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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Hon. Milton Hervey Merwin

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[This information is from Vol. III, pp. 589-592 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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When in the fall of 1916 the people of Oneida county were called on to mourn the passing of the Hon. Milton Hervey Merwin, for many years a supreme court justice and at the time of his passing the dean of the Oneida county bar, the Utica Press in an editorial appreciation of the life and services of Judge Merwin so well expressed the common feeling of the community that it is well here to present a copy of that editorial that there may be preserved for future generations an accurate estimate of the high esteem in which the Judge was held as a man and as a jurist.

"It seems to Uticans", said the Press, in its editorial reference to Judge Merwin, "that he has always been a judge, as he was when he came here and for twenty-eight years thereafter. His legal practice was commenced in the northern part of the state and his first judicial office was conferred upon him there. He early demonstrated ability as a lawyer and evinced the judicial ability and temperament which made him so eminently successful. Though this was not his native place, he was a thorough Utican, interested in the city, its people and its welfare. He was a man of the highest personal character, the last word in honesty and integrity, a good citizen, and in every sense a Christian gentleman.

"Judge Merwin was pre-eminently a jurist and his career in this capacity was ideal. His political preference was republican, but he was as far as possible from being a politician. He exemplified the idea that the judiciary should have no connection, near or remote, with politics. No outside influence ever swerved him a hair's breadth in the decision of any question before him. Every lawyer and litigant who came before him was absolutely sure of even-handed justice and a decision on the law and the facts as presented, and as they appeared to the court. He even went so far as to hold himself aloof from some activities and associations he would have enjoyed, to the end that no shadow of suspicion might ever be suggested, and none ever was.

"He was always the judge — calm, judicial and serene, ever with an eye single to the strict and accurate performance of the high duty and great responsibility imposed upon him. He was kindly, courteous and obliging, but he was alike to all and had no favorites. He was a deep student of the law and was familiar not only with the theory of the law, but as well with its application. No man could be more conscientious and faithful than he and none stood higher in the esteem and respect of all who knew him throughout this judicial district. The profession has lost one of its ablest exponents. His career was commendable from every point of view. He was an ideal judge; he had the highest standards and lived up to them."

Certainly a fitting and earnest encomium, well worthy of perpetuation in this definite history of the region in which Judge Merwin so long carried himself uprightly before the people. In this same connection the Press said:

"Judge Merwin was a man who graced the bench for more years than falls to the lot of most jurists. He served until he reached the age limit, and then returned to his law practice and decided many important cases as referee. He was very conscientious and most careful to consider and weigh every point and argument advanced in a case and was not only an indefatigable worker but a patient listener. He devoted himself to his profession and to his home and family, and cared little for outside matters. He gave the best that was in him to whatever he undertook and he never undertook anything which he did not finish. Even those against whom he decided were obliged to admit that he was very fair in his rulings. He was respected and esteemed by every member of the bar who had cases before him and when he retired it was with the best wishes of all. He was a man of fine imagination and singular purity of character. He was kindly to all, even the humblest. Although he came to Utica as an adopted son, the city and county of his adoption soon came to be proud of him and will cherish his memory with grateful appreciation of his long and distinguished services."

Milton Hervey Merwin was born in Leyden, Lewis county, New York, June 16, 1832, and was in his eighty-fifth year at the time of his death. The Merwins of this line are among the oldest families in America, the family tracing to Miles Merwin, a native of the north of Wales, born in 1623, who in 1645 came to the American colonies and settled in Milford, in the Connecticut colony, becoming the owner there of a considerable tract of land along the sound, which bears the name of Merwin's Point. Miles Merwin died in Milford on April 23, 1697. He had a numerous family and as most of these in turn had considerable families the Merwins of this line in the present generation form a pretty extensive connection, now represented in all parts of the country. One of the descendants of this American progenitor of the family, James Merwin, in the year 1801 joined the tide of immigration at that time setting in toward northern New York. The settlements then in New York state, west of Albany, were few and scattering. Utica was but a hamlet in a swampy valley. Boonville had but two or three houses, and here and there in the woods beyond was a settler. He and his wife, Esther Smith, were pioneers in the settlement at Leyden, and here his only child, Alanson, was born. When the War of 1812 came on he served with the militia and took part in the battle of Sacketts Harbor. He was a good, faithful, upright citizen, sent his son to Lowville Academy and to the Clinton Institute and discharged intelligently all his obligations to society. It has been written of him that

"for sixty-five years he, with his faithful, intelligent and capable wife, sharing his labors and burdens and pleasures, lived upon the farm they in their youth selected for a home, and lived to see the wilderness turned into fruitful fields, their son and grandchildren grown up and become settled in life, and their great-grandchildren gather about them and speak their names with affection and veneration."

Alanson Merwin, son and only child of this sturdy pioneer couple, in 1825 married Amanda Kimball and settled upon a farm on the East road in Leyden, where they became permanently established and where they lived to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their wedding. The late Judge Milton H. Merwin of Utica, was the last of the three children of Alanson and Amanda (Kimball) Merwin. James A. Merwin and Huldah K., wife of the Rev. George G. Saxe, were the older brother and sister.

The Kimballs also are numbered among the senior families of America, Judge Merwin's mother tracing on her father's side descent from Richard Kimball, who came from Ipswich, England, in 1634, and became a member of the Ipswich settlement in Massachusetts, and on the side of her mother, who was Hannah Mather, going back to Richard and Increase and Cotton Mather of ministerial fame in Massachusetts.

