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Brigadier General James W. Denver (1817 – 1892)

Portrait of James William Denver

Condensed Biography of James W. Denver
By R. Chamberlain

The life of James Williams Denver is a tribute to patriotism and determination. From farming to running for President, Denver never let ambition sacrifice his need for decency in each of his endeavors. For most of his life, Denver's permanent residence, officially, was Wilmington, Ohio. However, no one can deny he had a restless spirit. Denver's aspirations, both political and professional, took him into the most treacherous areas of the frontier United States. Faced throughout his life with many challenges, James W. Denver always carried himself with grace, courage, humility and honor.

Life Before the Mexican War

As to working on a farm, at first I had no fancy for it at all, and yet, after awhile, I became a good farmer and liked the business, so much that I endeavored to excel all others, and had I continued on the farm I have no doubt but I would have done as well as any one in that business. -James W. Denver, 1860

Born in Virginia in 1817, the Denver family moved, in 1831, to a large farm outside of Wilmington. As the eldest son of the family, Denver spent long hours working on the family farm. As the quote suggests, he never shied away from hard work. But the swamp-like conditions of the land made him seriously ill with rheumatism. An extremely self-disciplined and well-read student at age 19, Denver focused on other career opportunities. Ambition coupled with a desire to be healthy, compelled him to leave the farm for a teaching position in Platte City, Missouri. During this time, Denver studied law in the evenings and conducted classes in the frontier school during the day. Having self-taught the basics, he enrolled in the Cincinnati Law School in 1844 and earned a bachelor's degree.

At 25, Denver combined his law practice with newspaper publishing in Xenia, Ohio. The Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic newspaper was as unsuccessful as his budding law office. Seeking the friends he'd made in Missouri years ago, Denver returned to Platte City and opened a new law office while publishing a new Democratic newspaper. Both endeavors flourished. However, when war started along the Mexican border, Denver's career took an unexpected turn.

The Mexican War and Oregon Trail

The Mexican army out-numbered ours at least three to one, had selected their own ground were well supplied with artillery, and had mostly fresh men; while our men were without artillery, and a large number of them were scarcely able to walk, from the fatigue of their previous marching and fighting. But Americans were not to be beaten... -James W. Denver, 1847

In 1846, following the annexation of Texas, America was at war with Mexico. Denver, caught up in "war fever," enlisted and subsequently received a commission of Captain from President James K. Polk. In charge of recruitment for the 12th U.S. Volunteer Infantry, Denver raised a company of 37 men and led them to Mexico for general rendezvous with the main body of troops. During the war's bloody battles, Denver contracted yellow fever. After the Treaty of Hidalgo in 1848, he would spend many months recovering on his parent's farm in Wilmington.

With the discovery of gold in 1849, Denver was caught up in the gold rush to the West. Leading a wagon train of 34 people, he set out for California along the Oregon Trail. The journey was not an easy one. Along the way, several members of the expedition died from disease. But the frontier leadership Denver provided was sound and the expedition arrived in Sacramento almost five months later. Unsuccessful at any attempt to prospect for gold, Denver set up a trading post close to the Oregon and California border. On September 5, 1850, California became the 31st state.  Thus, presenting Denver with a golden opportunity to start a political career.


'Now,' said Denver, in a tone I shall never forget, ‘I must defend myself.' And at the signal, Gilbert fell, pierced through the heart. He died in the arms of a friend, Henry B. Livingstone, less than five minutes later. -W.V. Cornwall, witness to the duel

Events in California had a rippling effect throughout the rest of Denver's life. Here his first successful ventures into politics arose. It was also in California where Denver engaged in a duel where he shot and killed the Editor of the leading San Francisco newspaper. These combined events would influence many of Denver's future decisions.

The year 1851 saw Denver elected to the California State Senate. Subsequently, in 1853 he was appointed California Secretary of State and elected Representative to the U.S. Congress. During his political tenure in California, Denver initiated many important legislations. Among these legislations included an unprecedented California State law, in 1855, allowing wives to control property separate of their husbands. In 1856, Denver was instrumental in the construction of the Pacific Railroads and developing U.S. laws regarding mineral rights.

