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COLORADO, AMERICA'S CENTENNIAL STATE, is a land of both incredible beauty and starkness. Its eastern geography includes vast rolling stretches of the Great Plains, inclining imperceptibly upward from the slightly more than three thousand-foot elevation at the Colorado-Kansas border. To the West the state is split east-from-west by the towering Continental Divide, the "Shining Mountains" that reach points more than fourteen thousand feet high. They are the source of six great river systems that water nineteen other states.
This land was known to primitive Folsom and Yuma people who migrated across the Bering Strait from Asia between ten thousand and twenty-five thousand years ago. In southwestern Colorado, the Pueblo culture flourished from about the beginning of the Christian era to approximately 1299. Late in the thirteenth century, the Ute and Apache came into the area. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Comanches had arrived and succeeded in driving the Northern Apaches south to the Rio Grande Valley. At this same time, the valley of the South Platte River was dominated by the powerful Pawnee people until they were fatally weakened by smallpox. By the time of the Stephen H. Long expedition of 1820, the Pawnee had moved to Nebraska, and the Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapaho were of Algonquian origins and had moved southwest from the regions of the Great Lakes. To the west, the Utes now controlled the passes into the mountains and much of the high country. South Park, for example, became one of their home territories.
Beginning in 1528, the first of many Hispanic people came north in a fruitless search for gold, becoming Colorado's first European explorers. When precious metals eluded them, the Spanish withdrew, concentrating their efforts south of the thirtieth parallel where gold was easier to acquire. Traders, trappers, and an assortment of official American explorers carried word of the Pikes Peak country to the outside world, drew maps and gave names to many geographical features during the first part of the nineteenth century. But it was the Eastern American gold seekers who entered the land just after mid-century and were responsible for bringing great numbers of people to the West, inadvertently laying the foundation for another territory and ultimately for a new state.
At the time of the 1858 gold rush, there was no Colorado in the strict geographical sense of the word. The land that would become this state was still a part of the nineteenth century. But it was the Eastern American gold seekers who entered the land just after mid-century and were responsible for bringing great numbers of people to the West, inadvertently laying the foundation for another territory and ultimately for a new state. At the time of the 1858 gold rush, there was no Colorado in the strict geographical sense of the word. The land that would become this state was still part of four other territories. The Cherry Creek towns and most of the better front range mines were within the Kansas Territory, which had been created in 1854 under the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In 1858-59 the western boundary of Kansas' Arapahoe County was the Rocky Mountains. Future Breckinridge and its environs were a part of Utah at that time. Much of southern Colorado was within New Mexico, while Boulder and Gold Hill were a part of Nebraska. The fortieth parallel, today's Baseline Road through Boulder separated Kansas from Nebraska. Future Colorado Territory was assembled from these sources.
The South Platte and the Arkansas are the two principal rivers that flow eastward as they drain Colorado's eastern plains. Along the northern portion, the broad North and South Platte branches come together near the Nebraska-Colorado state boundary. To the south the Arkansas emerges from the Front Range at Canon City, flowing eastward to the great Mississippi River. Between the Platte and the Arkansas, just north of the thirty-ninth parallel, stands a high seven thousand five hundred-foot headland that rises gradually above the eastern prairies. It is called the Cherry Creek Divide, since that stream originates there. It is also the source of an impressive number of north-flowing creeks, all of which eventually empty into the South Platte River. From the West, their names are Plum, Cherry, Boxelder, Kiowa, Wolf, Comanche, Bijou, Wilson and Deer Trail. While most of these creeks join the South Platte at points further east, Cherry Creek's flow is northwest until it empties into the South Platte within contemporary Denver. A few words about the Platte are appropriate here. Formerly it was an enormous river. In prehistoric times, it was about a mile wide where it passed through Denver. Its banks were, respectively, Federal Boulevard and Grant Street. As the earth grew warmer the volume of water decreased. Flood control projects, diversions and dams have further limited its flow. At the time of the gold rush, it was about twice its present size.
