The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush and Colorado Territory

Pike's Peakers Crossing the Plains by Albert Bierstadt, 1859.

Pike’s Peakers Crossing the Plains by Albert Bierstadt, 1859.

By Steven F. Mehls, Bureau of Land Management, 1984

Pike Peak from near Colorado City by Detroit Photographic, 1900

Pike Peak from near Colorado City by Detroit Photographic, 1900

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 used 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 before 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.

Emigrants arrive in what will soon be Denver, Colorado

Emigrants arrive in what will soon be Denver, 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 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.

Denver, Colorado in 1859

Denver, Colorado in 1859

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, conditions were 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. 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 farming life. The Pike’s Peakers, by and large, were too young to have participated in the Mexican-American War, missing out on that adventuresome opportunity.

Crossing the South Platte River to get to the Colorado Gold Rush, by Albert Bierstadt, 1859.

Crossing the South Platte River to get to the Colorado Gold Rush, by Albert Bierstadt, 1859.

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 gold-seekers did not use the knowledge gained by previous travelers. 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 to make 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.

Bent's Fort, Colorado by Kathy Weiser.

Bent’s Fort, Colorado by Kathy Weiser.

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.

Miners' Tent by Britton & Ray, about 1850.

Miners’ Tent by Britton & Ray, about 1850.

Despite extensive available information on high plains travel, the Fifty-Niners, and many guidebook authors mostly ignored it. This situation came about from the excitement of the moment and 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 they could take more mining equipment. 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 lying 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, it was as much as 12 miles across as foragers spread out.

Indian attack on a wagon train by Charles Marion Russell

Indian attack on a wagon train by Charles Marion Russell

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. 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.

Gregory Gulch, Colorado

Gregory Gulch, 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 Gilpin, Clear Creek, and Boulder Counties. More than anything else, these finds slowed the go-backer movement and laid the 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 (BlackhawkCentral 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. Like Gregory, another man 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, which 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.

Colorado Gold Mining

Colorado Gold Mining

Simultaneously, 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.

An Arrastra is a primitive mill for grinding and pulverizing gold or silver ore.

An Arrastra is a primitive mill for grinding and pulverizing gold or silver ore.

Early Colorado miners expected to repeat the California experience. Whereas a simple pick and pan or sluice box was all that were needed to remove streambeds in California, gold in Colorado was not found as nuggets but rather as “float” gold, that is, particles too small to be recovered by conventional means. It became obvious that to make money in Colorado gold, the vein (or lode) had to be mined from solid rock. Hence, underground hard rock mining developed quickly. Stamp mills were brought to Colorado as early as 1860 to crush gold from the rock after it was mined. Another technique, the arrastra, was also tried to pulverize ores. Due to the difficulties and costs, individual prospectors were replaced by capitalists and mining engineers in northeastern Colorado’s mines. As localized placer deposits played out, most miners moved on, and 1865 ghost towns already dotted the hillsides. However, not all mining camps were abandoned, and even those with an exciting, if somewhat short, life. These communities grew quickly at the site of a strike, and because of their presence, Colorado’s mining frontier took on a distinctly urban cast. Towns served many diverse functions and were necessary for miners’ needs. Wrestling gold from the mountains was a full-time job, so those who did it had no time left for other pursuits like agriculture.

To fill this void, merchants moved to the towns. Laundries, boarding houses, restaurants, saloons, and rowdy houses were soon in business. Prices for goods and services were high but so too were wages. During flush times, everyone prospered. Because of their rapid growth and often short lifespan, in addition to a transient population, most of the mining camps were dirty, crowded places that lacked any evidence of planning. The lifestyles of miners were hardly enviable. Work hours were controlled by the sun. Conditions in the mines varied, but usually, they were unsafe, wet, cold, and dirty. For shelter, miners often had only a tent, a lean-to, or a rudimentary lumber shack. They were cold in winter, warm in summer, and wet when it rained or snowed. Diets consisted of beans, salt pork, and sourdough bread. Only on rare occasions did fresh meat and fruits or vegetables find their way onto tables. Since mining towns had unpaved streets and no sewers, sanitation was a continual health problem. Women were few in these male-dominated camps, and those who did brave the mountains were usually prostitutes and dancehall girls. Saloons provided an escape from dreary conditions through alcohol while they served as local social centers.

