By Steven F. Mehls, Bureau of Land Management, 1984
The mountains of northeastern Colorado held vast treasures of silver and gold and it was here that initial discoveries of those metals were made. While fur trappers made use of the area’s animal wealth they did not know about or were not interested in the resources that lay beneath the ground. Some mountain men like James Purcell reported finding gold in streams they trapped. During his 1806 trip, members of that party found small amounts of placer gold in various river beds. Almost 40 years later, William Gilpin, while accompanying John C. Fremont’s expedition, discovered the yellow metal in northeastern Colorado’s creeks. Forty-niners on their way to and from California prospected the region with some success. Colorado reported finding gold in 1853. Five years later members of Captain Randolph Marcy’s detachment panned the mineral from Cherry Creek. Yet, not until the late summer of 1858 did a “rush” start.
There were other prospectors in northeastern Colorado during the summer of 1858. Most famous was William Greene Russell who led a party of Georgians to the South Platte River that year. Russell was involved in mining since the 1830s, participating in Georgia’s gold rush and having traveled to California during the excitement of 1849.
Russell passed through Colorado on his way west and after his experiences on the Pacific Coast, he remembered the promising-looking streams of the central Rocky Mountains. During the winter of 1857-1858 Russell formed a party in Georgia to prospect the South Platte River. The next spring they headed west, passing through Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The group was joined by some Cherokee who had mined gold in Georgia prior to their removal. The enlarged party moved along the front range, then up the South Platte River to its confluence with Cherry Creek where prospecting began. After weeks of discouragement, placer gold was discovered at Dry Creek, near present-day Englewood, Colorado.
These initial finds were small but, over the summer, Russell’s party was joined by other gold seekers, mainly from eastern Kansas. The Lawrence Party arrived only to find deposits along Dry Creek exhausted. However, convinced of the area’s potential, group members stayed on and founded the town of Montana City. The site was not well located and the party soon moved their “city” to Cherry Creek, renaming it St. Charles. Some of the group returned to Kansas to encourage others to join them and to file claims. At the same time, Russell and his men established Auraria on the opposite bank of Cherry Creek. As news spread, more people came to the new diggings. Among them were General William H. Larimer and his small band of town promoters from Leavenworth, Kansas. Larimer and his associates arrived in Colorado in November 1858 and founded Denver City on the site of St. Charles having bought out the St. Charles Town Company Denver City was named in honor of Kansas Territory’s governor, James Denver, a move Larimer made to garner support for his claims.
Aside from town promoters, others joined the 1858 movement to Cherry Creek. By the end of 1858 population estimates ranged as high as 2,000 in the new mining camps. It was not until 1859 that a full-scale gold rush finally took place. This time-lag, especially between Purcell’s reports and the 1859 stampede was due to many reasons. By that time were conditions right for this event. A financial panic, in 1857, developed into a full-scale depression by 1858. Frontier areas of the Mississippi Valley were especially hard hit by an economic crisis. In an effort to revive their sagging businesses, merchants in the Missouri River towns like Leavenworth, Kansas or St. Joseph, Missouri took the news of gold discoveries and embellished it. They then had propaganda circulated throughout the United States. These mercantilists no doubt felt that if a rush took place they would benefit from increased outfitting business since they were in the closest proximity to the mines. Some towns commissioned guidebooks for the argonauts. These publications stressed quick wealth, the easy trip across the plains and unbounded opportunities. Of course, each work suggested certain trails and towns as the “only” route west. With shady information available, many men in the Midwest spent the winter of 1858-1859 planning their trips to the Rockies. Most of those who participated in the rush were young men in their late teens or early twenties. They found it difficult to get started in life since the Panic of 1857 closed so many opportunities. Further, many were looking for one “great adventure” before settling down to a routine life of farming. The Pike’s Peakers, by and large, were too young to have participated in the Mexican-American War missing out on that adventuresome opportunity.
