Born near Columbus, Ohio, in 1819, Axtell attended Oberlin and Western Reserve Colleges, married Adaline S. Williams, practiced law in Michigan and California, and served in Congress (1867-71) as both a Democrat and a Republican. Ulysses S. Grant named him governor of Utah Territory in 1875. More moderate than his immediate predecessors, he was harshly criticized by the growing anti-Mormon element in Utah. After only a few months in Utah, he was sent by Grant to New Mexico Territory as governor and was later chief justice there. He died in 1891 in Morristown, New Jersey.