August 15, 2012

So, what did Abner Tibbetts do for Hillsboro -- and New Mexico?

By Mark B. Thompson III

Even if you are a dedicated Hillsboro “history buff” you are probably saying to yourself, “never heard of him.”  But there they are, Abner Tibbetts and his wife Marian, in the 1880 census living in “Hillsborough” with Abner described as a “general merchant.”   

Still rings no bells?  The census taker, the lawyer Edward E. Furman, includes them in what looks like a boarding house given the number of persons, 29, including Furman himself, listed under one address. On the other hand, 29 people would require a pretty big house and none are listed as boarders or with some “relationship” to the first name at the address, George Perrault.  One other clue—also listed is Nicholas Galles, a partner of Perrault, and, like Tibbetts, a onetime resident of Minnesota.  Were they all living under one roof, and what was Abner Tibbetts doing in Hillsboro in June of 1880?

Abner Tibbetts, front-center, had an influence on Hillsboro history. El Paso Public Library Otis A. Aultman Collection

As befitting someone who just shows up in the 1880 census in Hillsboro, little appears to be known about the early life of Abner Tibbetts. I believe that he was born about 1823 in Penobscot County Maine, the son of Joseph and Sarah (Crane) Tibbetts and that he is found in their household in the 1850 census. He married Marian Lewis in Racine Wisconsin on March 31, 1852, and then moves further west to Wabasha County Minnesota in 1855. The 1857 Minnesota census does not list his occupation but the 1860 federal census for Wabasha County describes him as a “farmer.” During this time he apparently participates in the founding of Lake City in Wabasha County and The History of Wabasha County contains a rather vague description of his “political activities.”(1) In one way or another, it is through his political connections and activities that we can construct a biography of Tibbetts, revealing his relevance to Hillsboro history.

Coincidently with Tibbetts locating in Wabasha County, two Republican politicians settle in adjoining counties, Goodhue to the north and Winona to the south. In 1855, lawyers Warren Bristol and William Windom moved to Red Wing, Goodhue County and Winona, Winona County, respectively. Bristol had moved from Hennepin County (Minneapolis) and Windom from Ohio, and both had practiced law before moving to southeastern Minnesota. Bristol had served as a district attorney in Hennepin County and had been prominent in the founding of the Republican Party in Minnesota in 1854.(2) Red Wing is just up the road from Lake City and, if Tibbetts was inclined to Republican Party politics, he undoubtedly met Bristol “early on.” It is an association with Windom, however, which probably explains how Tibbetts obtained his first presidential judiciary appointment.(3) Windom, at age 31, was elected a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1858, a position he would hold for ten years. Undoubtedly at Windom’s suggestion, President Abraham Lincoln nominated Tibbetts to be the Register of Public Lands for the General Land Office at St. Peter, Minnesota and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 27, 1861.

Nicholas Galles and George Perrault kept shop on Hillsboro's Main Street. Black Range Museum.

Tibbetts resigned his position in St. Peter on April 15, 1865, and was back in Lake City in time for the Minnesota census in June of that year.  Other than “farming,” we know little of his activity back in Wabasha County but on April 5, 1869, his nomination by President U.S. Grant to be Register of Public Lands, again at St. Peter, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate. During this tenure, the office was moved slightly further west to New Ulm in Brown County Minnesota. 

In the 1870 census, Abner and Marian, with daughter Jennie May, can be found just six houses from the William Galles family, including twelve year old Nicholas Galles. Therein lies a significant link to Hillsboro history. As we know, Abner and Marian will be even closer to Nick Galles in 1880 in Hillsboro, but first we need to consider some relevant connections of Tibbetts to New Mexico before 1880.

Perrault (l) and Galles inside their Hillsboro mercantile. Black Range Museum
A Register of Public Lands was appointed to a four-year term and served at the pleasure of the President. Tibbetts' second term would have ended in April of 1873.(4) In August of 1874, his daughter, Jennie May, married William Gregory Walz in Wabasha County, the Tibbetts home before the move to New Ulm. Walz was from Mankato, Minnesota, a town roughly half-way between Lake City and New Ulm. In the 1875 Minnesota census, Jennie and William, together with their son Harry born in April, are living with William’s parents in Mankato. Also listed at that address are Jennie’s parents, Abner and Marian Tibbetts. This may have given them a “base of operations,” but at least Abner appears to be “on the road.” His travels, in addition to his daughter’s marriage into the Walz family, are what may interest New Mexicans.