Others saw the goldfields, especially after reading the promotional literature, as a way to make a quick fortune and then return to settle down. Along the same lines, some went west because they needed a new start, possibly from a love affair gone askew, debts, or were running from the law. Some men came to Colorado to avoid being caught up in increasing sectional tensions between the North and South. For these and other reasons, the “Fifty-Niners” rushed across the plains to the goldfields during the spring of 1859. Possibly 100,000 people flocked to northeastern Colorado as a result of the boom. To encourage immigration, local Denver boosters also started their own campaigns. Foremost among these propagandists was William N. Byers, editor of Denver’s first newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News. Not only did he try to entice new miners west, but he also was faced with the problem of keeping morale high for those already here. By mid-summer 1859, a movement back to the states took place. It was called the “go-backers”. Byers, at first, attempted to stem the tide and then he rationalized that those leaving were undesirable scum and did not have what it look to build a new empire of the Rockies. Despite Byers and other boosters, many argonauts returned to their homes after finding gold much harder to come by than their guidebooks claimed. As a popular slogan of the day said: “Having seen the Elephant”. One reason for the go-backer movement was the difficulty many of the pioneers experienced on the trail to Colorado. The Fifty-Niners were hardly the first to travel the region, but the knowledge gained by previous travelers was not used by gold seekers. The Oregon Trail used extensively since 1840, crossed extreme northeastern Colorado near Old Julesburg. By the 1850s the Oregon Trail was developed into a national highway, used by thousands on their way to the Pacific shores. Because of the California gold rush its name was changed to the Overland Trail. At Old Julesburg, a branch of the trail turned southwest along the South Platte River, following Major Long’s route of 1820.
This pathway was known as the South Platte Trail. It was extensively used by Fifty-Niners and became one of the primary routes to Colorado during the 1860s. A second, well-established route to the goldfields by 1860 was the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail, which passed through southeastern Colorado along the Arkansas River. At Bent’s Fort, the Santa Fe Trail was joined by the Old Cherokee Trail that ran north along the front range to the future site of Denver. This route was used by Southerners who came to northeastern Colorado during 1859 and 1860. The Old Cherokee Trail remained a foremost north-south route in the region during the 19th century. Another pathway favored by some was the Smoky Hill Road. It ran west from Leavenworth, Kansas along an old Army road and, once in Colorado, it followed the Smoky Hill River from present-day Cheyenne Wells northwest to Denver. In northeast Colorado there were three different routes of this trail; the north, middle and south branches took slightly different paths from present-day Limon to Denver. The branches were for access to water, and to shorten the trip. The other trail used by hopeful miners was the Republican River Road. It followed the Republican River into northeastern Colorado and then westward until reaching the South Platte Trail. The Republican River Route was the least used of the routes into the region. But it shared problems common to all other trails.
Despite extensive available information on high plains travel, the Fifty-Niners, and many guidebook authors mostly ignored it. This situation came about from excitement of the moment and from the optimism of many emigrants. However, once on the trail, potential miners found themselves ill-prepared. Often supplies necessary for survival were left behind or ignored so that more mining equipment could be taken. All forms of overland transportation were used; wagons, carts, buggies, horses, mules, and on foot. More often than not, a small band would assemble at a supply town and embark on the journey without hiring a guide or even organizing a wagon train. On the trail, emigrants soon found many problems lay waiting for them. Securing a fuel supply was difficult since few trees grew on the plains. As a substitute, buffalo chips were used when they could be found. Equally crucial and scarce, were food and water for both man and beast. Streams and springs with water during spring run-off usually dried up by mid-summer. A party could go for days without the precious fluid as water holes dried up from heavy use. Another problem migrants found was a lack of game and forage along the trails. Many travelers took supplies for a few days, counting on living off the land for the rest of the trip. As native food sources were exhausted the trails grew wider and wider. At points along the Smoky Hill Road, for example, was as much as 12 miles across as foragers spread out.
