The Lake County War of 1874–75 grew out of a personal dispute over land and water rights in an area where increasing settlement was making both resources relatively scarce. The conflict ultimately turned into a test of law, justice, and state legitimacy in a frontier community.
After Elijah Gibbs was acquitted of the June 1874 murder of George Harrington, established ranchers in the upper Arkansas Valley formed an extralegal Committee of Safety that harassed and drove away residents sympathetic to Gibbs. This culminated in the vigilantes’ murder of Judge Elias Dyer in his courtroom in Granite on July 2, 1875. The violence in Lake County provoked debate throughout Colorado Territory, with some worrying that the lawlessness threatened Colorado’s chances of attaining statehood.
The Lake County War began on June 16, 1874, near Centerville, a town north of present-day Salida, which was still part of Lake County at the time. That day, rancher Elijah Gibbs and his hired hand, Stewart McClish, got into a disagreement with neighboring rancher George Harrington over fencing and water rights along a branch of Gas Creek. The disagreement escalated into a fight, with Gibbs brandishing a gun, but all three men walked away without serious injury. That night, however, someone set fire to an outbuilding on Harrington’s property, and when Harrington went outside to douse the flames, he was shot dead. Because of their earlier altercation with Harrington, Gibbs and McClish were arrested as suspects.
The murder and subsequent arrests acted as a catalyst in a community riven by conflict. Gibbs was a newcomer to the region but had already become associated with the Regulators, a group allegedly formed earlier that spring to enrich its members through violence and robbery. Some locals wanted him lynched for the Harrington murder, but cooler heads prevailed, keeping Gibbs and McClish safely in custody as they awaited trial in Granite, the county seat. Nevertheless, emotions remained at such a feverish pitch that the trial was relocated to Denver in an attempt to secure an impartial jury. After the trial that October, the lack of convincing evidence against Gibbs and McClish led the jury to acquit. McClish left the region, but Gibbs returned to his ranch.
After Gibbs’s acquittal and return to Centerville in October 1874, Lake County appeared placid for the next few months. Beneath the surface, however, tensions between residents remained. They broke into the open on January 22, 1875, when a group of about fifteen locals secured a warrant for Gibbs’s arrest. Because Gibbs had already been cleared of the Harrington murder on June 17, the vigilantes charged him with intending to kill Harrington during their confrontation the previous day.
The men armed themselves and went to Gibbs’s cabin late on January 22, supposedly to serve the warrant. When Gibbs refused to come out, the men set fire to his cabin. During the ensuing shoot-out, Gibbs and his family escaped while three vigilantes were killed—two by Gibbs, one by friendly fire. Gibbs turned himself in for the deaths but was quickly released because he was found to have acted in self-defense. He then fled to Denver.
After Gibbs left Lake County, a group calling itself the Committee of Safety formed at the end of January. Composed of some of the most prominent men in the county, including merchant and rancher Charles Nachtrieb, the group seems to have represented early ranchers who feared and resented newcomers competing with them for water and other resources. It functioned as an extralegal judicial body opposed to Gibbs, the Regulators, and their supposed hold over the county’s normal channels of justice. Acting without any authority, the Committee of Safety questioned everyone passing through the area, detained anyone suspected of supporting Gibbs, threatened them with violence, and ordered those who refused to change their views to leave.
The case of probate judge Elias Dyer, son of the well-known itinerant preacher John Lewis Dyer, was typical. On his way to hold court in Granite, Dyer was stopped by members of the committee and held for questioning at the Chalk Creek schoolhouse that served as the group’s headquarters. When he professed his belief in Gibbs’s innocence, he received a clear order: “You are hereby notified to resign your office as probate judge, and leave this county within thirty days, by order of the Committee of Safety.”
