Biography of Hon. Isham Reavis of Falls City

Judge Isham Reavis, born January 28, 1836, in Beardstown, Illinois, was a distinguished jurist and pioneer of Falls City, Nebraska. Admitted to the bar in 1858, he moved to Falls City in the same year, contributing significantly to its development. Reavis served in Nebraska’s first state Legislature and as district judge. Appointed by President Grant, he was an associate justice of the Arizona Territorial Supreme Court. A respected lawyer and community leader, he practiced law for over 50 years. Reavis passed away on May 8, 1914, leaving a legacy of legal and civic contributions. He was married to Anna Dorrington and fathered five children.

Isham Reavis
Isham Reavis

It has been given to but few men to have left behind them an imperishable record such as that of the late Judge Isham Reavis, who was one of the pioneers of Falls City, a jurist of exceptional ability and renown, a lawyer of profound learning, a pleader of exceptional force, and a strong man who lived and carved out a career during an age when strong and sturdy characters were necessary to create a state. Judge Reavis was a member of the first Legislative assembly of the new state of Nebraska and distinguished himself and reflected credit upon his constituency by his able service in behalf of his adopted state; and further distinguished himself, as an associate justice of the supreme court of the Territory of Arizona. As a practitioner in the courts of Nebraska and in the supreme court of the nation; he was for years a prominent figure in legal circles, being a man of exceptional learning, he was likewise endowed with literary ability of a very high order and, had he so chosen, could have gained renown as a writer and essayist. While a versatile individual and blessed with superior mental endowment which caused those who knew him best to class him as a genius, Judge Reavis attained high rank as an attorney and jurist; he was for many years the dean of the Richardson county bar, and was universally recognized as a peer among that famous group of lawyers which shed luster and fame upon Richardson county during the formative and creative period of this county’s history. It is probable that in the whole state of Nebraska he had no superior as a legal light, and his high standing at the bar was maintained during a period of time extending over half a century.

Isham Reavis was born on January 28, 1836, on a farm near Beardstown, Illinois. He was the youngest son of a large family born to Isham and Mahala Reavis, both of whom were members of old Southern families, the former a native of North Carolina and the latter of Virginia, but reared in Kentucky, members of whose families fought in the Revolution. Judge Reavis came of the old stock of pioneers who were home builders and creators of new communities in the Middle West and Western country, so that it was entirely natural that he, himself, should decide to cast his fortunes in the newer country to the westward of his birthplace. He remained on the farm until his father’s death, when he was a lad of but nine years. He attended the common schools and the Beardstown schools and was a student in Illinois College at Jacksonville until compelled to leave the college on account of his mother’s death. He then returned to Beardstown and began the study of law in the office of Abraham Lincoln. Apropos of this venture, a letter from Mr. Lincoln to Isham Reavis is one of the valued relics of exhibition in the Nebraska Historical Society’s exhibit. This letter is in reply, to one regarding Mr. Reavis’s contemplated study of law, written by Mr. Lincoln in 1855, and is full of characteristic advice given to the young man by the great emancipator. Isham Reavis applied himself diligently to the study of law until 1858, when he was admitted to the bar in Illinois. His ambitions and an inherent craving for the life of the frontier led him to the West and in May, 1858, he came to the little settlement, surrounded on all sides by open prairie, the one-year-old Falls City, and while his life’s labors were centered here for fifty-six years, he watched the hamlet develop into a thriving little city in one of the richest districts of the Missouri valley. The story of the hardships and privations of those early days, of the ambitions, the hopes, the disappointments, the achievements of those who laid the foundation of this laterday prosperity, are told in this volume; and through it all Isham Reavis was in the thickest of the fight and he lived to see the visions of his earlier years materialize. Nothing more fittingly describes the appearance of the frontier country of sixty years ago than the first installment of Judge Reavis’s “Reminiscences of a Wayfarer,” which appears in this work.

