Our Iowa Heritage: Samuel J. Kirkwood – Iowa’s Civil War Governor.

Iowa’s fifth (1860-64) and ninth (1876-77) governor, and U.S. Senator (1866-67, 1877-81)

Iowa’s Civil War Governor, Samuel Jordan Kirkword, was born on December 20, 1813 in Harford County, Maryland (see maps below). The son of Jabez Kirkwood, a blacksmith, Samuel attended country schools until the age of 10, when he was enrolled in a private academy in Washington, D.C., where he studied classics, rhetoric, and literature.

After leaving school at the age of fourteen, Samuel spent his teenage years working as a clerk in his brother’s drugstore, and for a time, teaching school in Pennsylvania. In 1835, the Kirkwood family moved to Mansfield, Ohio and in March 1841, the plain, homespun Samuel began studying law. Two years later (1843), he was admitted to the Ohio bar, married Jane Clark (pic below) of Troy Township of Richland, Ohio, and began his political career as a prominent local Democrat. In an biographical piece in The Iowa City Press-Citizen (1989), Alice J. Schallert writes…

“The more I observe of those who are called great men the more am I convinced that there is really less difference among them than is generally supposed.” Samuel J. Kirkwood

In 1853, Samuel traveled west to visit his brother-in-law, Ezekiel Clark, owner of Coral Mills in Johnson County, Iowa. Impressed with what he saw, he became a partner in the family business and moved to the Iowa City area in the spring of 1855.

1855 – Samuel and Jane Kirkwood join the Clark family in Iowa.

The Coralville Flouring Mill (pictured below on the right) was, indeed, a family affair. In 1850, Jane (Clark) Kirkwood’s brother and sister-in-law, Ezekiel and Susan Clark, came to Johnson County, building a mill on the shores of the Iowa River in what is today, Coralville. When Susan (age 28) died in 1849, Jane’s sister, Phoebe Clark, moved west to help care for Ezekiel’s children, marrying Governor Robert Lucas‘ son, Edward, in 1852. Samuel and Jane Kirkwood came to Iowa in 1855 to join the family business, living with Ezekiel, until they built their own home adjacent to the home of Phoebe and Edward Lucas.

(L-0096) Our Iowa Heritage collection includes this rare signature of Governor Kirkwood – taken from a 19th century autograph album.

A successful businessman, Samuel Kirkwood’s nickname soon became Dusty Miller – a colorful reference to his occupation – a hands-on manager of a flour mill. Although Kirkwood intended to leave politics behind him when he left Ohio, his friends summoned him from his mill, and while still coated in flour dust, gave a rousing speech at the founding meeting of the Iowa Republican Party in February 1856. Alice J. Schallert tells us more…

Iowa City artist George Yewell painted two portraits of Kirkwood – click here for more info.

Historian Herbert V. Hake reports (above) that another Johnson County pioneer, Robert Finkbine, played a vital role in bringing a reluctant Samuel Kirkwood to his senses in 1856!

Historian Hake gives us some insight on why Samuel Kirkwood changed his political affiliation.

An enthusiastic exponent of the North’s free-labor system, Kirkwood was drawn naturally to Iowa’s new Republican Party, which positioned itself as a foe of slavery expansion. His clarity of expression, plain farmer’s attire, and unpretentious ways gave him immediate recognition in a market-oriented white settler society that prided itself on its solid, rural values. As a result, Kirkwood was elected to the Iowa Senate, serving from 1856 to 1859, after which he was nominated for governor. Again, Schallert comments…

The popularity of the Lincoln-Douglass debates in Illinois (1858) prompted the same forum for the Iowa gubernatorial race of 1859. Kirkwood and Augustus Caeser Dodge (above right) participated in an extended series of debates during the 1859 campaign, with slavery as the central issue.

The first debate was held on July 29th in Oskaloosa, with Kirkwood speaking uncontested for three hours before late-comer A.C. Dodge arrived! At the second debate, held two days later in Bloomfield, Kirkwood immediately put his opponent on the defense by presenting a scenario of a runaway slave mother with a baby in her arms being chased by her cruel master and his bloodhounds as she crossed the Iowa-Missouri border. Kirkwood then advanced towards Dodge with clenched fists and demanded to know what Dodge would do in this situation. “Answer my question!” Kirkwood yelled. “I would obey the law,” Dodge replied. “So help me, God, I would suffer my right arm to be torn from its socket before I would do such a monstrous thing,” Kirkwood retorted. The crowd responded, cheering wildly for Kirkwood.

