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Stephen Wallace Dorsey was a soldier, a U.S. senator from Arkansas, and an entrepreneur involved with railroads, ranching, mail delivery contracting, and mining. Ambitious, smart, and handsome, Dorsey was a prominent and successful man throughout his lifetime. His achievements, however, were frequently surrounded by controversy and scandal.
The son of Irish immigrants, Stephen Dorsey was born on a farm in Benson, Vermont, on February 28, 1842. He was the seventh of ten children born to John and Mary Dorsey. When he was a teenager, Dorsey and his family moved to Oberlin, Ohio. At the start of the Civil War in 1861, Dorsey enlisted as a private in the First Ohio Light Artillery. He fought under generals James A. Garfield and Ulysses S. Grant; by the end of his term in the army, he had distinguished himself as a decorated colonel.
After the war, Dorsey returned to Ohio, where he found a position at the Sandusky Tool Company and later became president of the company. He was also involved in local Republican politics and was a delegate to the Republican National Convention that nominated Ulysses S. Grant for U.S. president.
Elected as president of the Arkansas Central Railway Company in 1871, Dorsey left Ohio for Helena (Phillips County). He was accompanied by his wife, Helen Wack Dorsey, whom he had married in 1865, and by their children, Lottie and Clayton. As president of the Arkansas Central, Dorsey was expected to capitalize on legislation that allowed railroad companies to sell government-backed bonds to finance the expansion of railroads. He soon had sold bonds worth more than $2 million on behalf of the Arkansas Central and two other railroads in which he held interests.
Dorsey was quickly accepted into the Arkansas political realm, at the time characterized by its “carpetbag” politics. The Arkansas legislature elected Dorsey as its junior senator in the 1872 elections, and Dorsey resigned from the Arkansas Central. The Arkansas General Assembly, during these Reconstruction years, established several new counties, naming one of them for Dorsey in 1873. (In 1885, the name was changed to Cleveland County to honor President Grover Cleveland.) During the last two years of his term, Dorsey chaired the Senate’s Committee on the District of Columbia. During the Brooks-Baxter War, Dorsey took the side of Joseph Brooks; Elisha Baxter’s success in retaining the office of governor marked an end to Dorsey’s political future in Arkansas, and he did not seek reelection to the Senate in 1878.
However, Dorsey remained active for a time in national politics. In 1876, he was made a member of the Republican National Committee. In 1880, when the Republicans nominated James G. Garfield for president and Chester A. Arthur for vice president, Dorsey became the secretary of the Republican National Committee. His reputation was tarnished, though, by a scandal involving the United States Postal Service, in which Dorsey and his partners were accused of defrauding the government out of $412,000. Though he was eventually found not guilty, the cost of his defense and the damage to his reputation all but destroyed Dorsey’s political and financial ambitions.
After the end of his term in the Senate, Dorsey moved to New Mexico, where he raised cattle. He also owned a home in Denver, Colorado, and invested money in mining. Although he named one New Mexico town for himself and another for his son, Clayton, neither community prospered. During his later years, Dorsey was plagued by more lawsuits, some of which were related to the railroad shares he had sold in Arkansas in the 1870s. Eventually, Dorsey moved to Los Angeles, California, where he died on March 20, 1916. He is buried in Fairmont Cemetery in Denver.
For additional information:Caperton, Tomas J. Rogue! Being an Account of the Life and High Times of Stephen W. Dorsey, United States Senator and New Mexico Cattle Baron. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1978.
Stephen W. Dorsey Collection. Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Stephen W. Dorsey Research Collection. Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Turner, Don. The Life and Castle of Stephen W. Dorsey. Amarillo, TX: Humbug Gulch Press, 1967.
Susanne RistowFray Angélico Chávez History Library
Staff of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Last Updated 3/16/2010
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