In the midst of his growing political career, Edward Gilbert, Editor of the Alta California, challenged Denver to a duel. Gilbert, in his editorials, accused the current Governor of using relief efforts to starving emigrants for political gain. Denver, acting in behalf of Governor Bigler, took exception to these unfair criticisms. He had personally led the relief train efforts to starving families trapped in the Sierra Nevadas during the winter. He knew how important the food and blankets were to the new settlers from the East. Gilbert, however, did not let up on his criticisms. After an exchange of newspaper attacks by Gilbert and Denver, this challenge was made and accepted for a duel: Wesson rifles at 40 paces to take place at Oak Grove on August 2, 1852. At the duel, Gilbert fired first and missed Denver. Denver wasted his shot and fired deliberately into the air to end the duel. But Gilbert was not content with a bloodless duel. He challenged Denver to another shot and died shortly after. Witnesses to the duel, including Gilbert's close friends, swore that it was the fairest duel ever fought. They agreed that Denver had no choice but to kill or be killed.

Commissioner of Indian Affairs and "Bleeding Kansas"

... They don't understand Denver; they cannot fathom him or find his weak spots, if he has any. He will not affiliate with them in any shape or manner. His quiet, determined way insures both fear and respect. Hence...ultra-partisans perceive that any successful opposition to such concentrated power is like whistling down the wind. -New York Herald, spring of 1858

In April 1857, President James Buchanan appointed Denver, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Government corruption and a general dislike for Indians made this a crucial, but difficult, position. With uprisings and conflicts between settlers and Indians becoming more frequent, Denver's strong and honest leadership was needed. Although his term as Commissioner was short, Denver left an impact on policy. He was responsible for encouraging small and separate land reserves for different tribes. This was in opposition to the popular opinion that one large body of land be assigned to multiple tribes.

By late December 1857, Buchanan reassigned Denver Acting Governor of the Kansas Territory. This was a volatile time during Kansas's history because of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This Act turned Indian Territory into U.S. territory. The act also required that citizens of new territories vote for "pro-slave" or "free" status. This caused great discord among rival factions. "Pro-slave" and abolitionists were constantly fighting amongst themselves. Even worse, marauders and criminals constantly harassed law-abiding citizens. What Denver did during his tenure in "Bleeding Kansas" was instrumental in cleaning up the territory. His sparse use of the U.S. Calvary of which he had several units at his disposal, encouraged the settlers to work together to solve their own regional police and political issues.

Politics and Denver City

A few days before reaching home, we killed a fine buck, some wild turkeys, and a buffalo calf. This suggested the propriety of giving our friends a game supper upon arriving at Lecompton. Among our invited guests was Governor J. W. Denver. The Governor was tardy in making his appearance, and as he was to preside at the supper, we were killing time selecting a name for our city, but, as heretofore, we failed to agree, much to the disgust of some of us. Finally the door opened and there, in all his physical and mental magnificence, stood the Governor. We all rose from our seats as he uncovered, greeting him heartily, for we all loved the old man. Intuitively, the sight and occasion suggested to me 'Denver' as a fitting name for our city. The motion was made and a vote taken, which received unanimous support. -Ely Moore, from the Denver Post, 1901

The years that followed were tumultuous ones politically for Denver. Officially appointed Governor of the Kansas Territory in 1858, Denver was able to quell the fighting and bloodshed. During his time in Kansas, and later, Denver was the impetus for Colorado statehood. After his resignation from the Governorship in 1858, Denver continued his duties as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Between the years of 1859 and 1860, Denver ran as a candidate, unsuccessfully, for Governor of California and U. S. Senator of California.

During his period in Kansas as Governor, the city of Denver was named. There is some dispute as to how specifically it got its name. The above quote, by Ely Moore, is considered for the most part, generally accurate. However, there is evidence to suggest that Denver was not present during the naming and Moore was mistaken on some of the finer details. Fact or legend, to receive such an honor during one's own lifetime is a distinction shared by few.

