The residents of Colorado having overwhelmingly chosen statehood in an election on July 1, 1876, and President Grant having made it official by proclamation on August 1 of that year, it was time for the “Centennial State” to get about the business of setting up the government outlined in its constitution. The voter-approved Constitution provided that the executive department of Colorado government would include a governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general. Each would be elected for a term of two years and “shall perform such duties as are prescribed by the constitution or by law.” The constitutionally prescribed qualifications of the Attorney General were very few. The Attorney General must be at least 25 years of age, be licensed by the State Supreme Court and be “in good standing,” be a citizen of the United States, and a resident of Colorado for at least two years. The Colorado Constitution did not address the responsibilities of the Attorney General. It was up to the first Colorado legislature to do so.
The first codification of the laws of Colorado, published in 1877, includes the organic authority of the Attorney General. It provides that the Attorney General attend at the seat of government during the sessions of the General Assembly and the Supreme Court and “appear for the state and prosecute and defend all actions and proceedings, civil and criminal, in which the state or its departments shall be a party or interested, when required to do so by the governor or general assembly, and shall prosecute and defend for the state all causes in the Supreme Court in which the state is a party or interested.”
The Attorney General was also directed to give opinions in writing when requested by the governor, lieutenant governor, auditor, secretary of state, treasurer or superintendent of public education and to prepare drafts of contracts, forms and other writings required for use by the state.
In the first statewide general election in the fall of 1876, a prominent Republican lawyer from Denver, 36-year-old Archibald Sampson, was elected Colorado’s first Attorney General.
Sampson was born June 21, 1839 near Cadiz, Ohio. His family was fairly well off and he attended Mount Union College in Ohio and the Cleveland College of Law. When the Civil War broke out, he answered the call and enlisted in the Union Army. He rose from the rank of private to captain. In 1864, at a battle at Hatcher’s Run, Virginia, he became disabled for life and was discharged from the Army. He was proud of his service and was a lifetime member of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Masonic Order, and the Knights Templar.
After the war, Sampson was admitted to the bar in Missouri and practiced in Sedalia. He married Kate Turner, the daughter of a judge. He then came west to Colorado, settling first in Cañon City and then in Denver where he became a successful lawyer and politically very well connected. In 1873 he was nominated to be the United States Consul in Palestine, but declined the honor. Sampson had a circle of very prominent friends that included Eugene Field, O. H. Rothacher, and other prominent westerners. Field was the most prominent western author of his day, although he is better known today for his children’s literature. Mrs. Sampson was an accomplished singer and socialite who was much sought after for public and private performances. They had two children, a son and a daughter.
As the first Attorney General of Colorado, Sampson had the difficult task of advising the legislature in the creation of the organic statutes pertaining to the Attorney General’s Office and determining the means and methods by which his statutory responsibility would be performed. In his Biennial Report to the Governor for the years 1877 and 1878 he described the problems he had:
“Entering upon the discharge of the duties of this office at the time I did, with neither predecessor or precedent, and when a construction of many of the most important laws of the state was necessary, the duties of the office have not only been very important but very laborious.
I have found the laws inadequate for the purposes intended, in many instances, or sections of one in conflict with those of another…”
In the report, Sampson wrote that he gave 120 written opinions during his two-year term in office “and many more verbal opinions.” He cited among his major accomplishments the resolution of real estate and title issues pertaining to the University of Colorado, the Colorado School of Mines, the Agricultural College of Colorado (eventually Colorado State University) and the Mute and Blind Institute (eventually the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind). He also spent considerable energy resolving financial issues at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Colorado, primarily by renegotiating contracts for inmate labor.
Some of his most difficult work involved the State Board of Land Commissioners, the State Board of Equalization, and the State Board of Railroad Assessors. He was a member of all these boards and worked to establish a fair and consistent system of state property taxation.
Sampson represented the state in fourteen criminal appeals before the State Supreme Court. They included cases of murder, larceny, and “cattle stealing.” The Colorado Supreme Court would subsequently ratify the fact that the State of Colorado could prosecute crimes committed under territorial law.
Sampson was an accomplished orator, frequently called upon to speak at various meetings and conventions. He also used such skills to advance his political connections. “His fame was such that he was selected as one of the speakers in the McKinley presidential campaign and toured the larger cities of the United States.”
After his term as Colorado Attorney General was completed, Sampson moved to Arizona. He was appointed Ambassador to Ecuador, something very unusual for a resident of the western territories. In 1889 he became American Consul at El Paso del Norte, Mexico and held the position until 1893 when he returned to Arizona. Sampson died of pneumonia on December 24, 1921 at the age of 82. In his obituary he was described as “a publicist, orator and leading attorney of the West.”