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William Taylor Thornton
Born on February 9, 1843 in Calhoun, Henry County, Missouri. the son of Dr. William Tucker, a physician, and Caroline Virginia (Taylor) Thornton. Thornton’s English ancestors settled in Virginia in 1646. He was married on June 30, 1868 to Helen Maitby of Oneida, New York.
Thornton received his early education in a private school near Sedalia, Missouri. In 1861 he enlisted in the Confederate Army as a Private. Captured during the retreat of Confederate forces from Springfield, Missouri in February 1862, He was imprisoned at Alton, Illinois for over a year. After returning from the Civil War, he enrolled in the law department at Kentucky University in Louisville, where he received his LL.B. degree in 1868. He practiced law in Clinton, Missouri from 1868 to 1877, serving on the Town Council of that community from 1872 to 1874 and in the Missouri Legislature in 1876.
Thornton moved to Santa Fe in 1877, hoping that the change in climate would bring an improvement in his health. In June 1877 he became a law partner of Thomas Catron, one of the leading figures in late nineteenth‑century New Mexico politics. Thornton soon joined with the dominant “Santa Fe Ring,” and he stood at the center of some of the major controversies in the territory. In June 1878 he was appointed Receiver of the famous Maxwell Land Grant, and he represented several of the protagonists in the infamous Lincoln County War. After having served as a member of the Territorial Council in 1880, he was considered for the governorship during President Grover Cleveland’s first administration. Governor Edmund Ross also offered his fellow Democrat the attorney general’s position, which he refused. He was elected the first Mayor of Santa Fe in 1891.
Thornton controlled the Democratic meeting organized in 1892 to send delegates from New Mexico to the national convention in Chicago. He also supervised the passage of a resolution endorsing the Presidential candidacy of Grover Cleveland, who later reciprocated by appointing him Governor of New Mexico Territory. Thornton began his administration on April 20, 1893 with the special mission of bringing to an end the persistent political terrorism in the territory. His most important action in this regard was his support for the prosecution and trial of the alleged killers of Sylvestre Gallegos, the Police Chief of Santa Fe. This murder was one of several in the early 1890s believed to have political overtones. Thomas Catron, the former law partner of the governor and now his bitter political rival, was the defense attorney for the Borrego brothers, two of the defendants in the case. After the jury found the defendants guilty, Thornton refused all pleas for commutation, and they were executed in April 1897.
Another of Thornton’s major concerns was the threat to the Democratic Party posed by the burgeoning Populist movement. He attempted to deprive the Populists of some of their appeal by endorsing their demand for free coinage of silver and denouncing Cleveland’s monetary policy. On other issues, however, lie remained a supporter of the President. Thornton also tried, unsuccessfully, to have the territorial capital moved from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. He was a strong proponent of statehood, and called a convention at Albuquerque in September 1893 to discuss the matter.
On April 2, 1897, the day after the execution of the defendants in the Borrego case, Thornton submitted his resignation to President William McKinley. He later turned his attention to the management of his extensive cattle and mining interests in New Mexico and Mexico. For a time after the turn of the century, he lived in Guadalajara, Mexico. By 1908 he had returned to Santa Fe, where he died on March 16, 1916. Thornton was an active Freemason and was a member of the Elks and Oddfellows.
Who’s Who in America, 1908‑09 (Chicago, 1908); New York Times, March 17, 1916.
Howard R. Lamar, The Far Southwest, 1846‑1912: A Territorial History (New Haven, 1966).
Robert W. Larson, New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood, 1846‑1912 (Albuquerque, 1968).
Victor Westphall, Thomas Benton Catron and His Era (Tucson, 1973).
Robert W. Larson, New Mexico Populism: A Study of Radical Protest in a Western Territory (Boulder, 1974).
Thornton’s papers are in the State Records Center and Archives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Santa Fe New Mexican, 17 March 1916.