History Colorado (HC) was founded in 1879 by the state legislature as the State Historical and Natural History Society. Later known as the Colorado Historical Society, it assumed its current name in 2009. HC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational institution and also a state entity under the Department of Higher Education. Its mission is to collect, preserve, and interpret the history and prehistory of Colorado.
Since 1879 HC has grown into a large organization based at Denver’s History Colorado Center. The headquarters houses more than 250,000 artifacts, 22,000 books, 30,000 drawings, 225 different newspapers, 1,000 oral histories, 3,700 maps, 800,000 photographs, and an estimated 7.5 million manuscript pages. HC also runs nine community museums and other historic sites scattered around the state, many of them originally local efforts that later sought the prestige and financial support the State Historical Society could provide. HC’s museums and historic sites include the Center for Colorado Women’s History at the Byers-Evans House (Denver), El Pueblo History Museum (Pueblo), the Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center (Fort Garland), Fort Vasquez (Platteville), the Georgetown Loop Historic Mining and Railroad Park (Georgetown-Silver Plume), the Grant-Humphreys Mansion (Denver), the Healy House Museum and Dexter Cabin (Leadville), Pike’s Stockade (Sanford), the Trinidad History Museum (Trinidad), and the Ute Indian Museum and Park (Montrose).
Physician Frederick J. Bancroft served as the State Historical Society’s first president, from 1879 to 1896. A Union Army surgeon during the Civil War, Bancroft had served as Denver City Physician from 1872 to 1878. He also founded the Denver Medical Society and served as the first president of the Colorado State Board of Health. During Bancroft’s tenure at the historical society, there was growing concern about Mesa Verde artifacts being taken out of state. In 1889 the society paid $3,000 for the 1,200-item Wetherill collection, the largest assemblage of Mesa Verde materials and the highlight of the society’s possessions to this day. After occupying various temporary offices, the organization moved to more spacious quarters in the basement of the still-unfinished State Capitol in 1895.
In 1896 Bancroft was followed as president by William Byers, Colorado’s premier promoter and founding editor of the Rocky Mountain News. That year, newspaperman Will C. Ferril (father of noted Colorado poet laureate Thomas Hornsby Ferril) became the society’s curator, its first paid staff position. Ferril and Byers began the systematic collection of Colorado newspapers, giving the society the most complete collection in existence. Ferril also started the society’s library and its educational program. He invited school groups to visit and by 1900 was lecturing to some fifty-four classes a year and annually entertaining more than 110,000 visitors. The society also set up exhibits in the capitol rotunda.
Ferril sometimes paid for important acquisitions out of his own pocket, energetically collecting natural history specimens as well as historical materials. The natural history department of the State Historical Society became a separate organization in 1897 and helped form the Colorado Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature & Science) in 1900. In 1908 it moved to its own neoclassical building overlooking City Park. Despite spinning off its natural history materials, the historical society’s growing collections soon filled its eight rooms in the capitol basement. In 1915 the society moved into a grand new home of its own, the Colorado State Museum, just across East Fourteenth Avenue from the State Capitol.
Early Archaeological Work
In 1920 the society established a section on Archaeology and Ethnology. It soon hired its first archaeologist, Jean A. Jeançon, formerly of the Smithsonian Institution and an expert on Indigenous Americans. As the society’s Curator of Archaeology and Ethnology, Jeançon mapped and explored much of the state, with a special emphasis on documenting and preserving the many Ancestral Puebloan sites in southwestern Colorado not included in Mesa Verde National Park. His major works included a 1923 tree-ring study that helped date structures at Mesa Verde and elsewhere. After Jeançon retired in 1927, the society’s archaeological section did not recover until the 1970s.
LeRoy Hafen and the Golden Age
LeRoy Reuben Hafen became the society’s first professional historian in 1924. He had just completed his PhD at the University of California–Berkeley, where he studied under the Western historian Herbert Eugene Bolton. Bolton recommended Hafen as Colorado’s first state historian and curator of history. Hafen’s work over the next three decades transformed the society.
Hafen greatly upgraded the society’s publications. He produced Colorado Magazine, which had launched in 1923, the premier place to publish scholarly work on Colorado. Hafen also worked with James H. Baker, former president of the University of Colorado, to edit the society’s five-volume History of Colorado (1927). Two decades later, Hafen edited the society’s four-volume History of Colorado and Its People (1948). During his tenure, he also wrote, coauthored, or edited forty other books, and he and his wife, Ann Woodbury Hafen, wrote the leading textbook on Colorado history for elementary and secondary school students.
During the Great Depression, Hafen’s innovative programs helped save the society when Colorado’s penny-pinching legislature considered abolishing it to tighten the state budget in 1933. The society became the first in the nation to design history programs for New Deal agencies. This led the Civil Works Administration (CWA) to begin pumping in relief funds for Colorado’s first systematic oral history project. Hafen used CWA funding to hire thirty-two historical researchers to interview old-timers, politicians, historians, and others knowledgeable about local history. The success of the CWA project led the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) to accept Hafen’s proposal to hire a small army of architects, artists, draftsmen, and historians to launch a nationally pacesetting dioramas project. Their fifty-one exquisite dioramas remain some of HC’s most popular exhibits. Most notable is the eleven-foot-by-twelve-foot diorama of 1860 Denver, now restored and showcased on the second floor of the current museum.