Annie Dorrington Reavis
Annie Dorrington Reavis

Judge Reavis immediately began the practice of law in the little prairie village and took an active and influential part in the political matters of the day, his influence being felt in the community and state in all matters affecting the public welfare. In the year 1867 he was appointed district attorney for the first judicial district of the new state of Nebraska and served in this capacity for two years. He was elected a member of the state Senate in 1868 and served in the first state Legislature during the ensuing winter and spring. In 1867 he was elected to the post of district judge and, in 1869, he was appointed by President Grant to the position of justice of the supreme court of the territory of Arizona, which position he filled for four years, at the end of which time he resigned and again resumed his law practice at Falls City. Judge Reavis practiced in practically all the courts of Nebraska and was frequently a pleader before the United States supreme court at Washington. During his day, it is probable that no man was better known over the state than judge Reavis and perhaps no other lawyer has figured in more remarkable or celebrated cases. The death of this esteemed pioneer citizen occurred on May 8, 1914.

At the November election of 1868, Isham Reavis was elected senator from what was then called the third senatorial district. That Senate was the first one elected in the state after the adoption of the state constitution and was composed among others of such capable man as Guy C. Barton, William F. Chapin, E. E. Cunningham, Charles H. Gore and Thomas J. Majors. The city of Lincoln at that time contained about one thousand souls and was about one third the size of Brownville. During the session of 1869 the senatorial contest between Upton, McCann, Marquette and David Butler was the absorbing interest and passion. The great heat engendered by the contest thrust all else aside and involved the entire state. Town lots in the city of Lincoln as well as other considerations were freely offered as pay for the support of some of the candidates. It seemed that it was the desire of the powers that were to make Butler senator if possible, at any cost. He had been the successful Republican candidate for governor the fall before the meeting of the Legislature, against no less formidable a candidate offered by the Democrats, than J. Sterling Morton, and was ambitious to follow his star of destiny to greater places of honor and trust. He seemed to be the likely and logical man for the honor. He was also from Pawnee county and these many considerations were urged upon the Richardson county delegates for votes for Butler. The Richardson county men, however, were instructed by their county conventions to vote for Upton and in spite of all temptations and contrary personal predilections, voted for and helped make Thomas W. Upton, the first United States senator from the new state of Nebraska.

During this session of the Legislature the public lands for internal im- provements were disposed of to assist in the building of railroads. The state was full of railroads on paper and there was not enough land in the state to pay for half of the construction necessary. To provide for the proper expenditure of this money, Mr. Reavis introduced a bill to provide for the expenditure of the money accruing froth the sale of the public lands, where it would do the most and lasting good, and be of the greatest benefit to the state. Three railroads were selected, and possibly a fourth, as beneficiaries of this fund when they should comply with the pre-requisites to show good faith. The Midland Pacific, now owned by the Burlington System and running from Nebraska City to Lincoln, was one of those roads; the Atchison & Nebraska railroad was another one, now owned by the Burlington and running from Atchison to Lincoln; the Burlington & Missouri River railroad was another in Nebraska, running from Plattstmouth to Ft. Kearney.

It was at this session of the Legislature that Senator Reavis introduced a bill appropriating money to the Lincoln Monument Association. This association vas in process of building the monument for our martyred President in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois, and it was the desire of Mr. Reavis to have our state represented in the construction of that beautiful edifice. One of the senators from Nemaha county introduced an amendment to strike out the words “Lincoln Association” insert “Nebraska Soldiers Association.” In reply to the member’s remarks introducing this amendment, Senator Reavis had this to say:

Mr. Chairman: —I regret exceedingly that the gentleman from Nemaha county has seen fit to offer this amendment. In my judgment nothing could be more ill-timed and out of place than a proposition of this character. His explanation may be satisfactory to the members on this floor who have heard it; but, sir, there are those outside of these walls who will doubt while the gentleman protests. The bill under consideration appropriates— should it become a law—one thousand dollars to aid an association of very respectable individuals, among them which are some of the states of the Union, in building a monument over the grave of Abraham Lincoln. The gentleman moves to strike out “Lincoln Association” and insert “Nebraska Soldiers Association.” The amendment, if adopted, will destroy the bill and defeat a measure that commends itself to the heart of every patriot in this broad land of ours. It will do more. If persisted in it will compel senators to discriminate between the soldiers who were slain in battle and our good old President who was murdered in Washington.