Numerous acts of cannibalism were reported by the Fifty-Niners, in addition to discoveries of bodies of those who starved to death along the way. At one time the Smoky Hill Route was nicknamed the “Starvation Trail” as food supply problems became terribly acute”. The climate presented another challenge for voyagers. Those who traveled too early or too late in the season were often caught in blizzards and perished. For those who were on the trail during the summer, thunderstorms, hail, tornadoes and flash floods presented potential difficulties. Not only could a storm ruin an outfit but it also turned many areas, especially those along stream banks into quagmires that could trap a wagon for hours or days. The riverbeds contained hidden pockets of quicksand that could swallow people, animals or whole wagons. These factors made travel slow; a trip from the Missouri River to Colorado often took more than a month. Another obstacle to travel also persisted in northeastern Colorado — Native Americans. The area’s inhabitants, for various reasons, attacked parties on the plains. Usually, their raids were aimed at individuals or small groups that could be easily overwhelmed. At times, during the 1860s, native violence was so great that various trails were closed to travel. By the early 1870s, as railroads inched their way across the plains, travel became easier and safer. Despite all the problems, ten of thousands successfully made the journey to northeastern Colorado.
After facing the perils of the eastern flatlands, the new settlers were often disappointed when they reached the Denver area goldfields. Others, more determined to find the precious mineral spread out into the mountains searching for the yellow metal. Their efforts were successful and strikes were made in 1859 in what later became Gilpin, Clear Creek, and Boulder Counties. These finds, more than anything else, slowed the go-backer movement and laid foundations for Colorado’s development. In January 1859, John H. Gregory, who came to Cherry Creek, turned his attention to Clear Creek. He Felt that gold could be found in the mountains to the west. Following Clear Creek to its forks, Gregory turned along North Clear Creek and found promising gravels along the way. When he reached a place, soon to be known as Gregory Gulch (Blackhawk–Central City area), he hit pay dirt. News of the find was met with a mixture of skepticism and jubilation. Many felt it was a hoax but others abandoned Denver City and relocated to Gregory Gulch. The discoveries along North Clear Creek did much to silence criticism about Colorado, but, more importantly, Gregory’s success caused others to prospect in the mountains. Another man who, like Gregory, saw the potential of Clear Creek, was George A. Jackson, a disgruntled Fifty-Eighter not willing to give up yet. Jackson followed Clear Creek to its Forks and continued west along the stream. At Chicago Gulch, near present-day Idaho Springs, Jackson found gold. Like Gregory’s earlier discovery news of Jackson’s work made its way to Denver City where it was highly publicized by local newspapers. With proven strikes as evidence, thousands poured into Clear Creek Canyon during 1859 and 1850. By the mid-1860s the area was firmly established as the center of Colorado mining.
At the same time, Jackson and Gregory made the 1859 strikes other prospectors were busy north along Boulder Creek. That waterway and its tributaries also held pay dirt in mineable quantities. Soon, Gold Run in Boulder County rivaled Clear Creek for honors as the area’s biggest mining region. Some of the first finds were made near what became Gold Hill and Jamestown. Population growth was so rapid that by 1860 Gold Hill was described as a center of culture where all the necessities of “civilized” life could be obtained. Further south others experienced success too. Travelers, wearied by crossing the plains, stopped at Fountain Creek along the Old Cherokee Trail and put their picks and pans to use. They encountered small pockets of gold and continued to prospect the area. While mining was going on other capitalists decided to take advantage of “gold fever” by founding a town. They platted the Colorado City Town company, but the diggings played out. The town remained as an outpost of settlement along the trail. Gold seekers also examined the northern mountains. The Cache la Poudre River, with other streams, were prospected but with minimal results. Boulder and Clear Creeks remained the most prosperous and active of northeastern Colorado’s mining regions. Yet even these locales experienced problems.