Samuel Merrill was born in the town of Turner, Oxford County, Maine, August 7, 1822. He was the son of Abel and Abigail (Hill) Merrill. He was one of a large family and was descended from Nathan Merrill, who came to America from England in 1636. When sixteen years of age he removed, with his parents, to Buxton, Maine, where he attended and taught school in turn until he reached his majority. He tried teaching in Maryland, but soon returned to his native state where he engaged in business with his brother Jeremiah. A few years later he joined the great rush of settlers to Iowa and came to McGregor, establishing himself in the mercantile business. He prospered during the rushing days of McGregor's great prosperity and soon became one of the leading merchants. Accumulating wealth rapidly, he soon became engaged in the banking business and was one of the founders, and the first president of the McGregor State Bank.
In 1859 he was elected to the Legislature from Clayton County and he took such forceful part in the deliberations of that body that he soon became recognized as one of the leaders of the Republican party. Before coming to Iowa Mr. Merrill had been a member of the Legislature of the State of New Hampshire, and this legislative experience aided greatly in fitting him for a public career in Iowa. The Iowa Legislature, of which Mr. Merrill was a member, was called in extra session by Governor Kirkwood to devise measures to assist the general government in the prosecution of the war, and in this work Mr. Merrill took a prominent and patriotic part. When the first Iowa regiments were organized it was found that there was no available money to uniform them. It was this emergency that Mr. Merrill joined with other men of wealth and advanced some $10,000 each for the equipment of the volunteers. It was this patriotic action which enabled Iowa to respond, promptly and efficiently, to the call for troops.
In 1862 Governor Kirkwood tendered Mr. Merrill the colonelcy of the 21st Iowa regiment. Colonel Merrill accepted the commission and at once became active in recruiting, and later, in leading his men to battle. The history of the regiment has been told in another chapter. Suffice it here to say that Colonel Merrill lead his men bravely and to victory. At the battle of Black River Bridge he was so severely wounded that he was forced to leave his regiment and return to McGregor.
His wound was so serious that he was granted an honorable discharge, but there was an insistent demand on the part of the regiment that he be reinstated, and thinking his health would permit, he rejoined his regiment. It proved, however that the effects of his wound were too serious to permit of active service and he was forced to leave the service in May, 1864. Returning to McGregor he became again interested in banking and when the State bank was reorganized as a National bank, he was the first president.
On account of his activities, both in peace and war, he was a favorite candidate for the Republican nomination for Governor in 1867. At the state convention of the Republican party he lead all in the balloting, and was nominated on the fourth ballot. He was elected by a large majority and during the stormy days of re-construction, he was a strong influence for the granting of equal rights to the negro race. Some of his state papers are among the strongest and most able ever issued by an Iowa Governor. He was the first Governor of Iowa to recommend the regulation of railroad rates, and he was also a pioneer in insurance and educational legislation. He did a great work for Iowa, in 1868, when upon the invitation of Peter Cooper, he wrote a lengthy review of the resources and possibilities of the state. This document was circulated widely in the east, was translated into other languages and had great influence in attracting desirable immigration to Iowa.
Governor Merrill was reelected, in 1869, by the largest majority ever given an Iowa Governor up to that time. He was a man of great force of character, and unafraid to act according to his convictions, and he vetoed a number of bills during his second term as Governor. Some of these vetoes drew sharp criticism, but in every instance they were justified by time. It was during his term that the capitol of Iowa was built and it was Governor Merrill, who, in October, 1870, held the plow to break the first ground for the building of that great structure. It was he, also, who laid the cornerstone of the building in November, 1871. He was also the moving spirit in the great soldiers' reunion held at Des Moines, in 1870, securing an appropriation of $15,000 from the state and $5,000 from the city of Des Moines for the purpose of the entertainment of the soldiers and also securing for them free transportation over the railroads of the state.
His administration was marked by many other accomplishments for the good of the people. He was also the first Governor of Iowa to give his entire time to the conduct of his office, removing to Des Moines for that purpose. Upon retiring from the office of Governor, he accepted the presidency of the Citizens’ National Bank of Des Moines, which position he held until his removal to California, where he spent his last years in well earned leisure. He died at Los Angeles, California, August 31, 1899, and he was buried at Des Moines. Gov. Merrill was married three times. His first wife, to whom he was married in 1847, died fourteen months after their marriage. He was married in 1851 to Miss Elizabeth D. Hill, and she was the wife who was known and loved by the people of McGregor and of Iowa as the first lady of the state. Governor Merrill was one who made his way by sheer force of intellect and deeds, rather than by words and protestations. He was reserved and dignified and not at all of the type of the so-called “popular politician,” and there were many in Clayton county who stood closer to the hearts of the people, but none who commanded higher respect.
Realto E. Price, Editor, History of Clayton County, Iowa, Vol. 1, p. 405-6