In the Trail of Gold and Silver, historian Duane A. Smith details Colorado's mining saga-a story that stretches from the beginning of the gold and silver mining rush in the mid-nineteenth century into the twenty first century. Gold and silver mining laid the foundation for Colorado's economy, and 1859 marked the beginning of a fever for the precious metals. Mining changed the state and its people forever, affecting settlement, territorial status, statehood, publicity, development, investment, the economy, jobs both in and outside the industry, transportation, tourism, advances in mining and smelting technology, and urbanization. Moreover, the first generation of Colorado mining brought a fascinating collection of people-and a new era-to the region.
Written in a lively manner by one of Colorado's preeminent historians, this book honors the 2009 sesquicentennial of Colorado's gold rush. Smith's narrative will appeal to anybody with an interest in the state's fascinating mining history over the past 150 years.
About the Author
Duane A. Smith is a professor of history at Fort Lewis College in Durango, and is the author or coauthor of more than fifty books on Colorado and the West. He also serves as chair of the Durango Parks and Forestry Board and on the Anima School House Museum Board.
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The Trail of Gold and Silver
Mining in Colorado, 1859â"2009
By Duane A. Smith
University Press of ColoradoCopyright © 2009 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
Pike's Peak or Bust
A gloomy winter slipped past, but gave way to a spring of 1858 that was not much brighter economically. The fowers bloomed, but too briefy to take most people's minds off the trials of daily life. Still, for two groups of people, spring finally brought the chance to follow their cherished dreams of gold beyond the western horizon. Gold, they had every right to believe, was waiting out there. One group, in Indian Territory, prepared to travel the relatively short distance to the foothills of the central Rockies, where some of them had found gold back in the California excitement of 1850. The other group, in Lawrence, Kansas, also knew that gold existed to the west, because the army scout Fall Leaf had brought some back from the military campaign there the year before. Unfortunately, he did not know its source, so they had to decide where to start searching.
As the two parties provisioned and prepared to travel, a betting person would have put money on the success of the Russell party out of Indian Territory. Its members had the most experience: Some had come from the Georgia gold fields, and others were from California — where, like many of their fellow rushers, they had met with little success. Their lack of success eventually forced them to return home, but gold fever still burned in them.
The initial discovery of placer gold, near where Denver one day would be, dated from June 1850, when a Cherokee party traveling to California panned some color near a small stream later known as Ralston's Creek. As times worsened in the late 1850s, the siren promise of those few flakes of gold intensified — if they could just relocate the place.
Veteran Georgia and California miner William Greenberry Russell, known as "Green" Russell, emerged as the major mover in the early days of Colorado mining. Related by marriage to the Cherokee Indians, he had heard about the 1850 discovery of "color." That intrigued him, as did the idea of seriously prospecting in the Rocky Mountain foothills. Correspondence during the winter of 1857–1858 between Russell and the Cherokees laid the groundwork. Russell, his two brothers, and six others headed west to Indian Territory in February 1858. There they gathered supplies and other needed equipment, and found more men who agreed to join the expedition.
Eventually, the party traveling west included the Russells, some Cherokees, and two groups of Missourians — 104 men in all, according to Luke Tierney, one of the early fifty-eighters. After intersecting the well-known Santa Fe Trail, they traveled to Bent's Fort, then up the Arkansas River almost to Fort Pueblo before turning northwestward toward Cherry Creek. By May, the Russell party had reached the site of the future Denver and the area in which gold had been found eight years earlier. By late June, all the groups had ended up together.
Disappointment, not gold, was their reward. Over the next couple of weeks, many discouraged men decided to return home. Finally, only thirteen men — all Georgians, led by Green Russell — resolved to prospect further. They moved northward along the foothills for about thirty miles.
Unbeknownst to the Russell group, another party had had the same idea. Fall Leaf's little sample had stirred up a good bit of interest among Lawrence folk. The long winter evenings gave locals plenty of opportunity to sit around and talk, and dream, and plan. Still, despite persistent attempts at persuasion and promises of rewards, Fall Leaf refused to guide anyone west to the gold regions. His stubbornness was probably wise: he had no idea where the gold had actually been found, and the Lawrence party going west may have seemed too small for safety.
Undeterred by such a minor setback as lack of a guide, when weighed against the expected rewards, about thirty men decided to try their luck at finding the site. In late May, they too set off westward toward Pike's Peak, the only well-known and prominent point in the region. Eventually, joined by a few others, their party grew to a total of forty-nine, including two women and a child.
As they headed for Pike's Peak, they met some members of the discouraged Russell party, but the Lawrence group determinedly continued. Camping near Garden of the Gods, they enjoyed the magnificent scenery, and several small parties climbed Pike's Peak (including the first woman, Julia Holmes, to do so). They found no gold, however, and moved north to Cherry Creek.
At Cherry Creek they joined some members of the Russell party who had not yet given up. They prospected but found no gold; hearing of gold diggings down near Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley, the group turned southward. They found old diggings, but yet again, prospecting failed to yield any gold. By that time, some discouraged members of the party had given up and returned home or gone on to Taos, New Mexico, to check out that area (Holmes among the latter). Then, at last, the group that had remained near Fort Garland heard exciting news.
