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Wilson, James "Tama Jim"

Published onNov 08, 2021
Wilson, James "Tama Jim"

(August 16, 1835–August 26, 1920)

Quick Facts

Former director of the State Experiment Station and professor of agriculture. In tenure and accomplishment, he set records that have never been equaled as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.


James Wilson was the first of 14 children of John and Jean (McCosh) Wilson. He was born in the farming community of Ayrshire, Scotland, and at the age of 16 emigrated to the United States with his parents, settling in Norwich, Connecticut. Three years later his family moved to Traer, Tama County, Iowa. Wilson attended school in Scotland, Connecticut, and Iowa. He pursued a college education at Iowa College (now Grinnell), but did not graduate.

In 1861 Wilson acquired a farm of his own near Traer. He farmed, taught school, edited the Traer Star-Clipper newspaper, and held several local governmental offices as a Republican. On May 7, 1863, he married Esther Wilbur. They had seven children.

Despite limited educational opportunities, Wilson was remarkably successful in combining agricultural and political leadership throughout his life. He cared about people and always ran for office on platforms that favored practical issues of concern to his neighbors. When he first campaigned for the Iowa legislature in 1867, his platform was fencing in the cattle instead of the crops. Previously, the burden of fencing had rested on the crop farmer, while cattle owners were free to let their herds roam.

Wilson was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives, serving from 1867 to 1871. During his last term, he was Speaker of the House and took such an interest in educational matters that he was made a regent of the State University of Iowa from 1870 to 1874.

In 1873 he was elected to the U.S. Congress as a Republican from Iowa's Fifth District. He was reelected in 1875 and served on the Agriculture and Rules committees. While in Washington, he acquired the nickname "Tama Jim" to distinguish him from James Falconer Wilson, or "Jefferson Jim," who was a senator from Iowa but no relation. At the end of his second term, in 1877, "Tama Jim" Wilson returned to farming. He was appointed to the Iowa State Board of Railroad Commissioners, where he remained for six years until returning to Congress from 1883 to 1885.

In 1891 Wilson was appointed director of the State Experiment Station and professor of agriculture at Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University). Prior to that, he had been a strong critic of the college program and an advocate of a practical, vocational education, denouncing the college's claims to a course of study in practical agriculture. With the support of the farmer' Alliance and other agricultural groups, and the resignation of several college administrators, policies were changed, and a full agricultural curriculum was established. Wilson ended up overseeing both the teaching and experimental work, reorganizing the instruction, and directing the experimental program so that preferences of occupational groups as well as educators and scientists were met. This marked a turning point in the college's work.

Wilson retained his position in Ames until March 1897, when President McKinley asked him to serve as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the newly formed cabinet. The college gave him an indefinite leave of absence, and he maintained an interest in its policies throughout his four terms of service in Washington.

He rose to national prominence as secretary of agriculture, serving until 1913 under three successive presidents–McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft–the longest term ever served by any American cabinet official. Only when a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, was elected president in 1912, "Tama Jim" Wilson, by then 78 years old, left office. He remained a steadfast Republican throughout his life. Sometimes he would admit that there might be some good in a Democrat, but that he had never found it.

Some historians consider Wilson the greatest of all U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture. In tenure and accomplishment, he set records that have never been equaled. The number of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employees grew from about 2,400 at the beginning of his term to nearly 11,000 by early 1909. The agricultural balance of trade increased from $23 million to almost $425 million; the value of farm products expanded more than 200 percent; and the number of farms grew from 4.6 million to 6.1 million.

Wilson recognized the need for a strong organization to unify and transform rural interests. He had two rules for managing the department: find the best markets for farm products, and teach and encourage farmer to raise the best examples of the commodities the markets wanted. Wilson shaped the department's development to provide secure federal support for America's agricultural industries.

His tenure was a period of modernization of agricultural methods. Legislation dealing with plant and animal diseases, insect pests, irrigation, conservation, road building, agricultural education, and agricultural export trade was enacted. America's national forest policy was firmly established. The activities of the Bureau of Animal Industry were developed and expanded. Experiment stations were established in all parts of the United States; farm demonstration work was initiated in the South; and cooperative extension programs in agriculture and home economics began. Wilson inaugurated programs in farm credit, expanded weather forecasting, mapped soil types, and reestablished the Morgan breed of horses. While in office, he promoted farmer' institutes and agricultural colleges and high schools.

Wilson revolutionized American agriculture by extending the authority of the USDA into many areas. He began America's world leadership in agricultural science, sending experts and scientists all over the world to gather information to promote agriculture. He encouraged the search for new plants and animals suitable to arid conditions and presented a variety of new and profitable foods from other countries to America. He expanded facilities for research in plant disease and insect control and began building the complex of experimental fields and laboratories that houses the USDA's Agricultural Research Service. After Congress passed the Food and Drug Act of 1906, and standards of purity were fixed for animal, vegetable, and manufactured foods, he organized better food inspection methods.

On March 12, 1913, at the change of the presidential administration, Wilson was welcomed home to Iowa after 16 years in Washington. Ceremonies were held to recognize the man who had left Iowa State College (now University) for the most important position in national agriculture. Wilson, who had been kept on the faculty roll, pledged his remaining years to the service of the college. He continued to participate in notable movements aimed at disseminating agricultural knowledge. Iowa's governor appointed him and his longtime friend "Uncle Henry" Wallace to research agricultural conditions in Great Britain. Numerous institutions conferred honorary degrees and titles upon him. For the last six years of his life, he was president of the National Agricultural Society.

Wilson died at the age of 85 on his farm in Traer, leaving a modest estate of some 1,200 acres. He was interred in Buckingham Cemetery, Tama County.

"Tama Jim" Wilson was an unusual combination of accomplished educator, shrewd politician, and gifted organizer. Under his tutelage, farmer across the country were taught that farming was a science. President Warren Harding once asserted that, except for his Scottish birth, Wilson would almost certainly have become president of the United States.

Selections of text republished with permission from the Iowa Biographical Dictionary, edited by David Hudson, Marvin Bergman, and Loren Horton. Published by the University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA. Online publication, 2009.

Selected Sources

James Wilson Papers, RS 9/1/11, University Archives, Iowa State University Library, Ames, Iowa.

"James 'Tama Jim' Wilson: 1835–1920,"

American National Biography (1999)

Traer Historical Museum, "The Life of Tama Jim Wilson," at

Janette Steven son Murray, They Came to North Tama [1973]

Wayne Rethford, ed., "James Wilson," The Scottish American History Club Newsletter, October 1998, at–1. htm

"Source Material of Iowa History: The Appointment of James Wilson as Secretary of Agriculture," Iowa Journal of History 56 (1958), 77–88

Earley Vernon Wilcox, Tama Jim (1930).

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