Thursday, September 26, 2019


For many years, people had suspected the mountains in present-day Colorado contained numerous rich gold deposits. In 1835, French trapper Eustace Carriere lost his party and ended up wandering through the mountains for many weeks. During those weeks he found many gold specimens which he later took back to New Mexico for examination. Upon examination, they turned out to be "pure gold". But when he tried to lead an expedition back to the location of where he found the gold, they came up short because he could not quite remember the location.
In 1849 and 1850, several parties of gold seekers bound for the California Gold Rush panned small amounts of gold from various streams in the South Platte River valley at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. The Rocky Mountain gold failed to impress or delay men with visions of unlimited wealth in California, and the discoveries were not reported for several years.
The Pike's Peak Gold Rush (later known as the Colorado Gold Rush) was the boom in gold prospecting and mining in the Pike’s Peak Country of Western Kansas Territory and southwestern Nebraska Territory of the United States that began in July 1858 and lasted until roughly the creation of the Colorado Territory on February 28, 1861. An estimated 100,000 gold seekers took part in one of the greatest gold rushes in North American history.
Pike's Peak or Bust!

The participants in the gold rush were known as “Fifty-Niners” after 1859, the peak year of the rush and often used the motto “Pike's Peak or Bust!” In fact, the location of the Pike's Peak Gold Rush was centered 85 miles north of Pike's Peak. The name Pike's Peak Gold Rush was used mainly because of how well known and important Pike's Peak was at the time.
The appearance of Pikes Peak on the western horizon served as an encouraging signpost for weary westward immigrants in 1859, and the mountain came to represent the rush to the Rockies more generally. The name was emblazoned on wagons and mentioned in newspaper reports about the rush, and the settlement of (Old) Colorado City was established at the base of Pikes Peak to supply gold camps in South Park.
The Pike's Peak Gold Rush, which followed the California Gold Rush by approximately one decade, produced a dramatic but temporary influx of immigrants into the Pike’s Peak Country of the Southern Rocky Mountains. The rush was exemplified by the slogan "Pike's Peak or Bust!", a reference to the prominent mountain at the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains that guided many early prospectors to the region westward over the Great Plains. The prospectors provided the first major Eurpoean-American population in the region.
A "Fifty-Niner" seeking gold

The first decade of the boom was largely concentrated along the South Platte River at the base of the Rocky Mountains. The Pike's Peak Gold Rush sent many Americans into a frenzy, prompting them to pack up their belongings and head to Colorado. This initial boom influenced people to begin falsifying information, often sending people out to the west without any proof of a true presence of gold. As early as the spring of 1859, people raced to the Pike's Peak country. Some even dared to go out in the winter of 1858 to try to get a head start, only to realize that they would have to wait until the snow melted to even begin their mining for gold.
Historians Kent Curtis and Elliott West argue that the discovery of gold alone was not enough to set off a rush. Two other factors—the pacification of Native Americans and the unstable economy—opened the door for the surge of immigrants to Colorado in 1859. First, the treaties of Fort Laramie (1851) and Fort Atkinson (1853), signed by representatives of the United States and several Plains Indians tribes, made the westward trails a bit safer for Anglo-American travelers. Then, an economic downturn beginning in 1857 bankrupted many eastern families, giving them the incentive to head west and start over. Finally, in 1857, news of Col. Edwin V. Sumner’s victory over a band of Cheyenne Indians in Kansas created the perception that Native Americans were no longer a threat. All of these events helped push Anglo-Americans westward at the time of the first major gold discoveries in the Rockies.
The rush created a few mining camps such as Denver City and Boulder City that would develop into cities. Many smaller camps such as Auraria and Saint Charles City were absorbed by larger camps and towns. Scores of other mining camps have faded into ghost towns, but quite a few camps such as Central City, Black Hawk, Georgetown, and Idaho Springs survive.

