Native History: Colorado Territory Created Amidst Gold Rush
This Date in Native History: On February 28, 1861, parts of Utah, Kansas, Nebraska and New Mexico were joined to create the Colorado Territory, known today as the state of Colorado.
Emigrants had been passing through Colorado since the California gold rush began in the 1840s, but it wasn’t until the late 1850s that Anglo-Americans came to stay. As the gold rush hit Pike’s Peak, two smaller cities, now joined together as Denver, became known for their lawlessness, dirty inhabitants, saloons, and vigilante law enforcement.
Miners and other white residents pressured congress to create the new territory but because of the national slavery debate, Congress had avoided it. Finally, in 1861, “Abraham Lincoln had been elected but not yet inaugurated, and Congress declared the area Colorado Territory, with the understanding that slavery would be prohibited once Lincoln took office,” William Convery, Colorado state historian, said.
Slavery laws varied throughout the four newly connected states. Convery noted that New Mexico’s law kept free blacks out, and the Hispanic population had Ute and Navaho slaves. In Kansas, slavery had been hotly contested with its own minor civil war. In Nebraska, slavery was illegal; but in Utah, the law was unclear. “Technically, it was illegal, but Governor Brigham Young kept inviting slave owners to Utah,” Convery said.
In the end, the increased pressure of the miners resulted in the creation of the Colorado Territory. Among the first to find gold in the territory was Captain Fall Leaf, a Delaware Indian, who had been a leading scout with Major John Sedgwick during the Sumner Sedgwick Expedition. “During the expedition, the soldiers encountered a group of Missouri prospectors, and Fall Leaf acquired some of their gold,” Convery said.
Exaggerated stories of massive gold strikes abounded. Fall Leaf, highly regarded as a truthful man, told tales of gold nuggets as large as boulders, and inspired merchants in Lawrence, Kansas, to travel to Pike’s Peak in 1858. In "The Illustrated Miners Handbook and Guide to Pikes Peak", some miners said gold was hanging like stalactites in caves.
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