In 1935 the New Deal replaced the CWA and FERA with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which kept federal funding coming. Hafen hired an assistant, the author and journalist Edgar Carl McMechen, to help with the society’s New Deal programs. McMechen helped researchers compile lengthy manuscripts on the history of thirty-six Colorado counties. These WPA researchers and writers were instructed to collect “all available folklore” as well as “racial elements,” thus inaugurating the society’s long-standing interest in folk and minority history. Hafen and McMechen also helped direct seventy-five men and women working on the Federal Writers’ Project. In an ambitious effort to broaden Colorado history by including neglected common people, minorities, folkways, and obscure places, they completed manuscripts on topics ranging from “Churches of Colorado” to “Negroes in Colorado” and collected more than 4,000 photos and 1,200 oral history interviews. The WPA also assembled one of the best guidebooks ever undertaken for the state, Colorado: A Guide to the Highest State (1941).
Federal history programs ended in 1941 as World War II soaked up funding and provided military jobs for the unemployed. The society continued to pursue many initiatives under Hafen’s leadership. He proved to be an aggressive collector of all sorts of material, traveling all over the state to promote the society and solicit donations. Appointed in 1942 as executive director, he extended outreach to include educational radio programs and movies, beginning with his 1946 film The Story of Colorado. He boasted that this was the first movie made by any US historical society.
To handle its largest collection, the society launched a newspaper microfilming project in 1944. Microfilming began on the huge piles of Colorado newspapers that filled the State Museum’s subbasement. The Colorado newspaper project, the largest in the nation, has recently placed many papers online through a collaboration with the Colorado State Library called the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection.
After taking the society well into the twentieth century, Hafen retired in 1954. Agnes Wright Spring followed him as state historian until 1963, the first woman to hold that post.
Stephen H. Hart, who became the society’s president in 1959, took a special interest in historic preservation and made it an organizational priority. After the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 offered funding to states setting up an Office of Historic Preservation, Hart helped position that office in the society and became its first director. In an early preservation battle, Hart won a landmark legal victory to save Denver’s Daniels and Fisher Tower from demolition. This key decision demonstrated that landmark designation could save endangered structures. Preservation work now falls to the society’s Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (OAHP). OAHP has overseen the listing of some 1,300 individual Colorado landmarks and historic districts in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1975 the State Register of Historic Places was created to identify and designate sites of local significance not deemed eligible for the National Register.
Colorado’s 1967 Antiquities Act increased protections for archaeological and historical sites on state land. In 1973 the society’s long-moribund archaeology program received a boost with the appointment of a state archaeologist, James Hester. The state archaeologist grants permits to archaeologists and paleontologists working in the state; promotes educational outreach and archaeological programs; and settles conflicts between developers, scientific researchers, and Indigenous nations following the discovery of unmarked human graves. The society’s Archaeology Department, established in 1975, began to inventory, catalog, preserve, and regulate archaeologic sites, an ongoing mission often in partnership with the Colorado Archaeological Society.
To accommodate growing staff, collections, and exhibits, the society moved in 1977 into much larger quarters at the Colorado History Museum. There the society launched a new publication called Essays and Monographs in Colorado History, an occasional series of articles and books that started in 1983 and continued through 2011. This publication reflected the society’s commitment to publishing local history and original scholarly research.
The society also began to administer the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which describes the rights of Native American lineal descendants with respect to the treatment, repatriation, and disposition of Indigenous human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. Qualifying objects and human remains are returned to the tribes for proper disposition and burial. In working with forty-seven different federally recognized tribes with Colorado connections, HC’s practices have become a national model.
A huge boost for historic preservation that made Colorado a national leader came with a 1990 statewide vote to authorize gambling in three fading gold mining towns: Black Hawk, Central City, and Cripple Creek. Most of the tax revenue from gambling goes to the society’s State Historical Fund (SHF) to distribute to preservation projects throughout the state. More than $300 million has been awarded to some 2,000 projects across the state. In addition, individuals and businesses can qualify for state tax credits for approved restoration of designated landmarks.
The society experienced several major changes in the early twenty-first century. In 2009 it changed its name to History Colorado, part of a nationwide wave of similar rebrandings intended to show historical societies as relevant and dynamic rather than exclusive and old-fashioned. A year later the Colorado History Museum was demolished to make way for the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center. In 2012 the society moved into its third major home, the History Colorado Center. One reviewer appreciated the new museum’s mix of “irreverence . . . with Colorado boosterism” but lamented the absence of “a full sense of context.” The museum got its biggest black eye from its Sand Creek Massacre exhibit, which had to be closed when the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations—who were not consulted during its development—found the display inaccurate and offensive.
In the years after the HCC opened, high payments on the $110 million building and complaints about inadequate exhibits took a toll. After a 2014 audit revealed serious financial problems, History Colorado’s leadership resigned, the board was reorganized, and one-fifth of the staff was cut. Steve W. Turner, previously head of OAHP, took over as executive director, and Patty Limerick became state historian. Limerick became frustrated by the society’s continued emphasis on what she called “history lite,” or the elevation of entertainment and experience above historical understanding, and was replaced in 2018 by a council of five state historians—Nicki Gonzales, Tom Noel, Jared Orsi, Duane Vandenbusche, and William Wei—who help lead the organization today.