By Al Bates

When Arizona’s third territorial governor, Anson P. K. Safford, arrived at the Territorial Capital of Tucson in July 1869 he was met both by an enthusiastic citizenry and by a legal firestorm that threatened extended chaos in the territory.  The eventual solution would include giving the new governor temporary dictatorial powers.

Late in the previous year Henry P. T. Backus, an associate justice of the Territorial Supreme Court, had issued a decision that voided all the laws enacted during the third, fourth and fifth territorial legislatures (1866, 1867 and 1868) thus throwing the wheels of government into a ditch.  He had ruled that the method for apportionment of Arizona’s two legislative houses had violated the territory’s Organic Act.  The issue of whether or not his ruling had merit was certain to be tied up in the courts for an agonizing length of time; in the meantime local officials were enabled to pick and choose what laws to follow.


 Anson P. K. Safford, Arizona’s Third Territorial Governor (Photo Courtesy of Author).

Judge Backus had been appointed to replace Judge William T. Howell, the primary author of the set of laws for Arizona adopted by the first territorial legislature in 1864.  Backus arrived in Arizona in time to hold a term of Court at Tucson in January 1866, and in November 1868 he dropped his legal bombshell.  In early 1869 he resigned when his term expired and left the territory.

Previously, Governor Richard McCormick had been elected as the territory’s delegate to Congress and immediately left for Washington, leaving the reins of government in the ineffectual hands of Territorial Secretary James P. T. Carter.  Carter was out of office by April 1869, replaced by Coles Bashford.  Among things left undone before Mr. Safford’s arrival was the calling of the normally expected election for the sixth Territorial Legislature.

The repercussions from Judge Backus’s ruling were dramatic.  An interested observer, John Spring, an early Tucson schoolmaster, later wrote: “This decision had created a condition that practically left the territory without a government except in name.  The regular term for holding the [1869] Territorial Legislature had passed; hence, there was no appropriation for carrying on the government.  The several boards of supervisors (county commissioners) had ordered tax levied in some counties according to the acts of one legislature, and in others according to the acts of another legislature, accordingly as they approved or disapproved of Judge Backus’ decision; and in order that the money should not become a disturbing element it was generally diverted into the county fund.  The Territory was indebted in the sum of $26,000, and there were no funds to meet obligations.”

To wait for the courts to sort out this mess was clearly not acceptable and action was required of the governor who requested Congress for help.  He needed Congress to overturn Backus’ ruling and then to grant him special powers to help bridge the gap before the legislature could next meet.


Henry P. T. Backus, associate justice of the Territorial Supreme Court (Photo Courtesy of Author).

On March 23, 1870 Congress enacted a bill that did just that.  In addition to declaring that the apportionment made by the governor of Arizona Territory’s for the contended legislatures were “legal and valid under the organic act,” it also gave the governor extraordinary but temporary powers to remove and appoint township, county and district officers—both elected and appointed—“whenever in his judgment the public interest will be promoted thereby.”

Additionally, the bill specified that the next election for Arizona would be held in November 1870 and the governor would apportion the legislative seats according the results of the 1870 census.  The legislature thus selected would meet in January 1871, the governor’s special powers would expire and normalcy would be on its way.

Mr. Spring wrote of the powers given to Governor Safford and his wise use of them: “This was a very arbitrary act, and could only be excused by the extraordinary condition of the affairs in the Territory.  Mr. Safford . . . used the power so mildly that but very few people, indeed, had any knowledge that he ever had such power.”

Safford’s mild approach worked so well that he never had to exercise the extraordinary powers given him and shortly the territorial government was working as enacted by the Legislature.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International ( This and other Days Past articles are also available at The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles