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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Grinnell, Josiah Bushnell
(December 22, 1821–March 31, 1891)

–antislavery minister, town and railroad promoter, and Republican member of the Iowa Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives—was born in New Haven, Vermont, the second of four sons of Myron Grinnell (originally Grenelle), descendant of French Huguenots, and Catherine (Hastings) Grinnell, of Scots ancestry. Josiah's father died when he was 10 years old. An appointed family guardian stressed work over study, but Josiah managed to acquire the rudiments of an education and at age 16 began teaching country school. After a few years he left for Connecticut, intending to enroll in Yale College, but was diverted by a family friend to Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York. There Grinnell assimilated the stern antislavery and temperance principles that energized his later career.

    After graduation, Grinnell traveled west for the first time to distribute religious literature for the American Tract Society in the new Wisconsin Territory. This confirmed him in his choice of the ministry as a vocation, and he entered Auburn Theological Seminary, graduating in 1846. He pastored the Congregational church in Union Village, New York, for three years before moving to Washington, D.C., and founding the First Congregational Church there. His antislavery sermons aroused so much opposition that Grinnell was forced to abandon his pulpit and relocate to New York City. There he met Julia Ann Chapin of Springfield, Massachusetts, and they were married on February 5, 1852. They had two daughters, Mary Chapin and Carrie Holm.

    In New York, Grinnell began a lifelong friendship with New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley. When Grinnell's voice failed, Greeley famously advised him, as Grinnell remembered it in his autobiography, to "Go West, young man, go West. There is health in the country away from our crowds of idlers and imbeciles."Grinnell resolved to found an antislavery and temperance town in the West. After a chance encounter with Henry Farnam, builder of the Rock Island Railroad, he was advised to locate his town on the prospective route of the Rock Island's Iowa subsidiary on the divide between the Iowa and Skunk rivers in western Poweshiek County, which he did in 1854.

    Grinnell also sought to found a college, and his embryonic "Grinnell University" was merged with Iowa College, founded by the "Iowa Band" of Congregationalist missionaries in Davenport in 1847 and relocated to Grinnell in 1859. Its name was changed to Grinnell College in 1909.

    Grinnell promoted sheep raising as an answer to the hard times following the Panic of 1857. His huge wool barn was said to have sometimes harbored freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad.

    Grinnell was a delegate to the convention at Iowa City in 1856 that organized the Republican Party in Iowa. He was elected to two terms in the Iowa Senate on a platform of temperance, free soil, and universal free education. He chaired the senate committee that drafted the 1858 law establishing a tax-supported public school system in Iowa.

    Grinnell was a staunch supporter of the free-state cause in Kansas after 1854. He was an intimate of abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, and Owen Lovejoy. But he had not met John Brown before Brown appeared on Grinnell's doorstep on February 25, 1859, while escorting a dozen freedom seekers forcibly liberated from enslavement in western Missouri. Grinnell provided shelter and provisions and helped arrange for a freight car to convey Brown and his party to Chicago. Grinnell never regretted his aid to John Brown, despite criticism and attempts by his political opponents to label him "John Brown Grinnell."

    Grinnell was a delegate to the Republican convention in Chicago in 1860 that nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency. In 1862 he was one of six Republicans from Iowa elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. His friendship with both Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens helped him obtain appointments and promotions for Iowans, and he was reelected in 1864 by a comfortable margin. One of the Radical Republicans, Grinnell was an early advocate of enlisting black soldiers and enfranchising the freedmen in the former Confederate states, although he opposed black suffrage in Iowa.

    Grinnell spoke in the House in favor of most Radical Reconstruction measures, including the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, up for renewal in 1866. The debate became personal, and a few days later Kentucky congressman Lovell H. Rousseau accosted Grinnell on the Capitol steps and struck him repeatedly with a light cane. Grinnell made no effort to resist. His assailant was reprimanded by the House and resigned his seat. At first, fellow Republicans and Grinnell's Iowa constituents solidly backed him, but later some in his home district criticized him for not having defended himself against Rousseau's blows. Grinnell's biographer claimed that is why he was denied renomination for a third House term, but that seems unlikely, as the nominating convention was held before Rousseau's assault occurred.

    When Grinnell was an unsuccessful candidate for the remainder of James Grimes's Senate term in 1869, however, the Rousseau affair was used against him, as was his role in the sale to squatters of Cherokee lands in southeastern Kansas. In 1872 Grinnell supported the Liberal Republican revolt in support of his old friend Horace Greeley, but Grant easily carried Iowa, including Grinnell's own township. Grinnell played a role in the Anti-Monopoly Party in Iowa in the mid 1870s, after which he dropped out of state and national politics. From 1876 to 1879 he devoted himself to the receivership of the bankrupt Central Railroad of Iowa. Then he was chosen mayor of Grinnell, his last elective office.

    When a devastating tornado struck his town and college on June 17, 1882, Grinnell went east and personally raised $40,000 of the $150,000 received in relief aid. Recognized as an authority on agriculture, he founded and headed both the State Horticultural Society and the Iowa Stock Breeders' Association. In 1885 he was elected president of the American Agricultural Association. After a nostalgic visit to his Vermont birthplace in 1887, Grinnell's health began to fail, but he continued to take an interest in the affairs of Iowa College and the Congregational church. He died at home at age 69 of complications arising from bronchitis and asthma.
Sources Grinnell's autobiographical reminiscences, Men and Events of Forty Years (1891), can be found in several Iowa libraries. See also Paul R. Abrams, "Assault Upon Josiah B. Grinnell by Lovell H. Rousseau," Iowa Journal of History and Politics 10 (1912), 383–402. The inaccuracies of Grinnell's reminiscences are corrected by Charles E. Payne, Josiah Bushnell Grinnell (1938). Also of interest is part one of John S. Nollen, Grinnell College (1953).
Contributor: G. Galin Berrier

Cite as: Berrier, G Galin. "Grinnell, Josiah Bushnell" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 30 October 2014