Colorado in the 1860s – the Hungate Murders

Originally Published  March 21,2010

1863 brings the telegraph to Denver, connecting the west with the east for faster than ever communications. 10 words sent to New York costs the astounding amount of $9.10. In mining towns and camps, and in parts of Denver, prices for common goods are being driven sky high by ever growing demand, cost of transport to the mining towns, and pure greed. A tin of beans that would cost 6 cents in Iowa can cost well over a dollar in Central City and even more on the other side of the continental divide.
But life is not all pleasant in Colorado territory. Plains Indians attacks on settlers and miners increase as more and more people arrive in Colorado and push the plains Indians into the foothills, even into Wyoming and New Mexico. The conflicts come to a head in June of 1864.

On June 11, 1864, on the Issac Vormer Ranch near Box elder Creek – what is now known as the town of Elizabeth – the bodies of the Hungate family were found by a group of soldiers, ranchers and freighters who were in the area looking for thieves in recent cattle raids. Nathan Hungate had been a ranch hand on Vormer’s ranch, and he, his wife Ellen, and daughters Laura and Florence, ages 2 years and 5 months respectively, had been brutally murdered, the bodies mutilated and scalped, Ellen raped as well. Their bodies were transported to Denver, where they were put on public display where the public shock and dismay urged Governor Evans to argue that full scale action needed to be taken against all the Indians of Colorado.
One version of the story goes that the murders of Hungate and his family were part of an ongoing feud between Vormer and a group of Arapahoe over cattle that has been stolen from Vormer’s ranch the previous summer, and that four warriors were responsible for attacking the ranch, stealing cattle, burning the Vormer and Hungate cabins, and killing Ellen and the children while Hungate and another ranch hand named Miller were gone. Hungate and Miller, seeing smoke from the fires, reacted differently- Miller rode off to seek more help while Hungate returned to save his family, only to be murdered himself.

However, recent archeological research by Dr. Jeff Broome of Arapahoe Community College suggests that the story was likely different; that Hungate met with a much larger band of warriors looking to raid, and in attempting to defend his family and bosses’ property, may have killed one or more of the band, inciting retaliation against him and his family. You can read the full text of Dr. Broome’s study here – http://www.kclonewolf.com/History/SandCreek/Guest/broome-hungate-01.html
Regardless of the true nature of the Hungate family murders, all that mattered to Denverites and eventually the Army was that they had been killed by Indians; the capper on several years of increasing violence by Indians against white settlers. Fear and anger led to the events that culminated in one of Colorado’s biggest tragedies – the Sand Creek Massacre.

 

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