The April 4, 1875 edition of the Mesilla News related that the “Hon. A. Tibbetts and N. Galles from Lake City, Minnesota arrived in Mesilla in good health and spirits, and have decided to make their future home with us.”(5) In a letter from Mesilla dated March 23, 1875, Tibbetts wrote his son-in-law about his impressions of New Mexico. He did not mention Galles, but he did have some good news about Warren Bristol who had been in New Mexico as a territorial judge for three years.(6) We know that Nicholas Galles did stay in New Mexico, living first in Socorro, then Mesilla and eventually taking part in the founding of Hillsboro in northern Doña Ana County, but it is not clear that Tibbetts stayed at that time. We may surmise, however, that his mostly positive reports about New Mexico influenced the Walz family of Mankato, Minnesota, especially William’s younger siblings, Julia A. and Edgar A. Walz..

It is probably not surprising that most of what we know about Julia Walz is from a chapter devoted to her in a biography of her husband, Thomas B. Catron, perhaps the most powerful man in New Mexico from about 1870 to 1915. Supposedly Tom Catron met the then 18-year-old Julia Walz in Mesilla, New Mexico where she was teaching school in 1875.(7)

Mesilla in 1875? What a coincidence! Catron, originally from Missouri, had lived in Mesilla until 1869 when he was appointed Attorney General by the governor and had moved to Santa Fe. He was serving as the U.S. Attorney in 1875 and undoubtedly had business in Mesilla. According to the story, Julia returned to the Midwest to attend college but on April 28, 1877, she and Tom Catron were married in Mankato, Minnesota.

Edgar A. Walz, often referred to as “E.A.,” had just turned 18 on March 3, 1877, but, according to his memoir, he had left home in 1873 and worked for the Chicago & North West Ry. in St. Paul, Minnesota. Unfortunately, he does not describe how either he or sister Julia became interested in New Mexico.(8) He played a minor, if well-documented, role in the Lincoln County War, 1878-79, as the representative of his brother-in-law Tom Catron, who was a financial backer of the Dolan/Riley/Murphy faction.(9) After their marriage in 1880 in Mankato, Edgar brought his new bride, Louella, to New Mexico and their two children were born there, but Edgar mostly lived out his life in California. He clearly was a “jack of all trades,” and is credited with creating a company to help innkeepers deal with “deadbeats.” His company, originally the National Debtor Record Company, exists today as the Gelco Expense Management Company with headquarters in Minnesota.

Unfortunately, the end of the 1870s also came with significant disruption for the older brother, William Walz. He and Jennie May (Tibbetts) had their second child, also named Jennie, on February 27, 1877,  but then, on December 13, 1879, Jennie May (Tibbetts) Walz died in Mankato. Although I failed to determine whether his mother and father divorced or if his father had died, I found William’s children, Harry and Jennie, living with William’s mother in New Haven, Connecticut in 1880. Madeline Walz is listed in the 1880 census as “single,” not widowed or divorced. I have been unable to determine the location of William in 1880; he was not with his in-laws in Hillsboro, but that will change shortly.

In March of 1869, William Windom was appointed to fill an unexpired term in the U.S. Senate and he then was chosen by the Minnesota legislature to a full term in 1871. He was re-elected in 1877 and then, with the inauguration of President Garfield in March of 1881, he resigned his Senate seat and was confirmed as Secretary of the Treasury. The Treasury Department was responsible for the collection of customs at the U.S. borders and, of course, Windom’s good friend Abner Tibbetts was immediately nominated by President Garfield to be a Collector of Customs at El Paso, Texas. Tibbetts' nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on May 19, 1881, and thus ended his sojourn in Hillsboro, New Mexico. At some point during his time in El Paso, he followed what appears to be a fairly common practice in the West and gave himself a military title.(11) Tibbetts became “Colonel Tibbetts” and, as the circa 1883 photo of Tibbetts with several lawmen in El Paso shows, he looked like he had been “cast” for the part.

Having hitched his wagon to the Windom star, it was not surprising that Tibbetts would be affected by that star’s changing orbit. Windom only served as Treasury Secretary until November of 1881,(12) leaving to once again represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. Windom shortly lost favor with the Minnesota politicians and was out of the Senate in 1883. He moved to New York City to practice law but also became involved in the railroad business.  Receiving an offer from Windom he could not refuse, Tibbetts, on February 21, 1884, submitted his resignation as Collector of Customs to take a position with the El Paso, St. Louis & Chicago R.R.Co.(13) The railroad company was involved in a major project which would link central Mexico to Topolavampo on the Pacific coast. On April 25, 1886, Tibbetts, now president of the railroad company, died of a heart attack while traveling with Senator Windom on a train near Fresnillo, Mexico.(14)

End of story? Of course not, at least not if you are interested in the legacy of Abner Tibbetts. His son-in-law, William Gregory Walz, followed Tibbetts to El Paso and worked for him in the customs office. William lived out his life in El Paso, remarrying and having several more children, who were joined at some point by their half-brother Harry Walz. William Walz died on July 5, 1913, and is buried in the Evergreen Alameda Cemetery in El Paso. Harry Walz, perhaps influenced by his uncle, Edgar A. Walz, ended up in California where he died on January 8, 1947, and is buried in the Los Angeles National Cemetery. Harry’s sister, Jennie, was in effect “adopted” by her aunt, Julia (Walz) Catron, and lived much of her early life in Santa Fe. Julia Catron died on November 8, 1909, in Santa Fe and Jennie (Walz) Turner died in San Bernadino, California on July 18, 1969.

