Events of Historical Note
By Matthew Urtz
(Wampsville, NY) I recently had the opportunity to watch the movie “The Conspirators.” The movie concerns the story of Mary Surratt who was accused – and later hanged – for taking part in the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln.
I was curious about her story in the film, and also to see if they included a gentleman from Madison County named John Palmer Usher. Unfortunately, Usher never made the film, but his story is still one that should be told.
Usher was born in Brookfield Jan. 9, 1816, to Nathaniel Usher and Lucy Palmer. His father was a general physician who could trace his family history to a number of prominent colonists including Hezekiah Usher, who was the first publisher in Boston, Mass., and John Usher, lieutenant governor of the New Hampshire Colony during the late 1600s and early 1700s.
Usher attended local schools and became a teacher; he used the money to support himself and started to study law under Henry Bennett and John Hyde in New Berlin. At the age of 21, he passed the bar. He briefly attempted a partnership with Hyde before moving to Indiana in 1839.
Usher arrived in Terra Haute, Ind., and stayed with the family of Elisha Brown, a former resident of Brookfield. He found work with a local lawyer, William D. Griswold, and received a license to practice in November 1841. The partnership, Griswold & Usher, would be prosperous for both men.
Usher worked as a trial lawyer nearly 20 years before being elected the Indiana Attorney General in 1861. His time as Attorney General was brief because in March 1862, Abraham Lincoln asked Usher to serve as assistant secretary of the Interior.
Caleb Blood Smith was serving as secretary at the time, but failing health led to Usher handling many of the duties. Blood resigned the position roughly nine months after Usher was appointed and, on Jan. 1, 1863, Usher officially became the United States Secretary of the Interior.
At that point, the secretary dealt mostly with Indian affairs. Usher favored compassionate treatment of Native Americans, a view that differed from many of his contemporaries. His time in office was for the most part uneventful, although he greatly enjoyed the ceremonial duties that came with the office. He attended the Gettysburg address and sat with dignitaries behind Lincoln as he spoke.
Usher resigned from his position March 8, 1865, effective May 15; a little more than a month later, Lincoln was assassinated. Usher kept to his timeline and finished his time serving under Andrew Johnson.
Usher did not slow down after his time in office. He took a position as the general solicitor for the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division. He helped promote a railroad that would go west from Kansas City.
In 1880, the railway consolidated and became the Union Pacific. He lived the remainder of his time in Lawrence, Kan., briefly serving as the town’s mayor. His home is on the National Register of Historic Places. Usher died of cancer April 13, 1889, at the age of 73 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence, Kan.
Sources: Farley, Alan W. & Richardson, Elmo R. John Palmer Usher. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1960. The Department of Everything Else: Highlights of Interior History (1989). cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/utley-mackintosh/interior5.htm. John Palmer Usher (1816-1889). Published by the Lehrman Institute and The Lincoln Institute. mrlincolnswhitehouse.org/inside.asp?ID=98&subjectID=2.
Matthew Urtz is Madison County Historian. He can be reached at email@example.com, (315) 366-2453 and by becoming a fan of Madison County, NY History on Facebook. For more information, visit madisoncountynyhistory.com.