The Scottish American History Club Newsletter
Some historians consider James Wilson the greatest of
all U.S. secretaries of agriculture. In tenure and
accomplishment, he set records that have never been
equaled. Wilson was born August 16, 1835 in Ayrshire,
Scotland, near the farm rented by Robert Burns 50 years
earlier. He was one of 14 children. His parents came to
the U. S. in 1852, settling in Connecticut before moving
to Tama county, Iowa three years later.
He attended Grinnell College, farmed, taught school, and
was elected to the Iowa state house (1867-71), serving
as speaker (1870-71). He was a state university regent
and from 1891 to 1897 was a professor of agriculture at
what is now Iowa State University. In 1897 he joined the
McKinley administration as secretary of agriculture and
was retained by Presidents Roosevelt and Taft until
1913. Wilson was know as “Tama Jim” to distinguish him
from Iowa Senator James Wilson, no relation. Tama Jim
was an unusual combination of accomplished educator,
shrewd politician, and gifted organizer. President
Warren Harding once asserted that except for his
Scottish birth he would almost certainly have become
president of the United States.
He revolutionized American agriculture by extending the
U.S. Department of Agriculture into many areas. He
established the extension service, began U.S. world
leadership in agricultural science, inaugurated programs
in agricultural economics, farm credit, soil
conservation, and reforestation. He expanded facilities
for research in plant disease and insect control and
began a complex of experimental fields and laboratories
at Beltsville, Md., that is known as one of the world’s
greatest research facilities.
Wilson never forgot his Scottish heritage. He was well
indoctrinated, mostly by his father, in the Bible and
the poetry of Burns and Scott which he often quoted to
make a point. He was a good friend of Andrew Carnegie,
the industrialist, a friendship made closer by their
common Scottish heritage. He was also very close to
other prominent Scottish Americans like Governor William
Hoard of Wisconsin, founder of Hoard’s Dairyman magazine
and Henry Wallace. Wallace was the father of Secretary
of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace.
All three men Wallace, Hoard, and Wilson were excellent
speakers and writers. They were all about the same age
and tried to meet annually. They would meet, sip a
little scotch, quote Burns, and plan next year’s
meeting. As a staunch Republican, Tama Jim never
wavered. He would sometimes admit there was some good in
a Democrat, but would add that he had never found it.
When President Woodrow Wilson, a democrat, came to power
in 1912 the 16-year tenure as Secretary of Agriculture
came to an end. He was 78.
During his tenure, he expanded weather forecasting,
mapped soil types, and pushed for all weather rural
roads and food inspection. Wilson began building the huge
complex that houses the U.S.D.A. The classic colonnades
stand as his memorial. James “Tama Jim” Wilson died
August 26, 1920 in Traer, Iowa.
President William McKinely said of Wilson, “He was a
most valuable public servant.” General Wickersham said,
“He was typicallly Scottish, poised, reserved,
competent.” President William Howard Taft said, “He was
a canny Scot, a delightful associate, thoughtful,
genial, and thoroughly loyal.”
* Someone You Should Know *
John Allan Carpenter was born in Waterloo, Iowa in 1917
and traces his family directly to the “Wilson Clan” of
Traer, Iowa. Mr. Carpenter now lives in Chicago and “is
one of the most respected non-fiction authors in
American publishing history.” He is a prolific writer
with more than 225 books to his credit. By 1990 his four
“enchantment series” were approaching 10 million copies
Among his accomplishments is the founding of the
national magazine The Teachers Digest. At the age
of 21, he was the director of public relations for
Popular Mechanics, a position he held for 19 years.
His writings are too many to mention in this article but
here are just a few: author of the sixteen-volume
Popular Mechanics Home Handyman Encyclopedia;
fifty-two volume Enchantment of America state
series; and his thirty-eight volume Enchantment of
Africa series. His book: Illinois: Land of
Lincoln, was the official book of the Illinois
Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1993 he co-authored
World Almanac of the U.S.A.
“For more than twenty-five years, intermittently, he
served as clerk of Session of the Second Presbyterian
Church in Evanston, Illinois.” He has been a member of
many non-professional symphony orchestras including the
Chicago Business Men's Orchestra. He served as founder
and president of the Music Council of Metropolitan
Chicago. In 1988, Mr. Carpenter received a Life
Achievement Award from the University of Northern Iowa.
He served as president of the Society of Wilson
Descendants for more than forty years. Mr. Carpenter is
a Life Member of the Illinois St. Andrew society.
“The first notable Scotch arrivals in America were
shipped as prisoners of war, sentenced to be transported
to American plantations and sold into service. No men
ever came under such discouraging conditions. Yet the
Scotch have probably cut deeper into the history of the
United States than any other nationality, though they
have not been the most numerous or boastful.”
“The Scotch in American have shown practically the
characteristics of their mother country. They are
persons of few words, dislike of display, quiet and
undemonstrative in behaviour, but more firm and
determined in spirit: cautious and reserved, but
energetic and tenacious with a capacity for hard work
which with patience, courage and endurance is liable to
result in success. ‘Vigourous initiative’ is a phrase
especially fitting the Scotch.”
