Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday January 17, 2004 

Saturday Postcard 227: Samuel Kirkwood – the local man and Iowa governor

A brilliant Maryland-born farm lad of Scotch-Irish ancestry who was trained as a lawyer in Ohio named Sam Kirkwood came to Iowa City in 1855 to become arguably Iowa’s most beloved politician.

While Iowa’s “war governor” from 1860 to 1864, he even pledged his personal assets to pay for outfitting Iowa troops for service during the Civil War.

As Iowa governor, Kirkwood befriended president-elect Abraham Lincoln since they shared visions of a nation without slavery. Some claim Kirkwood’s brief speeches focusing common sense and logic influenced Lincoln in writing his Gettysburg address.

Kirkwood later would deliver a moving funeral eulogy to Lincoln on the east steps of Old Capitol.

In Ohio, Kirkwood met and was married in 1843 to Jane Clark, born in 1821 and eight years his junior. She was raised in a close-knit family of 10 children, and although she would bear none herself, she helped raise nieces and nephews in Iowa City where her mother, two brothers and a sister also settled.

Jane’s brother, Ezekiel Clark, arrived in Iowa City in 1848, purchased a bankrupt mill at Coralville, and 1,200 acres of farm ground near the mill. He entered banking and eventually opened a general store on Washington Street across from what is now UI’s Schaffer Hall.

Clark offered Kirkwood a partnership, and with Jane’s family ties increasingly oriented to Iowa City, their move west followed only months ahead of the first railroad which came during the closing moments of 1855. As state capital, Iowa City boasted 4,000 residents.


Governor and Senator 
Samuel Kirkwood 1813-1894

Kirkwood settled into corn, hog and cattle farming on the huge tract, living for a time in the rural Clarksville subdivision later a part of Coralville, while simultaneously running the Coralville flour mill and a saw mill on the opposite river bank. Clark kept the Iowa City store, a warehouse and banking operations running.

So, a successful Ohio attorney and prosecutor who had helped redraft the Ohio constitution changed that lifestyle for the soiled boots of a farmer and the dusty knee-length cotton coat of a miller. His burly build was accompanied by a good-natured attitude everyone trusted.

For a time, all northwest Iowa brought grain to “Honest Sam” for grinding, since his was the flour mill nearest such communities as Marshalltown, Fort Dodge, even Sioux City.

Just 10 months after his arrival Kirkwood took a February afternoon away from milling flour in Coralville to attend a convention in Old Capitol intent on forming an Iowa Republican Party, a political gathering said to have been the largest in Iowa to that time.

He came dressed in miller clothing, reportedly dusted with flour from head to toe, and sat in a corner at the rear of the house chamber in Old Cap. After friends mentioned his name in speech after speech to whispers among the gathered group of “Who is this Kirkwood?” someone called out in a loud voice, “Who the hell is Kirkwood?”

Unable to maintain his obscurity any longer, Kirkwood spoke briefly “with sound sense, convincing logic and forceful oratory” about severing his life-long allegiance to the Democratic Party because it had deserted its principles by supporting Kansas as a slave state.

The new party needed his legal, political and oratorical skills, and put him to work immediately helping write its founding credo. Thus, he was on his way into the Iowa governor’s chair just four years later; from there to the U.S. Senate, and eventually to the inner circles of Washington DC as a cabinet secretary to President Garfield.

That all started when an Ohio-trained attorney and Democrat named Sam Kirkwood who had taken up farming and milling in Coralville decided to attend a Republican meeting in Old Capitol one February afternoon in 1856.

Next Saturday: Exploring Iowa City’s old north side.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 

Return to Postcard Index