Cherry Creek is a name that almost replaced Pikes Peak as a designation for the gold fields of Western Kansas. Wild chokecherries have grown along its drainage from earliest times and were one of the fruits used by the Arapaho people in making pemmican. Colonel Henry Dodge's U.S. Dragoons found "cherries very plentiful" while camped along the drainage of that stream in 1835. When Col. John J. Abert's map of exploration appeared in 1845, the name of Cherry Creek appeared on it, suggesting that the designation was already a well accepted one.
But the origins of some other names are less clear, and geography could be confusing at times. Many names were of Spanish or Indian origin. Some others were French. Even in the first half of the nineteenth century, there were persistent rumors that the elusive yellow metal could be found along the streams that flowed out of the so-called "Shining Mountains," a not-too-specific name for the Stony or Mexican Mountains. Maps of the time were not very explicit, and the term Rocky Mountains had not yet come into general usage. As late as 1820, Stephen H. Long erroneously identified Longs Peak as Pikes Peak.
Likewise, the name of Pikes Peak was erroneously given to Colorado's 1859 gold rush despite the fact that the gold fields were located about eighty-five miles to the north. But Pikes Peak had been "discovered" in 1806 and publicized after the War of 1812. Consequently, it became the only well-known landmark of importance and was mistakenly identified with the gold rush. Historian Francis Parkman refers to the mountain as Pikes Peak in his 1846 book, The Oregon Trail.
One of the best documented gold stories was reported in Zebulon Pike's own journals. When Lieutenant Pike was captured by the Spanish in 1807, he was detained for a time at Santa Fe. There he met mountain man James Purcell. Before coming west to become a trader, Purcell had been a carpenter at Bardstown, Kentucky. Purcell told Pike of having found placer gold near the headwaters of the South Platte River in South Park. Later, with the mountain man's typical disdain for material things, he threw the samples away.
In the 1830s a French Canadian known as Duchet found gold in South Park while trapping on Horse Creek, a tributary of the South Platte River. Like Purcell, he too threw the gold away. Later, in Santa Fe, small particles of the gold were noted among the emptyings from his pouch. Interested observers asked Duchet to show them where he had found the gold nuggets. He tried to comply, but he was unable to find the spot again.
In 1821 William Becknell, a trader out of Franklin, Missouri, became the person most responsible for development of the Santa Fe Trail. It was a businessman's road, built to connect the Missouri frontier with New Mexican capital. Its northern branch followed the Arkansas River past Bent's Fort, turned south near Trinidad, and crossed the mountains by way of Raton Pass. It had been widely used by trappers and by the military in the years prior to the gold rush.
West of Bent's Fort, at Fountain Creek, many Argonauts left the Santa Fe road to avoid crossing the formidable barrier of the Rockies. They turned their wagons north, following the along the Front Range shortcut to the well mapped Oregon-California Trail in Wyoming. Except for the few California bound Forty-Niners who followed the Santa Fe Trail along the Arkansas River, Colorado was largely spared the wear and tear of the traffic emigrating to the West Coast. The Santa Fe Trail was the principal road to the West. It was the major thoroughfare, a much older route than the Oregon road.
Maj. William Gilpin, later to become Colorado's first territorial governor, was an ardent believer in the future of the American West. After exploring with Fremont in 1843, Gilpin reported gold finds along Cherry Creek and in several of its tributaries, in South Park, near Pikes Peak, along the Cache la Poudre River, and on Clear Creek. In January 1848, Gilpin was back in Colorado to pursue a band of allegedly hostile Utes in the San Juan Mountains. There he saw unmistakable evidence of gold and silver. By coincidence, this was the precise month and year during which gold was found in California. In the Sutter's Mill hysteria that ensued, Major Gilpin's accounts were hardly noticed. Gilpin was back again in 1853. This time he was traveling across the West as a member of Fremont's railroad seeking expedition. Gilpin, by now a true western enthusiast, was still fond of repeating the accounts of gold in the Rockies. Such was the reputation and status of the land that was about to be plunged into the turmoil of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush.