Edward Moody McCook (1835–1909) was a prominent lawyer, soldier, and politician who served as the fifth and seventh governor of Colorado Territory (1869–73 and 1874–75). A successful Union cavalry general during the Civil War, McCook became friends with Ulysses S. Grant, a friendship that resulted in McCook’s appointment as governor during Grant’s presidency. Although McCook’s time in office was fraught with controversy, his contributions to education greatly influenced Colorado’s development.
On June 15, 1835, Edward McCook was born to John James McCook and Catherine Sheldon McCook in Steubenville, Ohio. John James was a physician. Edward attended local public schools in Steubenville. As a young man, he moved to Kansas Territory and became a lawyer despite not having a formal university education (as was common at the time). He joined the Colorado Gold Rush and moved to Gregory Gulch in 1859, though he soon gave up mining. He continued to work as a lawyer in Central City, quickly becoming one of its wealthiest and best-known citizens. He was elected as Gilpin County’s first delegate to the Kansas Legislature, but he left the position to enlist in an Ohio regiment of the Union Army when the Civil War began in 1861. His family became famous as the “Fighting McCooks” because sixteen of the family’s members served in the Union army (including his father as a volunteer surgeon).
At the start of the Civil War, Moody worked as a spy for the federal government, gathering information to help the military. He then enlisted as a cavalry lieutenant in the regular army before becoming a captain in the Second Indiana Cavalry. McCook’s skills led to a series of promotions, and he reached the rank of brevet major general by the end of the war. While in the Union army, McCook became friendly with General Ulysses S. Grant. This friendship later helped McCook secure appointments as minister to the Hawaiian Islands and governor of Colorado Territory.
Governor of Colorado Territory
In 1866 McCook resigned from the army. President Andrew Johnson appointed him as minister to the Hawaiian Islands, where he served until 1868.
On June 14, 1869, President Ulysses Grant appointed his wartime friend McCook governor of Colorado Territory. Replacing the popular Alexander Hunt, McCook faced public criticism from the beginning of his first term. At the time, Colorado was experiencing rapid economic growth from the building of railroads and irrigation canals along with its booming mining and smelting industries. The territorial treasury ran a surplus. Despite this success, Coloradans remained critical of McCook because of multiple controversies during his time in office.
One source of tension was McCook’s treatment of German colonists traveling to the Wet Mountain Valley near Cañon City in 1870. The development company that had lured the Germans westward asked McCook and the War Department for protection and supplies. McCook petitioned to get the migrants an armed escort, transportation, and tents for shelter. Coloradans became upset that these foreign laborers were receiving favorable treatment, arguing that they had taken similar risks in settling the Colorado Territory but had received no assistance from the government. (Coloradans had, in fact, received assistance, such as the Homestead Act and military protection.)
McCook’s administration also faced a challenging situation with the Nuche (Ute) people. McCook’s predecessor, Governor Hunt, had negotiated the Ute Treaty of 1868 and established a reservation for them that encompassed much of the western third of Colorado, including the San Juan Mountains. However, with the publicized discovery of gold on the Utes’ land in the early 1870s, many American prospectors entered the reservation illegally. In August 1872, McCook was part of a commission that traveled to the Los Piños Indian Agency to try to negotiate the opening of the San Juans to white mining development. The commission failed, with Utes insisting that the government live up to its treaty obligations by protecting the region from prospectors. While many Americans favored this policy, Coloradans were outraged and felt that the Utes had no justifiable claim to the land.
McCook became a scapegoat for Colorado citizens, who petitioned for his removal from office. Grant replaced him with Samuel Elbert in 1873, and during Elbert’s term in office, the Brunot Agreement secured the San Juans for white settlement and mining.
McCook was unhappy to be replaced and quickly angled to get back into office, allegedly spending much of the summer of 1873 bending Grant’s ear. In early 1874, Grant announced that he was reinstating McCook, who took office for a second time on June 19, 1874. His second term lasted only nine months, wracked by controversy as well as political upheaval and economic tensions. Not only did McCook face several disputes between mining companies over claims to lands containing mineral deposits, but his second term also saw grasshopper infestations that destroyed Colorado’s crops, threatening the livelihood of farmers and ranchers. As with the conflicts with the Utes, Coloradans found it easy to blame McCook for such misfortunes. However, his term expired before he could be petitioned out of office a second time. He was replaced by John L. Routt.
Achievements in Office
McCook’s time in office was not all controversy and conflict. His most significant achievements came in the realm of public education. With the economy booming during McCook’s governorship, Colorado required an education system that could support its growing population and yield new knowledge and technologies to promote further development in mining, farming, and industry. McCook improved the Colorado public school system by taking oversight of schools away from the territorial treasurer, who was too busy to pay them much attention, and placing it in the hands of a dedicated superintendent of public instruction (now the commissioner of education). This change led directly to better record-keeping and standardization as well as increased funding.
McCook also signed the legislation that created several important public education institutions that still operate in Colorado to this day: Colorado Agricultural College (now Colorado State University) in Fort Collins, which was established in 1870; the State School of Mines (now Colorado School of Mines) in Golden, which became a territorial institution in 1874; and Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind in Colorado Springs, which opened in 1874.
Later Life and Legacy
After leaving office for the last time in 1875, McCook turned to various business ventures in Colorado. He invested in mining interests, European telephone companies, and real estate. He became wealthy and lived in relative comfort until his death in Chicago on September 9, 1909, at the age of seventy-four.
McCook’s time as governor of Colorado Territory reflected the difficulties of running a western US territory in the mid-nineteenth century. The territories were essentially colonies, with pockets of white populations squatting on Indigenous land and anxious for protection and the right to take additional land as needed. This conflict created a perilous situation for officials like McCook, who were caught between federal treaty obligations and the desires of white homesteaders. Like his predecessor Hunt, McCook attempted to negotiate his way through this tension but found that success depended on much more than intent and effort.
Although his administration was plagued by controversy, McCook’s legacy lives on in his contributions to public education in the state.