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Sherman, Hoyt
(November 1, 1827–January 25, 1904)

–banker, real estate developer, insurance executive, and local historian—was born in Lancaster, Ohio, the 10th of 11 children. His father, Charles R. Sherman, an Ohio Supreme Court judge, died suddenly in 1829, leaving his widow burdened with debt. To manage, Mary Sherman scattered her older children among relatives and friends, but she kept Hoyt and his younger sister. All 11 children reached adulthood and made some mark, most prominently William Tecumseh Sherman as a Civil War general and John Sherman as a U.S. senator.

    Hoyt Sherman arrived at Des Moines in May 1848. He had worked as a newspaper printer in Cincinnati, Ohio, and briefly studied law in Mansfield, Ohio. Like his brothers James (1814-1864) and Lampson P. (1821- 1900), who joined him as significant factors in the growth of Des Moines, Hoyt viewed the Iowa frontier town as a place with superior prospects for economic and social advancement. The ambitious young man allied himself with other entrepreneurs and plunged into land transactions, building projects, and banking. He prospered and was elected to several local offices. In 1855 Sherman returned to Ohio to marry Sara Moulton. The couple had five children.

    Assistance from his brother Tecumseh, then employed as a New York City banker, allowed Hoyt Sherman's bank to be one of only two in Des Moines to survive the Panic of 1857. Sherman parlayed his good fortune into a partnership with the other local banker to weather the storm, Benjamin F. Allen, and the two men vigorously pursued investment activities. By 1860 Sherman's local stature easily surpassed that of his brothers, especially James, who struggled with alcoholism and failed as a merchant and land speculator.

    Sherman served during the Civil War as an army paymaster with the rank of major. He accepted the position, in part, to escape depressed economic conditions in Des Moines, but entrepreneurs who stayed out of the service, such as Frederick M. Hubbell and Jefferson Polk, gained wealth and influence while Sherman was away. Sherman resigned his commission in 1864 and spent the next few years trying to regain his footing, first as a hardware merchant and then through a term as state representative.

    The most important phase in Sherman's career began in January 1867, when he joined a small group of Des Moines businessmen to form Equitable Life Insurance of Iowa. Although unfamiliar with the insurance business, Sherman's financial acumen, honesty, and availability resulted in his becoming secretary of the new firm. Success in the office led to his promotion to president in 1874.

    The Panic of 1873 derailed Sherman's career as Equitable's president. The downturn collapsed Benjamin Allen's banking empire, and his numerous Des Moines depositors and creditors were thrown into turmoil. Assuming the thankless position of assignee for Allen's tangled assets, Sherman attempted to help his friend out of bankruptcy. Complicated legal proceedings finally ended when Hubbell and Polk purchased all of Allen's interests in June 1884 for $350,000. The process created friction that led to Sherman's resignation as Equitable's president in January 1888 and the selling of his company stock to Hubbell.

    Although financially comfortable because of long-term leases on lucrative Des Moines business properties, Sherman, whose wife died in March 1887, endured disappointments after leaving Equitable. The Panic of 1893 wrecked a scheme to subdivide the land surrounding his fashionable home into building lots. Recovering his home from the Sherman Place Land Company forced Sherman to live in rentals and mortgage other properties. The death in 1902 of his oldest son, Frank, a lawyer who assisted with his business dealings, was another blow.

    Perhaps to distract his mind from troubles, Sherman wrote articles late in life on the vibrant early days in Des Moines. He also socialized with surviving pioneers and Civil War veterans. Always interested in his family, he kept in touch with his many nieces and nephews. When he died in Des Moines in 1904, he had outlived all of his brothers and sisters. His estate, nominally valued at $600,000, lacked liquidity, and his heirs transferred his homestead to the Board of Park Commissioners for $500 and relief from encumbrances. The home still exists as the headquarters of the Des Moines Women's Club and centerpiece of the Hoyt Sherman Place Foundation.

    Hoyt Sherman's life showed both the importance and limits of individual initiative and ambition in Iowa's development. Aggressive entrepreneurs confronted challenges from local competitors and unpredictable national economic dynamics. All actions and decisions carried risks, and no path guaranteed success.
Sources There is no large collection of Hoyt Sherman's papers. For samples of his correspondence, see State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines, and the Sherman-Ewing Family Papers, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana. Sherman's articles about his first trip to Des Moines and early banking in Iowa are in Annals of Iowa 5 (1901), 1–13, 93–116; and Annals of Iowa 33 (1956), 281–88. For the fullest treatment of Sherman's career, with references to other useful sources, see William M. Ferraro, "Representing a Layered Community: James, Lampson P., and Hoyt Sherman and the Development of Des Moines, 1850–1900," Annals of Iowa 57 (1998), 240–73.
Contributor: William M. Ferraro