The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush and Colorado Territory

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 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 by 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.

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. 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.

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 gold fields. 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 (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. 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.

Colorado Gold Mining

Colorado Gold 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.

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 were 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 in order 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, by 1865 ghost towns already dotted the hillsides. However, not all mining camps were abandoned and even those that were had 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.

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