The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
McDill, James Wilson
(March 4, 1834–February 28, 1894)

–lawyer, judge, U.S. representative, and U.S. senator—was born in Monroe, Butler County, Ohio. His father, James McDill, minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian church, died in 1840. McDill's mother, Fanny (Wilson) McDill, was left to raise six-year-old James; his two sisters, Mary Margaret and Martha; and his stepsister, Agnes Johnson. In 1845 the family moved to South Salem, Ross County, Ohio, where they lived with Fanny's father, Rev. R. G. Wilson, a Quaker and abolitionist.

    James McDill attended Salem Academy in South Salem, Ohio, and Hanover College in Hanover, Indiana. He enrolled at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1851 and graduated in 1853. Shortly after graduating, McDill moved to Kossuth, Des Moines County, Iowa, where he taught school for one year before returning to Ohio. In 1855 McDill began studying law in the office of Galloway & Matthews in Columbus, Ohio. One year later he was admitted to the bar.

    After spending the winter of 1856 in Burlington, Iowa, McDill moved on to Afton in Union County, Iowa. In that fledgling community of pioneers established just three years earlier, McDill set up his own legal prac tice in 1857 and married Narcissa Fullinwider of Kossuth that same year.

    McDill quickly established himself as a prominent citizen of Afton. In 1859 he was elected Union County Superintendent of Schools, and in 1860 he accepted a position as county judge. After a visit to Washington, D.C., in 1861 with Iowa Governor James Wil son Grimes, McDill was awarded a clerkship in the office of the Third Auditor of Treasury, Division of War Claims. He resigned that position in 1865 and, for a brief time, practiced law in Washington, D.C.

    After returning to Afton in 1866, the 32year-old McDill resumed his law practice. He was appointed first circuit court judge in 1868 and, in 1871, district judge of the third judicial circuit of Iowa. In 1873, having been elected to the U.S. Congress, McDill returned to Washington to serve in the 43rd and 44th Congresses. In 1876 he turned down the candidacy for reelection.

    Back in Afton again, he resumed his law practice. As a member of the congressional Committee on Pacific Railroads, he had developed an interest in railroad expansion, an interest he continued to pursue as a member of Iowa's Board of Railroad Commissioners (1878-1881, 1883-1885). During his hiatus from the board, McDill filled a vacancy in the U.S. Senate caused by Samuel J. Kirkwood 's resignation from the Senate to accept an appointment as President James Garfield's secretary of the interior.

    In 1890 Creston, due to its proximity to the railroad and its growing population, replaced Afton as the Union County seat. McDill moved to Creston and in 1892 accepted an appointment by President Benjamin Harrison to the Interstate Commerce Commission. While conducting business for the commission, the 59-year-old McDill became ill and died. He was interred in Graceland Cemetery in Creston.
Sources McDill's papers are held in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. See also Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present; and James Wilson McDill, Illustrated Centennial Sketches, Map and Directory of Union County, Iowa (1876).
Contributor: Amber Neville