Vigilante Notice

Vigilante Notice

Law and order was another problem that all miners faced. Crimes like murder and theft had to be dealt with, as did claims protection. Being outside an effective span of authority, camp residents formed their own extra-legal governments. These were known as mining districts. The area’s residents established systems as self-governing through elected officers chosen by a vote of all. These officials dealt with day-to-day problems like registration of claims and collection of fines. Major decisions on camp policy were made at town meetings. Trials for serious crimes were conducted similarly. Most laws and rules were from the East, but regulations regarding claims were an area with little or no existing precedent, and miners were forced to make their own as they went. Much of this was based on Spanish tradition as used in California ten years earlier. Many of these procedures were incorporated into later modern state and federal laws. In dealing with severe criminal cases, the miners’ courts sought to assure a fair but speedy trial. Except for especially violent crimes where hanging was called for, the courts usually whipped and banished or, just banished, the offender because there were no jails. These self-governing units functioned until a territorial administration could be established.

Denver and Auraria City, Colorado in 1860.

Denver and Auraria City, Colorado in 1860.

Sharing many of the same problems as other mining camps was the infant city of Denver. From 1858 until 1860, Auraria and Denver City competed to attract settlers and businesses. Finally, in 1860 the rival town companies agreed to merge under the name of Denver. This was partly due to the hardships that both towns faced. They both had transient populations that tended to decrease political stability, and when news of the Clear Creek and Boulder County gold strikes was made public, Denver was nearly depopulated. Like mountain camps, Denver was beyond the effective control of Kansas civil authorities, and no town government had yet been established. The town company tried to handle problems like the title to town lots, but the serious crime was beyond their power. By 1860 Denver was gaining a reputation for lawlessness. To stop criminal activity, local business and civic leaders formed vigilance committees. The “vigilantes” had direct methods of dealing with lawbreakers. The offender was notified to mend his ways. If no change took place, he was taken, usually at night, by masked men and summarily executed.

Denver City Promoters

Denver City Promoters

Denver business and civic leaders, in 1860, were concerned with more than law and order. They had come west with visions of a prosperous future, as had most miners. After arriving at Cherry Creek, it was decided that Denver should be built into the commercial center of the Rocky Mountain West much as San Francisco was for the Pacific Coast. In the early sixties, membership in Denver’s society constantly varied because of changes in social circumstances, but goals remained the same. They identified a major impediment to Denver’s growth was the town’s isolation from the East. Repeated efforts were made to encourage stage and freight companies to extend their lines westward to Denver. Pleas came from the Denver Board of Trade, the voice of the business community. This panel and other boosters were successful enough in their endeavors that by 1864 travelers and journalists who visited the city considered it quite stylish. Education, the arts, and entertainment were provided for the citizenry by local entrepreneurs. By 1865 social class lines were distinguishable, and a definite core of the elite had established itself. This group guided the town’s destiny well into the 20th century.

One major need these movers and doers did not overlook was establishing a territorial government for Colorado. It was felt that in such an organization, they could make their needs known. Also, the government would provide effective control of the area by a legally constituted authority, and residents would no longer be forced to depend upon themselves for law and order. Finally, a territorial government for Colorado would unite all mining districts under one administrative unit. Until the creation of Colorado Territory, lands in northeastern Colorado north of the 40th parallel were part of Nebraska Territory while those south of the line were part of Kansas. Almost from the beginning, in 1858, the area’s residents requested the Federal government’s creation of a separate territory for them. As with the miners, other northeastern Coloradans realized they were beyond the effective control of Kansas and Nebraska. To fill this void, early settlers established the Territory of Jefferson. It was an extra-legal government not sanctioned by the national capital. Nevertheless, the Territory of Jefferson’s voters elected a governor, Robert Steele, a legislature, drew up a constitution and set about ruling northeastern Colorado. Jefferson was supported by many of its members because it helped bring stability and order to the region, and it laid long-term foundations for Colorado Territory. The territory also sent a “delegate” to Congress to carry on the fight for official recognition.

