Old Times and Old Timers

Governor Samuel B. Axtell. 

New Mexico enjoyed [?] the services of 18 governors during territorial days between 1851 and 1912. The President of the United States appointed each one so the people of the territory had no voice in the selection process except for a meager amount of political clout provided mostly by the Santa Fe Ring.

One historian wrote that “corruption had become so ingrained that a ‘no-party pattern’ of politics had developed. This meant that instead of being governed by a single political party or the democratic ideal of two parties, a coalition of local interests, regardless of party differences, controlled territorial government.”

Into this disorder rode one of the most unpopular of territorial governors; the 9th one appointed: Samuel Beach Axtell.

Axtell was born October 1819 in Franklin County, Ohio. His father was a farmer, but his family had been American patriots in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. He attended Western Reserve University at Oberlin, Ohio, and was admitted to the bar. He moved west and arrived in California in 1851 and was elected District Attorney of Amador County, near Sacramento. He moved on to San Francisco in 1860 and was elected to congress from there in 1866 and 1868. Sometime after 1871 he changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, and, as one source says, because he “rendered certain personal services to President Ulysses S. Grant,” he was appointed territorial governor of Utah in late 1874, taking office in February 1875.

This appointment did not last long. Axtell made himself about as unpopular as possible from the beginning. He got involved with Mormon-anti Mormon controversy and was even accused of profiting from the Mountain Meadows massacre. (This charge seems a bit far-fetched. The Mountain Meadows massacre occurred 18 years earlier [September 1857] near present-day St. George, Utah. At that time Axtell was serving as a District Attorney in California.) Fortunately for Axtell, New Mexico governor Marsh Giddings died in office in June of 1875, creating an opening in the territory to the southeast; an opening President Grant could fill with Axtell, thus moving the man from one hot spot to another. Axtell became governor of New Mexico on July 30, 1875.

A Salt Lake City newspaper commented thus on Axtell’s departure: “We have not yet heard of a single instance of regret at this parasite’s removal. He came here trusted; he has betrayed that trust, and will take his departure despised and disgraced. . . . [W]e cannot but rejoice at the interposition which caused the noxious weed to be transplanted to the soil of Mexico [sic].”

Axtell found a friendlier clime in Santa Fe. A number of territorial officials had spent time in California and arrived in New Mexico with the California Column during the Civil War in 1862, and stayed on afterwards. One source says that if he was not in fact a member of the Santa Fe Ring, he “was certainly on intimate terms with men who were.”

Still, his association with the Mormons followed him. He was accused of being a bishop among the Latter Day Saints; of conspiring with Indians to wipe out the gentile population so that a “Kingdom of Mormon” could be set up in New Mexico. He denied any such association.

Axtell’s luck never seemed to run to the good. At mid September 1875, Colfax County Methodist minister F. J. Tolby was murdered on the Cimarron-Elizabethtown road. Tolby had been a mover and shaker among the so-called Maxwell land grant settlers, which made him a vocal and active opponent of the Santa Fe Ring. More to the point, after the death of Governor Giddings, Tolby had actively campaigned against the appointment of Axtell as governor. The murder of Tolby marked the beginning of the Colfax County War. Within a few months, a number of people had been killed, both shot to death and lynched. Gunmen such as Clay Allison and Pancho Griego came to the fore and chose sides. All of this was counter to the interests of the Santa Fe Ring.

Axtell called out troops from Fort Union to interfere in civil matters, and then claimed the only purpose was to assist authorities in making arrests. He approved a legislative act which provided that a grand jury in Taos County inquire into matters in Colfax County; certainly unpopular with Colfax County folk. He was invited to visit Colfax County and didn’t even acknowledge the request. He replaced Colfax County Sheriff O. K. Chittenden with Isaiah Rinehart, a longtime Ring supporter. Finally in 1877, when he did visit the county, he refused to meet with citizens stating, “He was fully advised about matters in that county and did not need further information.”

A lady named Mary McPherson took up opposition to Axtell by writing to Interior Secretary Carl Schurz in Washington and detailing these matters. Axtell denied all of the charges and even asserted that the Santa Fe Ring did not exist. He also provided petitions signed by such notable members of the Ring as J. J. Dolan, Warren Bristol and Lawrence Murphy (who called Axtell “The best Governor New Mexico has ever had.”) But it was too late for Axtell. By 1878 the Lincoln County War was heating up, and lawlessness and disorder on two fronts was more than Washington factotums could bear. By October 1878, Axtell was gone and Lew Wallace had arrived.

Reviews of Axtell’s tenure are mixed. Montague Leverson, Editor of the Mesilla Valley Independent said Axtell was “influenced more by weakness and want of intellect than by intentional criminality.”

Historian Robert Utley detailed a series of political maneuvers that resulted in Axtell being made scapegoat for a plethora of ills over which he had little control.

And Historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell, who never said a bad word about the Santa Fe Ring, touched but lightly on Axtell’s gubernatorial administration, but extolled his virtues as a jurist. Axtell was appointed chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court in 1882, a position he held until 1885. Such were politics in Old New Mexico.

Sam Axtell died in New Jersey in

1891. n

Don Bullis’ latest book, New Mexico Historical Biographies is available at area bookstores. He may be reached at donbullis@msn.com, or by going to his webpage at donbullis.biz