But Where’s the Gold?
As the hysteria of the California Gold Rush faded, many discouraged gold seekers returned home. Rumors of gold in the Rocky Mountains persisted and several small parties explored the region. In the summer of 1857, a party of Spanish-speaking gold seekers from New Mexico worked a placer deposit along the South Platte River about 5 miles above Cherry Creek (now part of metropolitan Denver).
When the spring migration began in earnest, editors started to worry that no shipments of gold had yet appeared from those who had wintered on the South Platte River. In early May the first reports of the “go-backers” appeared: stories of disappointed prospectors who had reached the Cherry Creek settlements, tried their hand at panning, and then gave up. By mid-May the ragged, foot-weary go-backers were crossing paths with thousands of wagons heading toward Colorado. According to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, the total number of go-backers may have been as high as 40,000.
By early May, Denver had lost two-thirds of its people, and the entire population of the gold region was perhaps only 3,000, a small increase over January and February. The region had gone through an entire cycle of boom and bust in half a year.
While thousands made their way back eastward across the plains, others turned to new gulches and new hopes along the Front Range. But additional discoveries were not enough to recharge the Colorado gold rush. The break came on May 13. Denverites were astonished by the display of a vial containing eighty dollars’ worth of gold brought from diggings found a week earlier by Gregory near the North Fork of Clear Creek. By the end of May, the excitement had grown so intense that towns at the base of the mountains were almost emptied.
William Greeley
Greeley, editor of the nation’s most widely read newspaper, visited Gregory Gulch in June and confirmed the findings in a Rocky Mountain News article. Prospectors became possessed by “Gregory Fever.” Early that month the wooded slopes of Gregory Gulch sheltered a population of 4,000 or 5,000 that slept in tents or lean-to shelters of pine boughs. Over the next month 500 newcomers arrived daily. They dug test holes, uprooted the eighty-foot pines, and left the landscape desolate in search of pockets of pay dirt. They set up numerous camps, one of which—Central City—emerged as the dominant gold camp in the area.
William Greenberry Russell was a Georgian who worked in the California gold fields in the 1850s. Russell was married to a Cherokee woman, and through his connections to the tribe, he heard about an 1849 discovery of gold along the South Platte River. Green Russell organized a party to prospect along the South Platte River, setting off with his two brothers and six companions in February 1858. They rendezvoused with Cherokee tribe members along the Arkansas River in present-day Oklahoma and continued westward along the Santa Fe Trail. Others joined the party along the way until their number reached 107.
In the first week of July 1858, Green Russell and Sam Bates found a small placer deposit near the mouth of Little Dry Creek that yielded about 20 troy ounces (622 grams) of gold, the first significant gold discovery in the Rocky Mountain region. The site of the discovery is in the present-day Denver suburb of Englewood.
Colorado produced 150,000 ounces of gold in 1861 and 225,000 troy ounces in 1862. This led Congress to establish the Denver Mint. Cumulative Colorado production by 1865 was 1.25 million ounces, of which sixty percent was placer gold.
In February and March 1859, thousands of gold seekers, spurred by bad crops and the pressure of debts, assembled in towns along the Missouri River in eastern Kansas and western Missouri for the journey west. For $600—half a year’s pay for a clerk—they could buy three yoke of oxen, wagons, tools, tents, flour, bacon, and coffee for four people at Pikes Peak Outfitters. For several weeks in April and May, newspaper editors in the major Missouri River towns reported the passage of forty, seventy-five, or 100 teams per day, and observers found the roads leading west from the river jammed with emigrants’ wagons.
Tent City, Alamosa, Colorado

Most of the prospectors were young men, more than 90 percent of them born in the United States. The others came mainly from Ireland, England, and German-speaking areas of Europe. The 1860 census showed more than twenty men for each woman in the portion of Kansas Territory that would become Colorado.
Political Results
Politically, the gold rush of 1858–59 inspired the creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861 and shifted the balance of power on the Colorado plains from the Cheyenne and Arapaho to the United States. 
A large part of what became Colorado Territory
was formed from Kansas Territory.

It also marked the beginning of the decline of the Ute Indians in Colorado, as the US government moved to protect mining interests after 1859 by appropriating Ute territory through a series of treaties. By 1880, twenty-one years after the initial gold rush, the Utes had ceded most of the Rockies and western Colorado—their homeland for centuries—to the United States.
As many as 100,000 gold seekers may have started for the so-called Pikes Peak goldfields over the course of 1859, but observers believed only 40,000 reached Denver. Perhaps 25,000 entered the mountains between April and October. About 10,000 remained in Colorado by early August—2,000 in Denver, a few hundred in Golden, and most of the remainder engaged in mountain gold mining operations or ever-deepening lode mines. As late as September 24, more than 2,000 were counted in the six-square-mile gulch region around Central City, along the North Fork of Clear Creek.
Timber went for cabins, mining chutes, fuel.

