Born in Eddyville, Kentucky, John Long Routt arrived on April 25, 1826. His father died shortly after his birth after which his mother moved the family to Illinois. They settled in Bloomington and John was enrolled in the public school system. When he was a little older, he began an apprenticeship as a carpenter.
Routt entered politics in 1860 when he was elected sheriff of McLean County. He served two years, then resigned to serve in the Civil War. A member of the 94th Illinois Volunteer Regiment, Captain Routt fought in the Battle of Prairie Grove and Vicksburg. A resourceful and courageous individual, Routt was promoted to the rank of colonel by General Ulysses S. Grant for his reputation as a courageous fighter, in addition to the remarkable talents he displayed in leadership and organization.
Following the Civil War, Routt returned to politics by being elected on the Republican ticket as McLean County Treasurer. He served in this post from 1865 – 1869. This was followed by an appointment as U.S. Marshal by President Grant, serving the Southern District of Illinois. In 1871, his next appointment was that of Second Assistant Postmaster General.
Routt served in the postmaster’s office until President Grant appointed him territorial governor of Colorado to help prepare the territory for admission to the Union. During Routt’s term as territorial governor, Thomas Patterson and Jerome Chaffee began the legwork to create Colorado’s state government with House Bill 435. The Centennial State officially became #38 in the Union on August 1, 1876, following a constitution process which required nine months to complete.
When Routt was elected the first governor, the popular politician easily won the gubernatorial election without making a single speech in public. He was also a member of the Colorado Land Board and obtained a number of Congress’s best land grants. He was also forced to deal with a number of violent incidents at Creede from squatters who challenged the state’s claim on the area and threatened to hang any individual(s) who defied them. Even though the governor was encouraged to send troops in to put an end to the insurrection, Governor Routt chose instead to travel to Creede and negotiate a peaceful settlement, which he accomplished.
Routt also had the State Board of Equalization to deal with regarding the valuation of the state’s counties. The Board disagreed with the assessments rendered by the counties and lowered the valuation numbers. The Colorado Supreme Court was called in to rule on the matter and found in favor of the Board. The lower valuations quickly led to a depletion of Colorado’s coffers. This stunted the development of Colorado’s infrastructure and created financial woes for the young state due to a poor credit rating.
Gold was discovered in Colorado during 1860 and shortly thereafter, the town of Oro City sprang up. The brief boom helped lead to an even greater find. In 1874 during their gold recovery miners soon discovered the mineral cerussite, which carried a high content of silver. Traced to its source in 1876, several silver-lead deposits were discovered. The city of Leadville was founded in 1877 near the silver deposits by mine owners August Meyer and Horace A. W. Tabor. The Colorado Silver Boom was under way.
Governor Routt soon began a lucrative business venture by investing $10,000 in the now-infamous Morning Star Mine. Setting aside his gubernatorial responsibilities, Routt concentrated his efforts on building his silver fortune. As a result, Frederick Pitkin had an easy time winning the governor's race in 1879. In April 1879, Routt “hit the jackpot” as the ore harvested from Morning Star produced an average income of $72,000 per month. Routt later sold Morning Star Mine for $1,000,000 and invested his fortune into various forms of industry in Colorado; including ranching, irrigation projects and mining.
Politically Routt gained favor with the women of Colorado. He strongly supported women’s suffrage and helped to arrange a speaking tour for Susan B. Anthony throughout the state, in addition to personally escorting her on her trip. In 1893, women received the right to vote and Colorado First Lady Eliza Routt became the first female registered to vote.
Following the end of Routt’s term of office (1876 – 1879), he returned to his interests in ranching and mining. He did not stay away from politics for long, though. In 1883, Routt became mayor of Denver, serving two years. He then challenged Nathaniel Hill for the office of US Senator; however, he lost the election by four votes. Not to be denied a political office, on January 13, 1891, Routt began a second term as Governor of Colorado, serving as the state’s seventh Chief Executive.
In 1891, he moved back to the governor’s office as its seventh occupant (1891-1893). During this second term, ground was broken for the long-delayed state capitol building. That was the upside. On the downside, his term was dominated by a quantity of Republican infighting. The entrenched leader of the “gang”, James H. Brown, and H. H. Eddy, head of the Republican caucus opposing him, appropriately nicknamed the “gang smashers” battled it out on the floor of the House of Representatives regarding committee appointments and selection of the speaker. The Colorado Supreme Court later resolved the situation.
On August 13, 1907, John Routt died in Denver after having claimed the distinction of being the champion office holder in the United States, performing services for the nation and state of Colorado for more than fifty consecutive years.
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Trivia Note – John L. Routt was the uncle of Sarah Bay, daughter of his sister, Sally Routt. In 1866, Sarah married Edward S. (Ned) Walker in McLeon County, IL. Walker’s brother, David Davis Walker, was the great-grandfather of President George H. W. Bush and great-great-grandfather of President George W. Bush.