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Frank Cheetham

Attorney, legislator, historian. Born: February 19, 1873. Married: Edith Evelyn (Eva) Higgins July 3, 1893. Died: January 30, 1946.

Francis Theodore (Frank) Cheetham seemed destined for a life of manual labor until, at the age of 31, he was elected clerk of the state district court in Wilson County, Kansas. Gaining admission to the legal profession through independent study, he went on to practice law first in Altoona and then in his adopted state of New Mexico. His practice allowed him to indulge interests in politics and the history of the American Southwest, leading to further elective office and contributions to historical research. His biography of Kit Carson, first published in 1926, was reprinted three times, most recently in 1985, and influenced his friend and fellow Kansan, artist and historian Blanche C. Grant, to edit and publish the manuscript of Kit Carson’s own account of his life.

Born on his father’s Wilson County farm in Cedar Township southwest of Altoona, Cheetham worked as farmhand, carpenter, plumber, and inspector of electric switches for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. His father, a Civil War veteran, had moved the family from Ohio to southeastern Kansas in 1870, the year after the former Osage lands were opened to non-Indian settlement.

It was most likely his father’s friend, Judge Leander Stillwell, a resident of neighboring Neosho County, who most influenced young Cheetham to run for elective office and then to study law. Stillwell had been  elected or appointed to the bench in what is now the 31st Judicial District of Kansas (comprising Allen, Neosho, Wilson, and Woodson counties) a half dozen times from 1883 to 1904, the year that Cheetham was elected to the first of his two terms as court clerk. Like Stillwell, Cheetham was a lifelong Republican. A member of the Kansas Historical Society, Stillwell was probably also an influence on Cheetham’s awakening interest in historical research.

After his reelection as court clerk in 1906, Cheetham undertook intensive after-hours study of the law and, soon after his term ended, passed the bar examination in Topeka with a score high enough to qualify for practicing before all courts, including the U. S. Supreme Court.

When he established his first practice in Altoona, the town was beginning an economic decline, with the closure of factories and depletion of natural resources, such as the oil field in nearby Neodesha. Dissatisfied with the types of legal cases he was offered, Cheetham moved his family to New Mexico in 1911, the year before it was admitted as the 47th state. There he hung his shingle in the northern town of Taos, where he became its second lawyer, the first having decided to specialize in mining law. He continued his practice in Taos until his death 35 years later.

Having joined the Kansas Historical Society before he left the state, Cheetham soon became an active member of the Historical Society of New Mexico, frequently traveling the 70 miles to Santa Fe to participate in its meetings in the historic Palace of the Governors. By presenting papers on his research on Kit Carson and other topics before this audience of experienced historians, he developed the confidence to begin publishing his results. The support of Santa Fe lawyer and historian Ralph E. Twitchell, who had just been elected president of the society, was especially encouraging to him, and, after Twitchell’s death in 1925, Cheetham was elected the society’s first vice president, a post in which he served through 1935. In 1926 the society began publication of the New Mexico Historical Review, and it was in this journal that Cheetham’s biography of Kit Carson originally appeared, along with papers he wrote on other topics as recently as 1940. He also served as the journal’s associate editor from 1926 until 1945.

Cheetham’s writing echoed themes expressed by Twitchell in his then-influential works on the history of New Mexico and its 1846 conquest: an intense patriotism and a strong conviction that the seizure of Mexican territory was justified and, ultimately, for the good of its inhabitants. However, he did not share Twitchell’s advocacy of an “English only” policy, perhaps because many of his law cases in Taos involved representing clients whose first, or only, language was Spanish. He had become sufficiently proficient himself to translate one of the Spanish documents in the colonial archives in Santa Fe for presentation at  a meeting of the Historical Society.

One of Cheetham’s historical interests was the role of Freemasonry in the settlement of the Southwest. Thus his earliest papers, including one on Charles Bent, the assassinated first American governor of New Mexico, were published in the Masonic educational journal, The Builder. Following attendance at a meeting in 1925 in Council Grove, Kansas, to celebrate the centennial of the Santa Fe Trail, he obtained a copy of an unpublished 1827 map of the Trail from the National Archives and included it in a 1929 article on the Trail’s history for the New Mexico Highway Journal (now New Mexico magazine).

In 1924 Cheetham reentered the political arena when he received the Republican nomination for district attorney of the Eighth Judicial District, comprising Taos County and three others in the northeastern corner of New Mexico. The party’s judicial slate was defeated, but achieved a majority in Taos County, a result that persuaded Cheetham to run successfully for representative in the state legislature two years later. In 1944 he gained a second term, during which he died three weeks short of his 73rd birthday.

Entry: Frank Cheetham

Author: Alan H. Cheetham

Author information: The oldest of Frank and Eva Cheetham's six grandchildren, Alan Cheetham lived in their home from 1943 to 1945. He now resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Date Created: December 2012

Date Modified: February 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.