Elbert County, named for former Colorado territorial governor Samuel H. Elbert, covers 1,851 square miles on the Great Plains southeast of Denver. It is bordered to the north by Arapahoe County, to the east and south by Lincoln County, to the south by El Paso County, and to the west by Douglas County.
Established in 1874, Elbert County today has a population of 23,086 and is one of the fastest-growing counties in Colorado. The town of Kiowa (population 723) is the county seat. Other communities include Elizabeth (1,358), Simla (618), Elbert (230), and the small community of Agate (no population listed). Like neighboring Lincoln County, Elbert County has a long history associated with transportation, beginning with the Smoky Hill emigrant trail in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing through the railroad and interstate highway eras. Today Interstate 70 runs across the county’s northeast corner, while State Highway 86 connects the communities of Ponderosa Park, Elizabeth, and Kiowa in western Elbert County and US Highway 24 links Simla and the small community of Matheson farther south.
Owing to its proximity to the Rocky Mountain foothills, western Elbert County contains more tree cover than its neighbors farther out on the plains. The county also features a multitude of streams and creeks: Kiowa Creek and the three branches of Bijou Creek flow northward into the South Platte River, while Big Sandy Creek eventually feeds the Arkansas River.
From around AD 1000 to 1400, members of the Upper Republican and Itskari cultures occupied parts of eastern Colorado, including present-day Elbert County. These semisedentary peoples fished, farmed, and hunted buffalo, living in earth lodges and crafting distinctive ceramic pots. While they seemed to thrive in eastern Colorado for nearly three centuries, it appears that environmental pressures—most likely drought—caused them to gradually abandon the region. There is little evidence of their presence in the area by the mid-fifteenth century.
The Comanche, a horse-mounted people who expanded southward from western Wyoming in the eighteenth century, moved through the Elbert County area in the mid-eighteenth century on their way to the Arkansas River valley. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the expanding Lakota had displaced other equestrian peoples from the upper Midwest and northern plains, including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kiowa. These people moved south onto the plains of Wyoming and Colorado. The Ute people, who had occupied Colorado’s mountains since the fourteenth century, also frequented the Elbert County area.
The Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kiowa followed buffalo herds across the plains, living in portable dwellings called tipis. During the notoriously harsh plains winters, they found shelter near bluffs and in cottonwood groves along the river bottoms. While the Cheyenne and Kiowa rarely left the plains, the Arapaho made a habit of venturing into the mountains to hunt game in the high country. Occupying much of the same territory and fighting common enemies such as the Lakota and Ute, the Cheyenne and Arapaho formed an alliance in the early 1800s.
On maps in the United States and Europe, the Elbert County area was nominally part of France until 1803, when it was transferred to the United States via the Louisiana Purchase. The first American military explorations of what became Colorado—those of Zebulon Pike (1806–07) and Stephen Long (1820)—followed over the next two decades, but the Elbert County area, along with the rest of Colorado, remained exclusively the domain of Native Americans.
In 1840 the Kiowa, Comanche, and Lakota joined the Cheyenne and Arapaho in an unprecedented alliance with a similar goal: to resolve territorial disputes and better deal with the growing number of whites, who were by then migrating west along the Oregon Trail and competing with Native Americans for resources on the northern Great Plains. That traffic only increased after the end of the Mexican-American War and the discovery of gold in California in 1848.
To make the westward journey safer for white Americans, the federal government brokered the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851. Signed by the Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho, and other Plains Indian groups, the treaty affirmed indigenous sovereignty across the plains. It also promised annual payments to Native Americans in exchange for allowing the building of roads and forts and ensuring that white emigrants could pass safely through their territory.
Rush across the Plains
Two events in the late 1850s both pushed and pulled white Americans from the eastern United States to Colorado. First, an economic downturn began in September 1857. The next year, William Green Russell’s party found gold near the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, which set off the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59. Thousands of people seeking gold and a fresh start began streaming across the plains to Colorado. Native Americans viewed this as a breach of their sovereignty embedded in the Treaty of Fort Laramie, as whites cut precious timber along the riverbanks, killed buffalo and other game, trampled grass for grazing with their wagon trains, and began establishing towns such as Denver and Colorado City. The Colorado Gold Rush prompted the organization of the Colorado Territory and the Treaty of Fort Wise in 1861. Under the new treaty, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were granted a reservation just to the southeast of present-day Elbert County.
