Holcomb, Silas Alexander (1858–1920)

A politician from Nebraska, Silas Alexander Holcomb ran in the 1895 state gubernatorial elections on a fusion ticket between the People's Party and the Democratic Party, becoming the state's ninth governor.

Born on August 25, 1858, in Gibson County, Indiana, Silas Alexander Holcomb was the son of John Cook Holcomb and his second wife, Lucinda Reavis (née Skelton). His father, born in 1825 at Fort Branch, Gibson County, was the son of Elihu Holcomb from Anderson County, South Carolina; his mother had also been born in Gibson County.

Growing up on the family farm, Silas Holcomb worked hard with his three older half-brothers. It was a difficult childhood, which saw him trudging to the local village schools. The family resources were stretched by an increasingly large family. After Silas, his parents had seven more children, although three died in infancy. When Silas Holcomb was 19, his father died.

Silas Holcomb had already been teaching at local schools for four years and was heavily involved in self-education. He was now the main breadwinner for the family and unable to continue working on the family farm. He, his mother, and his younger brothers and sisters, in 1879, moved to a farm in Hamilton County, Nebraska.

In an attempt to establish a career, Silas Holcomb had started teaching himself law. He then joined a law firm in Grand Island, Nebraska, and in 1883 was successful enough to establish his own legal practice in the town of Broken Bow, Nebraska. On April 13, 1882, at Mills, Iowa, he married Alison Bronson, and they eventually had three children.

As a country lawyer, Silas Holcomb established a successful practice in pleading the cause of many poor and often indebted farming families. Trying to provide social support for them became the bedrock of his political program, which unapologetically sought to give these poor farmers a greater say in the running of the county as well as the state. In 1891 he was nominated to stand for the elections as a district judge on a third-party ticket. It was a bit of a surprise when he won.

The People's Party was emerging as an important political force in Nebraska, and it was obvious to most observers that Silas Holcomb would end up supporting it. He was named as their candidate for election to the state supreme court. Again it was a three-way contest against a Democrat and a Republican. Holcomb lost the election, but he had proved himself as a redoubtable campaigner and also as a possible candidate for higher office.

The agrarian upheavals of the 1890s saw the emergence of widespread debt among the farming families in Nebraska and other states as the farmers had to borrow to try to keep their farms going. Many of the farms had been established on poor soil, and farmers had pursued unsustainable farming practices that led to further indebtedness as the crop yields started to decline.

In 1896, as the Democrats continued to work closely with the Populists, he was reelected as governor. Again he refused to repudiate debt, but he did advocate, and indeed introduce, many moves to ensure that there was no need for the farmers to go into further debt. Retiring as governor in 1899, Holcomb was appointed a justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court in the following year and was the chief justice of the state from 1904 until 1906. He then went back to practicing law and was a member of the Nebraska Board of Commissioners of State Institutions from 1913 until 1919.

In ill health by 1919, he retired from public office and moved to Bellingham, Washington, and lived there with his daughter until he died on April 25, 1920. He was buried at Broken Bow, Nebraska.

Justin Corfield

See also: Bryan, Williams Jennings (1860–1925) ; People's Party ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the ; Third Parties


Morton, Julius Sterling. History of Nebraska from the Earliest Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi Region. Lincoln: Western Publishing and Engraving Company, 1918.