Merrill Freeman was a pioneer Arizonan active in territorial politics and education. But his route to Arizona was circuitous, and he didn’t arrive in Tucson until he was well into middle age.
He was born in Ohio in February 1844. When he was three, his family began a move west, first settling in Iowa and five years later striking out for California. They went by ox team, and Freeman helped drive loose cattle until the end of the journey, when Indians stole his pony.
In 1857, he returned east from California by way of the Isthmus of Panama to attend college (the record doesn’t say where). He completed a four-year academic degree.
Then it was back out west. He moved to Nevada in 1862 and spent the next 18 years in banking and mining. He also acted as agent at various places for the Wells Fargo Express company. When the Central Pacific Railroad was completed, he took charge of the western terminus of its overland stage line.
He also served as regent of the University of Nevada, receiver of funds for the United States Land Office, postmaster, county treasurer and chairman of the Republican Committee of his county.
During the winter of 1880-81, Freeman traveled to Arizona to look after mining interests. That led to a permanent move to Tucson and to his entering public life in his new hometown. He was appointed postmaster of Tucson in 1884. He resigned in 1887 to become cashier of the bank of D. Henderson, which eventually became the Consolidated National Bank of Tucson.
The next year he left Consolidated to help form the Santa Cruz Valley Bank, which later became the Arizona National Bank. That same year he married Alene Maxwell.
He later rejoined Consolidated and became president of the bank.
In 1899, he was named a university regent, a position he held for 14 years, during which he also spent ten years serving as chancellor.
He was interested in pioneer Arizona and researched and wrote about Arizona history and the University of Arizona.
In 1911, ill health forced his retirement from Consolidated National Bank and his withdrawal from civic duties.
That same year, Territorial Governor Richard Sloan recognized Freeman for his years of service to the University of Arizona and formally vested him with the degree of Doctor of Law.
In remarks following the vestiture, Dr. A.H. Wilde, university president, described Freeman as “one who has been conspicuous in his service to this community, to the state and to the principles and practice of sound banking and in civic loyalty, … in devotion to every detail of his office as regent and in hopeful confidence in the present and in the future promise of the university.”
Freeman was a great supporter of libraries. He started Tucson’s Carnegie Free Library with a gift of 100 volumes. He also gave more than 100 books of fiction, history and science to the Tucson Young Men’s Christian Association, as a nucleus for another library. And before he died he gave the people of Tucson money to purchase something that would “dazzle the eye.” It turned out to be a sculptured marble bench, which stood in front of Tucson’s Main Library (now the Children’s Museum).
Freeman died in Tucson on April 11, 1919, and was buried with high Masonic honors. In his will he provided $10,000 for the erection of a monument to the memory of Arizona pioneers in Tucson’s Military Plaza.
— Jane Eppinga. Photo courtesy the author.