The Muscatine Weekly Journal (August 19, 1859) reported on the next debate, held August 4th in Chariton, Iowa…

AUGUSTUS CAESAR AGAIN GETTING ENRAGED.
By the following, which we clip from the closing of the Chariton Patriot’s account of the Gubernatorial discussion at that place, it will be seen that “the old war horse” became again “aroused and ready for the fray.” Gen. Dodge mounted a table when he spoke, and, on attempting to step from it when Kirkwood rose to close, it tipped, and to steady it, Kirkwood put his hand to it, playfully remarking, “General I told you you have been standing on a rickety platform all the time in this canvass,” upon which the General became belligerent, clenching both fists, with nostrils extended, and belched forth, “Mr. Kirkwood, I am ready for you, politically, personally or physically, or any other way.” Kirkwood coolly and pleasantly remarked that the General got fighting mad at him in Oskaloosa, but would say to the audience “that, if the General was the last man to flinch from a fight, he (Kirkwood) was next to the last.” Kirkwood was several times interrupted by his antagonist, who stood erect on the table, with folded arms, looking furious as a Bashan Bull, to the infinite amusement of the crowd, who manifested their glee by shouts and bursts of laughter.The General labored hard throughout his speech, and appeared to be in a bad humor. Mr. Kirkwood, we are pleased to say, bore himself calmly and with dignity throughout the discussion, to the delight and gratification of the audience. The Republicans of our county were never more enthusiastic nor determined.

Old Capitol – north side – Circa 1859

Many more debates followed, with the two men squaring off in Washington, Newton, Tipton, Anamosa, Maquoketa, Dubuque, Davenport, Muscatine, Wapello, and Fairfield. By the time the two candidates met in Iowa City, they both were showing the effects of the long campaign. According to one historian, Dodge seemed “hoarse and fatigued” and Kirkwood was “worn and anxious” as they spoke on the north side of the Old Capitol building. Finally, on October 11, 1859, Samuel Kirkwood defeated his Democratic opponent by a respectable margin of 3,170 votes.

Sworn into office on January 11, 1860, Samuel Kirkwood won his place in Iowa history by his decisive actions as the state’s Civil War governor. Shortly after taking office, Kirkwood was confronted by the arrival in Iowa of the Springdale abolitionist Barclay Coppoc (below middle), who had evaded capture after the failure of John Brown‘s raid on Harpers Ferry.

Click here for more info on Samuel Kirkwood and his work in overturning slavery in America.

Throughout the Civil War, Kirkwood gained national attention for being a strong supporter of President Abraham Lincoln, offering his extraordinary efforts to secure soldiers and supplies from Iowa for the Union Army and the war against slavery. Given the constraints placed on him by Iowa’s position as one of the poorest states in the Union (below left), Kirkwood still armed and equipped over 76,000 Iowans for the war, visiting the troops frequently in the field, overseeing the appointment of the Iowa State Army Sanitary Commission, and insisting on the soldiers’ right to vote in wartime elections. In 1862, Kirkwood attended the Loyal War Governors’ Conference in Altoona, Pennsylvania, which ultimately gave Lincoln support for his Emancipation Proclamation.

After Kirkwood’s re-election in 1863, President Lincoln appointed him to serve as minister of Denmark, but the governor declined the appointment, opting instead to finish out his gubernatorial term in Des Moines.

This rare CDV (carte de visite) of Governor Kirkwood (above) was a type of small photograph used in similar ways as passport photos today.

When Senator James Harlan was appointed to Andrew Johnson’s cabinet in the spring of 1865, Kirkwood was an obvious choice for Harlan’s vacated seat in the U.S. Senate, where he served from January 13, 1866 to March 3, 1867. But as the political climate changed following the war, Kirkwood’s popularity declined, leaving him as a “former governor” and a “lame-duck senator” at the age of 54.

The Kirkwood home (completed in 1864) is located at 1101 Kirkwood Avenue in Iowa City.

As his political career stalled out in the late 1860s, Kirkwood returned to Iowa City, turning his attention to business. Yet despite his political loss, it’s very apparent that this politician didn’t lose his sense of humor. Historian Jacob E. Reizenstein, in the Annals of Iowa, gives us a humorous look at Kirkwood’s positive attitude when some of his “friends” attempted to poke fun by nominating him for the lowly position of Road Supervisor for Iowa City township. Apparently, Kirkwood, seeing through this attempt to humiliate him, decided to turn the tables on these jokesters, filing the necessary paperwork so he could demonstrate his ever-ready willingness to serve the people regardless of the prestige or position!

In 1875, however, factionalism within Iowa’s ruling Republican organization prompted his nomination for governor as a candidate who could not only unite the state party but also win over voters galvanized by emotional issues such as prohibition and railroad regulation. The popular “old war governor” reluctantly accepted and was elected with a majority of more than 31,000 votes.