William Gilpin, Colorado Territorial Governor

William Gilpin, Colorado Territorial Governor

Washington, D.C. lawmakers, were not ignorant of the situation in the Rockies; however, more pressing problems demanded their attention. By 1859 relations between North and South were so tense that Congress spent most of its time bickering about slavery within the territories and other sectional issues. This kept the legislators from addressing the Colorado problem until early 1861, after most southern states had seceded from the Union. While awaiting Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration as President, Congress found time to act on Colorado’s requests for territorial status. In February, after debates over borders and names, the national legislature created the Territory of Colorado while also giving it its present boundaries. When news of these developments reached the Rockies, most northeastern Coloradans were pleased that their objective was achieved. To preside over this new territory, President Lincoln named William Gilpin, a longtime booster of the West and loyal Republican, to the post of Territorial Governor. Along with this office, Colorado also received a treasurer, marshal, and court system. Many men filled these posts over the years, accomplishing much for the region, but none faced bigger problems than the first two territorial governors, Gilpin and John Evans.

At about the same time Gilpin arrived in Colorado, the nation was plunged into Civil War. As chief Federal officer, Gilpin was expected to keep the place loyal to Washington and aid the war effort as best he could. To accomplish these tasks, Gilpin asked the legislature and people to remain loyal while at the same time he issued a call for volunteers to enter Federal service to fight the enemy. Two regiments were raised, and to supply them, Gilpin issued drafts payable by the U.S. Treasury. This practice, unapproved by Washington, cost Gilpin his job, but not before hundreds of thousands of dollars in “Gilpin Drafts” were circulating around Colorado. The other problem faced by Gilpin, and later John Evans, was that of loyalty. By 1861 a large number of Southerners had relocated to northeastern Colorado’s goldfields. While no longer in the South, they still felt sympathy, and as such, they were seen as potential traitors. Many also felt that Southern strategy in the West included the invasion of Colorado’s gold regions. Rumors abounded, and there were occasional overt actions such as raising the “rebel” flag over a Denver business. Gilpin pressed the legislature to enact strict loyalty codes and required an oath of allegiance from public officials and suspected traitors (Southern sympathizers). By 1862 and 1863, these policies had driven the sympathizers underground and away from public displays; not that hard to accomplish since most of the region’s population could trace its origins and loyalties to the North.

By 1864 another problem presented itself to the territorial government—the matter of statehood for Colorado. As with most political questions, there were two sides to this issue. Within the territory, many, especially groups like the Denver Board of Trade, favored statehood as the ultimate form of political stability and a necessity for continued economic growth. The opposition feared increased taxes and, in 1864, that a draft to raise troops for the Federal Army would be extended to the new state. Besides local battles over statehood, Colorado’s future also became embroiled in national bickering. The Republican party, especially a group of ideologues known as “Radical Republicans,” feared that their new party might be defeated in 1864. When Colorado presented its request for statehood, the Radicals saw its defeat because they thought the new state might vote Democratic. However, the official excuse was that the territory did not have a sufficient population to qualify. Four years later, the situation was somewhat reversed. Radical Republicans now saw that they needed extra votes in Congress, and Colorado could provide them. Again, sides were drawn within the territory.

Aspen silver mines about 1900

Aspen silver mines

Despite Colorado forces, the final decision was again made in Washington. This time, President Andrew Johnson refused to sign an enabling act creating the State of Colorado because he realized what his enemies, the Republican Radicals, were doing. From 1868 until 1875, the statehood question lay dormant. Development of the region’s business agriculture, mining, and industries occupied local attention. Nationally, the Republican Party was in complete control. However, by 1875 Colorado’s growth and politics had matured to the point that a territorial government no longer met Colorado’s needs, and new calls for statehood were issued. The northeast part of Colorado, in particular, experienced rapid development during the early 1870s. In 1875 when the statehood question was raised, many residents favored the step, and after considerable debates, a state constitution was submitted to Congress and duly accepted. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Enabling Act, and on August 1, 1876, Colorado became a full-fledged member of the Union. Colorado relinquished to the Federal Government all claims to lands not already appropriated as part of the normal process. The state’s northeastern section was vital to the success of statehood. The region continued to dominate Colorado’s political and economic life well into the twentieth century. This happened, in part, because by 1870, both the territorial and national governments had removed one obstacle to settlement — the Native Americans.