The influx of so many white immigrants took a disastrous toll on the Native Americans living in Colorado’s plains and mountains. When the rush began in earnest in 1859, groups of Cheyenne, SiouxArapaho, and Kiowa lived on the plains, while Ute and Arapaho bands lived throughout the Front Range. Plains Indians spent the harsh winters along the sheltered river bottoms of the South Platte River and its tributaries as well as in the natural trough running north and south along the foothills. After 1858 Anglo-Americans increasingly traversed and occupied these areas, killing buffalo, trampling grazing grass, and cutting down precious timber. Native Americans soon found their resource base dwindling, and some began raiding wagon trains for supplies or in hopes of scaring off other white immigrants. Meanwhile, in the mountains, the Ute and Arapaho increasingly found traditional hunting grounds occupied by white mining camps, which cut into supplies of timber and game.
Faced with starvation and sporadic outbreaks of diseases for which they had no immunity, some Native American leaders, including the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle and the Arapaho chief Left Hand, attempted to secure necessary food and supplies through negotiation. In agreements such as the Treaty of Fort Wise (1861), the US government promised Native Americans food and payment in exchange for land granted to them in previous treaties. However, the government often reneged on these payments, called annuities, leading some Native American groups to continue raiding white settlements. Warrior groups such as the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers engaged in a protracted war against the US military until 1869, when a decisive US victory in the Battle of Summit Springs effectively ended Native American resistance on the Colorado plains. Afterward, most Arapaho and Cheyenne were moved to a reservation in present-day Oklahoma.
Economically, a variety of gold rush-related industries supplanted traditional Native American activities. Ranching and irrigated agriculture fed miners, while coal and iron industries provided energy for steam-powered mining equipment, railroads to ship ore to market, and bricks for towns and cities. Raw ore needed to be smelted to produce valuable metals, and cities such as Pueblo and Durango developed alongside busy smelters. In addition, the success of the 1859 gold rush engendered a sustained interest in the mineral resources of the Rocky Mountains, which led to silver mining in Aspen, Leadville, and the San Juan Mountains as well as the 1890 Cripple Creek gold rush.
Environmental Impact
Finally, the surge of mining initiated by the 1859 gold rush produced significant changes in the Coloradan environment. To extract gold from quartz deposits, miners used dangerous chemicals such as cyanide, which often leaked into streams, posing a threat to both wildlife and humans. Deforestation associated with the mass construction of flumes, cabins, sluices, railroads, and mining camps, as well as the removal of large quantities of rock in subsurface mining operations, resulted in less stable hillsides, making it easier for dislodged sediments to clog streams.
One of the most important changes that mining brought to the Colorado environment was the exposure of millions of tons of buried rock to oxygen, initiating a process known as acid mine drainage. Once exposed to air, sulfides in the metal lodged within the rock begin to break down into sulfuric acid, which dissolves the metals and allows them to drain into local water sources. Although it was initiated during the nineteenth century, this process continues to affect Coloradans today.
Family Story
I have a funny/sad family story that fits here. To say my husband (Hero) and his brother are competitive is a gross understatement. When his brother, sister-in-law, nieces, and nephews lived in Littleton, we visited them. They were kind enough to take us to Pike’s Peak, which we enjoyed. Somewhere while we were out exploring, we passed this absolutely gorgeous stream with crystal clear water like a picture from a magazine. Both men are fans of fishing and couldn’t resist challenging one another to see who could catch the first fish. This went on for twenty minutes to half an hour while my sister-in-law and I waited in the station wagon. (I can't remember where we'd parked the kids.) 
Two little boys watched the men. Close to half an hour later, one kid said, “Hey, mister. Don’t you know there aren’t any fish in that creek?”
Both men turned around and my brother-in-law asked, “Oh, yeah. What makes you think that?”
In a tone that suggested the men were pitifully dumb, the kid said, “Don’t you know the runoff from the silver mine killed ’em a long, long time ago?”
Did my sister-in-law and I say some snarky things? Oh, yeah.
All this gold mining research was because of my new novella WINTER WISH, appearing in CHRISTMAS WISHES: WHERE WISHES DO COME TRUE, a boxed set of fifteen stories set in Hopeful, Colorado. Reserve yours now for only 99 cents by pre-ordering at the Universal Amazon link:


  1. This is all so very interesting , Thank you for sharing this article, I love the old pictures also. And you did all this research for your Christmas book, I'm sure it is a Great book, if that is the cover it is Beautiful. God Bless you.

    1. Thank you, Alicia. I collect old family photos. I love all old photos and save a lot of them on my computer. It seems I do a lot of research for each book. I strive to make each different from others I've written.

    2. Caroline, thank you for a well-written, in-depth history lesson about Colorado history ... and the personal story at the end - funny, yet not!


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