Samuel Merrill, Indiana's Second State Treasurer (1792-1855)

Catharine Merrill


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 12, Issue 1, pp 53-59

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Samuel Merrill, Indiana's Second State Treasurer (1792-1855)


Samuel Merrill, born October 29, 1792, in Peacham, Vermont, and died in Indianapolis, August 24, 1855, was the second son of Jesse and Priscilla Merrill. The first American Merrill was a Puritan who left England in 1637, and settled the next year in Ipswich, Massachusetts. His name was Nathaniel. His descendants in a direct line to the subject of the present notice, were Abel, Nathaniel, Samuel, Samuel and Jesse. The second Samuel lost his father when very young, and seems to have been thrown entirely on his own resources; which, however, were sufficient. By farming and lumbering he acquired a handsome property. He joined the Revolutionary army during Burgoyne's invasion, and as captain of a company, was present at the surrender at Saratoga.

The following paragraph from a private letter written by a granddaughter of Captain Merrill gives something of his character, as well as that of his wife:

"Our grandfather was a man of a good deal of energy and independence of character, with great firmness and tenacity of purpose. Of course, this made an enterprising man. Such he was. His business extended over much of New Hampshire and Vermont. Withal he was eminently social, quick at repartee, a most genial companion, and not wanting in the little comities of life. Now, if you have known in any of his descendants, a something of the severe (not sour or morose, hardly indeed severe) with an apparent determination not to be driven to talk, and an ability to confer with one's self, notwithstanding surroundings, added to all a sarcasm seldom used, but always ready and keen as 'Damascene blade,' making the flesh to quiver at the thought of it, I say when you find these traits, it is their inheritance from Abigail Eaton, the wife of Samuel Merrill, a woman of great excellence of character and propriety of manner, of whom all the world were ready to aver that she never uttered a wrong or useless word. Is it to be wondered that nine 'live' boys, reared by such a mother with no sister, should lack somewhat the effects of a softening influence?"

These nine rugged sons were accustomed to steady labor, and were sometimes subjected to severe hardships in rafting and boating wood and ship timber on the Merrimack river. None of them formed bad habits. The oldest children, Jesse was the second, received but a limited education. Jesse Merrill married Priscilla Kimball, and took her immediately to a new farm he had begun making in Peacham, Vermont. He was an industrious farmer, an active and upright citizen. He held at different times numerous town offices, and was four years a member of the Vermont legislature. Both he and his wife took great pains to supply their want of early education, and to gratify in their children a stronger than ordinary love of knowledge. Mrs. Merrill was in all the relations of life noble and excellent. In their love and admiration of her, her children were enthusiasts. When in after life they instructed their own daughters, they illustrated their idea of womanhood by the tender, generous and just character of their mother.

For forty years Peacham was happy in one minister, and that one a good and great man, the Rev. Leonard Worcester. The town was fortunate also in its academy, celebrated for many years among the good schools of New England. Under the influence of Mr. Worcester, whose preaching everybody attended, and of the excellent teachers in the academy, seven Merrill children, six boys and one girl, grew to maturity. James was the eldest son, Samuel the second. The two brothers went to school together, read the same books, and continually talked over together what they heard and read. The encouragement they thus gave each other was such that when rewards for excelling at school were proposed, neither of them ever failed. When the boys were respectively ten and seven years old, it was proposed that all the scholars in the academy, who by a particular day could not be caught in Webster's spelling book, should be entitled to a picture book. On the arrival of the day, the boys and girls, about one hundred in number, were placed on the outside seats of a large room to change their places to the center of the room as they missed. Among seven, who held out to the last, the two youngest were James and Samuel. The influences of the prizes they then won were not lost on either of them. Confidence that they could succeed enabled them to succeed,

At the beginning of 1800 the attention of the whole. civilized world was fixed upon the career of Napoleon. "Peacham corner" had an interest scarcely less keen and vivid than that of London. News came from Boston once a week, the stage arriving at eight or nine in the evening. On mail day the two boys, after the farm work, which was no light matter, would plod through the darkness, nearly two miles to the postoffice, feeling themselves amply rewarded as they carried home the Boston Journal. The Merrill children were all voracious readers, and they acquired an accurate knowledge of Josephus and other books of like character that formed their father's small library.

