The Argonauts and the Founding of Denver

Emigrants arrive in what will soon be Denver, Colorado

Emigrants arrive in what will soon be Denver, Colorado

 By Alice Polk Hill, 1915.

William Green Russell, a miner from Georgia, when returning from California, where he had been prospecting, heard from some Cherokee Indians of gold in the Pike’s Peak region. In the spring of 1858, he organized a party of white men and Cherokee Indians to go to Pike’s Peak to search for gold. When the caravan moved away, it consisted of 60 people, 30 yokes of cattle, 14 wagons, one two-horse team, and a dozen ponies. They came out by the Smoky Hill Trail and camped on June 24, 1858, under the cottonwood trees on the west side of Cherry Creek, at a point where it empties into the South Platte River. This was the first organized party that came to the Pike’s Peak region in search of hidden treasure.

Closely following them was another party from Lawrence, Kansas, under the command of John Easter. They put in at the base of Pike’s Peak and camped in the “Garden of the Gods.” Three men of this party – Frank M. Cobb, John D. Miller, and Gus Voorhees — climbed to the top of the peak.

After they returned, other members of the party, including Mrs. Anna Archibald Holmes, also went to the top of the peak, which gives Mrs. Holmes the distinction of being the first woman to accomplish that arduous task, and, according to the chronicler, she bore the fatigue of climbing with as much fortitude as the men. Afterward, she was the first school teacher in Pueblo, Colorado. In the meantime, the Russell party prospected up the east side of the South Platte River with such scant success that the Cherokee began to show signs of waning enthusiasm. They lacked industry, patience, and hope, which are so essential to the prospector, and, in less than ten days, were completely disillusioned by the charm of gold-seeking. They argued that there would be trouble with the Indians, and the discontented white men added the argument that they had not found pay dirt and that they had all come out on a fool’s errand.

William G. Russell, one of the first founders of Denver, Colorado

William G. Russell, one of the first founders of Denver, Colorado

William G. Russell entreated them not to break up the party, but they refused to listen and started on their long homeward journey. Nothing daunted by the desertion of the larger number of the party, Russell and his remaining associates — 13 in all — continued prospecting, and, finding gold where the Dry Creek empties into the South Platte River near present-day Englewood, they stopped there. and gave it the name of “Placer Camp.”

The Lawrence party pulled into Placer Camp on the fourth of September, 1858. They were more inspired by the spirit of real estate speculation than digging for gold, and, thinking that Placer Camp diggings would help to build up a town, they organized a town company and went to work in earnest. By the middle of September, a number of cabins were built fronting on the streets in a dignified town-like manner. To this settlement, a mile north of Placer Camp, they gave the name of Montana City. In the vocabulary of the West, a collection of houses was always a city.

A fall of snow about the last of September set Dr. Levi J. Russell and his brother, Willliam, thinking of winter quarters, and they decided that the mouth of Cherry Creek would be a better place to winter than at Placer Camp or Montana City.

While their plans were being formed, an old trader named John Simpson Smith arrived at the camp. He proposed to unite with the Russell brothers and build a double cabin. William Russell sanctioned the arrangement because Smith was married to an Indian woman and on friendly terms with the natives, which might be of advantage should the Indians resent the location of a town on their land. They wasted no time building the double cabin, which, being near an Indian tepee, was called “Indian Row.” This formed the nucleus for the camp, which was the actual beginning of Denver.

M. Rooker was the first man with a family to join the settlement. His house was a continuation of “Indian Row.” William McGaa came in with a number of Indians trooping after him and built a shack. A Frenchman named Henry Murat drifted in with his wife. Murat was a queer genius and became commonly known as “Count” because he claimed to be related to Bonaparte, King of Naples. He shaved men’s beards, and his wife toiled at the washtub. Individuals and small groups drifted in from various directions. The fanciful stories told around the evening campfires of what the Russell boys had done at “Placer Camp” had a wonderful power in exciting the hopes and ambitions of the more recently arrived people.

About the first of October, a town company was organized, arrangements for surveys were formed, and the christening of the settlement was left to William Russell, who selected the name Auraria after his hometown in Georgia. A few days later, William Green Russell and his brother, J. Oliver Russell, started to their old home for the purpose of organizing a large company of gold seekers. They were convinced that rich deposits of gold existed somewhere in the Pike’s Peak region, and they were determined to find it.

Pioneers in what would soon be Denver, Colorado.

