Delta County covers 1,149 square miles of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre River valleys in west central Colorado, including the southern part of Grand Mesa and the northern part of the Uncompahgre Plateau. The county is bordered to the north and west by Mesa County, to the east by Gunnison County, and to the south by Montrose County. US Route 50 runs across the southwest corner of the county, while Colorado Route 133, following the north fork of the Gunnison River, enters the county from the east and links with State Route 92 near Hotchkiss. Delta County has a population of 30,952.
The county is named for the confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers, which meet at the County Seat of Delta (pop. 8,915). Other prominent towns include Orchard City (3,169), Cedaredge (2,163), Paonia (1,497), and Hotchkiss (968). Agriculture has been and remains the economic backbone of the county, which contains more than 250,000 acres of farmland. Delta County is one of the top fruit-producing counties in the state, and also ranks high in sales of vegetables, potatoes, milk, poultry, eggs, and sheep products.
From about the mid-sixteenth century until the late nineteenth century, the Delta County area was primarily inhabited by two distinct bands of Utes: the Parianuche, or “elk people,” and the Tabeguache, or "the people of Sun Mountain."
Both groups followed centuries-old seasonal migration routes, tracking game such as elk, deer, and buffalo into the high country during the summer and wintering in lower places such as the Gunnison and Uncompahgre valleys. In addition to hunting, they gathered a wide assortment of roots, including the versatile yucca root, and wild berries. By the 1670s the Utes had obtained horses from the Spanish, which aided their nomadic lifestyle and allowed some groups, including the Tabeguache, to conduct summer buffalo hunts on the eastern plains.
Explorers and Traders
In 1776 the Dominguez-Escalante expedition from New Mexico recorded contact with Parianuche Utes—the Spanish called them “Zaguegunas”—just west of present-day town of Delta. The Spanish expedition was likely the first group of Europeans to enter the area. Trappers and traders were the next whites to arrive in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. The trader Antoine Robidoux set up a fort near Delta in 1828. The post featured Colorado’s first general store west of the Continental Divide and served as a supply hub and staging area for many of the region’s trapping expeditions. Trading at Fort Uncompahgre persisted until 1844, when Utes burned it down.
Removal of Utes
In an effort to protect the many mining claims along the Front and Sawatch Ranges, the federal government confined the Utes to nearly the entire Western Slope of Colorado by a treaty in 1868. But in the next decade, the Hayden Surveys traversed and mapped the Western Slope. Ranchers and prospectors followed and began squatting on Ute lands.
In 1879, the McGranahan brothers set up a store in the town of Delta. Farther north, growing tensions between whites and Utes on the Western Slope exploded that year with the Meeker Massacre at the White River Indian Agency in present-day Rio Blanco County. Utes at the agency killed Indian agent Nathan Meeker and ten others. The conflict terrified whites all over Colorado and became the impetus for Ute removal. A new treaty in 1880 took all of the Utes' land in western Colorado, and by 1882 most of those who remained were shunted onto a new reservation in eastern Utah.
Fast on the heels of Ute removal came white settlement. Along the north fork of the Gunnison, Ohioan settler Enos Hotchkiss had already scouted a town site in 1880, and he returned to legally found the town of Hotchkiss in 1881. The Uncompahgre Town Site Company was also established in 1881, and it changed the name of its site to Delta in 1882. That year, the narrow-gauge Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad also arrived, and Delta was incorporated. The town became the county seat when Delta County split from Gunnison County in February 1883. A few miles to the northwest, the town of Paonia was founded by two other members of Hotchkiss’s party: Sam Wade and William Clark. The town was incorporated in 1902.
Surface Creek Valley
Northeast of Delta, the Surface Creek valley includes Orchard City and Cedaredge. State Route 65, a Colorado Scenic Byway, runs through the middle of the valley. The highway leads to the top of Grand Mesa (11,333 ft.), one of the largest flattop mountains in the world. More than 300 beautiful lakes lie atop the mesa, along with several lodges and the Grand Mesa Visitor Center at Cobbett Lake.
