In the summaries found after Googling “Elbert County, CO,” the usual explanation given is that “Elbert was governor when Elbert County was created, so it was named for him.”
Well, that’s funny. Bill Owens was governor when Broomfield was created, so maybe it should be named “Owens.” Maybe the City and County of Denver should rightly be named “Peabody,” since he was Governor at that time.
Nah. Elbert County was named after Samuel Hitt Elbert because Colorado was angry with President Grant and with the only Territorial Governor to serve two “terms:” Edward McCook.
If you Google “McCook, CO,” you’ll find nothing because the guy was generally hated here and his two appointments made the various factions in Colorado politics come together and form a state because they wanted to nominate and elect their own governors and court officials without Federal intervention.
McCook was in Colorado because of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859. A lawyer, he represented the Territory in the Kansas legislature that year. The Civil War was only 3 months old when in 1861, he went to Washington, DC and became a spy for the Union. By 1862, he commanded a unit at Chickamagua and by 1864, he was promoted to Major General. He was a personal friend of General Ulysses S. Grant, who became President in 1869.
Meantime, Samuel Hitt Elbert, also a lawyer, came to Colorado shortly after John Evans arrived in 1862 and served as Secretary of the Territory, which meant that he had gubernatorial powers whenever Governor Evans was away. When Governor Evans left the job in 1865, Elbert helped look after Evans’ business interests and served in the Territorial Legislature while Alexander Cummings and Cameron Hunt were the appointed territorial governors. Elbert also married Evans’ daughter, Mary.
Edward McCook assumed the job of Territorial Governor in 1869. Unlike Cummings and Hunt, he had actually been to Colorado before and it was likely assumed that he’d fit in better than they. Unfortunately, McCook, in his role as Indian Superintendent, which every Territorial Governor assumed, proved himself exceedingly greedy and careless.
The 1868 treaty with the Utes stipulated that they receive periodic shipments of sheep and “Superior American Cattle” to avoid starvation and begin agricultural pursuits in what is now western Colorado. McCook accepted a bid to purchase 750 “good American cows” for $45.75 each. The Federal Government shelled out $30,000.00 and deposited it in his account. However, the cows had already been bought by McCook at $7.50 each, and they were such “scrawny Texas cows” that the Utes refused them. So McCook made $23,000.00. Further, McCook began threatening public officials with removal unless he was paid something to keep them on; the most notable being the Surveyor General, from whom McCook received $1,000.00 so the guy could keep his job.
This was unacceptable and a number of petitions to the Grant administration were sent to remove McCook, some of them inspired by Samuel Elbert; some inspired by “The Denver Faction” of Republicans in the Territorial Legislature, who were eager for Colorado to gain statehood. What was holding them up was the rest of the Republicans outside Denver who were afraid that the Denver Faction would control every aspect of representation if Colorado were to become a state, and they were more comfortable with Washington controlling their representation.
McCook travelled back to Washington in early 1873 and Samuel Hitt Elbert was appointed the Territorial Governor, which had been suggested by Jerome Chaffee, the Territorial Delegate to Washington.
Elbert served as Territorial Governor from March 9, 1873-January 27, 1874. His administration was marked by another treaty with the Utes, who allowed mining on their reservation. Grateful miners named the tallest peak in the region Mount Elbert. He also presided over the creation of more counties in Colorado, one of which is Elbert, which used to be part of Douglas county. The thinking among the Denver faction in the Legislature was that if more counties could be created, more representation would follow in the Legislature and therefore Colorado could move toward statehood. The naming of the county was unanimously carried in the Legislature. Samuel Elbert had lost his wife to pneumonia a month earlier.
Elbert served as governor only 9 months, owing to some mistakes. The guy he’d appointed as director of the penitentiary at Canon City owned an irrigation ditch that crossed penitentiary property and he used unpaid convict labor to widen it and improve it, receiving a profit, even though the land around the penitentiary couldn’t support much more than tumbleweeds even when well irrigated. Elbert also had friends in the Las Animas land grab, where 4,800 acres along the Arkansas River were being opened for homesteading but were stopped by a prior claim from a group of men, among whom was David H. Moffat, railroad builder. The land was especially desirable because the Santa Fe Railroad was supposed to going right through it, which would have made it pretty valuable.
The whole issue went to court and in 1878, the land was opened up for homesteading, but in the meantime, Elbert appointed Moffat State Treasurer, which looked like payback for the Las Animas land.
Grant removed Elbert and put McCook back in. McCook wanted revenge on those who’d petitioned him out and demanded that the Territorial Secretary and Surveyor General be replaced as well. They were, with two guys from the Atlantic States; not with Coloradoans. At the Territorial level, McCook tried to fire everyone appointed by Elbert and they all refused to go, declaring that they’d been appointed for a fixed time, which the Attorney General agreed with.
So Edward McCook’s final 8 months as Governor of Colorado Territory was pretty frustrating. He drank heavily after the loss of his wife during the sixth month of his second term and lost any support he might have had.
Samuel Elbert was appointed to the State Supreme Court in 1879. He served there until his death in 1899.
(The majority of this information was gleaned from Wilbur Fiske Stone’s History of Colorado, 1918, S.J. Clarke & Co., Chicago)