Pioneers in what would soon be Denver, Colorado.

Cherry Creek, now risen to the dignity of a settlement, became the focus for gold seekers, and Pike’s Peak continued to be the popular landmark for the whole region. Up until this time, there had been neither glass nor nails in the country, and many expedients were resorted to in order to give the rude habitations light, entrance, and exit. However, the pioneer merchants were not far behind the gold seekers. On October 27th, Blake and Williams arrived with a large stock of mining merchandise. A week later, Kinna and Nye came in with a stock of hardware, and other merchants soon followed.

A party under the command of D.C. Oakes reached the camp on October 10th. Oakes was an energetic and forceful man. He saw the possibilities of a town near the mouth of Cherry Creek and returned East late that fall to remain through the winter. When he reached his home in Iowa, he published a pamphlet on Pike’s Peak. It was widely sold and had a potent influence in causing a great emigration to the Pike’s Peak region.

E.P. Stout, with a small party, arrived in Auraria about the last of October. Mr. Stout became so prominent in founding Denver that a street was named for him. He gave the following experience:

“We were met by Jack Jones and John Smith, traders with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, who were living in Auraria. That evening, these two traders invited us to visit them and feast with them. We did so and were treated to a good meal provided by Jones’ Indian wife. It wound up with a hot whiskey stew, made from whiskey distilled from wheat and called ‘Taos Lightning.’ From the effect it produced on Jones and Smith, one would readily have concluded that it was a genuine article of fighting whiskey. When it began to take effect, those two gentlemen seemed to be seized with a fiendish desire to slaughter somebody and, with their Colt revolvers, commenced a rapid fusillade upon each other. As that kind of entertainment was rather too vigorous for us tenderfeet, we managed to slide out through the darkness, making our way to our own tents, leaving our hosts to the tender mercies of each other and expecting to find in the next morning, both of them riddled with bullets. On the contrary, before the sun was fairly up, both of these gentlemen came over to our tents to apologize in the most humble and contrite manner for the disgraceful and humiliating spectacle they had made of themselves before their invited guests. We came to the conclusion that it had been merely an effort on their part to impress us with their wonderful bravery.”

Denver, Colorado in 1859

Denver, Colorado, in 1859

Andrew Sagendorf and Oscar Lehow drove into the first week in November and built a cabin, which was conspicuous because it had the first glass window in the whole Rocky Mountain region, but it had no door.

“What are we going to do for a door, Oscar?” asked Sagendorf.

Lehow was silent. Later, he unstrapped some boards concealed under the wagon in which the two had crossed the plains. Sagendorf had not seen them before. He was surprised and also pleased with the prospect of a door for their cabin. “Why did you bring those boards, Oscar?” he asked.

“If you must know, Andy, I brought them to make a coffin for you,” replied Lehow.

Sagendorf was a delicate man, but through the recuperative effects of the climate, he outlived Lehow by eighteen years. He filled many important positions and was highly respected.

The first Masonic meeting was held in the Sagendorf and Lehow cabin on December 10, 1858. In January 1859, a lodge was regularly instituted under the authority of the Grand Lodge of Kansas, and its meetings were held in the same cabin.

The politicians were busy even on that early day. An election was held in Auraria on November 6, 1858, about three weeks after the settlement of the town. H. J. Graham was elected a delegate to Congress, and A.J. Smith was made representative to the Kansas legislature. In this election, charges of fraud were openly made. Two days after this swift political action, Graham set out on his long journey to the national capital to deal with Congress. His instructions were to get the Pike’s Peak region set apart as an independent Territory to be called “Jefferson.” He was a man of ability and earnestly endeavored to accomplish the wishes of his constituents. But, he found himself without influence in Washington. The country was so far away from civilization that Congress refused to consider the scheme of its proposed permanent settlement and, doubtless, regarded Graham as an escaped lunatic. However, later, he would have the honor of being Colorado’s first representative in Congress, and his unselfish devotion to public service was evident in the fact that he paid his own expenses, which makes him a unique character in politics.

A.J. Smith was more successful in Topeka, Kansas. Arapahoe County was created in 1855 by the first legislature of Kansas, so he was recognized in the legislature, and the region was launched into political existence as Arapahoe County, Kansas Territory.

