Lt. Col. John Merriam

Lt. Col. Jonathan Merriam was born on Nov. 1, 1834 in Vermont. His parents were Rev. Jonathon and Achsah Olin Merriam. In 1836, Merriam and his family moved to Springfield where his father was a pastor of the Baptist Church. Four years later, his family moved to Tazewell county, Illinois. 

At the age of 17 he enrolled at Illinois Weselyan University, before transferring to McKendree College.   In 1844, he left McKendree to care for his mother and brother, as well as the family farm, after his father passed away. He became a teacher at a local rural school.

In 1862, he enlisted in the Union army and became Lieutenant Colonel of the 117th Illinois Volunteers. He earned the nickname “Bigfoot” for being six feet two and one-half inches tall and weighing two hundred forty pounds. His horse, “Frank,” was with him throughout most of the war and survived the Siege of Mobile after almost stepping on a land mine. Frank unfortunately died from pneumonia on July 4, 1865 in Montgomery, Alabama.  During that same campaign, William Tate Osborne, a young boy who was born into slavery in Alabama, attached to the 117th Regiment.  After the war, Merriam brought Osborne home to Illinois and provided for him until he enrolled in the college preparatory course at Wheaton College in 1869.  Osborne went on to be an ordained as a Reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Merriam returned to McKendree after the war and was a member of the Platonian Literary Society.  He earned his A.M. degree in 1869. Merriam went on to be a member of the Illinois Constitutional Conventions of 1869 and 1870. He held the position of Internal Revenue Collector for the Springfield District from 1873 to 1882. He was elected to the Illinois Legislature in 1894 and again in 1896. In 1898, he was appointed by President McKinley to the Office of United States Pension Commissioner at Chicago. He was for many years a trustee of McKendree College and attended several reunions of his regiment at McKendree College. The last time was in 1916.

His death occurred on Sept. 28,1919, within a few weeks of his eighty-fifth birthday.  At the time of his death, he was a deacon in the Emanuel Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois, although for the last six years of his life his residence was in Wheaton, Illinois. Throughout his life, he was respected for his strict sense of values; Merriam never once drank alcohol or used tobacco. He was first married to B.A. Barthland in 1859, who died soon after in 1861.  In 1864, he married Lucy White, daugher of Rev. John B. White.  He had three sons and three daughters.  His children all lived in Illinois and his sons occupied positions of trust and honor in the business world. Merriam is buried in Atlanta Cemetery in Atlanta, Illinois.