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Merrill, Samuel
(August 7, 1822–August 31, 1899)

–Iowa's seventh governor—was born in Turner, Maine, the son of a New England farmer, Abel Merrill, and his wife, Abigail. After receiving a limited education in the local country schools, he taught briefly in the slave state of Maryland before returning to New Hampshire to engage initially in farming and subsequently in merchandising with his older brother, Jeremiah.

    A committed Whig and churchgoing Protestant, he was a strong supporter of prohibition and an equally vigorous opponent of the expansion of slavery. He spent one term in the legislature at Concord in 1854-1855 before migrating west to the Mississippi River town of McGregor, Iowa. There he quickly established himself as a highly capable merchant and banker, prominent civic leader, and committed Republican. He was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1859 and, after the outbreak of the Civil War, assisted Governor Samuel Kirkwood's efforts to lend Iowa's support to the Union cause in the face of serious economic constraints. At six feet tall, the bearded, square-jawed Yankee cut an imposing figure, and in 1862 he was elected colonel of the 21st Iowa Infantry. He led his men effectively in Grant's campaign to release the Confederates' grip on the Mississippi River, but on May 17, 1863, he was seriously wounded at the Battle of Black River Bridge on the road to Vicksburg. Although he later tried to return to soldiering, his wounds were too serious to allow for further campaigning, and he was mustered out of the army in 1864.

    Merrill's impressive record as a demonstrably civic-minded legislator and patriotic army officer gave him significant political capital in postwar Iowa. In 1867 the state's Republican Party nominated him for governor ahead of the outspoken radical Congressman Josiah B. Grinnell (who had not fought for the Union). Merrill easily won the general election on a platform that pledged support for congressional Reconstruction, local economic development, and the enfranchisement of Iowa's small population of African Americans.

    He proved to be a capable governor during his two terms in office (1868-1872). He labored hard to boost the state's material prosperity by fostering railroad construction and immigration, but also acknowledged the growth of antimonopoly concerns among farmer (particularly in the eastern counties) by publicly opposing discriminatory freight rates and passenger fares. Merrill's Whig roots made him a strong friend of the state's embryonic public institutions, notably the school system, which he bolstered personally by demanding the sale of school lands at proper market prices. However, he urged the adoption of modern business methods by those institutions to reduce the possibilities of corruption and to promote more efficient and economical delivery of services. In spite of his reputation as a pragmatic, moderate Republican, he was not averse to taking actions that reflected his Protestant upbringing. For example, he prohibited flogging in the state penitentiary and urged that a Sunday school should be located in the same building. Merrill, moreover, did not hesitate to use his war record to solidify the loyalty of Iowa's veterans to the ruling Republican Party. In the summer of 1868 he hosted a large gathering of bluecoats in Des Moines, many of them hard-bitten veterans of Sherman's western army deeply concerned that any resurgence of the Democratic Party would undermine the fruits of Northern victory. Merrill secured a majority of nearly 40,000 votes when he stood for reelection in 1870, a crushing victory that was built in part on the votes cast by his former comrades in arms.

    After stepping down as governor at the beginning of 1872, Merrill returned to his business interests, serving as president of the Citizens National Bank of Des Moines and the Iowa Loan and Trust Company. Toward the end of his life, he moved to California. There he married for a third time (having survived his first and second wives) and engaged in large real estate and banking projects. In 1897 he was injured in a streetcar accident in Los Angeles and never recovered. He died at age 77 and was buried in Des Moines after an imposing funeral ceremony attended by most members of Iowa's political establishment.
Sources Biographical information on Samuel Merrill is sparse. The best sources are William H. Fleming, "Governor Samuel Merrill," Annals of Iowa 5 (1902), 335–51; and Johnson Brigham, Iowa: Its History and Its Foremost Citizens (1916). See also Merrill's public messages in Benjamin F. Shambaugh, ed., Messages and Proclamations of the Governors of Iowa (1903–1905).
Contributor: Robert J. Cook