Henry Moore Teller (1830–1914) was a successful Colorado businessman, lawyer, and politician. His business and legal interests, which included mining and helping to organize the Colorado Central Railroad, were surpassed only by his political achievements. Teller served five full terms as US senator between 1876 and 1909, served as Secretary of the Interior from 1882–85, and argued in 1898 for an independent Cuba should the United States win the Spanish-American War. He also made a name for himself as one of the few politicians to support currency backed by both gold and silver and was the presidential nominee for the short-lived Silver Republican Party in 1896. He became the namesake of Teller County in 1899.
Teller’s actions throughout his life proved that he was no friend to Native Americans. From 1863–65 he served as Major General of the Colorado Militia during the US campaign against the Cheyenne and Arapaho. As a US senator he recommended Nathaniel Meeker to run the White River Indian Agency, which eventually led to the tragic Meeker Incident of 1879. Teller also introduced a bill to remove the Southern Ute people to Utah in 1885, but opposed the breakup of Indian lands via the Dawes Act of 1887. As secretary of the interior, Teller worked to prohibit traditional Native American ceremonies and suppress indigenous culture more generally.
Thus, like many other early Colorado politicians, Teller’s legacy is vast, complex, and dual-natured. While his business interests made him one of the most important early developers of Colorado and his political career helped many white miners and homesteaders, his policies toward American Indians proved extremely damaging to indigenous people in Colorado and across the nation.
On May 23, 1830, Teller was born into a Dutch family in Orleans County in western New York. His family worked hard on their farm, lived simply, worshipped, and abhorred slavery—characteristics that Henry Teller retained throughout his life. However, he left the farm to learn the law and became fascinated with politics at an early age.
Teller passed the New York bar in January 1858. Conditions in western New York were such that many young professionals headed westward to newer towns in states such as Ohio and Illinois. Teller heard that a well-established lawyer, Hiram Johnson of Morrison, Illinois, was seeking a young partner. Teller corresponded with Johnson for a few months and then joined him as a law partner in late 1858. It was a sound match, as Johnson was a competent lawyer with an adventuresome, gambling spirit who maintained a high social profile. Teller was far less social—meticulous in his work and puritanical in his lifestyle. The partnership soon garnered more than its share of the legal business in Morrison.
The three years Teller spent in Illinois were some of the most tumultuous and significant years in American politics, and he became involved in local and state politics. Slavery was at the center of the political conversation, stimulated by a series of debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Teller attended the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago, where Lincoln was nominated. In the spring of 1860 Johnson headed for Denver to take part in the Colorado Gold Rush, while the less adventurous Teller remained behind. For a year, Johnson sent Teller a continuous stream of letters, urging him to join him at the Gregory Diggings near Central City in the brand new Colorado Territory. In the spring of 1861 Teller finally packed up and rode the stagecoaches and ox-drawn wagons to the reputed mountains of gold and silver.
Life in Colorado
Ironically, it was in the mining camp of Central City that the temperate and puritanical Teller would thrive. Only a bout with “mountain fever” in 1861 and a trip back to New York in 1862 to marry Harriet Bruce interrupted Teller’s path toward success in Colorado. Upon his arrival in Central City, Teller recognized that there was money to be made as an agent for eastern speculators willing to buy just about any mining property available. Indeed, his law partner, Johnson, found eastern money irresistible and left Central City in 1863 to sell Colorado mining properties in New York. When the gold boom fell off in 1864, much of the miners’ property ended up in the hands of distant corporations. Teller never forgot the chaos and hard feelings created by eastern money. From then on, he would do everything in his power to make sure that the west remained in western—but not Native American—hands.
Teller’s considerable skill as a mining lawyer brought economic opportunities. In 1865 Teller, Edward L. Berthoud, and William A.H. Loveland organized the Colorado Central Railroad. Teller served as the railroad’s president for five years. His energy and capital was channeled into small and large enterprises including telephone and telegraph companies, irrigation projects, theaters, smelters, fruit farming, and numerous mining investments. By 1872, for instance, he had completed the Teller House, a four-story brick hotel that cost $103,000 to build. Harriet Teller complemented her husband’s business activities by heading charities and becoming a force in the religious community. By the mid-1870s there was little doubt that the Teller family, now with a daughter and two younger sons, stood near the pinnacle of Colorado society.
Teller became active in Gilpin County politics, stumping for local candidates and helping the Republican Party as best he could. When threats of an Indian raid on Denver reached the city in 1864, Territorial Governor John Evans appointed Teller as a Major General in the Colorado militia, commanding the territory’s northern military district. When Colorado became a state in 1876, Teller’s success as a lawyer and his conservative lifestyle had clear political benefits, and his economic interests thrust him to the forefront of state politics.
Although Teller had never run for public office beyond an unopposed membership on the Central City town council and school board, it was generally assumed that he would become one of Colorado’s two US senators, along with Jerome Chaffee, his political adversary in territorial politics. Chaffee and Teller were thus elected by the Colorado Legislature as the state’s first US senators. Despite their differences, Teller had insisted upon Chaffee’s election as a condition of his own election. In November 1876 Teller and his family boarded a train in Central City bound for Washington, DC.
