William Henry Stilwell

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William Henry Stilwell
Associate Justice, Arizona Territorial Supreme Court
In office
December 3, 1880 – August 7, 1882
Nominated by Rutherford B. Hayes
Preceded by Charles Silent
Succeeded by Wilson W. Hoover
Personal details
Born (1849-05-24)May 24, 1849
St. Lawrence County, New York
Died May 8, 1928(1928-05-08) (aged 78)
Phoenix, Arizona
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Harriet Newell Bean
Profession Attorney

William Henry Stilwell[Note 1](May 24, 1849 – May 8, 1928) was an American jurist who served as Associate Justice of the Arizona Territorial Supreme Court from 1880 till 1882. Following his removal from the bench, he remained in the territory where he was active in Republican politics and became an expert in mining law and water rights.

Early life[edit]

Stilwell was born on May 24, 1849 in St. Lawrence County, New York to Mary (Brazee) and James Stilwell.[1] He was educated in public schools at Ogdensburg, New York, Gouverneur Wesleyan Seminary, and Potsdam Normal School before his graduation from the Albany Law School in 1875.[2] Following graduation, Stilwell moved to New York City where he worked for the legal firm of Peckham & Tremain.[3]

Stilwell's involvement in national politics began in July 1878.[3] When President Rutherford B. Hayes replaced Chester A. Arthur with Edwin A. Merritt as Collector of the Port of New York, Stilwell became Merritt's assistant. In this role he acted as official secretary and also assisted the custom house's legal department.[3]

His promotion to the bench came when President Hayes gave Stilwell a recess appointment as Associate Justice to the Arizona Territorial Supreme Court. The new justice was commissioned on December 3, 1880 and arrived in the territory in February of the next year.[3] Initially assigned to Prescott, at the time Chief Justice C. G. W. French was requesting reassignment away from the southern portion of the territory. When Stilwell had no objections, the 11th Arizona Territorial Legislature granted the Chief Justice his request and assigned Stilwell to oversee Cochise, Graham, Pima, and Pinal counties.[3] During his time on the bench Stilwell authored no legal opinions as Chief Justice French reserved this task for himself.[3]

While on the bench, Stilwell became involved in several political disputes. As part of the efforts to force Governor John C. Frémont to either resign or return to the territory so he could perform his duties of office, Stilwell was proposed as a possible replacement.[4] Conversely there were calls to have the judge removed from the bench. Complaints against Stilwell emphasized his supposed lack of experience and maturity.[5] In a May 1881 letter from Tombstone attorney Thomas Fitch to Senator John Franklin Miller admitted that no specific actions justified Stilwell's removal but that the judge was still too inexperienced to remain.[3] What importance a number of pending cases with large potential financial impact had on the call for the judges removal is unknown.[6] The judges time on the bench came to an end on July 19, 1882 when President Chester A. Arthur nominated Wilson W. Hoover to replace Stilwell.[7] The action was part of a mass removal that saw almost every territorial official replaced in the wake of Governor Frémont's resignation.[8] No reason was given for Stilwell's removal and the judge was in California recovering from an illness at time he received the news.[9]

Following his removal, remained in Arizona and became a respected member of the legal community.[10] He moved to Tombstone and opened a private legal practice. There he became an expert in mining law.[11] Stilwell was a representative to the Republican territorial convention in 1888 and was elected to a two-year term as Cochise County attorney beginning in January 1889.[11]

Stilwell married Harriet Newell Bean, daughter of Southern Pacific Railroad official A. A. Bean, in 1885. The couple had three children, a son who died from an accident before reaching maturity and two daughters who reached adulthood. During their later years the couple separated with Mrs. Stilwell living in New York.[11]

After leaving his position as Cochise County attorney in 1891, Stilwell moved to Phoenix. About this time he was also considered for appointment as a United States Attorney.[11] In 1894 the former judge joined with Henry N. Alexander to form the legal firm of Alexander and Stilwell.[11] With the outbreak of the Spanish–American War, Stilwell was commissioned a major in the United States Army. Posted in Washington D.C. and San Francisco, California, the former judge served the paymaster department by developing a streamlined system for paying the troops.[12] Following the war, Stilwell returned to his private legal practice.[13]

During his legal career, Stilwell argued multiple cases in front of the Arizona Territorial Supreme Court and appeared before the United States Supreme Court. While operating a general practice, his primary areas of specialization were mining law and water rights.[13] His most influential case came when he joined with Joseph Henry Kibbey to represent the plaintiff in Slosser v. Salt River Canal Company (1901), 7 Arizona 376, a case that confirmed the "Kibbey Decision" that water rights belonged to the land they were associated with and not to the owner of the land.[14][13]

In 1916, Stilwell lost a primary contest for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator to Kibbey by a vote of 1857 to 4775. During the Republican state convention of 1928, Stilwell became ill. By the time he returned to his Phoenix home, the illness had become pneumonia. Stilwell died on May 8, 1928 and was buried Phoenix's Greenwood Memorial Park.[13]


  1. ^ It was common for contemporary sources to misspell Stilwell's name as "Stillwell".[1]


  1. ^ a b Goff 1975, p. 80.
  2. ^ Goff 1975, p. 80-1.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Goff 1975, p. 81.
  4. ^ Wagoner 1970, p. 188-9.
  5. ^ Goff 1968, p. 230.
  6. ^ Goff 1975, p. 81-2.
  7. ^ Goff 1975, p. 89.
  8. ^ Wagoner 1970, p. 190.
  9. ^ Goff 1968, p. 230-1.
  10. ^ Goff 1968, p. 231.
  11. ^ a b c d e Goff 1975, p. 82.
  12. ^ Goff 1975, p. 82-3.
  13. ^ a b c d Goff 1975, p. 83.
  14. ^ McClintock 1916, p. 440.
  • Goff, John S. (July 1968). "The Appointment, Tenure and Removal of Territorial Judges: Arizona-A Case Study". The American Journal of Legal History. Temple University. 12 (3): 211–231. JSTOR 844126. 
  • Goff, John S. (1975). Arizona Territorial Officials Volume I: The Supreme Court Justices 1863-1912. Cave Creek, Arizona: Black Mountain Press. OCLC 1622668. 
  • McClintock, James H. (1916). Arizona: Prehistoric—Aboriginal—Pioneer—Modern. Volume II. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company. OCLC 5398889. 
  • Wagoner, Jay J. (1970). Arizona Territory 1863-1912: A Political history. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-0176-9.