The area of Cedaredge was first settled by Fred Leonard, who had the first homestead in the upper valley in 1881. Leonard sold his homestead to Pierre Settle, who later sold it to Henry Kohler and others who formed a large cattle ranch known as the Bar I Cattle Company. The first post office opened December 4, 1894. In 1905, a ten-acre parcel was set aside to start the town of Cedaredge, which was incorporated in 1907. Cedaredge is the gateway to Grand Mesa and the home of Pioneer Town Museum and a Heritage Trail through town with several Historic Buildings and a Golf Course. The area is still a farming area with cattle ranches, fruit ranches and vineyards.
Orchard City includes the small communities of Cory, Eckert, and Austin. Cory was established about 1895 with the creation of a US post office. There was a small store and later a lumberyard that supplied the upper Surface Creek area. Eckert was established in 1884 by Adelbert States and was named after his wife; the couple opened the first grocery store. Eckert’s post office was established in 1891. The valley’s first school was established in 1884. Austin was established in about 1885 by A. E. Austin Miller. To serve the orchards in the upper valley, several packing sheds were established as well as a canning factory. By 1902 a rail depot provided shipping for the area’s fruits and other farm produce.
Fruit was not the only lucrative industry in early Delta County. Ranchers began filtering into the area soon after the farmers. For instance, the ranching community of Crawford (pop. 442), located at the north entrance to Black Canyon National Park, received its first post office in 1883. Cattle and sheep ranchers quarreled over grazing rights during the late 1880s. Tension only increased during the Panic of 1893, when beef prices fell and sheep ranchers bought up large tracts of land from cattle ranchers. In 1890, a group of cattle ranchers formed the Cattle Growers Protective Association, a group that became known as the “Night Riders” on account of their violent attempts to scare sheep ranchers off cattle-grazing land in Delta, Mesa, and Montrose Counties. These range wars continued into the twentieth century; in 1917 a duel between sheep supporter Marshall Sampson and cattle supporter Ben Low left both men dead.
Agriculture and Development
By the turn of the century, Delta farmers were already making a name for themselves: after the Denver & Rio Grande Western installed a standard-gauge line in 1906, Delta County apples were shipped as far away as England. Then, large-scale irrigation projects undertaken by the Bureau of Reclamation between 1904 and 1917 doubled the amount of irrigated land on the Western Slope and led to an agricultural boom in Delta and other counties. By that time, there were some 6,000 farms across Delta, Mesa, Montrose, and Garfield Counties. Delta County farmers brought their produce to the market towns of Delta and Paonia, both of which grew substantially. Between 1900 and 1910, Delta County’s population increased from 5,487 to 13,688.
Agricultural abundance helped Delta County develop quickly. The first telephone lines arrived in 1901, and the county was electrified the following year. Thanks to fundraising efforts by the Delta Women’s Club, the town’s first library went up in 1911. Many tuberculosis patients came to Delta County during this period, believing that the region’s dry climate would improve their health. But beginning in 1908, this rumor was dispelled and the influx of tuberculosis patients ceased.
As they were in the eastern part of the state, sugar beets were particularly lucrative for Delta farmers in the twentieth century, and the labor-intensive crop brought about demographic changes. German immigrants worked the beet fields in the early twentieth century and settled in the area with their families. By the time the Holly Sugar Factory went up in Delta in the early 1920s, immigration restrictions during World War I had reduced the number of German immigrants, who were replaced by Mexican field-workers. Amidst widespread racial anxiety in the 1920s, local whites forced the children of Mexican families to attend separate schools until the 1940s. Currently, Latinos make up about 11 percent of Delta County’s population and account for nearly a third of the city of Delta’s population.
Today, Delta County remains one of the most important agricultural areas in Colorado. It was estimated in 2007 that about 70 percent of the apples and more than half of the pears grown in Colorado came from Delta County farms. In 2012, the county ranked second among all Colorado counties in sales of fruits, tree nuts, and berries, as the county’s 2,500 acres of orchards produced nearly $7 million in sales.
Ronn Brewer of Delta County assisted with this article.