The Civil War

From present appearances we are to be as tax-ridden a people as the subjects of Britain. If we succeed in getting out of our present difficulties, indeed, with as much freedom as is enjoyed by English subjects, we may deem ourselves happy. On every side disaster stares us in the face; a most formidable rebellion, an executive usurpation of power, a venal and subservient Congress; a bankrupt Treasury; an enormous debt, pecuniary ruin among the people, and great danger of the free Government given us by our fathers being turned into a military despotism. -James W. Denver, 1861

There are many political nuances involved with Denver's appointment, in 1861, by President Abraham Lincoln, to Union Brigadier General of Volunteers. Politics, during this time, were especially vicious. Loyalties were questionable and motives suspect. As an outspoken Democrat in a predominately Republican administration and born Virginian, Denver had two strikes against him from the start. With the help of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a Democrat, Lincoln tried to be bi-partisan in his military appointments. His appointment of Denver put Lincoln under a scrutinizing political fire.

Shortly after his appointment, Denver wrote a letter to his brother, Frank, which was subsequently published in a Republican newspaper without authorization. The above quote is an excerpt from the letter which serves as an example of the kind of criticism Denver felt for the Lincoln administration and civil unrest. His opinions were not unfounded. Lincoln had suspended the writ of habeas corpus, the protection against illegal detention, as early as April 1861. Denver, a strict constructionist, felt that the Constitution should be followed to the letter. In reality, if Lincoln had been a lesser man, Denver's scenario might have been foreshadowing the American future.

Despite criticisms and doubts from his peers, Denver's loyalty to the Union and the Constitution never wavered. It was his belief that the rebellion should be crushed and democracy, according to the U.S. Constitution, should be restored. It is a testament to his reputation that his appointment as Brigadier General was not rescinded. This allowed Denver to carry out his services faithfully and obediently until his post-war resignation in 1863.

Life after the Civil War

Let all the nations be duly tyled and let the most worthy be chosen. To this end it is proper that every man deemed good, and properly qualified for this elevated and difficult place, be presented, that the wisest choice may be made.

There are many, undoubtedly, of this class to be found among the people that are honest and capable, any one of whom, if selected, would be satisfactory, but no one man can know them all.

We know only one such, and his name is - JAMES W. DENVER OF THE STATE OF OHIO. -S. Prentiss Nut, 1884

After a post-Civil War vacation, Denver began practicing law in Washington, D.C. His firm, Hughes, Denver, and Peck, focused primarily on war reparations. One of his most important cases involved the Choctaw Indian Tribe vs. the U. S. Government. Denver won a $3 million judgment for the Choctaws. He continued to fight for the Indians until his death on August 9,1892.

Politics were not especially kind to Denver late in his life. In 1870, Denver lost a bid for U.S. Representative of Ohio. In 1886, he ran again for Congress and was narrowly defeated. Although he never actively sought the Presidency, Denver became nominated as a candidate in 1884 but lost in the primaries. Most historians blame his duel with Gilbert as a contributing factor to these political defeats.

The Personal Denver

I think, Lou, I must have been born under the influence of some comet, if astrology holds well, which prevents me from ever remaining long in any one place. What will be the next chapter in my life, God only knows; but no matter what it may be, I will endeavor to discharge all the duties required to the best of my abilities, and, as I have said to you before, you shall never feel ashamed of your husband. -James W. Denver, 1858

Denver married Louise Rombach, daughter of prominent Wilmington banker Matthew Rombach, in 1856. The newlyweds set up housekeeping in the Rombach mansion, now the Rombach Museum in Wilmington. Louise traveled infrequently with her husband and preferred for the most part, the confines of the Rombach mansion. The Denvers had four children: Katherine (1861); James (1863); Mary Louise (1868); and Matthew (1870).

With all of his traveling during his lifetime, Denver frequently found himself away from his family. This separation did not diminish his love for his wife and children. He kept in constant contact with letters and poems of encouragement. It was always Denver's desire that his wife join him in his extensive traveling, but as stated before, she was not fond of traveling. When home, he was a doting father and strict disciplinarian. Denver worked to instill within his children the same moral fortitude that defined his own lifestyle.

And even the bat is gone at last-without the insect he must fast. And I am left alone today-my mate and little ones away. But dreams of peace and pleasure tell, my spirit with them still doth dwell. -James W. Denver, 1865


Bams, George C. Denver, The Man. Strasburg, Virginia: Shenandoah Publishing House, Inc., 1949.
Cook, E.M. Justified by Honor Falls Church, Virginia: Higher Kducation Publications, Inc., 1988