So what is the answer to the question posed in the title? Perhaps the reader might say the answer is “nothing.” On some level it is hard to quibble with that answer, but a more nuanced answer might be justified. We know that Tibbetts brought Nicholas Galles to New Mexico in 1875 and Nicholas Galles made a decent contribution to the territory, including Hillsboro, before his death in 1911. It may not even rise to the level of a good hypothesis, but I strongly suspect that Tibbetts played a role in introducing Julia Walz to New Mexico and Thomas B. Catron. Catron served the prosecution in the infamous trial of Oliver Lee and Jim Gilliland in Hillsboro in 1899. As her page one obituary in The Santa Fe New Mexican, November 8, 1909, suggests, Julia Walz Catron made a significant contribution during her 32 years in that city. Julia is buried in the Catron mausoleum in the Fairview Cemetery on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe.  

1 History of Wabasha County (1884), p. 1291.
2 See my essay on Warren Bristol on the website of the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library,
3 After Tibbetts’ death, it was widely reported that Windom had been a “student” of Tibbetts in Minnesota.  I question that story for two reasons.  First, they lived in different counties.  Secondly, Windom, according to his Congressional biography, had been admitted to the bar and commenced his legal career in Mount Vernon, Ohio in 1850.  It seems unlikely that he would have attended secondary school upon his move to Minnesota five years later. 
4 We do know that Tibbetts was still in New Ulm in 1872 because he wrote at least one letter calling attention to the difficulties arising from the natural disasters occurring in southwestern Minnesota.  See Gilbert C. Fite, ed., “Some Farmers’ Accounts of Hardship on the Frontier,” Minnesota History (Vol. 37, March 1961), p. 207.
5 This quote is from a “secondary source” but the essence of the story was “corroborated” by an article in a Minnesota newspaper six years later.  “Mr. Nicholas Galles went to New Mexico several years ago with Hon. Abner Tibbetts . . . .” (untitled) The New Ulm Review (Wed. Sept. 7, 1861), p. 3. I suppose Tibbetts might have become a Justice of the Peace or it is possible that he began referring to himself as a judge because of his duties at the land office.     
6 William Walz apparently made the letter available to a Mankato, Minnesota newspaper and it was then reprinted by a Lake City newspaper.  “New Mexico  As Seen By A Minnesotlan” (sic), The Lake City Leader (Thursday, May 13, 1875), p. 5.
7 Victor Westphall, Thomas Benton Catron and his era (Tucson: U. of Ariz. Press, 1973), p. 135.
8 Walz’s typewritten “Retrospection,” written in 1931, is in a “vertical file” at the Fray Angelico Chavez Library in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
9 See e.g., Robert M. Utley, High Noon In Lincoln: Violence of the Western Frontier (Albuquerque: U. of New Mexico Press, 1987), pp.28, 72, 131-136.
10 “New Ulm and Vicinity,” The New Ulm Review (Wed. Dec. 24, 1879), p. 3. 
11 I have written about two other New Mexico politicians who gave themselves a military title, William Henry  Harrison Llewellyn and Lafayette Head.  I never found any evidence that either was commissioned a “major” as they claimed.  Llewellyn long after introducing himself as “Major Llewellyn” to the residents of Doña Ana County, was commissioned a Captain of a “Rough Rider” company in the Spanish-American War of 1898. He also at one time held the position of Judge Advocate General of the New Mexico Militia (National Guard) which carried the rank of Colonel.  Head, a private in the Missouri Volunteers when he mustered out in Santa Fe in 1847, was elected to the territorial senate (council) from Conejos in Taos County.  That part of Taos County became part of Colorado in 1861 and Head was elected as the first Lt. Governor of the State of Colorado in 1876.
12 Windom would, however, return to the Treasury under President Benjamin Harrison in 1889.
13 “El Paso. Resignation of Col. Tibbetts—Washout and Delay of Trains,” The Fort Worth Gazette (Friday, Feb. 22, 1884), p. 2.
14 “A Noted Minnesotan,”  The St. Paul Daily Globe  (Monday, May 3, 1886), p. 4;  (untitled) The New Ulm Weekly Review (Wed. May 5, 1886), p. 5.

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