Life in the Old West

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Gold Rush came slowly in early Colorado


The so-called Gold Rush, which burst into America’s history with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848, came about in pretty leisurely fashion in Colorado, driven by the casual bands of settlers and stragglers that came to be known as Coloradans. (They “came to be known” by that name because the earliest miners and settlers who populated the region first named it “Jefferson Territory.” The name “Colorado” came as a second choice, after the initial enthusiasm to name the territory to honor President Thomas Jefferson.)

Early explorers in the region, from the Spanish to Zebulon Pike and a broad range of early fur trappers and Mountain Men, all reported finding traces of gold in Colorado’s streams and mountain regions from time to time. The territory was tacked together from land bought by Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase and land later ceded by Mexico as a result of the Mexican American War in the 1840s. So the whole area of eastern Kansas and Colorado saw a great mix of transient people and cultures — and that’s without considering the Indian tribal groups such as the Utes, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and even some Apaches.

(In an interesting side note, a group of Cherokee Indians who had done mining in Georgia passed through Colorado in 1850 on their way to the California Gold Rush. One of them, John L. Brown, noted in his diary that gold samples had been found in the South Platte River. But the Cherokees moved on to California.)

But until the late 1850s no one really settled down to the business of making a serious search for gold in Colorado. If anything, the territory was considered as a transit region, not worth serious prospecting efforts. It was simply one of the many westward staging areas which had usable passes over the Rockies to the known, proven gold fields of California. As the idea of possible truth in those rumors of Colorado gold began to sink in, some of the wayfarers paused in their westward journeys and started looking in the region’s streams, notably the South Platte. And sure enough, they found the gold they were craving.

According to a fascinating history of Colorado and its settlement, “The Coloradans,” by Robert G. Athearn, the Gold Rush was more of an ambling, scratching and digging around that started in 1858-59 near Cherry Creek with the building of a small settlement which later became Denver. Nothing to look at, the settlement of consisted of a few cabins and a few people who’d been hearing about gold and decided to take a look around. Not so much a “Gold Rush,” the Colorado experience started out as a “Gold Trickle.”

Athearn’s book suggests the “Gold Rush” came about over the winter and spring of 1858-59, mostly when young men and adventurers facing economic hardship in Kansas and points east began coming into the region to try their luck. There was no single big strike that brought Colorado into its Gold Rush, but more of a trickle of gold and rumors of more which launched a slow migration into the region.

I highly recommend Athearn’s book. It starts with Colorado’s pre-gold days, details the saga of settlement and mining that shaped the state, and does an excellent job of describing all the fun and foibles associated with the Centennial State.