Governor John White Geary



January 15, 1867 - January 21, 1873




December 30, 1819


February 8, 1873


Photos of Governor John White Geary
Photo courtesy of Capitol Preservation
Committee and John Rudy Photography


John White Geary had a colorful career as a governor of two states and was known as a consummate administrator as far west as California. Standing six feet, five and one half inches tall—Pennsylvania's tallest governor—and weighing 260 pounds, Geary was forceful, opinionated, compassionate, and sometimes compulsive. Geary was born December 30, 1819, in Mount Pleasant, Westmoreland County, the son of Richard Geary, an ironmaster and schoolmaster of Scottish heritage, and Margaret White, a native of Maryland with English roots.

Geary's mother had "inherited" several families of slaves, but she was determined to educate them and then set them free. This close family association with slaves had a great influence toward a love of freedom and policies during Geary's political career. At age fourteen, he attended Jefferson College in Canonsburg, but interrupted his studies when his father died in a wagon accident. His father had left ironmaking to become a teacher, so young Geary, barely older than the students, took his father's place for three years until he could save enough money to support his mother. Finally graduating from Jefferson College in 1841, and later completing studies in civil engineering and law, he first went to work in Kentucky before returning to Pennsylvania to work for the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

In 1843, he married Margaret Ann Logan, with whom he had several sons, but she died in 1853. Geary remarried the widowed Mary Church Henderson in 1858 in Carlisle. By then he had already risen to military and political prominence.

In 1849, after military service in the Mexican War, where he rose to the rank of colonel, President James Polk appointed Geary postmaster of San Francisco. In 1850, he was elected that city's first mayor. President Pierce appointed him governor of the controversial Kansas Territory in 1856, where he served for six months. Geary County, Kansas, was renamed in 1869 for John Geary after citizens objected to the county being named after Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Politically a Democrat, Geary was a general throughout the Civil War, serving at Cedar Mountain, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg and was wounded several times. At the battle of Wauhatchie, Tennessee, Jefferson Davis ordered his six thousand Confederate troops to attack Geary's 1,500. During the battle, Geary's son Edward died in his arms and, motivated by revenge, Geary was victorious. After Sherman's destruction of Atlanta, Geary accepted the peaceful surrender of Savannah, Georgia, and became the military governor of the city in December 1864 before returning in January 1865 to the final days of the Southern war campaign.

After the war, despite Geary's dislike of Simon Cameron, Cameron's political machine chose him as the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1866. He had a sincere desire to guide Pennsylvania in a reunited country and won election handily over Democrat Hiester Clymer. Once in office Geary became independent, attacking the political influence of the railroads and vetoing a vast number of special interest bills. Governor Geary won a close reelection over Asa Packer without Cameron's support.

During his administration, the prosperity of Pennsylvania's growing industry was apparent, and Geary's government spent heavily on education and social programs, including a war orphans' home system. He also appointed a commission to handle claims of Pennsylvania citizens who lost property during the Confederate invasion of the state. After the disastrous Avondale mine fire on September 6, 1869, in Luzerne County, that claimed 111 lives, including nineteen children, Geary sponsored a bill that significantly improved mine safety, tax incentives for business, and began a fight for compulsory school education that would not be settled for thirty years.

In his annual message in 1871, Geary recommended sweeping reforms that were not popular with party factions, but he triumphed to the extent that a convention convened in 1872-1873, bringing about a new state constitution by 1874. At the time he left office, Geary faced intense criticism over payments made to Pennsylvania by the federal treasury to reimburse the state for its Civil War spending. Geary had appointed an agent to recover the funds and approved a 10 percent commission, which skimmed $300,000 in agent fees out of three million dollars recovered. No charges were ever filed.

Governor Geary died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 53 on February 8, 1873, two weeks after leaving office. He is buried in Harrisburg Cemetery.