Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Westbrook Schoonmaker Decker (1839-1903)

From the Portrait and Biographical Record of Denver and Vacinity, 1905.

    A descendant of an old established New York family, Westbrook Schoonmaker Decker later resided in both Illinois and Colorado, attaining distinction as an attorney and judge in both of these states. Appointed by President Ulysses Grant as U.S. District Attorney for the Colorado District, Decker was the first man to hold the office under the new state government, as Colorado had been admitted as the 38th state a year prior to his appointment.
  The son of Albert and Gertrude Schoonmaker Decker (both of whom are recorded as being of Holland Dutch extraction), Westbrook S. Decker was born in the village of Tyre, New York on April 22, 1839. His education took place in public schools local to that area and as an adolescent entered upon study at the Brockport Collegiate Institute. Following the completion of his schooling, Decker removed to Charleston, Illinois where he took on a teaching position. He continued along this route for several years until the outbreak of the  Civil War, and in 1861 returned home to New York state to sign on for service.
   Enlisting in August of 1862 at Waterloo, New York, Decker became a private in Co. I of the 126th New York Infantry, subsequently seeing action at the battles of Maryland Heights, Harper's Ferry. He was taken prisoner during the latter battle in September 1862, and after being paroled three months later was deployed to help defend Washington from attack. Decker later suffered wounds at the Battle of Gettysburg which necessitated a four-month stay at a military hospital in Newark, New Jersey. After his recuperation, he was promoted to Second Lieutenant in Co. B. of the 19th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops and in July 1865 was promoted to First Lieutenant.
   Resigning from service at Brownsville, Texas in October 1865 (not 1867 as mentioned in the above link), Decker journeyed to Michigan to begin the study of law at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, graduating in the class of 1867. He married in August of that year to Katherine Worden (1841-1897), an acquaintance of many years who had resided near Decker's hometown. The couple would later have three children, Cora Emily (born 1868), Howard (died aged seven) and Mason Loomis Decker (1873-1911).
   Shortly after his marriage Westbrook Decker began the practice of law in Kankakee, Illinois, operating a law office here for several years. During his residency in this city Decker won election as city attorney for Kankakee, and a year after this was elected as Kankakee County judge. He served in this capacity from 1869-1873 and towards the end of his term incurred a bout of ill health. Out of concerns for his health, Decker and his family left Kankakee and migrated west, eventually settling in Denver where he would reside for the remainder of his life.
   Within months of relocating to Denver Westbrook Decker had reestablished his law practice, operating a firm with George Gifford Symes (1840-1893), a former Territorial Judge in Montana who would later go on to serve two terms in Congress from Colorado during the mid-1880s. Decker was still practicing law in Denver in February 1877 when he received notice of his appointment by President Grant for the post of U.S. District Attorney for Colorado. Decker was confirmed and took office as the first District Attorney for the state of Colorado since it had gained statehood a year previously. He served in this post until April of 1880 when he resigned to recommence with practicing law in Denver. In 1882 he formed a partnership with Thomas D. W. Yonley, a former Arkansas State Attorney General, and continued this practice for several years.

                     From the Report and Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Colorado Bar, 1901.
    In 1887 Westbrook Decker reentered public life when he was elected to fill an unexpired term for the U.S. District Court of Colorado's 2nd Judicial District. He served out this one year term and in 1888 was elected to a term of his own on the bench. Elected to serve a term of six years, Decker resigned in 1891 to again take up the practice of law, establishing a joint law practice with Thomas Jefferson O' Donnell, later to gain prominence with the Democratic Party in Colorado. In the remaining years of his life, Decker was active in both the American and Colorado State Bar Associations and was also prominent in Civil War veteran's affairs, serving as a past Commander of the Commandery of Colorado.
   On March 18, 1897 Katherine Worden Decker, Westbrook's wife of thirty years, died. Two years following her passing Westbrook Decker remarried to Ms. Sarah Sophia Platt, who gained notoriety in her own right for being the first female to be appointed to a seat on the Colorado Civil Service Commission, as well as being active in the affairs of state women's clubs. 
   Westbrook S. Decker retired from public life in 1901 out of concerns for his health and died of pneumonia on January 16, 1903 at age 63. Sources of the time also note that "his wounds and ailments sustained and contracted during the Civil War" played a role in his demise. Decker was later interred at the Fairmount Cemetery in Denver alongside his wife Katherine. Decker's second wife Sarah survived him by nearly a decade, dying in 1912 and was later buried in the same cemetery as her husband.

From the Colorado Springs Weekly Gazette, January 22, 1903.

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