Ute Warriors by James Ayers

Ute Warriors by James Ayers

In 1858 when William Russell and other prospectors arrived, the area’s native inhabitants did little to oppose them aside from raiding and killing some of the argonauts. The reason for this mild initial reaction was that most local natives had seen Anglo-Americans come and go in northeastern Colorado for decades. The Native Americans did not realize that thousands of newcomers would stay. Lands along the front range that attracted most Anglo activity were also a no-mans land between the Ute and various Plains Tribes.

By 1861 the situation changed as the area’s Native Americans opposed American encroachment. To reduce the friction, Federal officials began a series of treaty talks with various tribes. In 1861 negotiators attempted to convince the Plains Tribes to relinquish title to most northeastern Colorado and take up reservations along the Arkansas River. This became known as the Treaty of Fort Wise. Two years later, territorial governor John Evans agreed with the Ute giving them an informal “reservation” west of the front range. In 1865 a final treaty with Arapaho and Cheyenne leaders, the Treaty of Little Arkansas, extinguished the last native claims to northeastern Colorado’s plains. Three years later, Alexander C. Hunt, territorial governor, and Indian Agent entered into another contract with the Ute that established definite boundaries for their lands west of the Continental Divide. This series of treaties removed nearly all Native American titles in the region. But, the actual reduction of their power proved more complicated.

Cheyenne Warriors by Edward S. Curtis

Cheyenne Warriors by Edward S. Curtis

The natives of northeastern Colorado were dependent upon Euro-American trade by 1859, but since the fur business declined during the 1840s, tribesmen were forced to find new sources of supply. Many immigrants of 1859 and 1860 reported natives along the trails begging for food and metal goods and noted even a few who were starving. They could not satisfy their needs from occasional hand-outs, so many took to raiding small migrant parties and freight wagons along various routes. Horse and cattle herds kept at way stations also became targets for aggressions. This pattern continued into 1864.  The intensity of raiding increased, as did Anglo-American reactions. The attacks on stage stations and against travelers, especially along the South Platte Trail, were so frequent that during late summer 1864, Denver and the mining camps were actually cut off from communication with the outside world.

To counter these attacks, Coloradans organized local militia companies and prepared to defend their towns. Families who settled at stage stations along the various trails turned their houses into fortresses. The territorial government sent repeated messages to Washington, D.C., for aid in troops and supplies. No response came until 1864 because nearly all available men and material were used to fight the Civil War. Taking matters into his own hands, Governor John Evans dispatched Major Jacob Downing and the First Colorado Regiment up the South Platte Trail in April 1864. This detachment spent a month searching for hostiles, and finally, on May 2, 1864, they encountered a group of Cheyenne along Cedar Creek. A battle took place in which 26 natives died, 60 were wounded, and Downing’s forces suffered one dead and one wounded. Feeling confident the natives were pacified, the cavalry returned to Denver.

The revenge raids of the Cheyenne soon shattered those optimistic predictions. Throughout the summer, such events continued, and in August, tempers reached their limits. That month the Hungate family, who operated a layover station on the Smoky Hill Road about 20 miles southeast of Denver, was murdered and mutilated. Their bodies were brought to Denver, where the public reaction was a mixture of indignation and panic. Stage and freight drivers refused to cross the plains, and Colorado was isolated from the rest of the United States. Responding to the hysteria, Governor Evans called for “100-day” volunteers to battle the natives. While these new troops, the Third Colorado Volunteers, were mustered into service, General Samuel R. Curtis took 600 men up the South Platte Trail and successfully re-opened that route to the East. Curtis’s efforts eased the crisis but not the mood of settlers in northeastern Colorado.

