Who was Henry M. Teller?


Henry M. Teller 

by Beth Dodd:





Teller County was carved from El Paso and Fremont Counties in 1899, after the discovery of gold in Cripple Creek brought 50,000 people into the area in less than ten years. The new county was named for one of Colorado’s first senators, Henry M. Teller. In addition, there are Teller streets in Gunnison and Salida, the ghost town of Teller City in North Park, and the Teller House in Central City.

Although he is not well known today, Teller was an important man in early Colorado. Henry Moore Teller was born into a large Methodist family on a farm in Granger, New York, in 1830. As a young man, he became a teacher and earned the money to pay his own way through law school. He interned in the office of Judge Martin Grover of Angelica, New York, and became a lawyer in 1858. He then practiced law in Morrison, Illinois for three years and helped to establish the Republican Party there. Teller was attracted to the west by the “Pike’s Peak” gold rush in the Kansas Territory in 1858. Thinking that lawyers would be needed in the gold camps, he opened a law office in Central City in April, 1861.

His work in mining law put him into contact with leading financiers and mine owners, like David Moffat and Horace Tabor. He was also active in promoting statehood for Colorado. Soon after establishing himself in Central City, Teller married his hometown sweetheart from New York, Harriet M. Bruce. The Tellers would have two sons and a daughter, all born in Central City. Unlike many other prominent men of his day, Teller drank little, and didn’t gamble or visit brothels. He held a prominent position among the state’s Masons. During the “Indian troubles” in 1863 when the Arapahoe and Cheyenne people were forced off the eastern plains of Colorado, Governor Evans appointed Teller the major general of Colorado’s territorial militia, a post he held for two years. One writer said of him: “His admirable common sense and his versatility as a lawyer, added to his earnestness and straightforwardness as a man, commended him in every way to the struggling pioneers of those days, and marked him as a leader.” In 1865, Teller was one of the organizers of the Colorado Central Railroad, which connected the gold mining camps along Clear Creek including Idaho Springs, Georgetown, Central City, and Black Hawk with Golden and Denver. He wrote the original charter for the line and was the railroad’s president for five years. In 1876, when Colorado was admitted to the Union, Teller was enthusiastically chosen by the state legislature as one of its first two U.S. senators.

He served a brief three month term, and was then elected for his first full six year term. He would go on to be re-elected three more times. Senator Teller was the first Westerner to serve as a presidential cabinet member. Chester A. Arthur chose Teller as his Secretary of the Interior after Samuel Kirkwood resigned in April 1882. As Secretary, Teller opened federal land to settlement and logging, and opposed creating national forests and parks. “I would rather see people living on the land than to see timber on it, no matter how beautiful it is,” he said. As Secretary of the Interior, Teller had oversight of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was an outspoken opponent of the allotment of Indian land. Allotment was a change from the communal ownership of Indian lands to individual ownership with the “excess” to be sold to the government. Teller said that, “The provisions for the apparent benefit of the Indians 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 would be proven correct. Land owned by Indians decreased from 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million acres in 1934. Teller’s defense of Indian land rights conflicted with his stance on traditional American Indian customs. In 1883, he approved a “Code of Indian Offenses,” which sought to prohibit Native American cultural practices throughout the United States including dances, plural marriage, and other practices with penalties of up to 90 days imprisonment and the withholding of government rations.

Suppressive measures against Indian culture were finally repealed by Indian Commissioner John Collier in 1934. After completing his term as Secretary of the Interior in 1885, Teller became a senator for Colorado again. He became a champion for the free coinage of silver and bi-metalism, or currency backed by both gold and silver. He believed that the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, which ended the mandated government purchase of silver, was bad for the nation and especially bad for Colorado. Soon after, the Panic of 1893 put thousands of miners out of work. Many unemployed silver miners had to leave the state to seek jobs while others flocked to the rapidly growing new gold camp in Cripple Creek, which had started to boom in 1891. By 1899, the once quiet mountain ranch country west of Pikes Peak was flooded with people.

Senator Teller played an important role in creating a new county government to support them, and the new county was named in his honor. A major turning point in Teller’s political life came in 1896, when he left the Republican Party. At their convention in St. Louis, the Republicans voted to support the gold standard rather than return to the free coinage of silver. Colorado produced silver by the ton. Teller told the convention, “… This policy is un-American, unpatriotic, and opposed to all the best interest of good, safe government and humanity.” Senator Teller and 24 others marched out of the convention. When the senate reconvened, Teller took his seat on the Democratic side of the aisle. Teller believed in a growing American nation, but opposed the imperialism of the Spanish-American War. Teller attached an amendment to the war resolution against Spain in April 1898 which mandated that the island of Cuba should remain an independent nation, and not become a U.S. territory like Puerto Rico. The resolution was condemned by some newspapers because it prevented our taking over Cuba, but Teller said, “… Liberty-loving men will never have any love for a flag that they do not create and that they do not defend.” After retiring from the senate in 1909 after 33 years of public service, Teller returned to practicing law in Colorado. He died in Denver on February 23, 1914, at the age of eighty-three and is buried at Fairmount Cemetery.