Despite Colorado forces, the final decision was again made in Washington. This time it was President Andrew Johnson who 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. As part of the normal process, Colorado relinquished to the Federal Government, all claims to lands not already appropriated. 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.
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 the 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 of northeastern Colorado and to take up reservations along the Arkansas River. This became known as the Treaty of Fort Wise. Two years later, territorial governor John Evans worked out an agreement 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 the 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 title in the region. But, the actual reduction of their power proved more complicated.
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 for a period 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 the form of troops and supplies. No response came until 1864 because nearly all available men and material were in use 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.
Those optimistic predictions were soon shattered by revenge raids of the Cheyenne. 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, were found 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.
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. This attitude was widely shared by other Euro-Americans 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 put an end to 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.
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 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 both patrol the Platte River Road and to 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.