Native American Policies
Teller’s political career was marked by his involvement in the gradual reduction of Native American land in Colorado between 1861 and 1895. Like other politicians of his time, Teller believed that Native Americans were racially inferior to whites and that Indian removal was essential to ensure a prosperous future for Anglo-American miners and farmers. Yet his actions sometimes reflected a belief that Native Americans could be reformed and, as such, were entitled to their own land. For instance, in 1878 Teller recommended the appointment of Greeley colonist Nathaniel Meeker to the White River Indian Agency in northwest Colorado, largely because he believed in Meeker’s plan to convert the Utes to Christian farmers. Meeker’s forceful attempts to implement this plan instead drew the ire of the Utes, who eventually staged an uprising and killed him in 1879. In the aftermath of the uprising, Teller invited John Wesley Powell to testify to Congress that the Utes should be removed from Colorado so they could be properly civilized.
Yet Teller’s desire to relieve Indians of their land apparently had limits, as suggested by his fervent opposition to a proposed allotment act in 1881. The act called for the division of Native American lands into individual allotments for each family. Never one to shy from sharp oratory, Teller issued a scathing critique of the allotment plan, saying “the real aim of this bill is to get at the Indian lands and open them up to settlement. The provisions for the apparent benefit of the Indian are but the pretext to get at his lands and occupy them … if this were done in the name of greed, it would be bad enough; but to do it in the name of humanity … is infinitely worse.” Teller’s opposition to the act—which was eventually passed as the Dawes Act in 1887—is curious, as not two years earlier he had no trouble advocating the forced “civilizing” of Native Americans and supporting the “opening” of Native American lands to whites in Colorado.
Teller was appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882, granting him even more authority over America’s indigenous people. In a letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price on December 2, 1882, Teller wrote that certain traditions served as “a great hindrance to the civilization of the Indians” and should be abolished. He even predicted that Native Americans would willingly participate in his purge of many of their cherished customs. The next year Teller got Price to approve a set of laws known as the Code of Indian Offenses that prohibited traditional Native American customs and ceremonies, including the Sun Dance, the practices of medicine men, dowries, and plural marriages. These laws remained in effect until 1933, when the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt radically modified the Code of Indian Offenses.
Teller returned to the US Senate in 1884 and again set himself to the task of removing the Utes from Colorado. His bill to remove the Southern Utes to Utah in 1885 was thwarted by white Utah residents who did not want the Native Americans living near them. In all, Teller’s disruptive and destructive policies toward Native Americans cast a dark shadow over his legacy in Colorado. Indeed, historian Peter Decker wrote that Teller “was a decidedly stronger advocate for silver than for Indian welfare.” It was his support of silver, however, that ultimately got Teller ostracized from American politics.
Support for Bimetallism
During the 1870s Americans advanced the notion that the federal government should increase the quantity of money in circulation by issuing more paper and more coinage, even though the money could not be backed by large amounts of reserve. This would allow for easier terms for agricultural and personal loans. Farmers felt it would mean higher prices for crops, and miners knew it would create a greater market for silver. President Rutherford Hayes, who was partial to the gold standard, vetoed the Bland Allison Silver Purchase Act that would have required the treasury to coin $2 million to $4 million in silver per month. Congress nonetheless passed the bill over his veto. Even so, the US Treasury coined only minimum amounts, so farmers and miners continued to suffer, especially in the West.
In 1878 Teller found himself unprepared for the debate over the silver-purchase act. He understood personal and business finance well, but beyond that he knew he had considerable work to do, especially since as early as 1874 the value of silver produced in Colorado had exceeded that of gold. Consequently, as a senator he knew he must become an expert on monetary systems and policies. Teller threw himself into the task, immediately subscribing to leading domestic and foreign financial papers. He learned that the United States had once backed its currency with both gold and silver—bimetallism—but since 1873 the nation’s currency was backed only by gold. To help silver miners in his home state, Teller became one of the nation’s most active Republican advocates of a return to bimetallism.
The government bought more silver after the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 and silver values went up, but the pace did not continue. By 1892 silver values had declined, and the next year the purchase act was repealed and the market crashed. The so-called Panic of 1893 was a national economic depression, although many Coloradans believed that they were the most affected. Teller was in Denver when a serious run on the banks began. Within a few days in July, Colorado banks closed, smelters and mines shut down, jobs disappeared, and real estate values plummeted. So many people were leaving Colorado that one railway took several trainloads east at no cost to the passengers.
Following an ardent defense of the silver purchase acts on the Senate floor, Teller came under severe criticism in the eastern press. Within weeks of the act’s repeal, Colorado fell into an even deeper depression. Just prior to the 1896 Republican National Convention in St. Louis, several top Republicans pleaded with Teller not to attend, fearing that he might provoke a convention-day walkout by sympathizers. Teller felt morally obligated to attend because of his commitment to bimetallism and the welfare of his country. At the convention, William McKinley brought the bimetal platform to a decisive defeat by a tally of 818 votes to 105. Teller and several other delegates left the hall in protest. A newly formed “Silver Republican Party” nominated Teller for president, but Teller never officially accepted nor pursued the nomination of the Silver Republicans. When he made the difficult decision to switch affiliation, abandoning the Republican Party that he had helped organize in the 1850s, the Democrats sought to nominate him for president on their ticket in the 1896 election. Teller instead gave his support to William Jennings Bryan, the Democrats’ new rising star.
After the silver issue waned, the final few years of Teller’s tenure in the Senate were, by comparison, uneventful. In 1909 Teller retired from public life. After two years of illness, he died at the home of his daughter in Denver on February 23, 1914.
Adapted from Christian J. Buys, “Henry M. Teller, Colorado’s ‘Silver Senator’,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 18, no. 3 (1998).