News & History

HISTORY MINUTE: Peel the first native Arkansan elected to Congress

By KENNETH BRIDGES | For The Arkadelphian

Samuel West Peel led a life that brought him from destruction to wealth and the halls of Congress. In the process, Peel became the first man born in Arkansas to represent Arkansas in Congress.

He was born into a farming family in Independence County in North-Central Arkansas in 1831. After his mother died in 1835, he and his father moved west to what had been the growing community of Carrollton in Carroll County, where his father remarried and opened a store.

He later became a clerk at the store and also as a deputy circuit clerk to his father, who had grown quite prominent in Carroll County. In 1853, Peel married Mary Berry, and the two had nine children. He grew to be respected in his own right, serving as circuit clerk from 1858 to 1863.

As the Civil War arrived in 1861 and fearful of Union raids into Northwest Arkansas from Missouri or Kansas, Peel quietly hid the county’s records in a local cemetery. He soon enlisted in a Confederate unit as a private. He fought at the Battle of Prairie Grove in Washington County in 1862 and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The inability of either side to maintain order in the last years of the war led to chaos across the region. Bandits ransacked and destroyed the their modest home, forcing the family to spend the end of the war living in a barn. The county records he had worked to carefully store for safe-keeping during the war survived, only to be lost when the new county courthouse burned down in 1866.

Nevertheless, what was a time of trial for so many, the Peels among them, was the beginning of a time of opportunity for Peel. One of his sisters had married a local judge, who allowed him to study law under him and become a practicing lawyer in the county in 1865. He began a law firm in Hindsville and moved to Bentonville in 1867. His wife’s brother, future governor James H. Berry, joined him at his Bentonville firm, and the two grew very successful. In 1873, he returned to elected politics and was appointed prosecuting attorney for the region. Voters elected him to a full term later that year.

In 1875,  Peel built what came to be known as Peel Mansion on 180 acres in Bentonville. The ornate, fourteen-room mansion became the most renowned home in the city. Most of the 180 acres became a thriving orchard, but the home itself was surrounded by oaks, leading the Peels to simply refer to it as “The Oaks.”

He ran for the U. S. House of Representatives in 1880 but lost. However, in 1882, he was elected to the first of five terms in Congress. In Washington, he was a voice against corruption and favored new agricultural research. He served for four years as chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, often meeting with tribal officials at his home in Bentonville as he lived so close to the Indian Territory. In spite of his work, he lost the Democratic nomination for his re-election in 1892 to Hugh Dinsmore of Fayetteville. He never sought elected office again.

Peel spent his remaining years in Bentonville. After his wife died in 1904, he sold his stately home and moved across town. He continued to practice law until 1915, retiring at the age of 84. He died quietly in 1924. The Peel Mansion and portions of its extensive gardens, however, operate as a museum today. In 1994, the home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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