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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 760


This is the grave of Samuel Pomeroy.

Born in 1816 in Southampton, Massachusetts, Pomeroy grew up comfortable and went to Amherst College, graduating in 1838. He taught school in New York state for a couple of years and then moved back to Massachusettts. In the 1850s, Pomeroy became a leader in the fight over Kansas and whether it be free or slave. He helped found the New England Emigrant Aid Company, which sent anti-slavery people to Kansas in an attempt to counter the flooding of the territory with pro-slavery yahoos from Missouri. What this all did of course was create a situation where extremists on both sides were “moving” there to engage in what was effectively a fraudulent election since the vast majority had no intention of staying. But Pomeroy was serious about moving to Kansas. In 1854, he led a group of settlers there and helped found the town of Lawrence. He was the Chair of Public Safety for that town and actually had the residents of the town not engage with pro-slavery forces when they burned it. The burning of Lawrence was a horrible propaganda loss for the pro-slavery side and helped solidify public opinion throughout the North against the slave power.

Pomeroy immediately got involved in railroad building there, including what would become the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe, one of the most important railroads in American history. This involvement would go far to define his career.

Pomeroy rose fairly quickly in Kansas politics once the state was finally admitted as free in 1861. He and James Lane became the state’s first senators that year. But Pomeroy was no great fan of Abraham Lincoln. In fact, he led the attempt by Salmon Chase to dump Lincoln for the Secretary of the Treasury to get the 1864 nomination. But the Pomeroy Committee’s constant criticisms of Lincoln backfired, moved borderline Republicans back into Lincoln’s camp, which was helped by Chase’s overwhelming ego. Initially anyway, Pomeroy was associated with the Radicals. He was a big supporter of Black voting rights after the war and also called for women’s suffrage. He was president of the National Equal Rights Association in 1867 and the following year introduced a suffrage bill that called for a constitutional amendment which read, “The basis of suffrage in the United States shall be that of citizenship, and all native or naturalized citizens shall enjoy the same rights and privileges of the elective franchise.” But the Senate never considered it.

Pomeroy, despite supporting Chase in 1864, had also worked closely with Lincoln on the latter’s Chriqui scheme to get freed slaves to leave the U.S. and mine coal for American shipping in Panama. It took a long time for the president to come around to the idea that different races could live together. Pomeroy wrote in Black newspapers, trying to expand the scheme. He stated, for instance:

“The hour has now arrived when it is within your own power to take one step that will secure, if successful, the elevation, freedom and social position of your race upon the American continent. The President of the United States has already signified his desire to carry outfully . . . the desire of the National Legislature, which made an appropriation to facilitate your emigration and settlement in some favorable locality outside of these States.”

To his credit, Pomeroy later turned on the idea of colonization and opposed Grant’s desire to acquire the Dominican Republic. Charles Sumner’s discomfort with the idea was openly racist–he believed that the climate of the tropics made republicanism impossible to impose on those people. Pomeroy rejoined Sumner on the Senate floor, saying that anyone from any part of the world could become a proper American citizen with American values.

Despite this solid political background, what Pomeroy became most known for in the Senate was his dirty deeds in service of building up the railroads. His specialty was messing with the treaties done with the tribes for them to cede their lands directly into the hands of railroads at rock bottom prices. This practice hit its peak when Pomeroy helped James Joy, who bought the Leavenworth, Lawrence, and Galveston Railroad in 1869, push through Congress a treaty bargained the year before that gave the railroad a mere 8 million acres of Osage land for 20 cents an acre. As chairman of the Committee on Public Lands, Pomeroy had a lot of power on these issues. All of this made Pomeroy a contemptible figure for those who believed in good governance. This included Mark Twain, who made Pomeroy the inspiration for Senator Dilworthy, “the golden tongued statesman” in his co-authored novel The Gilded Age, which gave the legendarily corrupt period its name. There was always a hint of corruption around Pomeroy. Back in 1860, Kansas suffered a severe drought. He managed the state aid committee. And he probably stole most of the money. There were lots of accusations of this, but nothing was ever totally proven. Still. these stories about him did not surprise many. Pomeroy also sponsored the bill to create Yellowstone National Park, which was because it was designated to help his railroad buddies get tourists into the park.

Pomeroy had won a second term in 1866 but lost a third in 1872. That’s because his attempts to bribe state legislators came into the light. A state senator who didn’t like him asked him for the bribe, hoping he’d bite and could be defeated. That worked. Pomeroy paid him $7,000, the state senator publicized it, and Pomeroy was replaced by John Ingalls. Pomeroy had defended himself on the Senate floor, claiming the money wasn’t a bribe but an attempt to start a new bank. The Senate found him not guilty because it wasn’t a clear case and there was some outrage that someone would be out to catch a senator like that (probably some very concerned senators about that). This decision was not unanimous. Allen Thurman of Ohio absolutely thought Pomeroy was guilty. But since he was leaving office anyway, they just let it go.

Pomeroy was actually shot by a guy in 1873 who accused him of ruining his family through his corruption, but his wounds were relatively superficial. Pomeroy actually did have to face corruption charges back home in Kansas, but the case was finally dismissed in 1875. There was some irony to all of this. Pomeroy was a big supporter of convicting Andrew Johnson of his crimes. But the other Kansas senator was on the fence. So Pomeroy threatened the guy, saying that if he voted to acquit, he would be the subject of a bribery investigation. To double up the irony, it also seems that Pomeroy himself had contacted the Postmaster General with an offer to vote for acquittal in exchange for $40,000.

The sad thing here is that many of the most radical anti-slavery politicians also become some of the most corrupt of the Gilded Age. And these stories really are Peak Gilded Age.

Pomeroy didn’t totally leave politics though. He was still motivated by various hatred. In 1880, there was a brief revival of the Anti-Masonic Party. Pomeroy was the VP candidate for this pointless ticket. He later moved back to Massachusetts. He died in 1891, at the age of 75.

Samuel Pomeroy is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit people elected to the Senate in 1866, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Since yesterday was also someone elected in 1866, we can collect them all! James Patterson is in Hanover, New Hampshire and Philip Francis Thomas, who was not seated because he was an open Confederate supporter, is in Easton, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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