Hon. Samuel H. Elbert, governor of the territory of Colorado 1873-74, chief justice of the supreme court 1876-82 and 1886-88, is one of the most distinguished citizens our state has ever had. Under appointment by President Lincoln as secretary of the territory, he came to Colorado in 1862 and his life since that time has been apart of the history of the state. As the chief executive of the territory, it was his aim to promote the welfare of the people; as chief justice of the supreme court, he was wise, impartial and fearless; as a citizen, he has ever been progressive and public-spirited; and as a friend those who knew him best have found that beneath his dignity of manner and apparent reserve beats a kind, generous, warm heart, untainted by a shadow of dishonor or disloyalty.
The life which this narrative sketches began in Logan County, Ohio, in 1833. The family, while not wealthy, was in comfortable circumstances and the son was given every educational advantage which the schools of Ohio afforded. Dr. Elbert, the father, was an eminent physician and surgeon, with honorary degrees from Cincinnati and Philadelphia medical colleges. In 1840 the family removed to Iowa, but in 1848 young Elbert returned to Ohio, where he took the regular collegiate course of Wesleyan University, graduating in 1854. During the next two years he studied law in Dayton, Ohio, and was there admitted to the bar. In the spring of 1857 he opened an office at Plattsmouth, Neb. His connection with public and political affairs began in May, 1860, when he was a delegate from Nebraska to the Republican convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for President, and in the exciting campaign that followed he was an active participant. In 1860 he was elected to the state legislature, his first public position.
When Hon. John Evans was appointed governor of Colorado to succeed William Gilpin, Mr. Elbert was at the same time appointed territorial secretary, and he came to Denver in May, 1862. The intimate friendship between himself and the chief executive was still further deepened by his marriage to the governor’s daughter, Miss Josephine Evans, whose death, with that of their only child, in 1868, was the heaviest bereavement that ever befell Mr. Elbert.
Upon the expiration of his term as secretary, in 1866 Mr. Elbert began to practice law in Denver, in partnership with Hon. J. Q. Charles, and the firm of Charles & Elbert carried on a very large practice. In 1873 he was appointed governor of the territory by President Grant and at once began the forwarding of plans for the development of the state, the enlargement of its resources and the prosperity of the people. He was especially interested in the subject of irrigation, for he realized that Colorado could attain no permanent prosperity unless this problem was satisfactorily solved, he secured a meeting of delegates in Denver from the states and territories west of the Missouri River, in the summer of 1873, and delivered an address in this convention upon the necessity of government aid in the irrigating of the vast tracts in the west.
Bitter political feuds in the summer of 1874 culminated in the removal of Governor Elbert from office. Later President Grant ascertained the real facts of the case and openly acknowledged that he had been misled by unscrupulous persons. With the dignity that always characterized him, Governor Elbert wasted no time in disputes, but withdrew from office, and went abroad, visiting all the prominent cities of Europe and making a careful study of political economy. The people had always been his friends and on his return to Denver they showed their appreciation of his services and their confidence in his integrity in many ways that won his gratitude. When Colorado was admitted to the Union as the Centennial state, he was called to the recently organized supreme bench, and the confidence of the people that he would discharge its duties faithfully was not misplaced. In drawing for terms, he secured a tenure of six years. As chief justice he was noted for impartiality and integrity. The high office he held was never betrayed by him; he was faithful to its smallest duty and to the trust reposed in him. When his term expired in 1882, the people urged him to become a candidate for re-election, but his health had been affected by overwork, and he declined. However, when they again urged him to become a candidate in 1885, he consented to the use of his name and was reelected, his judicial term beginning in January, 1886. After two years, in the latter part of 1888, he was compelled to withdraw from the position, a fact which was deplored, not alone by the public, but especially by the attorneys, who had the warmest admiration for his ability and integrity.
While serving as chief justice his alma mater, which had bestowed upon Judge Elbert the degrees of Bachelor and Master of Arts in previous years, tendered him the degree of LL.D. Since his retirement from the bench he has devoted his attention to the management of his property and has also traveled considerably. He justly ranks among the most prominent men of the state. His services have not been solely of a gubernatorial and judicial nature, but in many ways, impossible to recount, he has been helpful to the increased prosperity of the state and has labored to promote its highest interests. As president of the State Industrial Association, he was all important factor in the development of Colorado’s agricultural resources, during the early days of our history. By assisting in the solution of the problems connected with irrigation, he aided every interest, for the advancement of the state has been simultaneous with the introduction of facilities for irrigation. In the annals of the state his name will occupy a position of eminence through the generations to come.
Source: Portrait and biographical record of Denver and vicinity, Colorado : containing portraits and biographies of many well known citizens of the past and present : together with biographies and portraits of all the presidents of the United States.. Chicago: Chapman Pub. Co., 1898.