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Abraham Rencher was born on August 12, 1798 near Raleigh in Wake County, North Carolina, the son of John Grant, the county Sheriff, and Ann (Nelson) Rencher. An Episcopalian whose father migrated from Ireland. Rencher was married to Louisa Mary Jones of Chatham County, North Carolina in 1836, by whom he was the father of several daughters.
After attending Pittsboro (North Carolina) Academy, Rencher was graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1822. He then studied law, passed the bar in 1825, and began his practice at Pittsboro in partnership with Francis L. Hawks. The young lawyer was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1828, serving from March 1829 to March 1839, having declined renomination in 1838. Rencher again served in Congress from March 1841 to 1843, but did not seek another term. He was appointed United States Chargé d’Affaires to Portugal in September 1843, and served in that capacity until November 1847. In 1852 he was a Democratic Presidential Elector.
Although Rencher declined President James Buchanan’s suggestion that he become Secretary of the Navy, he lobbied for the position of Governor of New Mexico Territory; on August 17, 1857, Buchanan appointed him to that post. Arriving in Santa Fe on November 11, Rencher filled a void, since his predecessor, David Meriwether, had left the territory in May, and Secretary William W. H. Davis, who had served for some months as Acting Governor, had departed Santa Fe and returned to the States in October.
The major problem during Rencher’s administration was conflict with the Indians, primarily the Navajo. After the murder of an Army officer’s slave by a Navajo in July 1858, war broke out in September of that year. Hostilities continued spasmodically for the rest of Rencher’s term. Like other chief executives of the period, Rencher had trouble with the military, and was highly critical of their campaign against the Indians. He also aroused the antagonism of the Legislature when in 1860, following the orders of Secretary of State Lewis Cass, he refused to authorize funds for volunteer forces that had been raised to fight the Navajo.
In spite of Indian troubles, Rencher did make some progress in other areas. He succeeded in having the legislature pass an education law that required all children to attend school, and paid teachers fifty cents per month for each child. He also improved the financial status of the territory; the total debt declined from $9,872 in 1857 to $3,673 in 1860. Still, like other early New Mexico governors, he could not secure a much-needed land tax, a revenue source that was contrary to New Mexico tradition.
During the first two years of Rencher’s term, the question of slavery and later that of secession dominated politics. A southerner, he supported and signed a law establishing a slave code for the territory in February 1859, which protected slave property and defined the status of slaves. When secession came, however, Rencher remained loyal to the Union. Fearing an invasion from Texas, he raised two regiments of infantry, attempted to muster a regiment of cavalry, and called on each county to provide a home guard.
Although Rencher indicated that he would be available for a second term, President Abraham Lincoln did not choose to reappoint the Democrat, and he left office late in August of 1861. He returned to Pittsboro, North Carolina, where he was involved in farming and business. Rencher died in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on July 6, 1883, and was buried in St. Bartholomew’s Protestant Episcopal Churchyard in Pittsboro.
John Hill Wheeler, Historical Sketches of North Carolina, vol. 2 (Philadelphia, 1851).
Calvin Horn, New Mexico’s Troubled Years: The Story of the Early Territorial Governors (Albuquerque, 1963).
Chatham News (Suer City, North Carolina), May 13, 1965.
Alvin R. Sunseri, Seeds of Discord: New Mexico in the Aftermath of the American Conquest, 1846‑1861 (Chicago, 1979).
Rencher’s papers are in the University of North Carolina Library in Chapel Hill.