William Elbridge Sewell

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
William Elbridge Sewell
6th Naval Governor of Guam
In office
February 6, 1903 – January 11, 1904
Preceded by Seaton Schroeder
Succeeded by Frank Herman Schofield
Personal details
Born November 16, 1851
Died March 18, 1904(1904-03-18) (aged 52)
Nationality  United States
Military service
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch United States Navy Seal United States Navy
Years of service 1867–1904
Rank US-O4 insignia.svg Lieutenant Commander
Commands USS Alarm; Mare Island Observatory; USS Supply
Battles/wars Battle of Santiago de Cuba

William Elbridge Sewell (November 16, 1851 – March 18, 1904) was a United States Navy Lieutenant Commander, and the 6th Naval Governor of Guam from February 9, 1903 until being transported back to the mainland United States for medical treatment on January 11, 1904. He was born in Colchester, New York and appointed to the United States Naval Academy from that state in 1867. He did not become an Ensign immediately, but served on numerous ships before achieving the rank. He continued serving on a multitude of ships, eventually executive officer or commanding officer at a series of ships and installations. Eventually, he became commanding officer of the Guam flagship, and soon after, governor. As governor, he initiated a series of tax and legal reforms, including many that restored the rights of the native population to practice their culture more freely. He legalized and taxed alcohol and set up a court system that would last 30 years. In March 1904, he fell ill from intestinal troubles and was transported to California for treatment, where he died while still in office.


Sewell was born on November 16, 1851 in Colchester, New York.[1] He married Minnie Moore on October 14, 1890 and had three daughters. His wife died in 1901 when their children were still young.[1] While in Guam, Sewell became seriously ill with an intestinal disorder, and was brought to San Francisco, California for treatment aboard the USS Supply.[2] He arrived in California on March 1, 1904 and died shortly after on March 18. His daughter Helen Sewell later became a famous children's book illustrator.[2] Another of his daughters, Marjorie Sewell Cautley, became an acclaimed landscape architect.[3]

Naval career[edit]

Sewell was appointed to the United States Naval Academy in 1867 by Congressman William C. Fields. He graduated the academy in 1871.[1] His first post after graduation was aboard the USS Congress, where served on a mission to deliver supplies to the Polaris expedition and then to receive a visiting Russian fleet. He then participated in the escort of the Hornet, a filibuster vessel, out of a Spanish blockade in Port-au-Prince that aimed to capture it.[1] The Congress joined the European Squadron, and Sewell was transferred to the USS Plymouth, where he served for seven months before being transferred once again to the USS Wabash. He remained there thirteen months before being reposted back to the Congress.[1]

Following the Virginius Affair, the Congress sailed to Key West, where Sewell took part in several drills and exercises on the Florida Bay before returning to Norfolk, Virginia aboard the USS Ticonderoga. There he became an Ensign and began assisting in deep-sea exploration and sounding of the Gulf Of Mexico and Gulf of Maine. In 1878, he was ordered shortly to the USS Passaic and subsequently the USS Alaska, where he cruised the Pacific Ocean for three years.[1] In 1881 he became executive officer of the USS Alarm, and in 1882 became commanding officer of the vessel, his first command.[1]

In 1882 and 1883, he served at the United States Naval Observatory. From there he was ordered to the USS Ossipee during its tour of Asian ports. For his services aboard this ship he received a commendatory letter from the Secretary of the Navy.[1] In April 1891, he relinquished command of the Mare Island Observatory and reported for a tour of China aboard the USS Lancaster. From July 1894 to May 1897 he once again commanded the Mare Island Observatory, where he was placed in charge of accurate time keeping for the West Coast of the United States and distribution of marine chronometers to ships in the Pacific Fleet.[1] On June 1, 1897, he became navigator for the USS Montgomery, serving only until July 12 of the same year before becoming executive officer of the USS Vesuvius and then executive officer of the USS Topeka until March 1899.[1] He participated in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, for which he received commendation from commanding Admiral William T. Sampson.[1]

From March 1899 to June 1900 he served as executive officer of the USS Abarenda, on which he sailed to American Samoa. He was in Pago Pago when the United States assumed control of the island chain. In 1900, he served in equipment department of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and then equipment officer at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.[1] He later became commanding officer of the USS Supply, which became the flagship for Guam when he became governor.[4]


During his term as governor, Sewell issued twenty-four orders, most of them concerned with taxes. He conducted major overhauls of the taxation, criminal code, and prison system.[2] He also repealed a number of laws limiting the practice of native Guamanian culture, including once again allowing United States military personnel to live among the Chamorro people and allowing the Caroline Islands to wear native clothing and participate in cockfights.[2] At first, he raised the property taxes, which had only been one percent under Spanish rule, which caused many natives to default and lose their land.[5] After a series of crop failures caused economic hardship on the island, he reduced property taxes by fifty percent.[2]

He also issued a number of corporate reforms. He legalized alcohol, allowing its manufacture and sale given the government issue of a special license to do so.[2] He continued the unpopular policy of keeping those with leprosy separate from the general populace and improved the judicial laws of the island with General Order 69 on November 30, 1903. The court system he set up lasted until the 1930s.[5] Under his administration, the first telegraph cable reached the island.[6] On March 18, 1904, Sewell died while in office.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l United States Naval Academy (1902). Class of '71, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md. New York City: The Grafton Press. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Leon-Guerrero, Jillette (9 August 2010). "Guam Leaders from 1899-1904". Guampedia. Guam: University of Guam. Archived from the original on 20 October 2010. Retrieved 27 October 2010. 
  3. ^ Zaitzevsky, Cynthia (2009). Long Island Landscapes and the Women Who Designed Them. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 210. ISBN 0-393-73124-3. Retrieved 27 October 2010. 
  4. ^ "Governor of Guam: Commander Sewell Will Succeed to That Responsible Position". Pittsburgh Press. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. E. W. Scripps Company. 5 August 1902. p. 3. Retrieved 27 October 2010. 
  5. ^ a b Rogers, Robert (1995). Destiny's Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press. pp. 128–129. ISBN 0-8248-1678-1. Retrieved 27 October 2010. 
  6. ^ Cunningham, Lawrence; Janice Beaty (2001). A History of Guam. Hawaii: Bess Press. p. 196. ISBN 1-57306-047-X. Retrieved 27 October 2010. 
Military offices
Preceded by
Seaton Schroeder
Naval Governor of Guam
Succeeded by
George Leland Dyer