The sleepy agricultural town of Julesburg, Colorado wasn’t always quiet. In fact, at one time, it was referred to as “The Wickedest City in the West.”
Located near the county’s northern border with Nebraska, Julesburg was once a busy way station along the 19th-century transportation routes.
The area had long been called home to the Arapaho, Cheyenne and other Plains tribes when white settlers began to push westward. In the 1840s, with the organization of the Oregon Territory and the California Gold Rush of 1849, Anglo-American traffic across the Colorado Plains increased dramatically.
In 1856, U.S. Army Lieutenant Francis Bryan found a Native American trail on the south side of the South Platte River with a crossing near present-day Julesburg. The army began using the route, and in the aftermath of the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859, it became part of the Overland Trail. Known by several names, including “Upper California Crossing” and “Morrell’s Crossing”, the area near here became a busy way station for westward-bound emigrants.
Around 1858, a half-French Canadian, half-Indian trapper, named Jules Beni established a small trading post and saloon along the Upper Crossing. It was located on the south side of the Platte River between the present towns of Ovid and Julesburg.
Prior to building his trading post, Beni had been active in trading with the Indians. However, with the nearby California–Oregon Trail filled with emigrants headed west, he found it more profitable to trade with the travelers.
Soon, more people settled in the vicinity and a cluster of a half-dozen buildings, including a saloon and restaurant, rose up. The stop quickly became one of the best-known establishments between Missouri and Colorado, and the largest settlement along the 350-mile stretch between Fort Kearny, Nebraska and the new mining town of Denver, Colorado. As such, it became a rendezvous point of traders, Indian fighters, buffalo hunters, and adventurers, as well as, desperados and bandits. Seeing financial opportunities, Beni expanded his establishment to include a warehouse, blacksmith shop, and stable. The settlement became known as Julesburg, after its proprietor.
In the summer of 1859, the struggling Jones & Russell Stagecoach Line chose Julesburg to be the site where its two westbound lines would diverge – one to Denver, Colorado and the other to Salt Lake City, Utah. When the stagecoach line came through, “Old Jules” Beni seemed the logical choice to manage the company’s station there. Later that year, Jones & Russell’s business failed and was reorganized as the Central Overland, California & Pike’s Peak Express Company. The stage company ran tri-weekly coaches to and from Denver carrying passengers, gold, and other express items.
The express company hired Joseph “Jack” Slade, who had a reputation of being a fearless man on an extremely tough frontier, as superintendent of the Central Overland’s Sweetwater Division, which included Julesburg. Slade discovered that Beni was not only a disinterested and corrupt station manager but was also an outright outlaw. He soon fired him. Afterward, a feud between the two men began to brew that would persist for at least a year.
In March 1860 Beni filled Slade with bullets and buckshot, but, amazingly Slade survived to return to his position. With revenge on his mind, Slade immediately began to search for the former station manager. In August 1861, Beni was found near Cold Springs Station, Wyoming and Slade shot him several times and cut his ears off. These he was said to have kept as souvenirs, using one of the ears as a watch fob.
In the meantime, Julesburg had grown into a prominent stop along the Overland Trail as well as the Pony Express. By 1862, Julesburg featured a hotel, several houses, and a general store. On April 2, 1862, a post office was established.
Although the increased traffic on the trails was good for the settlement, it angered the Plains Indians who had signed treaties with the Federal Government. These treaties guaranteed Native American sovereignty in exchange for safe passage for whites and allowing the government to build forts in their territory.
However, the treaties were being ignored. As a result, tensions between the Indians and white settlers erupted into the Colorado War, fought from 1863 to 1865 between the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations and white settlers and soldiers. The number of conflicts peaked in the summer of 1864.
Tensions between Native Americans and whites in the area erupted into all-out war after U.S. troops under Colonel John Chivington slaughtered more than 150 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864. The area Indians soon banded together to seek revenge upon the whites.