The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush and Colorado Territory

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 in a similar manner. 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 business. Finally, in 1860 the rival town companies agreed to merge under the name of Denver. This was partly due to 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”, as they were popularly known, 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 varied constantly 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 elite had established itself. This group guided the town’s destiny well into the twentieth century.

One major need these movers and doers did not overlook was the establishment of 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 areas 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 capitol. Nevertheless, the Territory of Jefferson’s voters elected a governor, Robert Steele, a legislature, drew up a constitution and set about the business of ruling northeastern Colorado. Jefferson was supported by a lot 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 along with 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 the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln 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, long time 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, as well as to 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 in circulation 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 gold fields. 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 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 to require an oath of allegiance from public officials and suspected to 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 the elections of 1864. When Colorado presented its request for statehood the Radicals saw to its defeat because they thought the new state might vote Democratic. However, the official excuse was that the territory did not have 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.

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