On January 14–15, 1865, immigrant Holon Godfrey found his family homestead in Colorado Territory under attack by about 100 Indigenous warriors engaged in a campaign of reprisal attacks after the Sand Creek Massacre of November 1864. The fierce battle at Godfrey’s Ranch was an example of a common cycle of violence during the American conquest of Colorado: as white immigrants invaded and occupied Indigenous land, both whites and Indigenous people suffered attacks and reprisals, of which Native Americans bore the brunt. The fight for Godfrey’s Ranch reflects deeper stories of opportunity, expansion, and the violent consequences of occupation.
Holon Godfrey’s early life was one of westward migration. Born in New York in 1812, he moved to Chicago in 1844 to learn carpentry in the growing city, a skill that would prove useful on the plains. With the onset of the California Gold Rush, he was counted among the many thousands of forty-niners spellbound by opportunity. In 1858 gold again captivated Godfrey in the form of the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59. Colorado’s gold rush must have been lackluster for Godfrey, as he eventually settled near Julesburg, a stage stop along the Overland Trail, where he and his family supplied the stop from their fields. Gold had not once, but twice, tempted the Godfreys west. But land ultimately proved more alluring.
The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged labor and land out west. It was also a direct assault on Indigenous sovereignty, as its facilitation of white occupation put more pressure on Indigenous nations such as the Cheyenne and Arapaho, many of which were struggling to survive on the contested Colorado plains. The Godfreys, incentivized by the act, moved once again to a spot along the South Platte River approximately thirty miles from Fort Morgan. Here the Godfreys ranched and operated their own stagecoach station paired with a general store. As violence along western trails increased, the Godfreys built adobe walls, plenty of gunports, and even a watchtower.
“Free” Land and Failed Treaties
By the time the Godfreys arrived, Indigenous peoples had lived on the Colorado Great Plains for thousands of years, with the Cheyenne and Arapaho being the latest residents in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie recognized the Cheyenne and Arapaho as legitimate sovereign nations, with much of eastern Colorado as part of their domain. But the Colorado Gold Rush attracted far more whites to what became Colorado Territory. As these immigrants brought different ideas of land possession and contested Indigenous claims, often violently, the US government decided to replace the 1851 treaty with a new one that sought to nullify Indigenous sovereignty in the area.
The Treaty of Fort Wise of 1861 readdressed the situation, severely reducing the territory of the Cheyenne and Arapaho to a reservation between the Arkansas and Smoky Hill Rivers in southeastern Colorado. Warrior bands and younger Cheyenne and Arapaho did not accept this treaty. Living on a relatively small reservation would destroy important aspects of their culture, such as horse raids to supplement herds and gain societal prestige, as well as hunting to provide enough food. The Hotamétaneo'o, or Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, was one such warrior society that championed continued raiding and drew many young men to their ranks. They were opposed by peace-seeking leaders such as Moketaveto (Black Kettle) of the Cheyenne and Niwot (Left Hand) of the Arapaho.
On the morning of November 29, 1864, Colonel John Chivington’s soldiers massacred Moketaveto’s and Niwot’s peaceful bands at their camp on Sand Creek. The horrific event left the Cheyenne and Arapaho scattered across the plains right at the onset of winter.
A Swift Campaign and Wicked Fight
Arduous weather, poorly fed and declining pony herds, and reduced game typically discouraged the Cheyenne and Arapaho from waging war in the winter. Decades of land encroachment, neglected treaties, and the recent mass murder at Sand Creek caused them to break with that tradition. The fragmented and enraged Cheyenne and Arapaho began assembling allies by extending the war pipe. George Bent, also known as Ho-my-ike, was at Sand Creek and participated in the ensuing battles. He identified the recipients of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho’s overtures. The Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, specifically the Dog Soldiers, and several bands of the Lakota, including Spotted Tail’s Brules and Pawnee Killer’s Ogallala, joined in a war council. The council decided to target Julesburg.
The target was a purposeful selection, as Julesburg not only held a military installation but was also a communication hub, with a prominent stagecoach stop as well as telegraph lines connecting Denver and the greater Pacific Coast to the eastern United States. After the initial Indigenous attack on Julesburg on January 7, 1865, fourteen soldiers and four civilians were dead, miles of telegraph lines were in ruins, and the surrounding area was pillaged.
George Bent aptly called the weeks after the attack a panic. Without telegraph lines for communication, and with a weakened military post, the Overland Trail was vulnerable to raids from Fort Morgan well into Nebraska. The Indigenous coalition fragmented into smaller and sporadic raiding parties that decimated ranches and stage stops above and below Julesburg.
On January 15, 1865, a war party made its way to Godfrey’s fortified ranch. About 100 warriors succeeded in stealing cattle as they were fired upon from the gunports in the adobe ranch house. Holon Godfrey’s hired hands took cover within the adobe walls, and his wife and daughters helped reload rifles. The war party turned to fire, setting the prairie grass ablaze, and even used flaming arrows against the ranch. Neither tactic succeeded against the adobe bastions. Anticipating a siege, a Mr. Perkins, who was employed by the Godfreys, made a desperate ride to Fort Morgan about thirty miles away. He made it to the town and was able to send for help, but by the time a detachment of soldiers arrived back at Godfrey’s Ranch, the fighting had ended.
While they had successfully defended their own home, the residents at Godfrey’s Ranch helplessly watched American Ranch, about two miles away, succumb to a lethal attack that resulted in seven casualties. Reinforcements arrived after the belligerents had already left. Considering its staunch defense, the ranch was christened as “Fort Wicked.” Another story has it the Cheyenne referred to Holon Godfrey as “Old Wicked,” a name he repurposed.
After the winter campaign of 1865, the Cheyenne found themselves once again split, with most of the Southern Cheyenne heading south for quieter country, while the Northern Cheyenne joined their allies in continued raiding and warfare on the northern plains. Perhaps such defiant holdouts as the one at Godfrey’s Ranch, along well-established routes, convinced the Indigenous warriors to take the fighting elsewhere. For the most part, the Overland Trail remained unthreatened until 1869 with the Battle of Summit Springs.
The Godfreys soon moved again, this time near present-day LaSalle, Colorado. They have since been remembered and even celebrated as pioneers, with the Godfreys’ defense of their ranch along the Overland Trail enshrined as a stirring defense of the American homestead. The Godfrey name has been inscribed on the land, with Godfrey’s Bluffs in Logan County and Godfrey’s Bottoms in Weld County memorializing their “wicked fight” in 1865. A marker for the Godfrey stage stop stands near the intersection of US 6 and CR 2.5 in Merino.
Yet every victory flaunted by immigrants and their successors pushed Indigenous peoples another step closer to destitution. Diminished access to hunting grounds, scarce game, and poorly supplied reservations led to suffering and death for the plains’ previous occupants. The wicked fight at Godfrey’s Ranch exemplifies the larger conquest of the Great Plains, including opportunities for white immigrants, the fraught nature of homesteading, and the violent displacement of Indigenous peoples.