Sand Creek Massacre

Sand Creek Massacre

The Colorado Thirds leader, Brevet Colonel John M. Chivington, Methodist bishop of Colorado, had previous military experience fighting Confederates in New Mexico. He also viewed the plains natives as “heathen savages” who were instruments of the devil that should be smitten. Other Euro-Americans widely shared this attitude in 19th Century Colorado. As the Civil War calmed in September and October 1864, many citizens felt the Third Colorados would never see combat. However, their leader conceived a plan to gain glory for his troops and end the native problem. In November, as the 100-day enlistments approached expiration, Chivington marched his forces southeast out of Denver to find and destroy hostiles. Learning that many Cheyenne and Arapaho, under Chief Black Kettle, had established a winter camp on Sand Creek near Fort Lyon, the Third Colorados proceeded in that direction. By the end of the month, Chivington’s scouts reported locating Black Kettle’s village. During the night, troops surrounded the encampment and, at first light, attacked. Men, women, and children all fell before the rifles and sabers, and when the battle ended, Chivington’s soldiers had committed mutilations and other atrocities that rivaled any the natives had ever done. While this battle took place just outside northeastern Colorado, its ramifications were felt throughout the region.

Julesburg, Colorado is burned by Indians

Julesburg, Colorado, is burned by Indians.

The battle of Sand Creek enraged and unified many Plains Tribes into a common desire for revenge. The tribesmen felt betrayed because they had been told to gather at Fort Lyon (near Sand Creek) and were promised safety. Chivington’s actions were seen as duplicity, and as soon as the natives could re-group, the war in northeastern Colorado began again. This time the Sioux joined in opposition to the American presence in the area. The first new attacks came in January 1865, when a band of plainsmen raided Old Julesburg. They returned the next month and burned the town. The war spread down the South Platte River as marauding natives attacked stage stations and ranches. Again, travel on the plains became risky, and for a time, during the spring of 1865, trails were closed, this time by the United States Army.

As early as 1863, the Army pondered how best to protect Colorado settlements and the Overland Trail. It was decided that a line of forts along the South Platte (and other trails) would be most effective. From these posts, escorts could be sent with travelers. However, it was not until 1864 that any action was taken. That summer, General Robert B. Mitchell received 1,000 troops to patrol the Platte River Road and establish outposts. At the same time, four sites were located and forts built throughout northeastern Colorado. Near Old Julesburg, Camp Rankin, later renamed Fort Sedgwick, was built. Further upstream, the South Platte Valley Station near present-day Sterling, was taken over for military use. Near the mouth of Bijou Creek, Camp Tyler was established. It was soon renamed Camp Wardell and later Fort Morgan. Instead of using typical wooden stockades, these “citadels” were constructed of sod and adobe. To protect westbound travelers on northern stage roads, the Army also built Camp (later Fort) Collins on the Cache la Poudre. Camp Weld, near Denver, was used as a base and supply depot for the regular Army.

A "galvanized Yankee"

A “galvanized Yankee.”

By 1865, as Colorado’s war escalated, the Army had its forts established and began to fill them with Civil War veterans from both sides. To meet manpower needs, the Federal government started offering Confederate prisoners-of-war freedom in exchange for moving to frontier areas to man Army posts. The ex-Confederates swore an oath of loyalty and entered Federal service. Many were sent to posts in northeastern Colorado. They were nicknamed “Galvanized Yankees,” an allusion to the galvanizing process to stop rust on iron tools. Except for a few days, a year battling natives, life for these soldiers involved garrison and escort duty. Morale was usually low, and alcoholism became a problem. As the Civil War ended, desertions diminished the Army’s effectiveness as drafted soldiers returned home to rebuild their past lives. Nevertheless, the presence of these outposts did make travel and life in northeast Colorado less risky. Many settlers felt the forts represented security, and small communities soon sprang up around them.

During 1866 and 1867, relative calm existed in northeastern Colorado. Sporadic raiding and livestock stealing continued. As more and more Europeans moved into the area, the level of hostile activity increased, especially as the Union Pacific made its way west across Nebraska. The Army, fearful of a repeat of Sand Creek, took over responsibility for protecting settlers. In 1867 a new strategy was introduced to quash native activity. Roving patrols were sent to look for hostiles. The government also undertook new treaty talks with the Cheyenne and Arapaho. By this agreement, the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek, the Cheyenne were removed to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) but maintained hunting privileges off the reservation. The Arapaho were sent to the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. That summer, to enforce its new strategy, the Army ordered Brevet General George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh U.S. Cavalry to patrol western Kansas, Nebraska, and northeastern Colorado. His quarry was a band of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho led by Chief Roman Nose. Custer found signs of Native American activity, but he never engaged in battle with his foe.

