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date: 28 February 2020

Crosby, John Schuylerfree

(19 September 1839–08 August 1914)
  • Thomas A. McMullin

Crosby, John Schuyler (19 September 1839–08 August 1914), military officer and government official, was born in Albany County, New York, the son of Clarkson Floyd Crosby, who was independently wealthy, and Angelica Schuyler. Crosby attended the University of the City of New York in 1855–1856 but left for a grand tour of the Far East and South America. In 1863 he married Harriet Van Rensselaer; they had two children.

Early in the Civil War, in 1861, Crosby joined the army as a second lieutenant of the First U.S. Artillery. He served with distinction and valor in numerous battles, receiving promotions that culminated in 1865 with the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel. Of particular note during the war was his service as a courier behind enemy lines, for which he received the thanks of President Abraham Lincoln. Near the end of the war he joined the staff of Major General Philip H. Sheridan, acting as assistant inspector general of the Military Division. For the rest of his military career, Crosby was closely associated with Sheridan and participated in Sheridan’s American Indian campaigns in the West. After serving from 1869 to 1870 as a lieutenant colonel and aide-de-camp to Sheridan, Crosby completed his military career in December 1870. After leaving the army, Crosby worked as an engineer on coastal lighthouses and breakwaters.

In 1876 Crosby, a war hero, successful diplomat, and Republican activist, was appointed U.S. consul at Florence, Italy, where he served until 1882. As consul, he encouraged skilled, experienced American artists to go to Florence but warned neophytes of the hardships there. He was also active in drives to raise money from visiting and resident Americans to aid the poor in Florence, especially during the harsh winter of 1880. In 1881 the Italian government made him an officer of the Order of the Crown of Italy for his assistance to the Italian government in capturing a band of forgers with American connections.

In 1882 President Chester A. Arthur appointed Crosby, his friend and fellow New Yorker, territorial governor of Montana. Crosby arrived in Montana in January 1883, and his earlier service with Sheridan in the West made the elite New Yorker more acceptable to Montanans. The new governor was a dedicated Republican, who, like his two predecessors, sought to transfer Montana from the Democratic to the Republican column. To gain credibility, he made investments in the territory, including banks, a ranch, and one of the first steamboats on the upper Missouri River.

Crosby proved to be an assertive governor. Although his term lasted less than two years, he vetoed eleven bills, of which only three were overturned by the territorial legislature. His most important veto was a bill to establish a territorial agency of cattle commissioners and inspectors, earning him the animosity of cattle raisers. He took a popular, firm stand on crime by refusing to grant many pardons, and he stopped the importation of cattle with Texas fever.

Although a hunter himself, Crosby was greatly concerned about the preservation of wildlife in Yellowstone National Park and particularly decried the sportsmen who were randomly and ruthlessly decimating buffalo and other wildlife. He set up a meeting with the governors of Wyoming, Idaho, and Dakota to take action to protect wildlife in the national park, a gathering that he later claimed led to the passage of some protective laws. He lobbied the federal government to station a company of cavalry at Yellowstone to protect wildlife and other natural resources and resisted attempts of the Yellowstone National Park Improvement Company to develop the park commercially. Crosby further antagonized cattle raisers by attempting to stop them from gaining grazing venues in the park. He also called for the protection of timber resources in the territory and proposed the appointment of government officials to advance this goal.

Crosby supported politically popular but harsh proposals for dealing with Native Americans and Mormons. He proposed granting 160 acres to each Native American head of household with an additional 80 acres for each child. The rest of the vast Native-American lands in Montana would be sold off to settlers, with the proceeds going to a Native-American fund. Crosby justified this proposal by “that irresistible law of nature under which a lower must yield to a higher civilization” (Message of Governor Jno. Schuyler Crosby of the Territory of Montana [1883], p. 8). The governor was anxious to keep Mormons out of the territory, objecting to their practice of polygamy. He proposed that Mormons be disfranchised and barred from settling on public lands.

Crosby continued his friendship with President Arthur and accompanied him on his tour of Yellowstone in August 1883. In November 1884 Arthur appointed Crosby assistant postmaster general, a position he held for the last four months of the Arthur administration. From 1889 until 1893 he served as a school commissioner in New York City. He protested the limited amount of time given to the study of American history in the schools. Following a period of declining health that was worsened by a violent attack on Crosby by one of his servants, Crosby died in Newport, Rhode Island, while on a yachting trip.

Because Crosby was independently wealthy from his family fortune and that of his wife, he was thus able to accept numerous appointments in public service. He was one of the heroic Civil War officers that the Republicans successfully placed in public offices in the late nineteenth century to keep alive the image of the party as the defender of the Union.


The John Schuyler Crosby Personal Clippings Scrapbooks covering the period of his consulate in Florence and his territorial governorship in Mont. are in the Houghton Library, Harvard University. For his military career, see Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, from Its Organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903 (1903). For his governorship, see Clark C. Spence, Territorial Politics and Government in Montana, 1864–1889 (1975). To place Crosby in context with other territorial governors, see Thomas A. McMullin and David Walker, Biographical Directory of American Territorial Governors (1984). An obituary is in the New York Times, 9 Aug. 1914.