Reared on the home farm at Leyden, Milton Hervey Merwin received his initial schooling in the schools of his home district and when fourteen years of age, in 1846, entered Cazenovia Seminary, of which his uncle, the Rev. Henry Bannister, was then the head. Two years later he entered Hamilton College and in 1852, when twenty years of age, was graduated from that institution. He then began the study of law in the office of Judge Joseph Mullin at Watertown, and in July, 1853, was admitted to practice. Following his admission to the bar he became a partner of Judge Mullin's, and so continued until the latter was elected to the supreme bench in 1857, after which he practiced independently. From 1860 to 1863, inclusive, Judge Merwin served as surrogate of Jefferson county. He was a member of the state constitutional convention in 1867-68, by this time having gained a prominent position in the legal profession. In 1874 he was nominated by the republicans to succeed the Hon. Charles Doolittle of Utica, as justice of the supreme court and was also appointed by Governor Dix to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Judge Doolittle. He therefore was on the bench when elected. Immediately after his election Judge Merwin took up his residence in Utica, where he spent the remainder of his life. When his first term of fourteen years ended in 1888 there was a general demand for his retention on the bench and he was unanimously reelected, without opposition in either party.

Judge Merwin had served but a short time on his second term when Governor Hill appointed him a member of the general term of the supreme court and he was reappointed to that position by Governor Flower. After seven years the general term, by amendment of the constitution, became the appellate division and he was appointed one of the members of this latter court by Governor Morton, remaining there until near the close of his term, when he returned to duty in the trial and special terms of the supreme court. Judge Merwin sat for the last time on the bench of the supreme court in Utica on Saturday, December 19, 1902, the majority of the members of the Oneida county bar being present. Addressing Judge Merwin in behalf of the bar, Charles D. Adams expressed his colleagues' appreciation of his distinguished services, saying among other things:

"Your integrity, ability and courtesy have been the admiration of the bar, and you have held the highest place in the respect and affection of its members, which will follow you from the bench to the end of your life. The dignity of your office, without exception, has been maintained by you without severity, which has compelled the highest respect for you. both as a judge and as a man. It is a pleasure and a gratification to the bar to say, 'Well done, faithful and wise judge'."

Similar sentiments were expressed by other leaders of the bar.

In response to this testimonial Judge Merwin returned thanks to the members of the bar for their kindly action and referred modestly to his long service on the bench, saying it was gratifying to him to realize that his work had been appreciated and had been reasonably satisfactory. The Utica Press in commenting on the occasion said:

"Lawyers and litigants throughout the judicial district thoroughly and heartily appreciate the splendid service which Judge Merwin has rendered during his two terms on the bench, and we deeply regret his retirement."

At the term of the supreme court opening January 5, 1903, Judge Rogers, presiding, the following minute prepared by a committee of the Oneida county bar was presented by Charles A. Miller and ordered spread upon the records of the court:

"When a judge of this court retires to private life after serving the people for more than twenty-eight years in such a manner as to entitle him to rank with the most eminent, it is proper that this court should place upon its records such a statement of his merits as shall perpetuate the memory of them, as an example and inspiration not only to his successors on the bench but to the profession at large.

"Milton H. Merwin became a justice of the supreme court October 17, 1874, and continued without intermission until January 1, 1903. To state his judicial characteristics is to define the qualities of the ideal judge. He has exhibited unfailing courtesy to members of the profession, a proper appreciation of the dignity of the office, and above all, that judicial quality of mind which knows neither friend nor foe, rich nor poor; cares nothing for consequences, considers only what is just and metes out justice according to the law. Whether at special term, trial term, or chambers, or upon the bench of the appellate division, Justice Merwin's work has been alike excellent, commanding the respect of his associates and the full appreciation of the bar."

Following the retirement of Judge Merwin from the bench his services were in frequent demand. He was engaged as referee in many important cases where his long experience and deep knowledge of the law were of great value to litigants. He had an office in the Mann building and his son, the late James H. Merwin, was associated with him in general law business. Judge Merwin was consulted by a great many lawyers and public officials who had difficult problems to decide and his opinions were accepted as being fully as judicial as those of any court, regardless of his retainer. He had a very high conception of the character that a judge should maintain. In order that he might avoid even the appearance of bias or prejudice he steadfastly held aloof from ordinary political and fraternal associations and was always above any suspicion of influence of any sort. He was a man of keen mind and his whole temperament was that of the ideal judge.

Judge Merwin always was greatly interested in the welfare of Hamilton college, his Alma Mater, which in 1878 conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws. He was for several years the president of the Central New York Alumni Association of this college and also was the president of the Oneida County Bar Association. He was a member of the First Presbyterian church of Utica. Judge Merwin died on October 16, 1916, and there was general mourning throughout the community at his passing.

On November 15, 1858, Milton H. Merwin was united in marriage to Miss Helen E. Knapp of Granville, New York, and on that date in the year 1908 they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, the occasion being made one of general felicitation and well wishing in the community. Mrs. Merwin survived her husband just a year lacking a week, passing away on October 8, 1917, at the family home on Rutger street. She was born in Middle Granville on January 28, 1832, and was a daughter of Ira Knapp, descended from good old New England stock, of which she was justly proud. Upon taking up her residence in Utica she became identified with the activities of the First Presbyterian church and for years thereafter was an active participant in the various good works of that congregation. She also was long a member of the board of the Woman's Christian Association and for about fifteen years worked with them in behalf of the poor of the city. To Milton H. and Helen E. (Knapp) Merwin were born six children, namely: Helen, who married Harry Burrell; the Rev. Milton Knapp Merwin, a Presbyterian clergyman at Canastota, New York; William, deceased; Kate Amanda, who married James Eells; Mary; and James Hervey Merwin, the latter of whom died on March 22, 1924.

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