Indian Chiefs

Indian Chiefs

Roman Nose decided, by 1868, that Anglo encroachment had to be stopped. He and his followers increased their attacks on homesteads and small communities in Colorado and western Kansas. To stop Roman Nose, Army officials determined to mount a summer campaign to force the natives onto a reservation. Among the units charged with this task was Major George A. Forsyth’s Volunteer Scouts, a group of 50 frontiersmen who joined the Army for the summer to track Native Americans. By September 1868, Forsyth’s force was on the Arikaree River in northeastern Colorado in hot pursuit of Roman Nose’s band. On September 17, the hostiles ambushed the detachment. The soldiers made their way to an island in the river and dug in. The battle lasted more than a week as the group of 50 held off an estimated 1,000 warriors. After nine days, help arrived from the Tenth U.S. Cavalry, a unit of black “buffalo” soldiers. Amazingly, the volunteers lost only five killed, but many were wounded. Among the dead was Lieutenant Frederick Beecher, for whom both the island and battle were subsequently named. While native casualties were unknown, Roman Nose, the much-feared war chief, died, leading a charge on the embattled soldiers.

The battle accomplished little except to convince the Army of a need for winter campaigns against the Native Americans. The Cheyenne were most vulnerable during the winter months because of decreased mobility, while their ponies were weak from lack of forage. To lead an expedition into Indian Territory against the natives, General Philip Sheridan chose George A. Custer and his Seventh Cavalry. The Seventh moved, in November 1868, from Camp Supply toward reported Cheyenne encampments along the Washita River. Custer pushed his men hard across the snowy plains. In late November, they had reached their objective. Custer repeated Chivington’s strategy and surrounded the camp at night. When the first light dawned, the attack began. Again Black Kettle was the victim, but this time he did not escape. As the regimental band played the Seventh’s battle song, “Gerry Owen,” Custer’s troops went about their business of extermination. The Battle of the Washita did much to break Cheyenne’s power, but it was not until the next summer that the last battle for northeastern Colorado was fought.

Cheyenne Chief Tall Bull

Cheyenne Chief Tall Bull

Tall Bull, leading a band of Cheyenne and Sioux, left the reservation in May 1869 and moved north toward their old hunting grounds. Along the way, they skirmished with General Eugene H. Carr’s Fifth U.S. Cavalry in western Kansas. They also raided a Kansas Pacific Railway section station at Fossil Creek. Carr’s troops attempted to stop Tall Bull with little success. However, under increased pressure by the troopers, he was forced to move west into northeastern Colorado to rest. Helping guide the Fifth Cavalry was William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Major Frank North’s Pawnee Scouts. Finally, on July 11, 1869, the Pawnee Scouts located the hostiles encamped at Summit Springs. Carr decided to attack before his presence was discovered. Using the cover of hillocks and ravines, as well as a fortuitous dust storm, the army approached within a mile of the camp, sounding the charge before they were discovered. The surprise was complete, and the troops were in camp before the warriors could gather their horses and weapons. The Pawnee, in particular, relished this attack on their old enemies. By the end of that day, Tall Bull was dead, and Carr had crushed the last pocket of Native American resistance in northeastern Colorado.

Even before the Battle of Summit Springs, the Army began to lessen its role in the area. A technological revolution took place, and a “mobile force replaced the older concept of static forts.” As railroads were built across the plains, the Army sought to take advantage of this new agility. No longer would garrisons be necessary every few miles since an entire army could be moved within a few days. Taking this into consideration and the fact that most hostilities, by 1868, were outside of northeastern Colorado, the Army started to close its outposts. Closure of forts did not mean the Army completely abandoned northeast Colorado. Detachments occasionally operated in the area. An experimental heliographic signal base was set up on Pike’s Peak, but it proved a failure and was soon closed. By the early 1870s, settlement became so intense in northeastern Colorado that the cavalry went the way of the buffalo into extinction.

 

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated April 2021

Also See:

The Argonauts and the Founding of Denver

Colorado Main Page

Discovery of the Rocky Mountains

Ghost Towns & Mining Camps of Colorado

Smoky Hill Trail

Source: Steven F. Mehls, New Empire of the Rockies, Bureau of Land Management, 1984. Note: The original articles has been edited.