From the academy, James and Samuel entered Dartmouth College. After graduating, the elder left to teach school and study law in York, Pennsylvania, the younger joining him the next year, 1813. The school employed besides the two brothers, Thaddeus Stevens and John Blanchard, also from Peacham and from Dartmouth, and also students of law. The friendship of these young men, formed in boyhood, continued through life. A year or two before the death of Thaddeus Stevens, in that memorable winter, when the feeble but fierce old man seemd to cling to life but to denounce dishonest and half-hearted measures and cut right and left with the double-edged sword of his satire, a visitor to Washington referred in his presence to the friend of his youth, Samuel Merrill. The old man in a breaking voice, but still mindful of the present, exclaimed, "Ah, why is it that he is dead! Why should heaven, already thronged with the pure and noble, rob us of one so needed here!"

After three years in York, Mr. Merrill came to Indiana, and, looking first at Vincennes, determined to settle in Vevay. He found it impossible to get a conveyance from New Albany, and he bought a boat, and putting in it his trunk and a number of law books, he rowed himself seventy miles up the river to Vevay. He was then twenty-four years old. To the last week of his life he retained this vigorous self-reliance. When he was fifty-seven he rowed an equal distance with one assistant, in an open boat on the Mississippi, carrying the drowned and coffined body of a little grandson from the woods near New Madrid, Missouri, where it had been buried by strangers.

Within a year from the time he began to practice law, Mr. Merrill married Lydia Jane Anderson, the daughter of a widow in Vevay.

It is not a little singular in the history of Samuel Merrill, of the two brothers next younger than he, and of his elder brother, that none of them for near ten years after they commenced professional life did anything more than to pave the way for future operations. If they had used spirits even moderately it is not unlikely that the small sums required for this would have interfered materially with their ultimate success, and Mr. Merrill was confident that if he had used tobacco, the seed of future prosperity would either never have been planted or would have failed to come to perfection. Mr. Merrill represented Switzerland county two years in the legislature, then in session at Corydon. Iti 1825 he became state treasurer and removed to Corydon. The intelligence of his son's election to the office of treasurer prompted the following paragraph in one of his father's letters: "If you don't honor the office, it will not honor you. Remember that he that rises must fall. While you are going up, prepare for retreat, not as the unjust steward did, but by being honest to your trust. He that depends on the flatteries of the world must know that the flatterer will turn against him when it suits his turn." The old Yankee farmer was most concerned that his son should be honest. And the son was honest. It was said of him, thirty years after the date of this letter, that "red hot balls would have been as tolerable to his palms as the smallest coin that he believed another's."

In November, 1824, Mr. Merrill removed to Indianapolis. He held the office of treasurer until in 1834 he was elected president of the State Bank of Indiana. In this office he remained until in 1844 he was made president of the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad Company, which position he held four years. In the period of comparative leisure which followed, he compiled with great industry and research the Indiana Gazetteer, a third edition of ten thousand copies of which was published in 1850.

His beloved wife died in 1847. His second wife was Elizabeth D. Young, of Madison, Indiana, previously of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

In 1850 he bought out Hood & Noble's book store, and united with it the business of publisher. Not feeling satisfied with the Gazetteer, he meditated a thorough revision of the work. But, after a week's illness, in the midst of his activity, he died. He had but a short time before in conversation expressed the wish that if it accorded with the will of Providence he might die before old age sapped his energies.

"Mr. Merrill was a man of superior abilities and attainments. His judgment was sound, his perceptions clear, and his memory retentive. Probably no man could tell so many incidents and anecdotes illustrative of the early history of the state, or could have woven his knowledge into a more interesting or instructive narrative. Though never eminent as a speaker, his clearness and decision made him a valuable councillor and useful officer."

