Samuel Hitt Elbert (1833–99) was the sixth governor of the Colorado Territory (1873–74) and was elected as one of the first justices on the Colorado Supreme Court after statehood in 1876. The son-in-law of territorial governor and businessman John Evans, Elbert held multiple positions in Colorado government before becoming governor, including as territorial secretary under Evans. During his brief term as governor, Elbert oversaw negotiations leading to the Brunot Agreement, which took some 3.7 million acres from the Ute Reservation in western Colorado for white mining and settlement.
Early Life and Political Career
Samuel Elbert was born in Logan County, Ohio, on April 3, 1833. At the age of seven, he moved with his family to Iowa, where he studied agriculture and later law. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with high honors in 1854. After graduation, he moved to Nebraska to practice law. There he first met John Evans, a Chicago-area physician and businessman involved in Oreapolis, an ill-fated development near Omaha. Elbert gained enough prominence that he was invited to the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1860, where the party nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency. At the convention, Elbert became friends with Lincoln and strengthened his ties to Evans. Back in Nebraska, Elbert was elected in 1861 to the state legislature.
When John Evans was named Colorado territorial governor in 1862, Elbert leveraged his friendship with Evans to obtain the post of territorial secretary. The position’s duties included recording the laws and the proceedings of both the executive department and the territorial assembly. Moreover, during Evans’s frequent trips to Washington, DC, during the Civil War, Elbert acted in his place as the territorial governor. He faced not only the threat of the Confederacy—which was held off in New Mexico by troops raised under Evans’s predecessor, William Gilpin—but also tensions with Indigenous nations on the plains. In November 1864, Evans was away in Washington. Elbert was in charge in Colorado when troops under Major John Chivington massacred more than 230 peaceful Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho people camped by Sand Creek.
During the following winter, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota warriors attacked white settlements along the Overland Trail in eastern Colorado Territory in retaliation for the massacre. The attacks cut off all communication with the eastern United States. Denver residents were in a panic that they would suffer from a shortage of supplies and would not be able to send for aid. Evans was still in Washington when a distressed Elbert wrote to him, “We must have five thousand troops to clean out these savages, or the people of this Territory will be compelled to leave it.” Officials in the US Army were skeptical, so Elbert did not get the soldiers he wanted. Instead, with aid from county commissioners, he managed to arm and mount some 300 men to defend against Indigenous attacks. Within two months, attacks declined, and communication was reestablished with the East.
Elbert was very close to the Evans family. He lived about a block away from them. He also served as vice president of the board at Colorado Seminary, which Evans established in 1864, and married Evans’s daughter Josephine in June 1865.
Less than two months later, Evans was forced to resign as territorial governor after being rebuked by a congressional committee investigating the Sand Creek Massacre. Secretary of State William Seward allowed Elbert to retain his position as territorial secretary under new governor Alexander Cummings. They soon clashed over statehood, which Elbert supported and Cummings did not. They also became involved in a complicated controversy over rightful possession of the Great Seal of the Territory, which was affixed to public documents. Elbert vied for Cummings’s position by attempting to discredit the governor, telling newspapers that Cummings was corrupt and spent too much time traveling to be considered a competent governor. However, Elbert’s mudslinging backfired when Seward got involved in the dispute, and Elbert resigned his post in February 1866.
After resigning, Elbert took a brief hiatus from politics. He suffered severe losses in his private life. In March 1868, he and Josephine had a son, John Evans Elbert, who died that summer. A few months later, Josephine died of tuberculosis. Elbert never remarried. He remained close with the Evans family, living with them in Denver and investing in a 320-acre family retreat along Bear Creek in Evergreen with John Evans.
Elbert soon reentered the political fray and was elected to the Colorado Territorial Legislature in 1868. He was elected secretary of the legislature in 1870 and chairman of the Republican Territorial Central Committee in 1872. He was also credited with the creation of the Colorado Republican Party.
When Coloradans successfully pressured for the resignation of Governor Edward Moody McCook in 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Elbert in his place on April 4, 1873. Elbert was recommended by Colorado congressional delegate Jerome Chaffee, who was Elbert’s political ally and Grant’s poker partner. Elbert’s first act as governor was to tend to the arrival of President Grant and his family, who were about to visit the territory. Elbert arranged for Grant’s family to be entertained at the Evans-Elbert home in Denver, where they all became close friends. Elbert also arranged for Grant to visit Central City and meet with an association of Nuche (Ute) leaders. The meeting Elbert arranged between President Grant and the Utes proved significant, as it led to the Brunot Agreement later that year. This agreement wrested more than 3 million acres of Ute reservation land in the San Juan Mountains for white mining and development, leading to an economic boom.
The remainder of Elbert’s brief time as governor was spent advocating for irrigation in the West. In the summer of 1873, he founded the Western Irrigation Conference, a meeting to promote irrigation and canal systems for Western agriculture.
Despite his friendship with Grant, Elbert was removed from office after less than a year. His predecessor, Edward McCook, was unhappy about being replaced and allegedly spent the summer of 1873 trying to convince Grant to reinstate him. In late 1873 and early 1874, rumors of fraudulent land transactions involving Chaffee and his allies gave Grant cause to be suspicious of Elbert, especially when Elbert nominated Chaffee’s business partner, David Moffat, as territorial treasurer. At the end of January 1874, Grant announced that he planned to replace Elbert with McCook and to remove the territorial secretary and surveyor general as well. The move surprised and mystified many in Colorado, who generally liked Elbert and disliked McCook. In Washington, Chaffee took it as a challenge to his power and fought it fiercely, charging McCook with corruption during his first term as governor. After several months of political conflict, McCook prevailed and was officially reappointed in June.
Later Career and Colorado Supreme Court
After being removed from office, Elbert was at a loss. He spent time reading in the Evans home, then went to Europe. When Colorado attained statehood in 1876, he was elected as one of the state’s three initial Supreme Court justices. He served a six-year term ending in January 1883, with the final three years as chief justice (at that time, a rotating position occupied by the justice with the shortest term left to serve). Elbert was reelected to the Supreme Court in 1885 but resigned in September 1888 because of illness. Elbert also became involved in business, working to develop Colorado with railroads. In 1876, with the help of John Evans, Elbert organized the Colorado & Southern Railroad connecting Colorado to Texas.
Death and Legacy
Elbert died in Galveston, Texas, on November 27, 1899, of Bright’s disease at the age of sixty-six. He was buried in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery next to his wife, Josephine, and their son, John Evans Elbert. Elbert’s legacy lives on in Elbert County, Colorado, which was created during his governorship, and Mount Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado and in the Rocky Mountains, which miners named for him after he facilitated the Brunot Agreement. His political decisions ultimately helped grow Colorado’s economy, but as with most territorial business during the nineteenth century, such growth came at the expense of Indigenous people.