunshine to his friends, there were harsher and sterner traits, which fitted him to make head against an adverse world; but it was only at the moment of need that the iron framework of his character became perceptible.

      Immediately on quitting college, Mr. Cilley took up his residence in Thomaston, and began the study of law in the office of John Ruggles, Esq., now a senator in Congress. Mr. Ruggles being then a prominent member of the Democratic party, it was natural that the pupil should lend his aid to promote the political views of his instructor, especially as he would thus uphold the principles which he had cherished from boyhood. From year to year, the election of Mr. Ruggles to the State legislature was strongly opposed. Cilley's services in overcoming this opposition were too valuable to be dispensed with; and thus, at a period when most young men still stand aloof from the world, he had already taken his post as a leading politician. He afterwards found cause to regret that so much time had been abstracted from his professional studies; nor did the absorbing and exciting nature of his political career afford him any subsequent opportunity to supply the defects of his legal education. He was admitted an attorney-at-law in 1829, and in April of the same year was married to Miss Deborah Prince, daughter of Hon. Hezekiah Prince of Thomaston, where Mr. Cilley continued to reside, and entered upon the practice of his profession.

      In 1831, Mr. Ruggles having been appointed a judge of the court of common pleas, it became necessary to send a new representative from Thomaston to the legislature of the State. Mr. Cilley was brought forward as the Democratic candidate, obtained his election, and took his seat in January, 1832. But in the course of this year the friendly relations between Judge Ruggles and Mr. Cilley were broken off. The former gentleman, it appears had imbibed the idea that his political aspirations (which were then directed towards a seat in the senate of the United States) did not receive all the aid which he was disposed to claim from the influence of his late pupil. When, therefore, Mr. Cilley was held up as a candidate for re-election to the legislature, the whole strength of Judge Ruggles and his adherents was exerted against him. This was the first act and declaration of a political hostility, which was too warm and earnest not to become, in some degree, personal, and which rendered Mr. Cilley's subsequent career a continual struggle with those to whom he might naturally have looked for friendship and support. It sets his abilities and force of character in the strongest light, to view him, at the very outset of public life, without the aid of powerful connections, an isolated young man, forced into a position of hostility, not merely with the enemies of his party, but likewise with a large body of its adherents, even accused of treachery to its principles, yet gaining triumph after triumph and making his way steadily onward. Surely his was a mental and moral energy which death alone could have laid prostrate.

      We have the testimony of those who knew Mr. Cilley well, that his own feelings were never so imbittered by those conflicts as to prevent him from interchanging the courtesies of society with his most violent opponents. While their resentments rendered his very presence intolerable to them, he could address them with as much ease and composure as if their mutual relations had been those of perfect harmony. There was no affectation in this: it was good-natured consciousness of his own strength that enabled him to keep his temper: it was the same chivalrous sentiment which impels hostile warriors to shake hands in the intervals of battle. Mr. Cilley was slow to withdraw his confidence from any man who he deemed a friend; and it has been mentioned as almost his only weak point, that he was too apt to suffer himself to be betrayed before he would condescend to suspect. His prejudices, however, when once adopted, partook of the depth and strength of his character, and could not be readily overcome. He loved to subdue his foes; but no man could use a triumph more generously than he.

