The discovery of gold near present-day Denver in 1858–59 drew thousands of people to present-day Colorado, prompting the political organization of first a US territory and later a state. Many current cities and towns, including Denver, Boulder, Black Hawk, Breckenridge, and Central City, were founded during the Colorado Gold Rush, and its associated activities produced tremendous social and environmental changes, including the displacement and deaths of Indigenous people and the pollution and large-scale manipulation of the Colorado environment.
Rumors of gold had filtered out of the Rockies since the sixteenth century. In 1807 explorer Zebulon M. Pike met trapper James Purcell in Santa Fe and learned that Purcell had found gold in the area eventually known as the Pikes Peak region. In 1850 Cherokees on their way to California found a small amount of gold in Ralston Creek in present-day Arvada. In May 1857, George Simpson noted gold dust in Cherry Creek, near its confluence with the South Platte River. Around the same time, gold nuggets found near the future site of Denver by Fall Leaf, a Delaware US Army scout, sparked Midwestern and Eastern interest in the western fringe of Kansas Territory.
More excitement was stirred in the summer of 1858, when the Russell brothers—William, Oliver, and Levi, along with John Beck and a party of Cherokees and whites from Georgia, reached Ralston Creek, where they found a little gold. They then headed upstream (south) along the South Platte, past Cherry Creek and on to Little Dry Creek in present-day Englewood, where they found paying quantities of placer gold. In the late summer and fall of 1858, hundreds of others followed in the Russells’ footsteps, leading to the founding of several towns including Auraria, Denver, and Golden.
The 1858 discoveries were teasers. George Jackson’s discovery of a substantial placer deposit in Chicago Creek near present-day Idaho Springs in January 1859, a lode gold (veins of gold embedded in rock) discovery at Gold Hill in January 1859, and John Gregory’s finding of lode gold near Black Hawk fueled a Gold Rush which drew tens of thousands of prospectors into the region during the spring and summer of 1859. Those adventurers quickly fanned out across the Front Range and traveled deep into the Rockies.
However, as historians Kent Curtis and Elliott West argue, 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 Indigenous Nations of the Great Plains, 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 group of Cheyenne warriors in Kansas created the perception that Native Americans were no longer a threat. All of these events helped push Anglo-Americans and others westward at the time of the first major gold discoveries in the Rockies.
Symbolism of Pikes Peak
The Colorado Gold Rush is often referred to as the “Pikes Peak Gold Rush.” Although there was some prospecting around Pikes Peak in 1858–59, major gold mining near the mountain did not begin until the 1890s with the Cripple Creek strike. But as the easternmost of Colorado’s Fourteeners, 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; its 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.
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.
As 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. Rich gold mines were in operation west of Boulder at Gold Hill and along Clear Creek by the end of April 1859. Other finds dating from that summer include Left Hand Creek, Twelve-Mile Diggings, Chicago Creek, Cache la Poudre, and the Jackson Diggings. Gold seekers swarmed over Kenosha Pass to South Park and the towns of Montgomery, Buckskin Joe, Fairplay, Tarryall, Hamilton, and Jefferson, and north over Hoosier Pass to American and Humbug gulches in the Blue River valley.
But additional discoveries were not enough to recharge the Colorado gold rush; that would take some timely publicity. 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.
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.
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.
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. It also marked the beginning of the decline of the Nuche, or Ute people, 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.
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, Lakota, Arapaho, 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.
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. Miner and taxidermist Edwin Carter noticed this effect as early as the 1860s, when he began finding pollution-induced abnormalities in animals. 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; one of the most dramatic examples occurred during summer 2015, when workers with the US Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released a torrent of water contaminated with liquefied metals into the Animas River.
Adapted from Carl Abbott, Stephen J. Leonard, and Thomas J. Noel, Colorado: A History of the Centennial State, 5th ed. (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2013) and Robert R. Crifasi, A Land Made from Water (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2015).