The Phrase “What the Sam Hill” Was Based on a Man From Marshall, Michigan
“WHAT THE SAM HILL IS GOIN' ON?"
How many times in your life have you heard that phrase? Does anyone even say it anymore? If not, this whole article will be lost to anyone under 30 years old. But here goes anyway...
The question has been raised about who 'Sam Hill' actually was, and even if there was a real 'Sam Hill'. Well, the answer is yes, he was a real person, and popular Michigan lore says he was from Michigan. But why use his name in that particular phrase? Keep reading – the answer is coming up.
His full name was Samuel Worth Hill, born in 1815 in Vermont. In 1841 when he was 26 years old, Sam became a member of the United States Topographical Survey and was off to mark the boundaries between Michigan and Wisconsin. Sam surveyed Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula as well as the western part of the Upper Peninsula.
By the time 1845 rolled around, Sam was working for the Foster & Whitney Company and was studying the geological aspects of the U.P.'s copper country. Later, he created the state's first mining companies and platted the village of Hancock in 1859. His mining career continued through the years, as his reputation grew.....but the reputation he is most famous for was his constant use of profanity. You name it, he said it.....often.
Sam was also popular for his tall tales and legendary stories, peppered with so many curse words, it was either difficult to re-tell the stories, or they just didn't have the same meaning. So when other local folk re-told Sam's stories, they substituted the curse word with Sam's name.
“What in Sam Hill?”
“What the Sam Hill is goin' on here?”
The phrase “What in Sam Hill” began in the Keweenaw Peninsula and spread throughout the state...and eventually the country.
Samuel married Susan Warren, an Upper Peninsula school teacher in 1851 and they eventually moved to Michigan's lower peninsula and set up a home in Marshall, in Calhoun County. Once there, Hill was elected twice into the Michigan legislature.
The Sam Hill house still stands in Marshall at 139 W. Mansion Street, and even has an Historical Marker out front. It reads (edited/in part): “Samuel W. Hill.....surveyed the Great Lakes’ harbors in 1840-44 and worked...on the first geological survey of the Upper Peninsula in 1845.....and the building of roads and canals in the area.....he directed some of the most successful copper mines of the Lake Superior region.....Hill retired to this house in 1875. He died in 1889”.
Sam is buried in the Oakridge Cemetery in Marshall.
What In Sam Hill.....?"
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