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Aide to Governor Leary

William Edwin Safford, born in 1859 and raised in Ohio, served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War. Guam became a possession of the United States after the signing of the peace treaty on December 10, 1898. On August 13, 1899, Safford arrived on Guam as an aide to Captain Richard P. Leary, Guam’s first appointed American naval governor. Leary had arrived at Guam six days earlier.

Leary remained onboard the USS Yosemite for three months while the governor’s residence in Hagåtña was being renovated. Leary ordered the thirty-nine year old Safford to use his own judgment in handling the affairs of the island and to call upon him only in emergencies.

Took up residence above the treasury

Safford first took up residence with his Japanese servant Miyomoto in the former quarters of José Rodríguez Sixto above the public treasury in Hagåtña. Sixto had recently been exiled to Manila after a prolonged struggle to remain as self proclaimed governor of Guam after Henry Glass, who had captured Guam for the United States on his way to support American troops in the Philippines, failed to formally designate an acting governor until the first official naval governor could arrive on Guam. As the sole remaining Spanish official, Sixto drained the island’s treasury partially by advancing himself eighteen months worth of salary while locked in a power struggle with Chamorro leaders, including the influential Father José Palomo.

Safford’s residence was furnished with rattan furniture, a table of indigenous ifil wood, and a large earthenware jar for taking baths. Safford also brought along 200 books formerly owned by Robert Louis Stevenson that he had purchased in Apia, Samoa. Within a month he left these quarters to make room for a marine barracks and purchased a house on the Plaza de España opposite the governor’s palace.

Susana, a woman known as an excellent cook on island, prepared Safford’s meals. In October 1899, Safford also obtained two bed frames and a large ammunition chest to keep his plants in from an auction held by a Spanish commission authorized by the peace treaty to collect remaining Spanish property.

Conflict with governor

Safford would eventually sink into conflict with Governor Leary when Leary attempted to take over Safford’s house on the grounds of eminent domain. When Safford refused to register the transfer of the house, Leary removed him from his positions as land registrar and judge of the court of the first instance. When another officer, Henry L. Collins, was assigned to take Safford’s place, he also refused to register the transfer. Safford would eventually accept payment for the house under protest, but was allowed to remain in the house until he left Guam, and apparently was reinstated into his previous positions. The U.S. Attorney General in an opinion transmitted to the Secretary of the Navy on September 22, 1903, however, supported the actions of Governor Leary.

Although Safford served only one year on Guam, his willingness to open his doors to people with their problems during the day or in the evenings at his home endeared him to the Chamorros. Fluent in Spanish and German, Safford also began what was apparently the first English class for Chamorros on Guam in his home, three evenings a week for people of all ages, and became friends with Father Jose Palomo and Don Juan de Torres, the paymaster. The two often advised Safford on island issues.

As land registrar, Safford found that although large tracts of land had been granted for the sake of grazing, the landowners’ herds were small. He consequently proposed that a tax be levied on all land regardless of whether it was used or not. This land tax system, implemented through General Order No. 10 on January 5, 1900, had the effect of obliging landowners to sell unused land to individuals willing to cultivate it or, failing this, turning such land over to the government.

Safford was also the auditor of the treasury (he determined that the treasury possessed $10,426.89 “Mexican” for the six months ending June 30, 1900) and, as of January 8, 1900, the judge of the island’s criminal court. Safford also endeavored to preserve damaged Spanish government documents by arranging for their transference to the Library of Congress at the behest of the Librarian of Congress who was attempting to gather documents from U.S. territories.

As Guam’s first lieutenant governor, Safford was obliged to support Governor Leary’s various edicts and orders, several of which attempted to end Chamorro traditions including public celebrations of the feast days of village patron saints and the ringing of church bells at 4 a.m. While Leary claimed that such early ringing disturbed patients in a nearby hospital, Safford would subsequently observe Chamorros huddling before the church doors as early as 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. so as not to miss the 4 a.m. mass.

Authored several works about Guam

After retiring in 1902, Safford became an economic botanist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and published several works about Guam. These included The Chamorro Language of Guam: A Grammar of the Idiom Spoken by the Inhabitants of the Marianne, or Ladrones, Islands (1909, originally published in the American Anthropologist (1903-1905)) and The Useful Plants of the Island of Guam; With an Introductory Account of the Physical Features and Natural History of the Island, of the Character and History of its People and of their Agriculture (1905).

This latter book not only dealt with plants but the island’s history as well, providing some of the earliest data for the new U.S. government on Guam’s flora and fauna, the Chamorro language, culture, and people. On March 14, 1924, Safford suffered a paralytic stroke from which he partly recovered, and continued his work until he died on January 10, 1926.

By Nicholas J. Goetzfridt, PhD

For further reading

Beers, Henry P. American Naval Occupation and Government of Guam, 1898-1902. Washington, D.C.: Office of Records Administration, Administrative Office, U.S. Navy Department, 1944.

Safford, William E. The Chamorro Language of Guam: A Grammar of the Idiom Spoken by the Inhabitants of the Marianne, or Ladrones, Islands. Washington, D.C.: W. H. Lowdermilk & Co., 1909. Reprinted from the American Anthropologist, 1903-1905.

Safford, William E. “Guam and Its People.” American Anthropologist, no. 4 (1902): 707- 92.

Safford, William E. The Useful Plants of the Island of Guam. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, United Sates National Museum, 1905.

Stone, B. C. “The Flora of Guam: A Manual for the Identification of the Vascular Plants of the Island.” Micronesica no. 6 (1970).