Read more (below) about the 1876 meteorite that ushered In Kirkwood’s third term as governor…

After serving as Iowa’s ninth governor for a little over a year, Kirkwood resigned from office to, once again, take a seat in the U.S. Senate, serving from March 4, 1877 until 1881 when he accepted an appointment in President James Garfield’s cabinet, as Secretary of the Interior. A year after Garfield’s assassination (July 1881), Kirkwood finally decided to retire from politics, returning to private life in Iowa City.

When asked to write about his life in 1883, Kirkwood responded…

My life has not been an eventful one at all, and I congratulate myself that I have got along through my three score years and ten as well as I have. My ambition nowdays is to keep my name out of the papers.

On June 9, 1887, Kirkwood was asked to write out an overview of his life for use in a biographical dictionary to be published for the upcoming 1893 Chicago World’s Fair…

This overview of Jane Kirkwood’s life comes from The Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, September 3, 1914, on the occasion of her 93rd birthday…

Few Iowans know of the close relationship that existed between Governor Kirkwood and his wife. They were inseparable. Governor Kirkwood went nowhere without her. She was his companion in speaking throughout the state, in various campaigns in which he took part. As a consequence, she has an acquaintance with the public men of Iowa perhaps unequaled by any other woman in the state in the days of Grimes, Harlan, Wright, Stone and other Republican leaders of the days following the Civil War. Governor and Mrs. Kirkwood had no children, yet their home in Iowa City was never empty of the voices of young people. Few could tell, perhaps not Mrs. Kirkwood herself, how many she and her husband helped with an education. She was a woman, it has been said, who never had any money or jewelry, but much for those who needed it.

Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood passed away at the age of 80 on September 1, 1894, while his wife, Jane Clark Kirkwood, lived to age 99, passing away on April 28, 1921. Both are buried at Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.

Samuel J. Kirkwood taken in 1864 by Iowa City photographer Isaac Wetherby.

Samuel J. Kirkwood has been honored in numerous ways over the years. Above are a commemorative pin (left) and ribbon (right) from the turn of the century – circa 1900.

(C-0158) Along with pioneer Iowa Senator James Harlan, Kirkwood’s sculptured likeness (above right) is among the two coveted statues apportioned to each state in the National Statuary Hall in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. For the U.S. Bicentennial (1976) this 13¢ Iowa State Flag stamp was issued on a First Day Cover (top left) featuring the statue of Kirkwood.

Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids is named for the former governor, while the town of Kirkwood, Illinois is named for him as well.

Kirkwood Avenue in Iowa City (above), where the Governor and his wife, Jane, lived for much of his political career, is named for him, as is Kirkwood Elementary School (below right), located in Coralville, near where the Kirkwood and Clark families first built their mill.

A small Kirkwood Monument Plaque is located near the Morningside Drive entrance to Iowa City High School (above left). The Kirkwood Hotel has been a long-time landmark in downtown Des Moines, while Kirkwood Boulevard in Davenport is the route for the internationally-known foot race – the Bix7.

Here’s a tip of the old hat to Samuel and Jane Kirkwood. We’re so glad you left your home in Ohio to come west in 1855. Your honorable lives continue to make a huge impact on Iowa today. Godspeed!


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Samuel Jordan Kirkwood, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, University of Iowa Library

Samuel J. Kirkwood, Wikipedia

The Life and Times of Samuel J. Kirkwood, H.W. Lathrop, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1893, pp Intro, 10a

Photo from: Finials – A View of Downtown Iowa City, Marybeth Slonneger, p 123

Iowa Governor Debates of 1859, Samuel Kirkwood vs Augustus Dodge, WorldHistory.us, July 4, 2017

1859 Campaign: Kirkwood, Dodge collide in Chariton, Frank D. Myers, Lucas Countyan, August 25, 2019

Kirkwood Elected Road Supervisor, Jacob E. Reizenstein, Annals of Iowa Volume 26 Number 4 (Spring 1945), pp. 305-306

The Political Firecracker: Samuel Kirkwood, Herbert V. Hake, The Palimpsest, Volume 56 – Issue 1, January 1975, pp 2-14

Read Iowa’s 1876 Thanksgiving Proclamation, Iowa Torch, November 26, 2020

Samuel J. Kirkwood, CivilWar-History.fandom.com

Samuel Kirkwood Clark, Lucas Farms Neighborhood Association, May 23, 2020

Samuel Jordan Kirkwood, Find-A-Grave

Jane Clark Kirkwood, Find-A-Grave

Samuel Kirkwood: As Iowa governor, he was ‘plain folk,’ Alice J. Schallert, The Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 4, 1989, p 42
Check out the video – A Biography of Samuel Kirkwood: Iowa’s War Governor – Iowa City Public Library

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