Samuel Beach Axtell

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Samuel Beach Axtell
Governor Samuel B. Axtell in 1876
9th Governor of New Mexico Territory
In office
Preceded by William G. Ritch (acting)
Succeeded by Lew Wallace
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 1st district
In office
March 4, 1867 – March 3, 1871
Preceded by Donald C. McRuer
Succeeded by Sherman Otis Houghton
Personal details
Born (1819-10-14)October 14, 1819
Franklin County, Ohio
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Morristown, New Jersey
Political party Republican
Occupation Chief Justice and politician

Samuel Beach Axtell (October 14, 1819 – August 7, 1891) was an American jurist and politician. He is noted for serving as Chief Justice of the New Mexico Territorial Supreme Court, territorial Governor of Utah and New Mexico, and a two-term Congressman from California.

Early life

Axtell was born in Franklin County, Ohio, to a family of farmers. An ancestor was an officer in the American Revolutionary army and his grandfather was a Colonel of a New Jersey regiment during the War of 1812. He married Adaline S. Williams of Summit County, Ohio, September 20, 1840 and moved to Mt. Clemens, Michigan in 1843. Axtell was a graduate of the Western Reserve College at Oberlin, Ohio and was admitted to the bar in Ohio in the 1830s.

Life in California

In 1851, Axtell was caught up in the last days of the California Gold Rush. He moved to California and engaged in gold mining along the American River - in which he had little success. Upon the organization of California's counties he became interested in Politics and was elected district attorney of Amador County, holding this office for three terms. He moved to San Francisco in 1860, and was elected to the United States Congress as a Democrat, Representing California's First Congressional District in 1866 and re-elected 1868. He chose not to run for re-election when he changed political parties.

Governor Axtell

As a prominent western Democrat, he was tapped by President Ulysses Grant to be the Governor of the Utah Territory in 1874. Within the year, he was appointed to the slightly more prestigious post of Governor of the New Mexico Territory on July 30, 1875.

Axtell exhibited good administrative and legislative qualities while Governor of Utah and Representative from California, respectively, but his tenure as Governor of New Mexico would be so inept, a federal agent named Frank Angel would later describe Governor Axtell's administration as having more "corruption, fraud, mismanagement, plots and murder" than any other Governor in the history of the United States. This contributed to the lawlessness that prevailed in much of the territory, and Axtell's inability to understand or combat that problem. He often exhibited dictatorial practices, and when something was wrong, he would blame someone else.

The straw that broke his back as Governor was created in 1878 when he issued a proclamation declaring that he had no paper to issue a proclamation on, which was obviously false, as he was able to issue that proclamation. This embarrassing episode was chronicled in eastern newspapers and led Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz to initiate an investigation into Axtell's activities as Governor. The investigation turned up so much corruption that Secretary Schurz suspended the Governor, and President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed the famous General Lew Wallace to quickly fix the numerous problems Axtell had caused.

Chief Justice

Despite the corruption, no criminal charges were brought against Axtell. Indeed, he was still seen as a prominent political figure in New Mexico. After a brief cooling off period, he was appointed Chief Justice of the New Mexico Territorial Supreme Court in 1882. He would resign in May 1885 after Grover Cleveland was elected President, and planned to remove Axtell from the office.

In 1890 he was elected chairman of the New Mexico Territorial Republican Committee.

He died at Morristown, New Jersey.


Despite his total failure as Governor, he was a brilliant Jurist, and that is his political legacy. On the bench he endeavored at all times to secure what he saw fit to designate as "substantial justice" for all litigants, and judicial precedents which interfered with the main object of trials in his court, or with equity from his standpoint, were ruthlessly cast aside. However, his time on the bench was still marked with corruption, and many found his method of authority dictatorial. He often cast out any Jury's opinion when he did not agree with it.

He is most remembered for two cases:

In a celebrated criminal trial at Las Vegas, New Mexico, Axtell had been warned that his life would be forfeited if he dared to sit in the case. Axtell took the bench, and promptly opened court on time. He compelled the sheriff to search all of the court attendants and the spectators before he allowed the case to proceed. As a result, forty-two revolvers were piled on the table, some having been taken from the attorneys in the case. Each man carrying a weapon into the court room was fined ten dollars for contempt of court, and no show of resistance was made when the fine was collected. The event was heavily covered in newspapers as a "triumph of law over the lawlessness" of the Wild West.

In another case before him the defendant, a poor young man, whose farm was in jeopardy, had no attorney. Seeing that the case was going against the man unless he could obtain legal counsel, Judge Axtell descended from the bench and began conducting the cross-examination with the remark: "It takes thirteen men to steal a poor boy's farm in New Mexico." Upon the conclusion of the submission of evidence, he instructed the jury to find a verdict on behalf of the defendant. When the foreman announced a disagreement, the judge discharged the jury, announced a verdict in behalf of the defendant, and told the sheriff never to allow any one of the discharged jurymen to serve again in San Miguel County. This case was the epitome of his dictatorial use of authority, but it was seen that he did it for the common good.

External links

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Donald C. McRuer
United States Representative for the 1st District of California
Succeeded by
Sherman O. Houghton
Political offices
Preceded by
George Lemuel Woods
Governor of Utah Territory
Succeeded by
George W. Emery
Preceded by
Marsh Giddings
Governor of New Mexico Territory
Succeeded by
Lew Wallace