Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mining Investor and U.S. Congressman James Gunn [otd 03/06]

Populist Congressman James Gunn was born March 6, 1843 in Ireland. The family emigrated to the U. S. between 1844 and 1846 and eventually settled in Wisconsin. James extended his education beyond the common schools at an academy in Indiana, and then taught school himself. He began to read law in Wisconsin but, in 1862, joined the Union Army as an infantryman.
Siege of Vicksburg, Kurz and Allison painting.
Library of Congress.

During his service, he participated in the siege of Vicksburg and was then transferred to units serving around the Gulf of Mexico. There, he participated in the August 1864 attack that captured the forts protecting Mobile Bay. By the end of the war, he had been promoted to Captain.

After his discharge in late 1865, Gunn followed the rush to Colorado, and soon found himself in Georgetown, which served substantial silver mines in the area. He was the town’s mayor for several years, but moved on to Virginia City, Nevada in 1875. From there, he also explored opportunities across the border in California.

When the Wood River silver discoveries got rolling in 1881-1882 [blog, Apr 26], Gunn relocated to Hailey, Idaho. Along with other ventures, he apparently helped organize, and then edited a weekly newspaper there. In 1890, Alturas County voters elected him to the first session of the Idaho state Senate.

An active member of the Republican Party, Gunn found himself put “between a rock and a hard place” by national events in 1892.

The national party decisively rejected the so-called “free silver” position, backing instead the gold standard. A full discussion is beyond the scope of this article, but “free silver” appealed to debtors of all kinds, farmers (who were usually in debt, and also believed it would improve crop prices), and – obviously – silver producers.

With an economy based largely on agriculture and silver mining, Idaho heavily supported the position. Gunn chose to leave the Republican Party and helped organize the state’s Populist Party. His first two tries for a seat in the U. S. Congress – in 1892 and 1894 – failed.

William Jennings Bryan.
Library of Congress.
For the 1896 campaign, which included a Presidential election, Idaho Populists and Democrats posted a "fusion" ticket. The fusion slate favored Democratic hopeful Williams Jennings Bryan rather than the Populist Presidential candidate. At the Populist national convention, Gunn told the leadership that "Idaho Populists would vote solidly for Bryan and carry the state for him."

That indeed proved to be the case: Bryan out-polled the Republican candidate 23,135 to 6,314 in Idaho. He still lost the election nationally. Gunn, however, succeeded in his bid for a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives. He was, in fact, one of only about 40 Populists elected to the House over six elections from 1891 through 1902.

With Populist strength already waning, Gunn lost his 1898 re-election bid and never held any further elective office. He died in Boise in 1911.
References: [Brit], [Hawley], [Illust-State]
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, online.
"Populist Convention Coverage," Milwaukee Journal (July 21, 1896).

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