The Russell party had returned to Cherry Creek and finally found some placer diggings. One of the party, William McKibben, who had a fine sense of history, described what happened when Green Russell returned to camp and "gave us the astounding intelligence that he had discovered a mine where we could realize $15 per day":
Our joy knew no bounds, we huzzaed, whooped and yelled at the prospect of being loaded with gold in a few months, and gave vent to any amount of hisses and groans for our apostate companions that were making all speed for home. We congratulated ourselves, sir, that we inaugurated a new era in the history of our beloved country.
At this point, the "Paul Revere" of the story arrived at the camp. While at Fort Laramie, trader John Cantrell had heard about men prospecting on the South Platte and decided to visit them on his way home to Westport, Missouri. Arriving on July 31, he stayed for a few days, secured some gold dust, and started home.
By late July, even before Cantrell reached home, rumors of gold discoveries reached newspaper offices along the Missouri, traveling via that mysterious mountain "telegraph." Both Leavenworth, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, papers printed highly exaggerated stories based on reports "direct from the mountains." The former claimed that 500 miners were making, on the average, $12 per day. The latter cut that figure to 150 miners making $8 to $10 per day. Considering the times, both stories must have caught readers' attention. The Journal of Commerce could not restrain itself: "The gold discoveries are creating great excitement in the mountains."
Meanwhile, by the time Cantrell reached the Missouri River towns, his imagination had long since taken wing. Initially he reported that the Russell party took out $1,000 in ten days; even more encouragingly, he "thinks if properly worked," one man could make $20 to $25 per day. That was a month's wage for many people, who earned a dollar or less per day, and farmers did not make more than a few hundred dollars a year. No wonder people thought El Dorado had been found! For the depression-locked Missouri River towns and farmers, no news could have been better.
Every day the story improved. Cantrell claimed that he had "traversed about 70 miles of country and every stream," and on every one he prospected he had "found gold." Thanks to the telegraph, the news spread relentlessly throughout the country, although never as fast as the exaggerations and speculation, which exploded like a prairie wildfire.
Gold discovered at Pike's Peak ... Parties are starting from various points for the new diggings.
Kansas Chief (White Cloud, Kansas), September 9, 1858
Gold at Cherry Creek ... Gold found in all places. A new gold fever may be predicted as plainly at hand. Eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains richly treasured with Gold.
St. Louis Democrat, quoted in The New York Times, September 20, 1858
The Star Salon has a large specimen of gold bearing quartz directly from the Pike's Peak mines. It seems to be very rich, and the sight of it is not calculated to allay "gold fever."
Leavenworth Journal, September 14, 1858
Those best acquainted with mining will no longer doubt ... gold abounds in the Streams.
The New York Times, September 28, 1858
Perhaps the most enthusiastic was the Elwood, Kansas, Kansas Weekly Press (September 4, 1858):
Gold! Gold!! Gold!!! Gold!!!!
Hard to get and Heavy to Hold
Come to Kansas!!
Meanwhile, some members of the Russell party ventured into the mountains and came back empty-handed. The entire group then took an extensive prospecting tour north along the Front Range well into Wyoming, without success. When the members of the party returned to Cherry Creek in late September, they were stunned to find members of the Lawrence party there, as well as others, including some traders. Still others soon joined them, the first of the fifty-eighters who had hurried west because of Cantrell and the newspapers' overblown accounts.
There was more than one way to make money in a gold rush, and the Lawrence party set about doing so by laying out Montana City, a site on which they built a few cabins. Not everyone thought this the best site, though, so, after organizing a town company, others laid out another "city" — St. Charles — and set out for home, leaving one member to protect their paper city. Thus did urbanization arrive at the future site of Denver.
At that point the remainder of the Russell party decided to split up. Some went home to get supplies for next year's prospecting; others went to Fort Garland to obtain winter supplies, and then rejoined the few who had stayed at Cherry Creek. The Cherry Creek numbers were increased by early-arriving rushers and the former residents of Montana City. They eventually called their site Auraria, after the hometown of the Russell brothers, who were telling folks in their hometown, according to the Dahlonaga Signal, that "prospects for gold in that country are quite favorable." The Aurarians founded the Auraria City Town Company in late October 1858 — a month before the Denver City Town Company formed on November 22, 1858, thus becoming the first permanent community within what is now metro Denver.
All this excitement resulted from perhaps $500 worth of gold having been found over the summer, most of it in the Cherry Creek region. That averaged out to less than $5 per person in the Russell party and even less if one figures in the Lawrence group, which had not found any gold. Their consolation prize was a wonderful tourist excursion through some of Colorado's beautiful country!
Not surprisingly, urbanization closely followed the gold seekers. Miners theoretically would find enough gold to pay for the services they did not have time to perform themselves, as well as for entertainment and other urban amenities, as they hopscotched across the landscape following rumor after rumor. The mining West thus broke the familiar pattern of a rural frontier moving slowly and steadily forward, with urbanization lagging well behind the population incursion.
