Buckskin Joe, Colorado – Gone & Back and Gone Again

Joe Higgenbottom, the man for which the settlement of Buckskin Joe was named. Photo courtesy ghphotography

Joe Higgenbottom, the man for which the settlement of Buckskin Joe was named. Photo courtesy ghphotography

Buckskin Joe, established in 1859, was just northwest of Fairplay on Highway 9, near the present-day town of Alma, Colorado. Like many mining camps that flourished during the Gold Rush, Buckskin Joe was formed as a mining district by a small group of prospectors when placer gold was located in the river nearby.

The group of prospectors was led by an eccentric man named Joseph Higgenbottom, who wore buckskin clothes and was therefore called “Buckskin Joe.”

Despite attempts to officially name the settlement Laurette, (for Laura and Jeanette, the wife and daughter of Old Man Dodge who wielded some influence in the area) it was called Buckskin Joe by most, and the name stuck.

News of the gold discovery quickly spread and by the spring of 1860, other miners began pouring into the new settlement. One mining claim made by a man named Mr. Phillips originally did not look rich, and Phillips, a drifter, soon moved away without further development. Buckskin Joe claimed Phillips discovery for his own, but, he, too, soon left the area for the San Juan Mountains, trading the claim for a revolver and a few other articles.

Too late for Mr. Phillips or Buckskin Joe, the claim was discovered to be rich and it wound up providing much of the ore for the mill that was later built. Sluice boxes were built and considerable gold was recovered from the creek bed. To crush the soft ore from the load, the old Spanish method of arastras was employed first.

At its zenith, the town of Buckskin Joe sported saloons, gambling halls and traveling minstrel shows. The street was lined with stores, saloons, an assay office, a courthouse, a mill, and three hotels. It boasted such famous inhabitants as Horace and Augusta Tabor and Father Dyer.

In August 1861, Horace and Augusta Tabor loaded their supplies, groceries and household merchandise and moved to Buckskin Joe. Their store soon became the areas most successful. During the next seven years, Horace invested in local mines and became the postmaster. In reality, Augusta ran the post office although she could not legally hold that position. Meanwhile Horace became increasingly involved in community affairs.

Buckskin Joe had itinerant preachers, the most famous of whom was Father John L Dyer, a Methodist from Ohio whose circuit covered Fairplay, Park City, Buckskin Joe and Breckenridge. To stretch parishioners’ contributions in the early days, Dyer would prospect when not in the pulpit. As easy placer findings vanished and the cost of staples soared ($40.00 for a bag of flour), Dyer added mail carrying to his church duties. He trekked weekly from Mosquito Gulch and Buckskin Joe over passes to Leadville and Breckenridge. Neither winter nor the absence of improved roads deterred him. Often on skis ten feet long with 30 pounds of mail on his back, Father Dyer would climb through deep snow and wind-swept alpine heights to dispense his earthly and spiritual messages.

Buckskin Joe began to thrive and by 1861 had a population of 2,000. In 1862 it became the county seat, an honor it retained until 1867, when the courthouse was moved to Fairplay. The settlement boasted a newspaper, a post office, and two banks,  in addition to the saloons, dance halls and gambling houses.

Tabor's Old Store, Buckskin Joe, Colorado

Tabor’s Old Store, Buckskin Joe, Colorado

The mining district reportedly produced 16 million dollars in gold from 1859 until the mill closed in 1866. After the mill closed, most of the people left to seek their fortune in other mining camps and towns throughout the Rocky Mountain West.

A few stalwarts remained. One was J.P. Stansell, who made a fortune working the leavings of the Phillips Mine long after the miners left. Another was Horace Tabor who would later make his fortune in Leadville.

All that is left of the original Buckskin Joe is the cemetery and its memories. Close inspection of the tombstone dates reveal a cemetery population boom in 1861 and 1862. The cemetery, which is down the road on the right from the settlement, also reveals the struggles of the miners and settlers. The stone grave of young Thomas Fahey records that on a blustery February day he left his cabin to go to his mine and did not return. His body was found the following June.

Many of the miners were immigrants from Europe. Images of home and echoes of their languages can be seen on some stones. The stones and gravesites with their ornate rails and gates exhibit a craft and workmanship that outlasted the modest cabins and other structures in the town. The town of Alma still uses the cemetery.

The Legend of Silver Heels

Buckskin Joe Hotel and Dance Hall

Buckskin Joe Hotel and Dance Hall

A local hero and legend emerged in the town in 1861 — a dance hall girl named “Silver Heels.” From the day she stepped off the stagecoach atBuckskin Joe, her beauty captivated the entire mining camp. Her real name was never known, for the miners had long since dubbed her “Silver Heels,” perhaps for her dance shoes or her enchanting performances. In any event, the beloved Silver Heels prepared to travel on after a few nightly performances, but when the miners showered her with gifts and begged her to stay, she agreed.

In the winter of 1861, the deadly disease small pox invaded the mining camp. The epidemic swept through the town and miners and families became very ill, almost overnight. Within a matter of days, the rutted dirt road to the cemetery became lined with the living carrying the dead up the hillside for burial. The citizens of Buckskin Joe sent to Denver for nurses, but none came. All who could help did so, including Silver Heels. Especially Silver Heels.

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