During the Colorado Gold Rush, four routes—northern, north-central, south-central, and southern—took immigrants across the Great Plains to the Rockies. The two central routes followed the Republican and Smoky Hill Rivers, passing through present-day Elbert County. The Smoky Hill route was presumed to be the most direct, but it was also the least known and most dangerous, as it included a disorienting riverless stretch in eastern Colorado. When travel between Denver and places east became more regular in the 1860s, stagecoach companies operated lines along the central routes.
The gold rush of 1858–59 brought the first white settlers to what is now Elbert County. Many were unlucky gold seekers who decided to stay in the area and set up sawmills or ranches. At that time, the Black Forest, which today lies just over the El Paso County line, reached into present-day Elbert County, and logs from the area helped build some of Denver’s first buildings. Early sawmills included the Gomer family sawmill just south of present-day Elbert and the Aldar Bassatt sawmill near present-day Elizabeth.
By the late 1860s, most of Colorado’s Cheyenne and Arapaho people had been forcibly removed from the Elbert County area under the terms of the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867.
Elbert County was established in 1874, the last year of Samuel Elbert’s governorship. It originally extended from the Kansas border in the east to the current Douglas County line in the west. At that time, there were fifty-two post offices listed in the county; by the late 1970s, only ten of these remained on the map, testifying to the broader trend of booms and busts across Colorado. Kiowa, one Elbert County town that has endured, was established in 1859 as a stage stop—known as “Middle Kiowa—along the Smoky Hill Trail. After the county was formed, Middle Kiowa quickly built a courthouse, making it the logical choice for county seat.
Other towns were established with the coming of the railroads in the 1870s and 1880s. The Kansas Pacific Railway arrived first, in 1870, and the ranching community of Agate was established along its tracks in 1876. In 1881 former territorial governor John Evans organized the Denver & New Orleans Railroad (D&NO), and later that year it reached the site of Elizabeth—a town Evans named after his sister-in-law. The D&NO proceeded southward, reaching the present site of Elbert in 1881, and that town was officially platted in 1884. In 1889 Elbert County assumed its current boundaries with the creation of Lincoln, Kit Carson, and Cheyenne Counties.
The arrival of the railroads put Elbert County towns on the map, but some did not truly begin to develop until after 1900, when a second wave of homesteaders arrived. Agate, for instance, developed during World War I, when the Union Pacific Railroad, the largest landholder in the area, began selling land.
Like all counties on the Colorado plains, Elbert County was hit hard by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s. Between 1929 and 1934, the number of farms reporting crop failure more than doubled, falling from 486 to 1,025. In all, the depression caused more than 1,100 people to leave Elbert County by 1940.
Compounding the economic disaster of the 1930s was the deadly Kiowa Creek flood of 1935, the worst natural disaster in county history. Arriving on May 30, the flood washed away nearly half of the town of Elbert, including the railroad tracks and depot, and killed three people. After the flood, Elbert residents built dams and water ponds to slow future floodwaters, efforts that have so far proved effective in preventing catastrophic floods. While Elbert’s pre-flood days remain mostly a memory, several surviving buildings, including the Sacred Heart and St. Mark Presbyterian Churches, as well as a segment of trackless D&NO railroad grade, allow glimpses into what Elbert looked like before the disaster.
The decades following World War II saw innovations in agriculture, including machinery such as combines, chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides, and the development of center-pivot irrigation. These changes not only allowed for larger farms but also encouraged the consolidation of farmland by those who could afford to invest in the new machinery and chemicals. Between 1950 and 1982, the average farm size in Elbert County increased by more than 300 acres, while the number of farms dropped from 811 to 611, even though the amount of farmland remained the same.
Today agriculture remains the main economic driver in Elbert County. The county raises more than 30,000 head of cattle and is also one of the state’s top producers of horses and other draught animals, with more than 1,400. Elbert County also ranks in the top third of Colorado counties in wheat production.
Elbert County’s culture mirrors its rural traditions of farming and ranching. The annual Elizabeth Stampede and Rodeo, for instance, has been a mainstay of the small town for more than fifty years and has become one of the most popular annual events on the Colorado plains. In 2015 more than 9,000 people attended the Elizabeth Stampede, which is on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Mountain States Circuit and draws rodeo enthusiasts from Colorado and across the American West.
Beyond agriculture, the roots of a real estate boom in northwestern Elbert County began in the 1970s with the development of Ponderosa Park and The Pinery, both bedroom communities of Elizabeth and Parker. As outgrowths of Denver’s expanding metropolitan area, these neighborhoods grew significantly between 1990 and 2000, when more than 10,000 people moved to Elbert County. The county added another 3,200 residents between 2000 and 2014, making it one of the fastest-growing counties in Colorado.