Born on October 14, 1819 near Columbus in Franklin County, Ohio, the son of Samuel Loree, a farmer, and Nancy (Sanders) Axtell. Axtell was the brother of Silas H., Ephraim S., Sarah A., Rufus S., Mary R., Martha D., Nancy K., Josephus S., Phebe J., Pamela G., and Julien H. Of colonial American ancestry. He was raised in the Presbyterian faith. Axtell married Adaline S. Williams of Summit County, Ohio on September 20, 1840, by whom he was the father of Myron W., Charles C., Alice E.A., and Wallace.
Young Axtell moved with his family early in 1820 to Jersey Township, Licking County, Ohio. In June 1824, however, the family returned to their former home in Mendham, New Jersey, where he spent most of his youth. After attending Oberlin College, he was graduated from Western Reserve College. Axtell passed the bar in 1843. He then moved to Mount Clemens, Michigan, near where his parents had settled, and practiced law there until 1851.
In 1851 Axtell moved to California, where he helped to establish Amador County, and served as that county’s Prosecuting Attorney from 1854 to 1860. He moved in the latter year to San Francisco, opening a law office there. He was elected to Congress as a Democrat from the First California District in 1866, and re‑elected in 1868. Axtell did not choose to run in 1870, but returned instead to San Francisco. Having changed his political affiliation to the Republican Party during his time in Congress, he became active in that cause in California.
In 1874 President Ulysses Grant appointed Axtell Governor of Utah Territory. He was criticized for not taking a firm enough stand against the Mormons, and he left office in June 1875. Soon thereafter, on July 30, 1875, he became Governor of New Mexico Territory. Violence in Colfax and Lincoln counties dominated Axtell’s term as chief executive. While the sources of conflict in Colfax County were complicated, by 1873 the struggle was mainly between the Maxwell Land Grant Company and squatters. The worst of the violence came after the September 1875 murder of the Reverend T.J. Tolby, whom many Colfax County residents believed was killed for interfering with attempts by the “Santa Fe Ring” to control the Maxwell Land Grant Company and the county. That ring consisted of a group of prominent New Mexico leaders, who did in fact exert much control over the territory during the period.
The conflict in Lincoln County was equally complex, but the violence there was mainly between two cliques of settlers, the recently‑arrived Tunstall‑McSween group and the more established Murphy‑Dolan group. Axtell and the "Santa Fe Ring," favoring the Murphy‑Dolan group, were unable to control the widespread violence. The seriousness of the situation in Lincoln County led the Interior, Justice, and War departments to appoint Frank Warner Angell as Special Investigator in 1878. Angell got little cooperation from Axtell and the other officials in the territory, and in his report he strongly condemned the Axtell administration, stating that the violence would not have been as severe if Axtell had not taken sides. Because of the serious charges against the governor, Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz suspended Axtell on September 4, 1878.
Despite the controversy concerning his governorship, President Chester Arthur appointed Axtell Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court in August 1882, a position he held until May 1885. Returning to the practice of law, he later ran for Probate Judge of Santa Fe County, but lost the race. In 1890 Axtell was elected Chairman of the Territorial Republican Committee. He died on August 6, 1891, while visiting relatives in Morristown, New Jersey. Axtell was buried in that community’s First Presbyterian Cemetery.
U.S. Department of the Interior, In the Matter of the Investigation of the Charges against S.B. Axtell, Governor of New Mexico (Washington, D.C., 1878);
Ephraim S. Axtell, The Axtell Record (Morristown, N.J., 1886).
Philip J. Rasch, "Exit Axtell; Enter Wallace," New Mexico Historical Review, 32 (July 1957), 231‑45.
William A. Keleher, Violence in Lincoln County, 18691881 (Albuquerque, 1957).
Calvin Horn, New Mexico’s Troubled Years: The Story of the Early Territorial Governors (Albuquerque, 1963).
Howard R. Lamar, The Far Southwest, 1846‑1912: A Territorial History (New Haven, 1966).
"Samuel Beach Axtell," manuscript autobiography in the William G. Ritch Collection of the Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, California. DAB.