The curiosity and kindness of an El Cerrito family helped a small town in Illinois connect with a piece of its history.
Last month, after some research, the owners of the , John and Darlene, were able to give the city of Wyoming, IL (pop. 1,429) a 19th-century gold locket engraved with the name Ruth Ann Dana—the daughter of Wyoming’s founder, Gen. Samuel Thomas, who incidentally fought alongside a future U.S. president in the War of 1812.
“We wanted to give it to the family, but we couldn’t find them,” John said. “So we just wanted to make sure it got back to where it belonged.” (The shop owners requested their last names not be used.)
In Wyoming, a farming community about 60 miles north of Abe Lincoln's former home in Springfield, the citizens seemed delighted. They plan to put the locket on display in city hall.
“It’s like it’s come back home,” said City Clerk Judy St. John. She said was thrilled to the reminder of Wyoming’s history.
She added that several locals have already come to city hall to get a glimpse of the locket, which will be put on display in the near future alongside a hand-drawn map of Wyoming that belonged to Thomas.
John said he cannot remember who sold him the locket at El Cerrito Coin Exchange, but it came in a shoe box—with several other coins and trinkets—that he bought from a customer about three years ago.
The piece looked unique, so rather than sell it or melt it down for the metal, he said he put it aside in a drawer and forgot about it.
But about a year and a half ago, John’s daughter, Monique—who also works at the family coin shop—found the locket in the drawer and began investigating its origins.
On one side, the locket has Ruth Ann Dana’s name and the date of her death, July 14, 1836. On the other side is the name of her husband, Giles C. Dana. Inside the locket are two braided locks of hair, which presumably belonged to the Danas.
The piece of jewelry is a specific type known as a mourning locket, which is made in memory of someone who has died.
John said he had never heard of this type of locket before, but Monique researched it and sent photos to Art of Mourning, an online resource for memorial jewelry and art.
According to an article on Art of Mourning, this type of locket was popular in the mid-1800s in both the United States and parts of Europe, but the Danas’ locket is unique.
“The wonderful dual hair is much more rare for a piece like this and to find it possibly re-purposed for another family member or dedicated to the passed individual with the living one having their hair or dedication inside isn’t unheard of, but it’s much more uncommon than finding the singular dedication,” reported Art of Mourning.
John said Monique researched Ruth Ann Dana’s name online, and discovered that she was the daughter of Gen. Samuel Thomas, who founded Wyoming in 1836, the same year as his daughter's death.
Thomas—who lived from 1787 to 1879—was also the captain of a company of soldiers in the War of 1812 and fought alongside future-President William Henry Harrison at the Battle of the Thames in Canada, according to a 20th-century article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.
He picked the name Wyoming to commemorate his old home in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania.
The article also explains that Ruth Ann married Giles C. Dana in May 1836, but died eight weeks later at age 16 in Peoria, IL.
“I was surprised we were able to research it and find out so much,” John said.
Darlene, who grew up in Illinois, realized that her hometown of Silvis was less than 60 miles from the city of Wyoming.
Unable to find any of Thomas’s present-day descendents, Darlene and John decided the next best thing was to return the locket to Wyoming.
“We just felt that it should be returned to the town,” Darlene said. “It seemed like the right thing to do.”
When Darlene’s mother traveled to California this summer, Darlene flew with her back to Illinois and made the drive to Wyoming—where, coincidentally, one of her cousins owns a hardware store.
Because Wyoming has no museum, Darlene decided to give the locket to city officials.
Darlene said she and her family never expected anyone outside of Wyoming to find out about the locket or take interest in the matter. But the Star Courier, a paper based in Kewanee, IL, wrote an article about it last month.
It is still unclear how the mourning locket—which Darlene called a reminder of the fragility of life—ended up in California, but it is now back where it belongs.
“It’s such a small world, and for someone who was originally from Illinois and also who has relatives in Wyoming to have found it—it’s just such a coincidence,” St. John said.
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