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The Golden Roots of the Rockies
by Evan R. Oakley
Colorado’s Early History
What is now Colorado was first bought from the French as part of the Louisiana
purchase. However, this only encompassed Colorado east of the Rocky Mountains.2 The rest of
the State was claimed by the Union following the Mexican-American War. Following the war,
the Compromise of 1850 divided the Mexican Cession and the northwestern claims of Texas into
a new state and two new territories, the state of California, the Territory of New Mexico, and the
Territory of Utah. The rest of the land, including Colorado, remained unorganized territory. On
April 9, 1851, Mexican American settlers from the area of Taos settled the village of San Luis.
At the time, this was in the New Mexico Territory, but it later became Colorado's first permanent
Euro-American settlement.
For the next decade, the territory remained a wilderness, but some establishments, such as
Bent’s Fort, which was established 1840 in the South-Eastern part of the state, near modern-day
Pueblo and La Junta, were built, and became a major trading hubs in the area.3 Additionally,
others were sent to explore the territory, and established relations with the Native Americans in
the area. However, while this territory was now officially U.S territory, things remained
relatively unchanged. The government had very little power this far West, and little reason to
care about the area. As it was, there were far more pressing concerns as the nation moved closer
and closer to Civil War. Throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries, there were settlers who
moved out to Colorado, and interacted with natives living there, but the land was largely empty
and unorganized, and this did not change until later.
Striking Gold
The Denver area, part of the Territory of Kansas at the time, was sparsely settled until the
late 1850s. Occasional parties of prospectors came looking for gold, but would move on after
finding nothing. However, in July 1858, Green Russell and Sam Bates found a small placer
deposit near the mouth of Little Dry Creek (in the present-day suburb of Englewood) that yielded
about 20 troy ounces (620 g) of gold.4 This was the first significant gold discovery in the Rocky
Mountain region. News spread rapidly and by autumn, hundreds of men were working along the
South Platte River. By spring 1859, tens of thousands of gold seekers arrived and the Pike's Peak
Gold Rush was under way. Over the next two years, about 100,000 gold seekers flocked to the
In the following years, between 1858 and 1867, it is estimated that $25,000,000 was
mined in Colorado, with about 3/5 coming from placers, and the remaining coming from lodes or
veins.6 However, as time went on, lode mines began to produce the most gold in Colorado, but
because of the terrain, lode mines were more expensive and difficult to build. In the following
decades, new technology and research into metallurgy made mining in the territory more
effective, and mining became one of the most important industries in Colorado.7
This was the event that brought attention to Colorado as a region. Before this, people had
largely ignored the area, and for good reason. While some saw the area as beautiful, others
described it as part of the Great American Desert. Life was very hard in this part of the nation,
and there were much safer places to live. This gave people a reason to move to the area. The
hope of mining gold and becoming rich drew people to Colorado the way that nothing else had,
and it was the beginning of development for the territory.
As the gold rush brought more prospectors to the West, cities and towns began popping
up. In the summer of 1858 a group from Lawrence, Kansas, arrived and established Montana
City on the banks of the South Platte River (modern-day Grant-Frontier Park). This was the first
settlement in what would become the Denver Metropolitan Area. This was a big development in
Colorado’s history. Not all of these establishments lasted, but those that did helped provide a
foundation to build on. Furthermore, even when towns died out, and the people left, they
generally stayed somewhere in the area, rather than travelling all the way back to the East. This
meant an almost guaranteed population growth on the Great Plains.
Civil War
While all of this was happening, politics in Washington was heating up, and becoming
more divided. This issues of state’s rights and slavery continually drew more division between
the North and the South. As a result, the Government began looking West. The hope was that
more territories and states could be admitted into the nation that would further the anti-slavery
cause. in 1854, just before the gold rush, Senator Stephen A. Douglas persuaded the U.S.
Congress to divide the unorganized territory east of the Continental Divide into two new
organized territories, the Territory of Kansas and the Territory of Nebraska, and an unorganized
southern region known as the Indian territory. It was eventually decided that each new territory
was to decide the fate of slavery within its boundaries, but this compromise merely served to fuel
animosity between free soil and pro-slavery factions. The North and the South were becoming
increasingly divided, and the South no longer felt that their interests were fairly represented by
the Federal Government.
