Colorado through the 1850s

Originally Published march 6, 2010

Colorado has a long and celebrated history; a place that was vast and open until the gold and silver strikes, considered almost a utopia by some minorities, eventually becoming a vacation destination and inspiring several waves of emigrants from the east to come to the mountains, to live, work, and be happy. In the early 1800s, it was home to the Utes, Pueblo, Cheyenne, Apache, Arapahoe, Shoshone Indians, and a few fur trappers. Bent’s Fort near what is now LaJunta becomes one of the most important trading posts in the west, serving first the fur traders, then the emigrants moving west to the mining camps and fields of Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and California.

Major Stephen J. Long, sent west to explore the Western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase, traverses the South Platte River; Long’s Peak is named for him. Dr. Edwin James, historian in Long’s exploration party, is the first man to reach the summit of Pike’s Peak. Pike’s Peak was already claimed, so James Peak, just west of Denver, is named for him. (In 1806 Zebulon Pike had attempted to climb to the summit but had failed. However, since he discovered it, it was named for him. Pike is one of the first to attempt to settle in Colorado, but the territory was still the property of Spain, and he was arrested and jailed temporarily in Santa Fe, later released.)

The first non Indian settlement in Colorado is established at Conejos, near the current Colorado/ New Mexico border in 1851, just one year after the federal government purchases rights to the Colorado territory from Texas and established the boundaries of the state that exist today. However, this settlement is not taken well by the tribes, who insist that non Indians are encroaching on their land. And they are. Although there is no real basis for it, Fort Massachusetts is built in the San Luis Valley to protect the settlers from potential Indian attack.
In 1853, Captain John W. Gunnison, leading an exploration party, finds a new route through the southern and western mountains of Colorado, a route later taken by Fremont on an expedition to find a good railroad route through the mountains. It is Fremont’s last expedition. The town of Gunnison is after named after Captain Gunnison.

And apparently the fear of Indian attack is warranted; on Christmas day 1854, near Fort Pueblo, Ute Indians, dissatisfied with the terms of the treaties with the U.S. government, attack and kill fifteen settlers.
But not all of Colorado is embroiled in violence. Gold is found, first by Green Russell at the confluence of the South Platte and Cherry Creek Rivers in 1858, and in 1859, George Jackson discovers gold in the Chicago Creek, where Idaho Springs stands today. John Gregory finds gold in North Clear Creek. These finds open the doors not only for a rush of new settlers, mostly men, but the establishment of several cities in the Denver area and southern Colorado, as well as the towns of Blackhawk and Central City. (Today a different kind of gold rush still occurs in that area; the casinos of Blackhawk and Central City do booming business.)

1859 is a big year for Denver; the first school in Auraria is opened by O.J. Goldrick, the very first mail coach comes to Cherry Creek (later renamed Denver). Getting mail is a huge step toward proving that this is a settlement that is here to stay. The very first newspaper is published April 6th by William N. Byers – the Rocky Mountain News, which continues in publication until February 27th, 2009. The gold rush helps establish many towns up and down the Front Range – Boulder, Tarryall, Hamilton, Gold Hill, Colorado City, and Pueblo. Jefferson Territory is illegally established to govern all the new miners.

Clara Brown gets her start in Colorado, opening her laundry in Cherry Creek and starting her first philanthropic efforts to help anyone in need.
But the 1860s were the real moviers and shakers for Colorado.


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