Auraria was not alone for long. In November 1858, William Larimer, an experienced town promoter, arrived in the area. (Town promotion was an accepted, acceptable, and occasionally profitable pioneering venture.) He selected a site across Cherry Creek from Auraria, named it Denver in honor of the governor of Kansas, James Denver, and settled in for the winter. St. Charles fell victim to these newer developments. The sites were nearly the same and the "jumping" (in this case, overlapping city boundaries) had been "greased" by bringing some of the stockholders of the older site into the new company.
Auraria and Denver were rivals for two years, and then merged in April 1860. During that time, the news of gold in the Pike's Peak country was still spreading like wildfire. Some newspapers seemed to compete to top previous stories. For instance, the Kansas Weekly Press (October 23, 1858) told of a kettle of gold from Cherry Creek valued at $6,000-7,000. It continued: "Emigrants to the gold diggings have become so common it is useless to ask them where they are bound." They carried the essentials: "washers, pans, picks, wheelbarrows," food, and the all-important "whiskey." Most had no mining experience and must have planned to learn on the job. The Lawrence Republican (September 2, 1858) captured the mounting gold fever in verse:
Oh the Gold! — they say
'Tis brighter than the day
And now 'tis mine, I'm bound to shine,
And drive dull care away
Nevertheless, not everyone was caught up in the gold frenzy. The editor of Brownville's Nebraska Advertiser (September 9, 1858) solemnly told his readers: "We advise those taken with 'Pike's Peak' fever to not overdo themselves; we think the disease not dangerous, and [it] will pass off without any serious results, by taking a slight dose of reflection." He further opined that there seemed to be "no intelligence sufficiently reliable" to warrant a "stampede." That same day, the Kansas Chief (White Cloud) forecast that many persons "will rake and scrape up all the money they can gather, and proceed to the gold regions, where they will probably meet only disappointment, spend their means, and be left destitute."
These predictions were right on the mark, but the prognosticators might as well have been whispering in a windstorm. Many Americans who had missed the California opportunity a decade before saw a second chance in the midst of hard times. Furthermore, these gold fields were closer at hand and easier to reach. Thirty days from the Missouri River could put one at Cherry Creek and gold.
As winter set in, little settlements, optimistically called "cities," sprouted up around both the Cherry Creek diggings and along Boulder Creek to the north. With time on their hands, the newly arrived settlers also involved themselves in politics, electing a delegate to Congress and to the Kansas territorial legislature. This did not take place without some dissent, however. One letter writer called it a "partisan, sham election."
As 1859 dawned, the country thrilled to the Pike's Peak excitement, which occasionally managed to push the rapidly intensifying sectional crisis off the front page. In some ways it was 1849 all over again, with the major exception that Pike's Peak country, as mentioned, was located within days of the Missouri River. River towns, both in 1849 and a decade later, promoted themselves as the shortest and fastest way to the gold fields — St. Joseph, Leavenworth, Kansas City, Lawrence, and points in between all trumpeted their advantages.
They were followed closely by merchants hoping to tap the mounting excitement. They offered for sale anything related to that magical phrase Pike's Peak: gold washers, gold augers, medicine chests, bacon (which, they promised, would not go rancid during a would-be miner's western adventures), saddles, mules, chewing tobacco, pans, picks, even "Pike's Peak Life Insurance" for the faint of heart. Suggestions on what and how much of each item to take seemed to surface in every store that just happened to have the required goods. For depression-locked businesses and merchants, the frenzy proved a godsend.
Guidebooks promised to get the fifty-niners to their prizes in near "comfort and ease" — as it turned out, too easily and comfortably, really. Miners had a choice of nearly forty such guides, ranging from those that offered bare details to those that tapped the fanciful imaginations of numerous authors (a few of whom had been with the Russell and Lawrence parties or had traveled to Pike's Peak and returned in the fall of 1858). These books were published by printers from the Missouri Valley to New England, areas hit hard by the depression.
Despite the heritage of the earlier Georgia rush, and Southerners' involvement in the discoveries of the summer of 1858, folks in the southern states did not seem caught up in the newest enthusiasm. For them, slavery and states' rights issues were more pressing than a new gold rush.
Excerpted from The Trail of Gold and Silver by Duane A. Smith. Copyright © 2009 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Tom Noel ix
1 Pike's Peak or Bust 11
2 1859: The Year Dreams Became Reality 29
3 1860-1864: "To Everything There Is a Season" 47
4 1864-1869: "Good Times a-Comin"-Someday 63
5 1870-1874: Bonanza! "Three Cheers and a Tiger" 79
6 1875-1880: "All Roads Lead to Leadville" 95
7 The Silver Eighties: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times 113
8 "There'll Be a Hot Time" 129
9 "The Everlasting Love of the Game" 151
Photographic Essay: Nineteenth-Century Colorado Mining 173
10 1900-1929: Looking Forward into Yesterday 187
11 Mucking through Depression, War, and New Ideas 209
12 Mining on the Docket of Public Opinion: The Environmental Age 227
Photographic Essay: Colorado Mining in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries 245
Epilogue: A Tale Well Told 257
Bibliographical Essay 273