During this time, a group living in what would become Colorado tried to get a state
admitted to the United States. The gold seekers organized the Provisional Government of the
Territory of Jefferson on August 24, 1859. This territory until the creation of the Colorado
Territory on February 28, 1861. The Jefferson Territory included, not only land from present-day
Colorado, but also land that officially belonged to the territories of Kansas, Nebraska, New
Mexico, Utah, and Washington. However, the area was remote from the governments of those
five territories, meaning that Jefferson was able to claim them without any major disputes from
the other territories. The government of the Jefferson Territory, while democratically elected,
was never legally recognized by the United States government. Despite this, it managed the
territory with relatively autonomy for 16 months. In the end this new territory failed to secure
approval from the Congress of the United States, which was embroiled in the debate over
slavery, and the possibility of rebellion. Jefferson territory is a rather strange part of Colorado’s
history. It is unknown ultimately whether the territory would have been recognized during a less
uncertain time in America’s history, or if it still would have failed the governments requirement.
Either way, this is important, and it shows that there were enough people in the area to put
together a fledgling government and begin to run their own affairs. This also shows that the
people in the area thought that there was at least a chance of becoming a territory, and
eventually, a state.
The election of Abraham Lincoln for the President of the United States on November 6,
1860, led to the secession of nine southern slave states. Civil War was now all but certain. In an
attempt to augment the political power of the Union states, the Republican Party-dominated
Congress quickly admitted the eastern portion of the Territory of Kansas into the Union as the
free State of Kansas on January 29, 1861, leaving the western portion of the Kansas Territory,
and its gold-mining areas, as unorganized territory. These unorganized territories would
eventually become part of Colorado, and thirty days later on February 28, 1861, outgoing U.S.
President James Buchanan signed an Act of Congress organizing the free Territory of Colorado.
The original boundaries of Colorado remain unchanged today. The goal of this was to bring as
many people under the control of the Union as possible. This ultimately works, and units from
Kansas, and even Colorado fought in the Civil War, with the Battle of Glorieta Pass being a
notable example.
The Railroad
Following the Civil War, Colorado turned back to its own development. At the time, one
of the best ways to grow was to build railroads. The history of rail transportation in Colorado
began with the competition between two separate railways in the late 1860s, the Denver Pacific
Railroad and the Colorado Central and Pacific Railroad. During its planning, it was debated
whether the Union Pacific Railroad would send the transcontinental railroad through Cheyenne,
Wyoming or Denver. Eventually, it was decided that Cheyanne would make a better route. As a
result of this, Colorado railroad companies began competing to complete a line to Cheyanne. the
first town in the Front Range area to construct a connecting line to the Union Pacific Railroad
would more naturally become the economic focus of the Colorado territory.8 So basically, every
town in Colorado was looking to be the one to connect the railroad, because it meant everything
going into and out of the territory would have to pass through that town.
The Colorado Central and Pacific Railway was incorporated in 1865 by residents of
Golden, however this railway was unable to immediately begin constructing a connecting line to
Cheyenne. The existence of the Colorado Central and Pacific Railroad prompted the citizens of
Denver to incorporate the Denver Pacific Railroad on November 19, 1867. The Denver Pacific
Railroad laid its first track in 1869, and by June 26, 1870, the Denver Pacific Railroad was
completed.9 This was huge for the city of Denver, and Colorado as a whole. This is one of the
biggest reasons that Denver is, today, the largest, most populated, and the capital city of
Colorado. Additionally, the connection between Colorado and the Transcontinental Railroad
made things much easier for the people. It was now not only more efficient, and much faster to
move raw goods produced in the territory back East, but it was also much easier to transport
goods out to the territory, making life easier for the people living there, and making it a much
more enticing deal for potential settlers.10
Now that the war was over, and the nation was experiencing a relative calm, the
government turned its eyes back to the West, and continued expansion. This meant new states
and territories being added to the Union, and because of this return to Manifest Destiny,
Colorado became of interest. The United States Congress passed an enabling act on March 3,
1875, specifying the requirements for the Territory of Colorado to become a state. On August 1,
1876, just 28 days after the Centennial of the United States, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant
signed a proclamation admitting Colorado to the Union as the 38th state and earning it the
moniker "Centennial State."
While only a symbolic victory of sorts, this was still important to the people of Colorado.
It is true that the daily lives of most Coloradans did not change much as a result of this, it did
something for the mentality of the people. Now they were a full and equal state; their home was
now officially recognized by the Federal Government, more intimately tying them to the rest of
the nation. 30 years after gold was found near Pikes Peak, Colorado had gone from being
unorganized, sparsely populated territory, to a growing state with a thriving mining industry.
