Since the city was founded in 1858, Denver has included residents from a plethora of ethnic backgrounds drawn in by the promises of wealth and freedom often associated with the American West. As the city developed, immigrants from various parts of the United States as well as Europe and Asia flocked to Denver, creating complex cultural identities and ethnic tensions that continue to resonate in the city to this day. This article covers immigration to the city from its origins to about 1920, when the end of World War I and new national laws altered the nature of American immigration.
The First Prospectors and Fortune Seekers
What is now Denver has been a dynamic region full of movement for more than 10,000 years. Various prehistoric groups herded giant bison into gulches on the plains, camped in the shelter of red rock formations along the Front Range, and traveled higher into the mountains during the summer. By about 1500 CE, Nuche (Ute) bands from the southwest had spread into the central Rocky Mountains, while Apache from farther north started to move to the central plains, which received an influx of new inhabitants as the Little Ice Age brought milder temperatures and more rain to the region. Comanche and Kiowa drove out the Apaches in the early 1700s and formed a century-long trading alliance that lasted until another pair of new groups, the Cheyenne and Arapaho, pushed onto the plains around 1800 after being ousted from their old homelands to the northeast.
Despite the long history of Indigenous people making decent lives for themselves in the area, the so-called Pikes Peak region between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains suffered from a lousy reputation among European Americans before the 1850s. While the area did attract fur trappers as early as 1816, the vast, dry plains and treacherous mountains deterred farmers and other potential immigrants for decades. This began to change in 1850, when Lewis Ralston and several other prospectors bound for California discovered trace amounts of gold in a creek in present-day Arvada. William Green Russell, a farmer and prospector from northern Georgia, heard rumors of the Ralston Creek discovery and joined a party of 104 people who arrived at the South Platte River in June 1858 to search for gold. After a series of failures, Russell discovered small amounts of placer gold—gold that could be panned from streambeds—on Little Dry Creek in 1858.
One of the members of Russell’s party, Luke Tierney, documented the find in his journal, which he eventually showed to another experienced prospector, Daniel Chessman Oakes. Oakes gained Tierney’s permission to use his notes on the gold discoveries to write his own guide, History of the Gold Discoveries on the South Platte River, which he published in the winter of 1858–59 and distributed to several Missouri River towns. Oakes’s guide and others like it helped launch a migration of almost 80,000 people into the Pikes Peak region, some traveling in wagons marked “Pikes Peak or Bust.”
Many early immigrants who came to the Pikes Peak region were English, German, and Irish contingents from New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. Denver, for example, was founded in late 1858 by William Larimer, Jr., who was born in Pennsylvania and had Scottish ancestors. Like Larimer, most early immigrants to Denver were relatively wealthy already and had been in the United States for years if not generations; more recent immigrants from Europe and Asia usually could not afford the journey before railroads were built. Not only did these first immigrants seek riches, especially in the wake of the economic Panic of 1857, but many of them sought a reprieve from the cramped lifestyle of eastern cities. Some sought refuge from religious intolerance in the east; many Germans who came to Denver were Jews and wanted to practice religion freely. African Americans such as Barney Ford were also present in early Denver, though in significantly smaller numbers than in southern states and cities such as New York and Chicago. While some families moved west, most of the early residents in Denver were single men—many of them prospectors, some of them criminals fleeing the law out east. The first Denverites were often rugged, wild, and lawless, spending most of their time in saloons and boardinghouses when they were not panning for gold or working other jobs.
In the 1860s, Denver’s demographics shifted when the railroads were being built. The Union Pacific Railroad, building west across the Great Plains, hired thousands of Irishmen, and the Central Pacific Railroad, building east from San Francisco, recruited Chinese workers. Later in the decade, the Denver & Rio Grande and other Colorado railroads relied heavily on Italian laborers. In the 1880s, Denver’s immigrant makeup shifted again when smelters, railroad shops, and construction companies hired Swedes, Italians, Poles, and other eastern Europeans. The 1890s saw large numbers of Jews from Russia and other parts of eastern Europe settle in Colorado; many were poor and spoke little English. Largely confined to a ghetto along West Colfax Avenue, they worked as peddlers, salvagers, junk dealers, and day laborers.
In the early 1900s, growing numbers of Japanese, Greek, and Latino immigrants filtered into Denver as the city continued to grow and develop. The new groups came to Denver primarily seeking economic opportunities, and railroads made it possible for them to move quickly and cheaply. The railroad also brought a larger number of families out west, introducing more women into the male-dominated city.
A New Culture
For those who arrived in Denver prior to 1880, it was relatively easy to adjust to fellow immigrants because many of them spoke English and had lived elsewhere in North America prior to arriving in Denver. While ethnic neighborhoods were not as common in Denver as they were in eastern cities, many immigrants found cultural camaraderie in formal and informal social groups. The Irish formed a Fenian Society, Germans established a Turnverein (a health and social club), Swiss joined the Grütli Verein, Scottish formed the Caledonian Society, and English joined the Albion Club.
