Even before Thomas Jefferson penned the words that promised a land where life, liberty, and prosperity were inalienable rights, some combination of rumor and hope inspired a Scottish Covenanter to pack up his family and sail toward religious freedom and economic opportunity. The family settled and prospered in an Appalachian valley in Pennsylvania. This is the story of that Scottish pioneer’s great-grandson, James McLean Thomson “Mac,” late resident of St. Louis, Missouri.

The only son of Dr. Andrew and Jane (McLean) Thomson, Mac was raised in the home of Presbyterian Covenanters where God was honored, family was nurtured, education was valued and service to one’s country was a tradition. Mac finished law school under the tutelage of his uncle, the Honorable Alexander Thomson, and completed the requirements of the Pennsylvania bar. Well-educated and well-positioned in a family of distinction, Mac left the security of his law school education and his family connections to travel to Charleston, South Carolina, with his cousin, Thomas McGowan, to open an academy of higher instruction. When the South fired on Fort Sumter, Mac returned North.

He was a prodigious letter writer. Some letters that survived the ravages of time describe Mac’s Civil War experience. Mac successfully recruited the R. P. McClure Light Guards, 107th Pennsylvania Volunteers. In February 1862, the 107th, with Mac in the rank of captain, was mustered in. That year they were in battle at Front Royal, Culpepper, Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Captain Thomson was promoted to major. After the Chancellorsville campaign, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. At Gettysburg, Mac was breveted colonel and then brigadier general.

Assigned to Washington, D.C. to work on the Courts-Martial Commission under Colonel Abner Doubleday, Mac met and married Mary Rebecca “Molly” Slye.

After the war, Mac and Molly moved to Mt. Carroll, Illinois, where Mac was the principal of the Consolidated Graded Union Schools. In January 1869, Molly, died in childbirth and three days later their infant son William Henry also passed. In July, Mac relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, and was married to Jessie Slye, the younger sister of his deceased wife Molly. Jessie and Mac became parents to nine children.

James McLean Thomson
James McLean Thomson
Photo in the collection of Peggy (Thomson) Greenwood
Used with permission

Mac’s impeccable credentials paved the way to introductions to the upper echelon of St. Louis society. He was working as a corporate lawyer with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when Cote Brilliante Public School was opened. Samuel Cupples, president of the school board, appointed Mac as principal. Cote Brilliante was the crown jewel of the St. Louis Public School system and Mac’s appointment was a rare tribute.

In 1873, Mac resigned his position at Cote Brilliante to take on the challenge of establishing Elleardsville School in the Ville neighborhood. Two schools evolved: Colored School No. 8, the first public school opened in St. Louis for Blacks, and Elleardsville. There are very few extant records of the early days of these schools. Mac remained principal of Elleardsville until his death in 1893.

(See complete biography published in the St. Louis Genealogical Society Quarterly, volume 47, number 1, page 16.)

Written by Peggy (Thomson) Greenwood
March 2020

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Last Modified: 31-Jul-2020 10:41