Colorado moving into the 20th Century
The discovery of a major silver lode near Leadville in 1878 triggered the Colorado Silver
Boom. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 invigorated silver mining, and Colorado's last,
but greatest, gold strike at Cripple Creek a few months later lured a new generation of gold
seekers.11 The New prospectors added to this by finding even more precious metal mines in the
State. For example, a man named “Crazy Bob” Womack found gold float in 1879, which led him
to digging countless prospecting holes in an attempt to find its lode. His efforts finally paid off in
1890, when he found the El Paso lode. Additionally, Winfield Scott Stratton discovered what
became the Portland Mine. By 1893, there were over 10,000 miners working the district,
produced one third of Colorado's gold output. Gold cyanidation, which is a metallurgical
technique for extracting gold from low-grade ore by converting the gold to a water-soluble
coordination complex, was introduced in 1895, and used alongside chlorination in the mills for
gold extraction.12 By 1895, half of Colorado's gold production of 660,000 ounces came from the
district. In 1897, half a million Troy ounces of gold was produced, and in 1900, 900,000 troy
ounces, which was over two thirds of the US output. By 1920, 41 mines were active, and
producing over 500 tons of gold.13
Amid some growing economic problems in the U.S, the Federal Government passed the
Sherman Silver Purchase Act on July 14, 1890. The measure increased the amount of silver the
government was required to purchase on a monthly basis to 4.5 million ounces. The Sherman
Silver Purchase Act had been passed in response to the growing complaints of farmers' and
miners' interests. Farmers had immense debts that could not be paid off due to deflation caused
by overproduction, and they urged the government to pass the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in
order to boost the economy and cause inflation, allowing them to pay their debts with cheaper
dollars. This also meant that mining could be even more lucrative, since the government had to
purchase the metal. More people moved to Colorado, and other states with precious metals, in
the hopes of becoming rich off of the government’s required purchase of the silver. However, too
much silver was mined as a result, which drove the price of the metal down. This led to the act
being repealed.
The repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 led to a staggering collapse of the
mining and agricultural economy of Colorado. It failed in its original goal of alleviating farmers’
debts, and in some ways, had made the problem worse. Additionally, prices of precious metals
had been driven so low because of increased mining, that many people were no longer able to
make a living doing it. However, the Colorado people proved to be resourceful, and found other
industries and businesses to fill the void left by mining. For example, between the 1880s and
1930s, Denver's floriculture industry developed into a major industry in Colorado. This period
became known locally as the Carnation Gold Rush.
For the first century after Colorado land was acquired by the United States, no one really
did anything with it. Very few Americans settled the area, and, aside from some Native
American tribes moving in and out of the area, it was relatively uninhabited. Then, around 1850,
everything began to change. Once gold was discovered, hundreds of thousands of people moved
into the area in the hopes of getting rich quick. As the industry developed, Coloradans developed
new methods of extracting gold, and other precious metals. As a result of this development, the
gold mined from Colorado made up a large portion of the total gold held by the Federal
Government. Now, there were, of course other factors that greatly helped Colorado Grow. The
political instability of the 1850s and 1860s resulted in Colorado becoming a territory, and the
railroads built after the war greatly improved the quality of life for people living in the area,
while also making trade between the East and the West more efficient. However, Colorado
would not have developed as quickly, or as fully as it did, if it were not for the gold found in the
Rocky Mountains.
Moving into the first half of the 20th Century, Colorado faced the same problems as the
rest of the nation. The Dust Bowl hit the Southeast part of the state, and greatly affected the
farming in the region of the state, found on the Great Plains. Additionally, the Great Depression
hit Coloradan just as hard as anywhere else. Despite this, Colorado has developed and grown to
the point where it is more populated than 29 other states. The population in Colorado continues
to grow to this day, drawing in people from other areas of the country. Given this trend, it is
likely that Colorado will continue to grow and build moving into the future. Many people may
see Colorado as a fly-over state, but it has left its mark on history, and has become very
important to the nation as a whole.
1. Due, John F. "The Carson and Colorado Railroad." Economic Geography, (1951): 232.
2. Morris, Ralph C. "The Notion of a Great American Desert East of the Rockies." The Mississippi Valley
Historical Review, (1926): 190-191.
3. “The Notion of a Great American Desert East of the Rockies.” 194.
4. Paul, Rodman Wilson. "Colorado as a Pioneer of Science in the Mining West." The Mississippi Valley
Historical Review, (1960): 35
5. “Colorado as a Pioneer of Science in the Mining West.” 36.
6. Ibid, 38.
7. Ibid, 39-41.
8. “The Carson and Colorado Railroad.” 262.
9. Ibid, 263.
10. Ibid, 254.
11. “Colorado as a Pioneer of Science in the Mining West,” 48.
12. Ibid, 41.
13. Ibid, 43.