Dyer complied with the order, heading straight to Denver to try to convince territorial officials to take action. But the territorial government did very little, in part because the territory had an interim governor while it awaited the arrival of John L. Routt. The acting governor, John W. Jenkins, issued a proclamation calling on “bodies of armed and lawless men” in Lake County to stop disturbing the peace. Jenkins also sent the head of the Colorado militia, David Cook, to investigate the situation. Cook’s report, published in the Rocky Mountain News on February 18, declared that he had “found no disturbance or lawless elements among the citizens, but on the contrary peace and order restored.”
Yet the charges and countercharges flowing out of the county and being published in Denver newspapers throughout February suggested that Cook’s investigation had been incomplete. The Committee of Safety did disband, as it had assured Cook it would, but the murder of supposed Gibbs supporter Charles Harding, found shot to death along with his dog on April 1 near what is now Salida, confirmed that authority in Lake County remained contested.
The Assassination of Elias Dyer
In May 1875, more than three months after the Committee of Safety forced him to leave Lake County, Elias Dyer returned to Granite to resume his role in the regularly constituted judicial system. He traveled the county to figure out who had been involved with the Committee of Safety’s reign of terror, and by the end of May he was ready to issue warrants. The judge held off, however, because he feared retaliation. In June he resolved to proceed with the warrants, deputizing a local man to round up the suspects.
As news of the first few arrests spread, Lake County sheriff John Weldon, who had been allied with the Committee of Safety, gathered about thirty committee members, including most of the people named in Dyer’s warrants, and came to Granite on July 2. Backed by this armed posse, Weldon demanded that Dyer hold a hearing that night. Dyer reluctantly called court into session, but immediately declared a recess until the morning because no witnesses were willing to testify against the Committee of Safety.
Guarded by Committee of Safety members overnight to ensure that he would not leave town, Dyer suspected that the next morning’s court session would go poorly. He was right. Again, no one proved willing to testify against the Committee of Safety, so Dyer had to dismiss the charges within minutes because of a lack of evidence. As the courthouse emptied around 8:30 am, five men went up an external stairway to the second-floor courtroom, where they shot Dyer—presumably for having the temerity to pursue justice—and then mingled into the crowd outside. The identity of the murderers seems to have been an open secret, but by this point everyone had learned not to risk the wrath of the Committee of Safety by leveling charges. The coroner could conclude only that “Elias Dyer Came to his death From a rifle or pistol Shot in the hand or hands of Some person or persons unknown.”
After Dyer’s assassination, accounts of the violence in Lake County once again dominated the territory’s newspapers. Some editors blamed Dyer for needlessly provoking people with his warrants, while others worried about how Colorado might be perceived in the rest of the country. “There are very few people,” the Rocky Mountain News observed, “who will care to come to a country where probate judges are murdered by committees of safety headed by the sheriff of the county.” Members of Congress, too, might cast a skeptical eye on Colorado’s bid for statehood if it seemed that the territory had not yet attained basic standards of civilization.
New governor John Routt, who had assumed his post in Denver, attempted to assert some semblance of authority despite having no organized militia and no money to raise one. On July 6, he issued a proclamation offering $200 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderers, but it yielded no results. Routt also made a confidential request to US army commander William T. Sherman for a cavalry company to enforce the law in Lake County, but Sherman declined to send troops. Eventually, all Routt could do was ask the next legislative session to form a militia.
Yet even without a trial for Dyer’s killers or soldiers to support local courts, the turmoil in Lake County quickly subsided after a new probate judge and a new justice of the peace with ties to the Committee of Safety were appointed, effectively instituting the former vigilantes as the county’s legally constituted authorities. However, some of those vigilantes ultimately faced retribution, with several Committee of Safety members, including Charles Nachtrieb, coming to violent deaths over the next few years. No clear evidence tied those deaths back to the events of 1874–75, but many locals believed otherwise.
Newspapers at the time called the conflict the Lake County War, a term that subsequent journalists and historians have adopted even though it was really an instance of domestic terrorism. No matter the name, the violence revealed clear divisions within the Upper Arkansas Valley, and its consequences reverberated for years. Above all, it showed the need for a stronger judicial system and central authority in Colorado as a growing number of residents came into conflict over scarce resources.