John Long Routt (1826–1907) was Colorado’s last territorial governor and first state governor. A popular politician, he was elected to two separate, two-year terms as governor and is remembered for his leadership in bringing Colorado to statehood. He supported the cause of women’s suffrage in Colorado and used his position as governor to help Colorado become the second state to grant women the right to vote, in 1893.
Routt was born in Kentucky on April 25, 1826. His family moved several times before settling in Bloomington, Illinois. As a child, he attended public school for three months each year and enhanced his education primarily through his own reading and study.
In 1845, at age nineteen, Routt married Hester Ann Woodson. Together they had five children, whom he initially supported through his work at a wood mill. The people of Bloomington elected Routt as an alderman, township collector, sheriff, and county treasurer. In his political life, he was known for his common sense and honesty.
During the Civil War, Routt joined the Union army at age thirty-six, fighting under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant. The men became lifelong friends. After the war, when Grant was elected president of the United States, he appointed Routt first as US marshal for the Southern District of Illinois, then as second assistant postmaster general in Washington, DC.
In 1872 Hester Ann died, leaving Routt a widower with five children. Two years later he met Eliza Pickrell while on a trip back to Illinois. They conducted a courtship through letters before marrying in 1874.
Statehood for Colorado
In 1875 President Grant rewarded Routt for his years of public service by appointing him governor of Colorado Territory. Although Routt was viewed as an outsider to Colorado, he quickly became a popular leader. Before his arrival, Colorado had been mired in conflict over the transition from a territory to a state. Routt worked with Colorado’s representatives and unified the squabbling factions. Under his leadership, a group of delegates drafted a state constitution, which Colorado voters then ratified on July 1, 1876. One month later, on August 1, 1876, President Grant issued his proclamation of statehood, officially making Colorado the thirty-eighth state.
Under the newly created state Constitution, the governor needed to be elected by the people, not appointed by the president. In the state’s first election, Routt won the Republican nomination, pitting him against Democratic nominee Bela Hughes. On October 3, 1876, Routt won the general election, making him the first governor of the state of Colorado. During Routt’s tenure, Colorado experienced rapid population growth thanks to existing gold mines and a new boom in silver. Routt was noted for his defense of working people, his support of women’s suffrage, his management skills, and his commitment to using common sense and compromise to solve problems.
The Morning Star Mine
In 1877 Routt bought the Morning Star Mine in Leadville. Despite still serving as governor, he put in long hours digging at the site, searching for silver. When time allowed, he went to Leadville, donned miner’s clothing, and worked the mine. He was able to spend even more time at the mine after his term as governor ended in early 1879. His work paid off that April, when he unearthed a rich vein of silver at the Morning Star.
Wealthy for the first time in his life, Routt bought a large mansion with spacious gardens near downtown Denver. In 1880 he and Eliza welcomed the only child they had together, a daughter named Lila, into their new home. Routt spent his time investing his wealth in additional mines, stone quarries, ranchland, and livestock. He enjoyed a life of prestige and elegance. He and Eliza contributed to charities and to the construction of Central Christian Church in Denver. Six years after he paid $10,000 for the Morning Star Mine, he sold it for $1 million.
Despite Routt’s new interests in business, philanthropy, and Denver social life, he remained active in public service. He served a two-year term as Denver’s mayor, from 1883 to 1885. Later, as a member of the Board of Capitol Managers, he supervised and administered the construction of the new Colorado State Capitol, which opened in 1894.
In 1890 Routt won election once again as governor of Colorado. Soon after his term ended in early 1893, the silver market crashed, when Washington legislators repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, shaking Colorado’s economy to the core. A depression resulted, with high rates of mine closures and unemployment. Although Routt suffered losses in the crash, his fortune survived because he had earlier diversified his investments.
Women’s Suffrage in Colorado
Routt believed that as citizens women should have the right to vote and to hold public office. When delegates were drafting the Colorado Constitution in 1876, Routt advocated giving women full suffrage. His efforts failed, and the new Constitution granted women the right to vote only in school board elections.
The question of full suffrage rights for women was left for the state’s male voters to decide in the election of 1877. Both Governor Routt and Eliza Routt, as first lady of Colorado, embraced the cause and gave their time and support to equal voting rights for women. The Routts arranged for national suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony to come to Colorado, and John Routt traveled with her to spread the suffrage message. Despite their efforts, the vote failed by a margin of two to one.
When John Routt returned to the governor’s office in 1891, he and Eliza continued their support of equal suffrage. In 1893, soon after he left office, his efforts helped put the question of women’s suffrage before the state’s male voters again. On Election Day 1893, Colorado’s men approved women’s suffrage by about 6,000 votes, making Colorado the second state to grant women suffrage and the first state in which suffrage was voted in by the male voters (the territories of Wyoming and Utah granted suffrage in 1869; suffrage for women was then written into Wyoming’s Constitution when it became a new state in 1890). Although Routt’s successor, Governor Davis Waite, signed women’s suffrage into law, it was John Routt’s support that had made this possible. His wife became the first woman to register to vote in Colorado.
From 1900 to 1902 the Routts lived in Europe, hoping lower altitude and more humidity would help with some health issues. They then returned home to Colorado and lived a quiet life, residing at the Metropole Hotel in downtown Denver. After Eliza died in March 1907, Routt lost interest in life and died five months later, on August 13, 1907, at the age of eighty-one. Flags were flown at half-mast and government offices closed early.
Today a stained-glass window depicting John Routt adorns the wall of the senate chambers in the Colorado State Capitol. Routt County is named in his honor.