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American National Biography Online
Hitchcock, Ethan Allen (19 Sept. 1835-9 Apr. 1909), secretary
of the interior, was born in Mobile, Alabama, the son of Henry
Hitchcock, a Vermonter by birth who became chief justice of the
Alabama Supreme Court, and Anne Erwin. He was the great-grandson
of Ethan Allen, nephew of General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, and
brother of Henry Hitchcock. After the death in 1839 of his father,
who suffered economic reverses in the panic of 1837, the family
relocated to Knoxville, Tennessee, where Hitchcock attended school.
He was sent east to complete his education at a private military
academy in New Haven, Connecticut, after which he followed his
brother Henry to St. Louis, Missouri, and entered the mercantile
business. His firm sent him to the Far East as its representative
in 1860. By 1866 he was a partner in the firm of Olyphant and
Company in Hong Kong; six years later he returned to the United
States a wealthy man. He married Margaret Collier of St. Louis,
the sister of his brother's wife, in 1869. They had three children.
After traveling abroad for two years he settled in St. Louis
in 1874, and over the next two decades, as director of several
corporations, including mining, railroad, and manufacturing companies,
greatly expanded his personal fortune. A staunch Republican he
contributed heavily to campaign funds, acquiring a wide acquaintance
among the party's politicians. He became a good friend of William
McKinley, whom he assisted by drafting the glass schedule, which
fixed the duties to be imposed on foreign glass, for the tariff
of 1890 (Hitchcock had established the first plate-glass factory
near St. Louis). After McKinley became president he appointed
Hitchcock minister to St. Petersburg (raised to embassy status
during his tenure) in the hopes that he would foster trade between
Russia and the United States. In December 1898 he was called
home to become a member of McKinley's cabinet as secretary of the interior.
Hitchcock brought strength and integrity to a department long
in bad repute. His commissioner of Indian affairs, Francis Leupp,
safeguarded valuable coal, oil, and mineral lands for the Five
Civilized Tribes, and Hitchcock manfully stood up to the enormous
pressures of powerful interests that had hoped to acquire these
resources. Hitchcock's term coincided with the emergence of the
conservation movement. He supported transfer of the forest reserves
from the control of the General Land Office in the Department
of the Interior to Gifford Pinchot's Division of Forestry (subsequently
the Forest Service) in the Department of Agriculture.
Hitchcock also backed the sweeping withdrawals carried out by
President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 that vastly expanded the
forest reserves and set aside valuable mineral lands. During
his tenure the Geological Survey in the Department of the Interior
carried out a vast inventory of resources in the public domain
and improved administrative procedures for disposing of resources,
especially through leasing. Timber cutting was limited and the
conduct of Indian Affairs, a bureau often viewed in about equal
parts as inefficient and corrupt, was much improved.
Hitchcock secured his name as an outstanding cabinet officer
by his handling of the extensive land fraud prosecutions, which,
beginning in 1903, cast a shadow over the department. In the
number of persons involved, the land fraud was larger than all
the major corruption scandals of the nineteenth century combined,
dwarfing even the Teapot Dome scandals of the Harding administration.
The cumulative sweep of the land frauds was breathtaking. Before
Hitchcock left office in 1907, 1,021 people had been indicted
in twenty-two states and the District of Columbia, 126 had been
convicted, and more were convicted after his departure. The affair
was put in motion when Hitchcock was convinced by an in-house
investigation that the government had been defrauded of valuable
lands and natural resources. He fired Binger Hermann, the commissioner
of the General Land Office, and instituted relentless investigations
that led directly to the prosecutions. Powerful people were involved.
Hermann--one of those indicted, though ultimately not convicted--had
served in both branches of the Oregon legislature and had been
a deputy collector of internal revenue, judge advocate of the
Oregon militia, and a six-term member of Congress (and was again
elected to Congress after Hitchcock forced him to resign as commissioner).
A senator, a house member, a Montana state senator, state officials,
and numerous westerners prominent in their communities were among
those indicted. With so much influence at bay, incredible pressure
was brought to bear on Hitchcock, but his cold, formal demeanor
and deliberate temperament--always a trial to his impetuous contemporary
Pinchot--stood him in good stead. He was unbending, equally impervious
to cajolery, geniality, or threats, answering all criticism with
stony silence. President Roosevelt also resisted pressures, numerous
and intense, to remove the secretary of the interior; but the
president was said to be privately relieved when Hitchcock, worn
down by four years of unremitting strain, finally submitted his
resignation, having served longer than any of his predecessors.
Hitchcock served as campaign manager for William Howard Taft
in the presidential election of 1908 and was traveling in the
West when illness struck. He died in the Washington, D.C., home
of his son-in-law, Lieutenant Commander (later Admiral) William S. Sims.
For additional information on Ethan Allen Hitchcock's life and
work, see Fifty Years in Camp and Field (1909) by his uncle General
Ethan Allen Hitchcock, and the Annual Reports of the Secretary
of the Interior, especially the years 1903 to 1907. See also
Henry S. Brown, "Punishing the Land-looters," Outlook 85 (1907):
426-39; Lincoln Steffens, "Discovery of the Land Fraud System,"
American Magazine 64 (1907): 489-98; and Gifford Pinchot, Breaking
New Ground (1947). An obituary is in the New York Times, 10 Apr. 1909.
James L. Penick
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James L. Penick. "Hitchcock, Ethan Allen";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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