Henry M. Teller Became One of Colorado’s First U.S. Senators; Served as Militia General
Back when homesteaders first started moving to the Teller County area in the mid to late 1800s, the region didn’t have much to offer in the way of amenities.
In the late 1800s, the region attracted more people and commerce mainly due to the fact that prospector Bob Womack discovered gold near Cripple Creek in 1890, an event that put the district on the national map.
After Womack’s discovery was made public, people flocked to the Cripple Creek and Victor area in hopes of striking it rich. In fact, the area grew from being a place with a few homesteaders to having tens of thousands of people in the early 1900s.
When people first started populating the new cities of Cripple Creek, Victor and other settlements in the new Cripple Creek/Victor Gold Mining District, the hustling and bustling towns were part of El Paso County. But as more and more people moved to the area, the geographical distance between the El Paso County seat in Colorado Springs and the mining district became much more apparent.
According to the Teller County government’s history page on their website, “a few years after gold was discovered in Cripple Creek, tensions escalated between Cripple Creek and Colorado Springs.” The mine owners and residents living in the new mining district got upset with the fact that the majority of the tax revenue generated from the mines was going to Colorado Springs.
The people of the mining district in the far western part of El Paso County also wanted a courthouse that was closer to mining operations due to the high number of county transactions that needed to be carried out. Political differences from those who live in the Colorado Springs area, and the people who resided in the mining district in the high mountains, would become the icing on the cake that would force the county to split.
Teller County was eventually established as its own county on March 23, 1899 when the legislators decided to divide up portions of west El Paso County and northern Fremont County. The Colorado legislature decided to name the new county “Teller” in honor of Senator Henry M. Teller, who was one of the state’s first U.S. Senators.
Who Was Senator Teller?
Teller was born in 1830 on a farm in New York and was educated at local academies before attending law school. He got a job teaching to pay his way through law school and he eventually became a lawyer in 1858 before he headed west.
He moved to Illinois where he practiced law for a few years before learning about the gold rush in Colorado. In 1861, Teller moved to Central City, CO and set up a law office.
Teller played an integral role in helping the Colorado Central railroad grow. He helped the narrow gauge railroad get built to Black Hawk and then to Central City.
During his time in Central City, he also became well-known for building the Teller House, which was one of the state’s first luxury hotels. Teller also served as a major general in the Colorado Militia from 1864 to 1867.
Teller’s Time in Politics
While he was a lawyer in Central City, Teller started to become deeply involved in local politics. He stood by local politicians and did what he could to help the Republican Party. He also served on Central City’s town council and school board before Colorado was accepted into the Union as a state.
In 1876 when Colorado became a state, Teller decided to enter his first major political race and run as one of Colorado’s first U.S. senators. He ran against his political adversary Jerome Chaffee and he was elected by the State legislature for the shorter of the two terms.
In 1882, Teller was named the Secretary of the Interior by President Chester Arthur after Samuel Kirkwood resigned. During his tenure as the U.S. Interior Secretary, he worked towards opening federal land for settlement and logging, and reformed schools for Native Americans.
Teller then returned to the U.S. Senate in 1885 and he would serve until 1909. However, during his time as senator he supported some policies that have generated much outrage in recent decades. But at the time, they were popular with many politicians in the West.
As one prime example, he believed that Native Americans were racially inferior to white people and he worked towards removing them from their lands to make way for white miners and farmers. During his political career, he was deeply involved in the gradual reduction of Native American land in Colorado between 1861 and 1895.
In the 1870s, despite opposition from his Republican Party, he became a believer in bimetallism, and idea where the U.S. currency could be backed by both silver and gold. This idea was not popular with Republicans and Teller ended up becoming nominated to be the President of the newly formed Silver Republican Party.
However, Teller never officially accepted the position, but he did eventually split from the Republican Party that he helped organize in the 1850s. When he left the Senate in 1909, he was a member of the Democratic Party.
Teller passed away on Feb. 23, 1914 at his daughter’s home in Denver after suffering from an illness for two years.