Biography of Hon. Cornelius H. Hanford

HON. CORNELIUS H. HANFORD. – The subject of this sketch, although a young man, is one of the pioneers of Washington. He was born in the town of Winchester, Van Buren county, Iowa, on the 21st of April 1849. His father was a well-to-do farmer at that place. The gold discoveries in California soon attracted attention to the Pacific coast; and in 1853 he resolved to dispose of his Iowa property and seek a new home on Puget Sound, where his two brothers Seymour and George then were. Accordingly in the spring of that year he started with his entire family in emigrant wagons drawn by oxen for the new El Dorado. Joining one of the many trains which were then crawling across the plains, he with the train moved slowly westward, meeting and overcoming the numerous dangers and hardships then commonly incident to a journey of that kind, and finally reached a point near Portland, Oregon, in time to go into winter quarters. Here the elder Hanford left his family and proceeded to Seattle, which consisted of a small sawmill and a few rough cabins surrounded by an impenetrable forest. He found his brothers there, and, although to a farmer the surroundings seemed in striking contrast with the beautiful plains he had left, he was quick to perceive the grand possibilities of the country, and decided to cast his fortune with it, and in the following spring moved his family to Seattle and settled upon a Donation claim immediately adjoining the town.

In the Indian war of 1855-56, which culminated in an attack upon Seattle by the Indians, and which was defeated only by the determined bravery of the citizens and by the sloop-of-war Decatur, then lying in the harbor he served as a volunteer under Captain C.C. Hewitt and Edward Lander, both of whom were afterwards chief justices of the territory. In the battle two white men were killed, one of whom was Milton Holgate, the brother-in-law of the elder Hanford. This war was a general uprising among the Indians in the vicinity of Seattle and to the eastward of the Cascade Mountains in pursuance of a long and well-considered plan. Young Cornelius, prior to the outbreak, mingled freely with the Indians, and won the esteem of old Curley, a chief who rendered valuable services to the White people as a scout and spy; and probably owing to that friendship is due the fact that he was one of four inhabitants of Seattle whom the hostile savaged decided to spare from the general massacre of the Whites on Puget Sound.

In 1861 Cornelius removed to San Francisco, where he remained until 1867, during which time he took a course in a commercial college there; with this exception he is entirely self-educated. His father’s property was almost entirely destroyed by the Indians during the war; and in consequence of the losses thus sustained, and the subsequent failure of some of his business ventures, he became impoverished; and Cornelius was early thrown upon his own resources and required to undergo all the hardships attendant upon pioneer life. He worked as a farm laborer; he swung his axe in the forests as a wood chopper; he split rails and built fences, and for a long time carried the mail on horseback from Seattle to Puyallup through what was then a wilderness with scarce a trail to travel upon. Upon becoming of age he took up a pre-emption claim in Walla Walla county, and set to work with characteristic energy to improve it; but his physique, never strong in early life, was unequal to the task; and his health broke down.

In 1872 he was compelled to abandon his claim and return to Seattle. He reached there an invalid, but, in nowise daunted by that fact, immediately decided to adopt the profession of the law, and entered upon a regular and systematic course of legal study in the office of George N. McConaha, son of the brilliant gentleman who was president of the council for the first session of the Legislative Assembly of Washington Territory. Honorable George N. McConaha then held the office of prosecuting attorney of the third judicial district, which which included all of Western Washington north of Thurston county. The duties were necessarily numerous, exacting and important; but so rapidly did Mr. Hanford progress in his studies, and so readily did he adapt himself to the requirements of his newly chosen calling, that he was soon appointed Mr. McConaha’s sole assistant, and remained such during the four years he held the office. In that position nearly all the office work devolved upon Mr. Hanford; and it was performed with the accuracy and promptness which have always marked his career.

On the 2d of February, 1875, he was admitted to the bar at Seattle, and at once entered upon the performance of the duties of an advocate. So marked was his ability in this direction that he was at the first term of his practice intrusted with the leadership in many important cases, in all of which he was successful. In the fall of 1876 he was elected a member of the council, and served in the territorial legislature in that capacity in 1877-78. Although the youngest member of that body, he was chosen president of the temporary organization, and was appointed and served as chairman of the two most important committees, judiciary and corporations. As a legislator he took a leading position. As a debater he ranked among the first; and his keen and accurate judgment was invaluable in shaping the important measures of that session.

In 1878 he formed a law partnership with the late Colonel Charles H. Larrabee at Seattle, which continued until the latter part of 1880. In 1881 he was appointed assistant United States attorney for Washington Territory, a position which he held under Honorable John B. Allen until 1885, and for about a year thereafter under Mr. Allen’s successor, Honorable William H. White, finally resigning to give more attention to his private practice. During this time he had complete charge and conducted the trial of all United States causes in Western Washington. These duties he performed with signal ability and remarkable success. Some of the most important and difficult cases which have ever arisen in the territory of Washington were disposed of by him, and in every instance with credit to himself and satisfaction to the government.

In 1883 he was elected city attorney of Seattle, and was re-elected in 1884 and 1885. While in that office he devoted much time to the remodeling of the city charter; and many of the most effective and valuable provisions were drawn by him, and their adoption secured by his influence. In 1886, and while he was city attorney, what is known as the Seattle anti-Chinese riots occurred. These originated in an attempt made by certain agitators to forcibly expel the Chinese from the city. This effort was resisted by the city and county authorities; and in the conflict which ensued several of the rioters and one of the city policemen were shot. Mr. Hanford, as the law officer of the city and the legal adviser of Mayor Yesler, took a bold and decided stand in favor of the enforcement of the law, and against any concession to the law breakers; and, when a cal was made upon the citizens to assist the officers in maintaining the peace and protecting the helpless, he shouldered his rifle and served as a citizen soldier until all danger was past.

In the fall of 1888 he was elected chairman of the Republican territorial central committee; and the Republican territorial central committee; and the remarkable political revolution which took place at the election, by which a territory previously Democratic by over two thousand, five hundred majority was made Republican by nearly eight thousand, was largely owing to his able generalship and untiring devotion.

On the 12th of March, 1889, upon the resignation of Chief Justice Burke, he was, in obedience to a most urgent and practically unanimous request of the bar of his district, appointed chief justice of the territory. His nomination was confirmed and his commission issued on the following day; and he assumed the duties of his office on the twenty-eighth of that month, thus becoming the last chief justice of the territory of Washington.

His career on the bench has been one of which anyone might be proud. While prompt and rapid in the dispatch of business, he is ever painstaking and courteous, and is carefully considerate of the judicial acts. He is a firm believer in the efficacy of swift and severe punishment for heinous crimes; and his practical application of this doctrine on the bench has done much to rid his district of the most dangerous part of the criminal element. The clearness and accuracy of statement which distinguished him as a lawyer render his opinions models of terse and vigorous English.

His decisions are never swayed nor colored by popular clamor or private prejudice, but have always been marked by that some fearlessness in the maintenance of the right which has ever been the most prominent trait of his character. He is a public-spirited citizen, a kind friend and an honorable foe. His life, both private and public, is without a spot. No man as young as he is, in the new State of Washington, has been called to fill so many high posts of trust and honor. He is in the prime of life, well equipped both physically and mentally for the battle to come, and is in the midst of an honorable and useful career; and his future cannot fail to be a brilliant one.



History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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