The Montana City real estate speculators were keeping their eyes open, and one fine day, T.C. Dickson, Adnah French, Frank M. Cobb, John A. Churchill, and Charles Nichols walked over to the mouth of Cherry Creek with the view of founding another city. They fixed upon the land on the east side of the creek for their town. These promoters took John Smith and William McGaa into their company on account of their connection with the Indians. They held a meeting and adopted the constitution of the St. Charles Town Association. Frank Cobb and Adnah French drove the first stake for the city of St. Charles.

Denver Pioneers

Denver Pioneers

All of these St. Charles men, except Trader John Smith and William McGaa, decided to go to  Kansas to spend the winter. They had not built any kind of structure on their townsite. When a short distance down the South Platte River, they met parties destined for the settlement at Cherry Creek, and they became apprehensive that some of these people might locate on their unimproved townsite. Charles Nichols was, at once, sent back and instructed to put up a building on the land as evidence of the company’s right to it. Nichols offered to give lots to anyone who would build on them, but town lots “went a-begging.” In eastern Kansas, in those days, all that was needed to establish the priority of claims was to cut four logs and lay them in the form of a square, which he did.

In 1858, James William Denver of Ohio was governor of the Territory of Kansas. The reports from the western end of his dominion demanded his attention. He commissioned three county officers — H. P. A. Smith, probate judge; Hickory Rogers, chairman of the county board of supervisors; and E. W. Wynkoop, sheriff, to go to the new county as representatives of the  Kansas government. These officials fell in on the way with a company that had been organized at Leavenworth,  Kansas. They arrived at Cherry Creek on November 16th. The pioneers of 1858 were, as a rule, men of unusual force of character; these Leavenworth men were distinctively so; they didn’t stand around whittling sticks and talking about what they were going to do; they immediately opened a new chapter of local history.

In less than a week after their arrival, they had taken possession of the St. Charles townsite, which they declared was deserted, the only improvement on the land being Nichols’ unfinished cabin. They named the new city in honor of Kansas Territorial Governor James W. Denver.

St. Charles became a historical memory. The whole proceeding was an unceremonious jumping, highly theatrical, and very effective. The cabins of that time were in the prevailing style of round logs and dirt floors, so graphically pictured by the pioneer poet Greenleaf:

Inspect we this, built fifty-eight, by one of bluest blood;
The logs are all square-hewn and chlnked and plastered o’er with mud;
The roof of poles o’erspread with brush and what you’d call dirt-shingles;
Its chimney square-stones, sticks and mud artistically mlngles.
The earth had been well hardened down to constitute a floor;
They hadn’t got to windows yet — ’twas lighted from the door.

’Twas furnished in Auraria style, and that the very best,
Comprising four three-legged stools, a table and a chest;
The dishes — the prevailing style — were tin; when meals were o’er
What cared he for hot water? ’Twas a step beside the door,
To scoop of dirt a handful, and to pluck a wisp of grass,
Some skillful passes, 10! each plate would shame a looking glass!

That’s how he washed the dishes; next he seized each knife and fork,
And found the ground a substitute for rotten-stone and cork.
When, late at night, he stretched himself on skins of buffaloes
No couch of down held tenant yet who suffered such repose!

Denver City Promoters

Denver City Promoters

In this Denver City Town Company were E. P. Stout, president; General William Larimer, R. E. Whitsitt, James Reed, J. H. Dudley, Charles Blake, Norman Welton, A. J. Williams, General John Clancy, Samuel Curtis, Ned Wynkoop, McGaa and Charles Nichols. Most of their names have been perpetuated in the names of the prominent streets of Denver.

The Denver men were great boosters. They claimed the advantages of the more eligible site and interested the new arrivals at Cherry Creek in their city. The aggressiveness of these wide-awake Denver people caused the Aurarians to lose their tempers. A bitter spirit of rivalry soon developed between the two towns, and they put in much time that winter throwing hard words at each other across Cherry Creek.

Auraria’s partisans boasted of her antiquity, claiming that she was a city three or four weeks before Denver was even down on paper. The rivalry of these ragged little towns in the winter loneliness of the great plains may seem absurd to readers of this day and generation, but it goes to prove that human nature is the same all over the world, in all times and places.