Twenty-five percent of Denver’s population was foreign born in the nineteenth century, and nearly all came from cultures where alcohol played an important role. Saloons such as Turner Hall, the Criterion, Cibola Hall, and the Club House presented not only an economic opportunity for immigrants but also an ethnic haven where they could consume familiar food and drink, speak their native tongues, and read newspapers in their native languages.
Many early immigrants in Denver also worshipped together. Because of the lack of denominational churches in the city’s early days, many different ethnic groups were forced to worship together until newer churches were built as the city began to develop. For instance, German Catholics begrudgingly shared St. Elizabeth’s Church at Eleventh and Curtis Streets with the city’s Irish Catholics until the Irish built St. Leo’s Church at Tenth Street and Colfax Avenue in 1891. Jews constructed synagogues and taverns such as Temple Emmanuel and Adolph Goldhammer’s West Side Family Liquor House, where they could worship and congregate together.
Some of the city’s later immigrants, particularly the Chinese and Italians, formed more compact ethnic neighborhoods, typically in the poorer areas east of Larimer Street near the South Platte River. Slavs and German Russians concentrated in areas north of downtown. Spanish-speaking immigrants from southern Colorado, New Mexico, and Mexico concentrated in west Auraria and Five Points. While most immigrants slipped easily into the local society and economy, discrimination and ethnic tensions still created problems for some.
The Chinese were perhaps most severely affected by discrimination in Denver. There and throughout the urban West, discrimination drove them into self-employment, most prominently in restaurants and laundries. European Denverites, fearing competition with Chinese workers, rioted against the Chinese on October 31, 1880. Rioters destroyed many of the laundries and homes between Blake and Wazee Streets, the section of the city that had become Denver’s Chinatown. The national opium crisis as well as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act caused anti-Chinese sentiment to remain strong in Denver, and the city saw its Chinese population decline from 1,002 in 1890 to only 212 in 1920.
In the early 1900s, Japanese bore the brunt of this “yellow peril” discrimination as much as their Chinese counterparts. In 1902 the Colorado legislature appealed to Congress to prohibit Japanese workers from crossing the Pacific. “It is beginning to seem that bloodshed alone will bring the Chinese and Japanese question to the attention of Congress,” one man warned five years later in Denver. Fearing violence, Japanese leaders in Colorado recommended speaking softly and being safely at home by 11 pm.
Until 1916 Germans enjoyed wealth and prestige in Denver society, not to mention significant political influence. This changed status dramatically when Colorado passed statewide prohibition four years before the nation outlawed alcohol. More than 400 saloons closed in Denver, causing many Germans to lose their jobs with major companies such Coors and Zang. Germans in Denver also faced widespread discrimination after the United States entered World War I in 1917. German citizens were fired, illegally imprisoned, and physically and verbally abused in the streets.
After World War I ended in 1918, the Russian Revolution of 1917 combined with domestic bombings and labor disputes to spur an anti-Communist Red Scare in 1919–20. The city and state passed laws intended to curb anarchy and rebellion, while Denver newspapers railed against potentially nefarious foreigners. Even when the Red Scare passed—with only a handful of Denverites arrested—anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiment plagued the city, culminating in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado.
With the reemergence of the Klan, prejudice against African Americans also grew after 1920, though this was not new. As early as the 1860s, Frederick and Lewis Douglass, sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, successfully opposed Colorado statehood because a proposed state constitution would have denied Blacks the right to vote. While many African Americans in Denver were educated and relatively prosperous compared to other immigrant groups, they faced widespread discrimination and struggled to achieve economic and political power. By the 1920s, Black Denverites were effectively segregated in the Five Points neighborhood, a formerly mixed community of immigrants that became majority Black as ethnic whites moved to outlying neighborhoods and the Great Migration brought a wave of new African American residents to the city.
A New Era
The beginning of the 1920s marked another shift in Denver immigration, an era that would diverge from the early immigration patterns that began in the 1850s. The end of World War I and the Red Scare caused a significant decrease in immigrants from Europe and Asia, as did new national origins quotas instituted in the 1920s. Meanwhile, the Ku Klux Klan gained a large following in Denver, with some members of the Klan, such as Mayor Benjamin Stapleton, elected or appointed to government office. These forces combined to push Blacks, Jews, and Catholics to the margins of the city, and out of it if possible.
On the other hand, the end of the war prompted Latino servicemen to move their families from rural centers into Denver, where they tended to settle in Auraria. The neighborhood was later demolished and the community dispersed to make way for the Auraria Higher Education Center, but glimpses of the bustling Latino neighborhood that predated today’s college campus are still evident in surviving buildings such as St. Cajetan’s Church, built in 1926. Indeed, Latinos would displace Europeans and Asians to become the most populous immigrant group in Denver over the course of the twentieth century, again changing the culture of the city.