Samuel Edward William Becker

Samuel Edward William Baker (Becker) was probably born in Ballygowan, Ireland, in 1828, to John Baker and Susan Walker. The family immigrated to America aboard the brig Amelia in 1831, and by that fall, they had settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eager to have his own land, John purchased a farm in Findley Township in northwestern Pennsylvania and moved the family there in 1842. Samuel, however, viewed the hard work of farm life as a “poor exchange [for] the Greek grammar and lexicon” that he craved, and he soon returned to Pittsburgh to attend the Western University of Pennsylvania. Then, around 1845, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he converted to Catholicism and enrolled at St. Xavier College. He was baptized on November 1, 1846, and changed his last name to “Becker.”

Becker enrolled at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Maryland in August 1848, and family tradition holds that he was preparing for the priesthood. He changed course the following year, moving to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and becoming principal of the local high school. On August 31, 1851, Becker married German immigrant Valesca Arens at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The couple then travelled to Europe, where Becker pursued a graduate degree at the University of Gottingen.  They returned to America in 1853, and he began work as an assistant instructor of modern languages at the University of Virginia. His daughter, Valeska Becker, was born in Charlottesville on August 5, 1854. Becker resigned from UVA in 1856, possibly because of a “dissatisfaction with his salary.”

The family moved to Hampton, Virginia, where Becker taught ancient and modern languages at Chesapeake Female College. Then, on August 26, 1858, he enlisted as a private in the Marine Corps. While in the marines, Becker’s wife and daughter moved to Martinsburg, Virginia, to live with his brother Thomas, a Catholic priest. After 1860, there are no records of Valesca or her daughter. After spending eight months in the Marine Barracks in Washington, DC, he was promoted to corporal and assigned to the sloop-of-war USS Lancaster. As the flagship of the Pacific Squadron, the Lancaster spent the next two years stationed in Chile, Panama, Mexico, and the Hawaiian Islands. Becker was transferred to the USS Independence in early 1862 and was discharged by “special request” on March 22, 1862.

He briefly worked as a book keeper in San Francisco, California, before enlisting in the Union army on May 1, 1862. He mustered in as a private in Company G of the 3rd California Infantry and spent several weeks helping recruit volunteers for the regiment. Then, in October 1862, he was detailed as a clerk in the Quartermaster’s Department. In January 1863, the 3rd California Infantry attacked a Shoshone village in present-day Idaho, killing several hundred men, women, and children in what became known as the Bear River Massacre. Becker was still serving as a quartermaster clerk in the Utah Territory and probably did not take part in the attack. He was promoted to 1st Lieutenant on July 29, 1864, and assigned as Post Adjutant for Camp Douglas in the Utah Territory. On December 5, he became aide-de-camp to the Utah District’s commanding officer, General Patrick Edward Connor. “Continued ill health,” however, forced him to tender his resignation from the service only four days later, which took effect on December 22. On February 24, 1865, he enlisted as a private in Company B of the 4th California Infantry in exchange for a $300 bounty. He may have tried to desert on April 7, 1865, but he quickly rejoined the regiment. He spent the next year stationed in Fort Humboldt in the Colorado Territory before mustering out on April 18, 1866.

Becker settled in Maryland after the war and spent the late 1860s working as a professor at Baltimore City College and Rock Hill College. He returned to the family home in Findley Township, Pennsylvania, by 1870, and in June 1872, he re-enlisted as a private in the Marine Corps. After spending a year stationed in Boston, he was assigned to the USS Powhatan, part of the North Atlantic Squadron. He left the service sometime after May 1874 and spent the next four years in Wilmington, Delaware, living with his brother Thomas. While there, he published a blistering pamphlet denouncing anti-Chinese prejudice. An 1877 Congressional committee had branded Chinese immigrants a “terrible scourge” and recommended a law to “restrain the great influx of Asiatics to this country.” Becker decried the committee’s report, insisting that politicians were merely pandering to the “prejudices of the ignorant.” Americans, he observed, “called themselves Christians,” yet their actions violated the tenets of that faith. The Bible, after all, taught that “God hath made of one blood all nations to dwell on the face of the earth.” Chinese immigrants, Becker contended, were “exactly like the rest of the human family,” and they deserved the same rights and the same respect.

Becker returned to San Francisco in 1878 and became a teacher at Sacred Heart College. He moved to Reno, Nevada, by 1882, and he died there at 9am on February 12, 1884. In his final years, one writer observed, Becker was “somewhat broken down,” and age had “changed him so completely that the brilliant light of his genius was obscured.” Nonetheless, he remained a “great lover of virtue and learning…a man of the highest personal character, and the loftiest sentiments.”


Samuel E. W. Becker's "Humors of a Congressional Investigating Committee: A Review of the Report of the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration"

Obituary of Samuel E. W. Becker

Name:Becker, Samuel Edward William
Alternative names:
  • Baker, Samuel (alternative name)
  • Sailor
  • Soldier
  • UVA (Union)
3rd Regiment California Volunteer InfantryG
4th Regiment California Volunteer InfantryB
U.S.S. Lancaster
U.S.S. Independence
U.S.S. Powhatan
Branch of service:Army
Muster Out1862-03-22Mustered Out
Enlistment1862-05-01San Francisco, CAaccepted29
Muster Out1864-12-22Resigned
Enlistment1865-02-24San Francisco, CAaccepted31
Muster In1865-02-25San Francisco, CA
Muster Out1866-04-18San Francisco, CAMustered Out
Muster Out1874-05
Residence at UVA:
UVA Begin Year:1853
UVA End Year:1856
Residence at enlistment:
Rank In:Private
Rank Out:Private
Highest rank achieved:First Lieutenant
Birth date:1828
Birth date certainty:about
Birth place:Ballygowan, County Down, Ireland
Death date:1884-02-12
Death place:Reno, NV
Causes of death:
Occupations:Farmer, Clerk, Teacher, Professor, Bookkeeper
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Becker, Samuel Edward Williamparent ofBecker, Valeska
Becker, Valesca Arenswife ofBecker, Samuel Edward William

Compiled Military Service Records, 3rd and 4th California Infantry, for Samuel E. W. Becker, RG 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; George Frederick Holmes Diary: Agricultural 1856, available from Jefferson’s University: The Early Life (; Marine Corps Muster Records, September 1858-March 1862 and June 1872-May 1874; 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, U.S. Federal Censuses, accessed through; The Lancaster Intelligencer, September 9, 1851; The Richmond Dispatch, November 8, 1853; The Greensboro Times, February 20, 1858; The Gold Hill Daily News (Gold Hill, Nevada), March 2, 1864; The Progress-Index (Petersburg, VA), February 28, 1868; Reno Gazette-Journal, February 12, 1884; The Lancaster Intelligencer, October 29, 1890; Samuel E. W. Becker, Humors of a Congressional Investigating Committee (n.p, 1877); The San Francisco Examiner, 1 October 1878; The Baltimore City College Register, 1908-1909 (Baltimore: Harry W. Wilson, 1909); Thomas Joseph Peterman, The Cutting Edge: The Life of Thomas Andrew Becker (Devon, PA: W.T. Cooke, 1982).