His life was exceedingly laborious. While president of the State Bank, he visited twice a year, never once omitting the duty, every bank in the state, giving careful personal examinations to accounts and ledgers. (He could run over columns of figures with a machine-like rapidity and accuracy.) He usually made his journeys on horseback, often through roads indescribably bad, and though a most humane man to animals, several horses were sacrificed to the terrible roads and the necessity of speed. When he travelled in the stage his good humor, his fund of anecdote, the flow of thought, playful or serious, furnished by his richly stored mind, shortened to his fellow passengers the hours of dreary dragging through swampy woods. Not only his powers of conversation were at the service of strangers. He used to declare that nobody knew how to travel in this country who could not walk and carry a rail; and his rail often served a whole company. Once he walked all night long, nineteen miles, carrying a lantern before the stage, on the horrible old Madison road, reaching home just at daylight.

"Mr. Merrill took up the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad when it was languishing near Vernon, and accomplished more in track laying in two years than had been done in ten years before, bringing the road into Indianapolis, and starting in its career of railroad importance the city that he had named when a legislator in Corydon, and to which he had brought the archives and given its original importance when treasurer of state."

His careful attention to details may be illustrated by his action during one of those spring floods that sometimes sweep everything before them. He sat all night in a terrible storm, fending the drift from the abutments of a bridge which but for this care would have been swept away.

A sudden rise in Pleasant Run at one time excited his solicitude in regard to the regular Madison train, and unwilling to trust a messenger, he hurried himself to the spot, two miles south of town. The train was approaching. He made vehement gestures for it to stop. The engineer misunderstanding his signals, rushed on and across. Mr. Merrill was prostrated by the agony of mind he endured for about one minute. Good humored, cheerful and patient as he was, with a tenderness that made his eye fill, and his lips quiver at the sight of another's woe, a hand open as the day to melting charity, and ever a deferential respect for man as man in any rank or class of society, he was utterly intolerant of meanness, of hardness, and even of thoughtlessness. His anger was quick, flaming and fierce like lightning. One said of him, and said well, "He maintained in sublime combination the sternest ideas of justice with the most beautiful simplicity and childlike sweetness of manners."

"He was impulsive, and may sometimes have been imprudent," said one of his old friends, "but he was made of heroic stuff and more like our revolutionary fathers than any man I ever met."

For years, during the early history of Indianapolis, a band of rowdies in and about the town, persecuted negroes, threw rotten eggs at Abolitionists, disturbed religious meetings, and waged war generally against peace and order. Mr. Merrill was outspoken in denunciation of these rascals, threatening them with the severities of the law. The ringleader of the gang came into the bank one day prepared for fight. Mr. Merrill laughingly looked up from his desk as the rowdy, with coat off and sleeves rolled up, dared any man to lay hands on him, and said, "Mr. B., you brag too much." "Come out," roared the bully, "and try me." Out stepped the banker in his neat broadcloth and floored the bully three times in succession. The fellow picked himself up without a word, sneaked off, and never again took an active part in public disturbances. Years after, one bitter cold night, Mr. Merrill was roused from sleep by the voice of a drunkard in what was then a lane back of his house. He hurried on his clothes and went some distance to rescue the man from the cold. Bringing him in, making a fire and preparing a bed for him, he discovered that the helpless creature was his old antagonist. If not the first, Mr. Merrill was one of the first presidents of the Temperance Society of Indianapolis, and of the State Colonization Society. He took an active part in educational movements, taught school several times, was a trustee of Wabash College, superintendent of the First Methodist Sabbath school, and of the Second and Fourth Presbyterian. He was an elder in both the latter churches. His love of books never waned. The delight with which in his youth he read the Woverly Novels as they came from the hand of the "Great Magician" was scarcely greater than that with which in his later years he pondered over Neander, Ranke, Macaulay, or Carlyle. If at sixteen his enjoyment in literature was more intense, at sixty it was more profound. As his humanity comprehended men of all classes and character, so his taste in literature, while pure and refined, was universal. With all his ardor and activity, Mr. Merrill was modest even to timidity. Much of the good that he did was never known to others, and was not remembered by himself. But "the memory of the just shall live."

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.