Samuel Sample: South Bend’s first political hero

My great-grandfather was very famously not a fan of the quality of the pavements on Sample Street in the 1970s. You can imagine his Chrysler bouncing over the pockmarked road through downtown South Bend and into the Westside, parking at the house my mom grew up, then emerging from the car to make the same joke every single time he arrived.

“Why do they call it Sample Street? Is it a sample of all the worst roads they could find in South Bend?”

Aaron Helman

“No,” my humorless grandmother would offer, either not getting the joke or refusing to indulge it. “It’s named after Judge Sample.”

“Well, I’ve had a sample of that road,” my great-grandfather would harumph. “And I’ve had enough.”

The Honorable Samuel Caldwell Sample was born from humble stock in Elkton, Maryland, a town that sits at the place where the waters of the Chesapeake Bay conspire and fail to slice Delaware away from the contiguous 48. The rushing waters of the Elk River (from which Elkton receives its name) were an important source of hydropower for early American millwrights and provided steady employment for builders and carpenters like Samuel Sample’s father, John.

Samuel was the oldest of 11 children, although only three of his siblings would survive to adulthood. Only his brothers John, Andrew Russell and Thomas Jefferson would live to see their twenties and their family’s new life in South Bend.

John Sample served as a captain in the War of 1812, but like so many veterans of America’s early conflicts, he returned to a home that wasn’t quite his anymore. Other laborers had taken his plum jobs because life and industry go on, even during times of war. That, coupled with the loss of seven children, pushed the Samples to consider a new life in the wild west. The government had promised land grants to veterans of the war, and the Samples took them up on it, arriving in Indiana just a few years after the place attained statehood, and settling in South Bend before the town even had a name.

The Samples lived a pioneer life, building a home from rough logs, doing subsistence farming, contracting, bartering, and contending with curious Potawatomis who would look in kitchen windows and beg for potatoes:

Recollections from Samuel Sample’s daughter, Anna (Sample) Harman;
recorded by the South Bend Tribune in 1922.

The Samples were among South Bend’s very first permanent residents and for a time, Samuel Sample would go on to become its most prominent. Both Samuel and his little brother Thomas Jefferson would go on to study law and become judges. They were admitted to the bar in 1833. As for South Bend, its population did not yet number a thousand and had no need for two judges. The eldest brother laid claim to the South Bend bench, and Thomas Jefferson Sample would stake a claim and career for himself in Muncie.

By 1843, northern Indiana had grown large enough to necessitate the creation of its own Congressional district, and Samuel Sample was an obvious choice to originate the seat in Washington, D.C. Although friends would later claim that Sample was “very much against his own wishes elected to Congress,” the fact is that the judge did abdicate the bench to campaign for the higher office and made two speeches a day for months in order to secure the nomination.

Samuel Sample was a Whig and came into office riding a political wave. Two years before he was elected to Congress, William Henry Harrison had become the first Hoosier and the first Whig to ascend to the presidency.

His premature death had stalled the movement for a moment, but his vice president – and successor – John Tyler seemed poised to further the Whig agenda and increase its prominence.

It was not to be.

Before he could run for re-election, John Tyler was expelled by his own party while he was still the sitting president. It was a controversy that spelled disaster for Tyler and for down-ballot Whigs across the nation. Eventually, the Whigs would recover from the mess, but Samuel Sample would not. He served just one term in Congress and was ousted by a challenger from LaPorte in 1835.

It was a brief stint in national politics. You might even call it just a sample. During his time in Congress, Sample corresponded often with a very young Schuyler Colfax, editor of South Bend’s pro-Whig newspaper and Sample’s greatest political ally back home. Colfax complains about boils on his face, lambastes the Locofoco Democrats, reports on fisticuffs and duels between Congressmen and reporters, and shares his certainty that that James Polk could certainly not win the presidency (he was wrong).

Politically, Sample was a quiet abolitionist and found himself most at odds with the Texas question that plagued his Congress. The addition of Texas to the Union seemed like a fraught inevitability, but one that threatened to anger Mexico, raise impossible border questions, and tip the balance of America in favor of its slave states. Sample wrote that he endured “speeches as long as the Mississippi and often just as muddy” in favor of Texas statehood, but throughout his letters, you can see Sample slowly come to terms with the fact that his side of the debate is going to be the losing one.

Sample, who was a married man, was also a little bit of a scamp during his time away, including a note that he’d been corresponding with an unmarried lady who “is notparticularly young” and instructs Colfax not to tell his missus because he intended to keep his prospective sidepiece on the downlow. He also writes more often than you would expect about the time he spends with Colfax’s widowed grandmother, sixteen years his senior.

Samuel Sample returned to South Bend in the wake of his political defeat and kicked around the idea of running for office again but never did. He returned to the practice of law and served on the Board of Directors of the State Bank of Indiana. In true pioneer fashion, he was felled of dysentery in 1855 and was buried in the South Bend City Cemetery. His obituary in the St. Joseph’s Valley Register gushes a little too effusively about Sample’s life, calling him “one of the noblest works of God:”

Reprint of Samuel Sample’s obituary from The St. Joseph’s Valley Register, 1855

In the aftermath of Sample’s death, his adopted hometown took to grieve and celebrate their first national political hero. They renamed the old Oak Street in his honor, and at some point, at least according to my great-grandfather, they paved it very poorly.

Aaron Helman is an author, adventurer, and historian from South Bend. He doesn’t love the winter. His newest book, “On the Southernmost Bend is available for preorder right now.