      Let us resume our narrative. In spite of the opposition of Judge Ruggles and his friends, combined with that of the Whigs, Mr. Cilley was re-elected to the legislature of 1833, and was equally successful in each of the succeeding years, until his election to Congress. He was given successive years as the representative of Thomaston. In 1834, when Mr. Dunlap was nominated as the Democratic candidate for governor, Mr. Cilley gave his support to Gov. Smith, in the belief that the substitution of a new candidate had been unfairly effected. He considered it a stratagem intended to promote the election of Judge Ruggles to the senate of the United States. Early in the legislative session of the same year, the Ruggles party obtained a temporary triumph over Mr. Cilley, effected his expulsion from the Democratic caucuses, and attempted to stigmatize him as a traitor to his political friends. But Mr. Cilley's high and honorable course was ere long understood and appreciated by his party and the people. He told them, openly and boldly, that they might undertake to expel him from their caucuses; but they could not expel him from the Democratic party: they might stigmatize him with any appellation they might choose; but they could not reach the height on which he stood, nor shake his position with the people. But a few weeks had elapsed, and Mr. Cilley was the acknowledged head and leader of that party in the legislature. During the same session, Mr. Speaker Clifford (one of the friends of Judge Ruggles) being appointed attorney-general, the Ruggles party were desirous of securing the election of another of their adherents to the chair; but, as it was obvious that Mr. Cilley's popularity would gain him the place, the incumbent was induced to delay his resignation till the end of the term. At the session of 1835, Messrs. Cilley, Davee, and McCrote being candidates for the chair, Mr. Cilley withdrew in favor of Mr. Davee. That gentleman was accordingly elected; but, being soon afterwards appointed sheriff of Somerset County, Mr. Cilley succeeded him as speaker, and filled the same office during the session of 1836. All parties awarded him the praise of being the best presiding officer that the house ever had.

      In 1836, he was nominated by a large portion of the Democratic electors of the Lincoln Congressional District as their candidate for Congress. That district has recently shown itself to possess a decided Whig majority; and this would have been equally the case in 1836, had any other man than Mr. Cilley appeared on the Democratic side. He had likewise to contend, as in all the former scenes of his political life, with that portion of his own party which adhered to Mr. Ruggles. There was still another formidable obstacle, in the high character of Judge Bailey, who then represented the district, and was a candidate for re-election. All these difficulties, however, served only to protract the contest, but could not snatch the victory from Mr. Cilley, who obtained a majority of votes at the third trial. It was a fatal triumph.

      In the summer of 1837, a few months after his election to Congress, I met Mr. Cilley for the first time since early youth, when he had been to me almost as an elder brother. The two or three days which I spent in his neighborhood enabled us to renew our former intimacy. In his person there was very little change, and that little was for the better. He had an impending brow, deep-set eyes, and a thin and thoughtful countenance, which; in his abstracted moments, seemed almost stern; but, in the intercourse of society, it was brightened with a kindly smile, that will live in the recollection of all who knew him. His manners had not a fastidious polish, but were characterized by the simplicity of one who had dwelt remote from cities, holding free companionship with the yeomen of the land. I thought him as true a representative of the people as ever theory could portray. His earlier and later habits of life, his feelings, partialities, and prejudices, were those of the people; the strong and shrewd sense which constituted so marked a feature of his mind was but a higher degree of the popular intellect. He loved the people, and respected them, and was prouder of nothing than of his brotherhood with those who had intrusted their public interests to his care. His continual struggles in the political arena had strengthened his bones and sinews: opposition had kept him ardent; while success had cherished the generous warmth of his nature, and assisted the growth both of his powers and sympathies. Disappointment might have soured and contracted him; but it appeared to me that his triumphant warfare had been no less beneficial to his heart than to his mind. I was aware, indeed, that his harsher traits had grown apace with his milder ones; that he possessed iron resolution, indomitable perseverance and an almost terrible energy; but these features had imparted no hardness to his character in private intercourse. In the hour of public need, these strong qualities would have shown themselves the most prominent ones, and would have encouraged his countrymen to rally round him as one of their natural leaders.