Please note that the above is a direct quotation from
Mr. MacDonald. He uses the word “Scotch” as a reference
to people and not as we do today for something one
drinks. His writings are from the early 1900's.
Few Other Wilsons
Sam Wilson - His parents were from Greenock, Scotland.
During the war of 1812, he lived in Troy, N.Y. where he
ran a food business. One of his customers was the U.S.
Army and when he shipped beef to the army he stamped
U.S. on the wooden barrels. His employees gently derided
him and call these barrels Uncle Sam’s beef. The
soldiers, however, did not know Sam Wilson and thought
Uncle Sam was new slang for the U.S. Government.
Thomas Wilson - In 1818, he regularly ran his Vulcan on
the Forth and Clyde Canal. This was the world’s first
passenger vessel made of iron.
Robert Wilson - invented the screw propeller in 1827,
but it was patented by John Ericsson in 1827.
John Gordon Wilson - born in 1866 in Edinburgh,
Scotland. Came to Chicago in 1901 as a member of the
faculty of the University of Chicago. He was also a
professor at Northwestern University Medical School
beginning in 1908 and author of numerous articles on
neurology and other medical subjects. His resident was
at 5221 Hibbard Avenue and his office was at 15 E.
Washington St. in Chicago.
Charles Wilson - Founder of Holiday Inns. An American of
Scottish descent, he was left fatherless at an early
age. Holiday Inn is now the largest hotel chain in the
world with hotels on every continent except Antarctica
Ronald Reagan - Mr. Reagan was the 40th President of the
United States. He is the great-great grandson of the
weaver and radical, Claud Wilson, and his wife, Peggie
Downie. During his tour of Scotland in 1991, Mr. Reagan
wore a Wilson family tartan jacket.
Chicago has had many Scottish organization in addition
to our own Society. A Caledonian Club was organized in
1865 with 100 members. They held what we now call
highland games in September, 1866, with 5,000 present.
Later a Caledonian Society was formed in 1883 with 50
members and they held games in 1884.
By 1887, there was at least 13 societies in Chicago.
They united in what was called the United Scottish
Societies in 1901 and by 1911 a total of 17 societies
were in a Central Council. These groups were active in
erecting the Robert Burns monument located in Garfield
Park on Chicago’s west side.
The history of these societies has regretfully been lost
in time. The only surviving member has been The Illinois
St. Andrew Society. Perhaps the last to dissolve was the
Orkney and Shetland Society sometimes know as the O & S.
It appears they ceased to exist in the early 1970s. Our
Society Newsletter No. 28 published July 1, 1984, speaks
of Jim and Clara Manson of Long Beach, California, who
had been active in the O & S. When the O & S ceased to
function, the money left in the treasury bought a
memorial table for the entry of the Scottish Home. We
have apparently lost track of that memorial table. Does
anyone remember? Please call if you remember the table
and have a description.
Jim Thompson once wrote that the three most common
surnames in Scotland were Smith, MacDonald and Brown.
They were followed by Robertson, Thomson, Stewart,
Campbell and Wilson.
The Scottish-American Hall of Fame at the Scottish Home
lists six Wilsons as members. They are:
James Wilson, signer of the Declaration of Independence
and the U.S. constitution;
Woodrow Wilson, U. S. President and Nobel Peace Prize
William B. Wilson, labor leader and first U. S.
Secretary of Labor;
Henry Wilson, U. S. Vice President, U. S. Senator and
Alexander Wilson, ornithologist; and
James Wilson, U. S. Secretary of Agriculture for 16
From the Editor...
On August 1, Mary and I drove to Waterloo, Iowa, and the
next day attended the Wilson family reunion in Traer,
Iowa. The Illinois St. Andrew Society was honored at the
reunion and was given the Tama Jim Award for 1998.
This Wilson family history begins “with John Wilson who
was born about 1750 on the family farm known as
Kilpatrick, Ayrshire, Scotland.” Around 1770, he married
Janet Murdock and eight children were born to the union.
James, the second son, married Jane Lusk and 11 children
were born to this union. Eight of the eleven came to
America and seven of the eight became residents of north
Tama County, Iowa. “It is from these seven children that
the descendants have established the seven branches of
the ‘Wilson Clan’ who gather annually for a family
reunion in Traer, Iowa. The current president of this
group is Randolph W. Lyon and he was kind enough to
present the Society with a copy of The Wilson Family
History, 75th Anniversary Edition 1921-1995. They
believe the annual meeting is the oldest of any family
group in America.
The book contains 287 pages, 138 pages devoted to
tracing the descendants of this “Wilson Clan.” Over
4,000 family names are traced back to the original seven
children who came to Iowa. The book will be donated to
our Genealogy Club and placed in their library. We
certainly enjoyed the day and express our thanks to
Allan Carpenter and Randolph Lyon for their invitation.