Richens L. Wooton and his family arrived in Auraria on Christmas day, 1858. Wooton brought a large stock of merchandise, most of which was contained in barrels. He wanted to make a favorable impression and become popular among his new associates, so he knocked in the head of a barrel and invited his callers to help themselves with tin cups. No method could have been more effective in attaining the desired end than the one he adopted. All Auraria promptly called. News of the unusual liquid refreshments spread like wildfire through the city of Denver, and the inhabitants of that town exhibited their characteristic energy by a lively dash across Cherry Creek. The rivalry and animosity between the two cities were forgotten, for that day at least. Before the night closed down, Richens Wooton was “Uncle Dick” to every man in both towns. He made that Christmas of 1858 a notable one in the annals of Auraria.

Richens "Uncle Dick" Wooten

Richens “Uncle Dick” Wooten

Richens Wooton soon began the erection of his famous business block. This was the most imposing and pretentious edifice in the town. It was a story and a half high, roofed with clapboards. The upper floor was made of boards sawed by hand with a whip-saw and was the first board floor laid in the country. This room was lighted by a four-light glass window, the only luxury of the kind in the city.

Auraria was named after Green Russell’s hometown in Georgia, but as time went on and new people came in, there were many theories in regard to the name. One man suggested that it was derived from Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn; another had a vague theory that it was a contortion of the word auriferous to indicate the gold-yielding country around the town. Uncle Dick Wooton, in his book, gives the following:

“There must have been some classical scholars among the town’s founders because I am told that the name has a Latin origin, the word ‘aura’ meaning a gentle breeze. I suppose Auraria was intended to mean the town of gentle breezes, and it was a rather pretty and appropriate name.”

The pioneers at Montana City lost faith in the future of their town and moved, cabins and all, to Auraria, leaving their townsite to revert to a state of nature.

The little band of pioneers camping beneath the cottonwoods on the banks of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek in 1858-’59 did not realize that they were laying the foundation of the great State of Colorado. From this little camp, the hardy, courageous prospectors scattered, climbed the foothills, scaled the mountains, penetrated the wild gorges, stuck pick and shovel into the granite and quartz rocks, and washed the sands of streams. The winter was open, and the spring came early. While some prospected, others were busy platting new towns. They placed Central City, Black Hawk, Idaho Springs, Georgetown, Golden, Boulder, Colorado City, Pueblo, and Canon City on the map. The favorite pastime of the pioneers during the long winter day was writing letters to their friends in the East. These letters were filled with glowing accounts of the scenery and the richness of the land in gold, which, as yet, they had seen with the eye of faith only.

It was optimism like that and faith in the future of the country that inspired the pioneers in the midst of a lonely wilderness, where the only home lights at night were their campfires and the campfires of the Indians, to lay the foundation of this great “city of lights.”

By Alice Polk Hill, Colorado Pioneers in Picture and Story, 1915

The foregoing article was excerpted from Chapter IV of Alice Polk Hill’s 1915 book, Colorado Pioneers in Picture and Story, published by Brock-Haffner Press in 1915. However, the text, as it appears here, is not verbatim as it has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader.

Editor’s Update:

Denver and Auraria City, 1860

Denver and Auraria City, 1860

Denver City was a frontier town, with its economy based on servicing local miners with gambling, saloons, livestock, and goods trading. In the early years, land parcels were often traded for grubstakes or gambled away by miners. In May 1859, Denver City residents donated 53 lots to the Leavenworth & Pike’s Peak Express in order to secure the region’s first overland wagon route. Offering daily service for passengers, mail, freight, and gold, the Express reached Denver on a trail that trimmed westward travel time from twelve days to six. In 1863, Western Union furthered Denver’s dominance of the region by choosing the city for its regional terminus.

Colorado Territory was created on February 28, 1861, and Arapahoe County was formed on November 1, 1861. Denver City was incorporated on November 7, 1861, and served as the Arapahoe County Seat from 1861 until Arapahoe County was split, and Denver County was created on November 15, 1902. In 1867, Denver City became the Territorial Capital. With its new-found importance, Denver City shortened its name to Denver. On August 1, 1876, Colorado was admitted to the Union.

Today, Denver is the largest city and the capital of Colorado. It is located in the South Platte River Valley on the western edge of the High Plains just east of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. The Denver downtown district is located immediately east of the confluence of Cherry Creek with the South Platte River, approximately 12 miles east of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Denver is nicknamed the Mile-High City because its official elevation is exactly one mile or 5,280 feet above sea level. Its estimated population today is about 620,000 people.

Compiled by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated February 2024.

Also See:

Colorado – the Centennial State

Haunted Denver – Mile High Ghosts

Discovery of the Rocky Mountains

The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush and Colorado Territory