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


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Carpenter, Cyrus Clay
(November 24, 1829–May 29, 1898)

–teacher, surveyor, military officer, governor, and U.S. congressman—was born to Asahel and Amanda (Thayer) Carpenter in the small northeastern Pennsylvania community of Hartford. Asahel's father, one of the town's founders, secured the Carpenter family's prominence in the community. Asahel and Amanda Carpenter's family grew to include eight children, only four of whom survived past infancy. Asahel himself died in 1842, and Amanda died in 1843. In the wake of the death of both parents, Cyrus and his three remaining brothers lived in the homes of various relatives.

    By 1849 the brothers were scattered across the nation, from the California gold fields to nearby Herrick, Pennsylvania, where Cyrus was teaching school. By the close of 1849, however, Cyrus had entered the Hartford Academy. Upon leaving the academy in 1851, Carpenter set his course westward from Pennsylvania. He stopped for two years in Johnstown, Ohio, where he taught in a nearby country school. By 1854 Carpenter had grown restless, and like many other Ohioans, he packed his belongings and emigrated to Iowa.

    Carpenter would later proudly recall his journey by foot and stagecoach across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois; by steamboat to Muscatine; by stagecoach to Iowa City; and by foot to Fort Des Moines. Upon arrival at Fort Des Moines, Carpenter spent his days exploring his surroundings and pursuing job opportunities. Despite the promise of the growing community at Fort Des Moines, he found jobs scarce. After hearing of Fort Dodge 85 miles to the north, he struck out on foot for the northern fort. He found work as a surveyor on his first day in the small Iowa frontier town that would remain his home for the rest of his life.

    In 1855 Carpenter won his first public office as county surveyor. In addition to his surveying work, he soon became involved in the activities of the expanding Iowa Republican Party. In March 1857 Carpenter offered his assistance to the relief expedition to aid the settlers who had been attacked by Sioux renegades near Spirit Lake. By the conclusion of the relief expedition, Carpenter had become a fixture in the community's social and political life. In the fall of 1857 the Republicans of the district that included Fort Dodge had taken notice and nominated Carpenter as their representative to the Iowa General Assembly. Despite strong competition from Democrat John F. Duncombe, Carpenter won the election.

    At the outbreak of the Civil War, Carpenter was appointed Commissary of Subsistence, responsible for feeding Union troops. His orders included supervising the feeding of the Army of the Mississippi under the direction of General Pope in preparation for the advance on Corinth. He also served under Generals Rosecrans, Dodge, Grant, and Logan. On a 20-day furlough, he married his longtime sweetheart, Susan Kate Burkholder, in Fort Dodge on March 14, 1864.

    At the conclusion of the Civil War, Carpenter was elected register of the State Land Office and served two terms dealing with public domain and land title issues. With the Republican Party well entrenched in Iowa after the Civil War, Carpenter's political capital grew, culminating in his nomination for governor at the Republican Party State Convention in 1871. Carpenter won the election by a majority of over 40,000 votes. He was reelected in 1873. A highly popular governor, he risked alienating powerful forces in his party by promoting railroad regulation, and he signed Iowa's Granger Law of 1874.

    After he left the governor's office, Carpenter accepted an appointment as Second Comptroller in the U.S. Treasury Department and subsequently, in 1878, as railroad commissioner. He also served two terms as a U.S. congressman (1879-1883), one term in the Iowa General Assembly (1884-1885), and several years as Fort Dodge's postmaster. As a congressman, he was a vocal supporter of an unsuccessful effort to raise the Department of Agriculture to cabinet level and a successful effort to divide Iowa into two judicial districts. Otherwise, he seldom participated in House debates.

    Cyrus Clay Carpenter succumbed to a recurring kidney ailment at his home in Fort Dodge at the age of 68. His life, his biographer concludes, was "not a great life, not a life that influenced events or changed the course of history; merely a good life, an average life.... He was... one of the many minor public officers who make no outstanding mark on their time but are the warp and woof of the political fabric."
Sources The Cyrus Clay Carpenter Papers are at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. A full biography is Mildred Throne, Cyrus Clay Carpenter and Iowa Politics, 1854– 1895 (1974).
Contributor: Rick L. Woten