Sir, I do not want the time ever to come when I shall be compelled either as a legislator or otherwise to make such discrimination. I would rear it monument to the memory of each, tall enough to be seen over the hilltops of all the centuries. I am at a loss to know why the gentleman offers this amendment. Does he think the fallen heroes of the rebellion are in danger of being forgotten? If he does I am bound to believe he has less confidence in the people, to say nothing of the survivors of six hundred bloody battle fields of the slavery war than I had supposed had to possess. The soldiers—God bless them—will take care of the memory of their lost comrades, whether they receive assistance from associations or legislatures or not. Monumental piles are but the physical manifestations of the love we bear the deported who sleep beneath, and shall it be sad of Nebraska that she had not love enough in her young heart to place one slab in the marble edifice that is to stand like a ghostly sentinel by the side of the great patriot’s grave, while time shall grow old with the ages?

For myself, I desire to appropriate money enough for the purpose mentioned in the bill, to give Nebraska—the youngest member of the federal family—a respectable position in this magnificent and praiseworthy enterprise. The gentleman need have no fears that the fallen soldiers of Nebraska will receive less attention on account of this bill. Sir, they are being attended by those that “drank from the same canteen”—those that loved them in life—that love them in death, and who revere the lofty patriotism that impelled them to take arms in defense of the best human government that was ever made. In the court house square at my own home, stands a beautiful marble shaft. It was placed there by the members of two companies of Nebraska soldiers in memoriam of the dead of both. On its smooth surface is engraved the flames of the “lost boys in blue”; when and where they died; whether killed in battle or carried away by disease; and the names of the companies at whose instance it was erected. All honor to the warm-hearted, generous citizen soldiery who did the noble deed. It is the spontaneous offering of the companies in arms whose march is ended forever and there, sir, it will stand long after this generation shall have passed away and the memory of those whose names are chiseled on its smooth surface shall have otherwise faded from the world. For these and other reasons I oppose the amendment and hope it may he withdrawn.

The amendment was withdrawn, the bill passed and the appropriation allowed to languish in the treasury until it became null and unavailable. Many years afterward, in the year 1880, Judge Reavis had occasion to visit his old house on the Sangamon river, near Springfield. He visited the Lincoln monument that had been recently completed, and having an added interest in the building by reason of his successful efforts in having Nebraska represented in the erection of it he made the cemetery a visit. The surprise that came to him when he found that the money appropriated by Nebraska in 1869 was not used or gotten from the state treasury at all is spoken of in his reminiscences, together with his immediate efforts in having the money re-appropriated and forwarded to the custodian of the immortal sepulchre for the use, benefit, beautification and maintenance of the tomb, thus finally placing Nebraska among the list of donors. A distinction which would have been lost to the honor of the state whose capital bears the immortal President’s name, but for his interest and efforts in memory of the one man who lived upon this earth but to bless it, whom he really loved and worshiped—Abraham Lincoln.

On May 19, 1864, Isham Reavis and Anna Dorrington were united in marriage in Falls City. Anna Dorrington was a daughter of David and Anne Dorrington, who were well-known pioneer residents of Richardson county. Five children were born of this marriage, as follow: Mrs. Anna (Reavis) Gist, of Falls City; Isham, Jr., deceased; David Dorrington Reavis, of Falls City, concerning whom a biography is given in this volume; Charles Frank Reavis, member of Congress from this district, and Burton Isham Reavis, of Falls City. All of the living children are residents of Falls City, and it was a source of supreme happiness to Judge Reavis that he lived to rear and educate his family and to see them take honored places in the life of the community of which he was one of the distinguished creators. Mrs. Reavis taught for a time in the first school established in the county.

For over half a century Judge Reavis was an honored member of the Masonic order and was the last of the charter members of Falls City Lodge No. 9, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. The Masons attended his obsequies in a body as also did the Richardson County Bar Association, augmented by the entire bar of Pawnee and Nemaha counties and members from Otoe, Johnson, Gage and Adams counties who were associated with Judge Reavis in the State Bar Association.

Judge Isham Reavis did his work nobly and well and left to his family a splendid heritage of deeds which will live long in the hearts and minds of those who knew him best. He gave the best that was within him to the business and social life of the city, county and state and achieved a place of prominence and renown which will live through the years to come and which entitles him to a place among the leaders of the great commonwealth which he assisted in creating. His was a worthy life, his many years having been filled with usefulness and the accomplishment of things worth while.


Edwards, Lewis C., History of Richardson County, Nebraska : Its People, Industries and Institutions, Indianapolis : B.F. Bowen, 1917.

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