      In his private and domestic relations, Mr. Cilley was most exemplary; and he enjoyed no less happiness than he conferred. He had been the father of four children, two of whom were in the grave, leaving, I thought, a more abiding impression of tenderness and regret than the death of infants usually makes on the masculine mind. Two boys -- the elder, seven or eight years or age; and the younger, two -- still remained to him; and the fondness of these children for their father, their evident enjoyment of his society, was proof enough of his gentle and amiable character within the precincts of his family. In that bereaved household, there is now another child, whom the father never saw. Mr. Cilley's domestic habits were simple and primitive to a degree unusual, in most parts of our country among men of so eminent a station as he had attained. It made me smile, though with any thing but scorn, in contrast to the aristocratic stateliness which I have witnessed elsewhere, to see him driving home his own cow after a long search for her through the village. That trait alone would have marked him as a man whose greatness lay within himself. He appeared to take much interest in the cultivation of his garden, and was very fond of flowers. He kept bees, and told me that he loved to sit for whole hours by the hives, watching the labors of the insects, and soothed by the hum with which they filled the air. I glance at these minute particulars of his daily life, because they form so strange a contrast with the circumstances of his death. Who could have believed, that with his thoroughly New-England character, in so short a time after I had seen him in that peaceful and happy home, among those simple occupations and pure enjoyments, he would be stretched in his own blood, -- slain for an almost impalpable punctilio!

      It is not my purpose to dwell upon Mr. Cilley's brief career in Congress. Brief as it was, his character and talents had more than begun to be felt, and would soon have linked his name with the history of every important measure, and have borne it onward with the progress of the principles which be supported. He was not eager to seize opportunities of thrusting himself into notice; but, when time and the occasion summoned him, he came forward, and poured forth his ready and natural eloquence with as much effect in the councils of the nation as he had done in those of his own State. With every effort that he made, the hopes of his party rested more decidedly upon him, as one who would hereafter be found in the vanguard of many a Democratic victory. Let me spare myself the details of the awful catastrophe by which all those proud hopes perished; for I write with a blunted pen and a head benumbed, and am the less able to express my feelings as they lie deep at heart, and inexhaustible.

      On the 23d of February last, Mr. Cilley received a challenge from Mr. Graves of Kentucky, through the hands of Mr. Wise of Virginia. This measure, as is declared in the challenge itself, was grounded on Mr. Cilley's refusal to receive a message, of which Mr. Graves and been the bearer, from a person of disputed respectability; although no exception to that person's character had been expressed by Mr. Cilley; nor need such inference have been drawn, unless Mr. Graves were conscious that public opinion held his friend in a doubtful light. The challenge was accepted, and the parties met on the following day. They exchanged two shots with rifles. After each shot, a conference was held between the friends of both parties, and the most generous avowals of respect and kindly feeling were made on the part of Cilley towards his antagonist, but without avail. A third shot was exchanged; and Mr. Cilley fell dead into the arms of one of his friends. While I write, a Committee of Investigation is sitting upon this affair: but the public has not waited for its award; and the writer, in accordance with the public, has formed his opinion on the official statement of Messrs. Wise and Jones. A challenge was never given on a more shadowy pretext; a duel was never pressed to a fatal close in the face of such open kindness as was expressed by Mr. Cilley: and the conclusion is inevitable, that Mr. Graves and his principal second, Mr. Wise, have gone farther than their own dreadful code will warrant them, and overstepped the imaginary distinction, which, on their own principles, separates manslaughter from murder.

      Alas that over the grave of a dear friend, my sorrow for the bereavement must be mingled with another grief, -- that he threw away such a life in so miserable a cause! Why, as he was true to the Northern character in all things else, did he swerve from his Northern principles in this final scene? But his error was a generous one, since he fought for what he deemed the honor of New England; and, now that death has paid the forfeit, the most rigid may forgive him. If that dark pitfall -- that bloody grave -- had not lain the in midst of his path, whither, whither, night it not have led him! It has ended there: yet so strong was my conception of his energies, so like destiny did it appear that he should achieve every thing at which he aimed, that even now my fancy will not dwell upon his grave, but pictures him still amid the struggles and triumphs of the present and the future. 

  • Sources 
    1. [S5807] The Cilley Pages by Mark Cilley, at, via the Wayback Machine at