Sedgwick County covers 549 square miles in the northeastern corner of Colorado. It was established in 1889 and named for Fort Sedgwick. Straddling the South Platte River, the county is bordered by Nebraska’s Deuel and Perkins Counties to the north and east, and by Colorado’s Phillips and Logan Counties to the south and west.
Today Sedgwick County has a population of around 2,400. Julesburg, located near the county’s northern border with Nebraska, is the county seat and has a population of 1,225. The town was a busy way station along nineteenth-century transportation routes, particularly the Union Pacific railroad. Today, Interstate 76 runs just south of Julesburg, terminating at Interstate 80 just over the Colorado-Nebraska border. Other towns include Sedgwick (pop. 191) and Ovid (330). US Highway 138 connects all three towns, meeting US 385 in Julesburg. Agriculture is Sedgwick County’s main economic driver; as of 2012 the county had 226 farms valued at more than $101 million.
From around AD 1000 to 1400, members of the Upper Republican and Itskari cultures occupied parts of northeast Colorado, including present-day Sedgwick County. These semisedentary people fished, farmed, and hunted buffalo, living in earth lodges and crafting distinctive ceramic pots. While they were apparently able 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.
During the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth, the rapid expansion of the Sioux displaced a number of other equestrian groups from the northern plains, including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kiowa. These groups filtered south onto the plains of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado. The Pawnee also made occasional visits to eastern Colorado, though they mostly frequented present-day Kansas and Nebraska.
By 1790 the Kiowa had moved onto the plains from the mountains of Montana. The Cheyenne and Arapaho, meanwhile, had been migrating westward from their homelands in the upper Midwest since the early eighteenth century. By 1800 the Sioux had forced both the Cheyenne and Arapaho out of present-day South Dakota. The Cheyenne and Arapaho followed the buffalo herds across the plains, living in portable, cone-shaped 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 rarely left the plains, the Arapaho made a habit of venturing into the mountains during the spring to hunt game in the high country.
Anglo-American traffic across the Colorado Plains increased during the 1840s with the organization of the Oregon Territory and the California Gold Rush of 1849. In response to this incursion, Plains Indians sometimes harassed or stole from wagon trains, and many whites came to fear these attacks as they crossed the plains. In 1851 the federal government sought to make the westward journey safer for white travelers with the Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed by leaders of the Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho, and other Plains Indians. The treaty acknowledged Native American sovereignty across the plains, and each group would receive annual payments in exchange for guaranteeing safe passage for whites and allowing the government to build forts in their territory.
In 1856 US Army Lt. Francis Bryan found a Native American trail on the south side of the South Platte with a crossing near present-day Julesburg. The army began using the route, and in the aftermath of the Colorado Gold Rush it became part of the Overland Trail, named for the Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company. The ford was known by several names, including “Upper California Crossing” and “Morrell’s Crossing.” The land near the crossing became a busy way station for westward-bound Anglo-Americans, with parties waiting hours, sometimes days, for their turn to ford the river.
Jules, Jack, and Julesburg
The history of present-day Julesburg began with the establishment of a way station near the South Platte ford in 1859. A French Canadian trader named Jules Beni set up a saloon and restaurant to serve travelers, and the stop soon became one of the best-known establishments between Missouri and Colorado. This also made it a haven for outlaws, who came to prey on travelers. Beni expanded his establishment to include a warehouse, blacksmith shop, and stable, and eventually became the local stationmaster for the Leavenworth City & Pikes Peak Express stage line.
However, Jules proved a disinterested and corrupt station manager, siphoning money and supplies from the company and presiding over crippling scheduling delays. By late 1859, the Leavenworth & Pike’s Peak company was in the process of reorganizing and revamping its operations under a new name, the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company. Ben Ficklin, the company’s new superintendent, sent an experienced, hard-edged freighter and gunman named Jack Slade to remove Beni as stationmaster in Julesburg and clean up the stage operations there. Slade knew how to navigate the many obstacles of the plains, from blizzards to Native Americans, and he also had a dark side: the hard-drinking, ill-tempered Midwesterner had fled west after killing another young man in Illinois. Nonetheless, in previous freighting jobs Slade had proven himself an effective leader willing to do whatever it took to get the job done.
When Slade arrived in Julesburg in the fall of 1859, Beni willingly relinquished control of the stage line, probably because he still effectively owned the town, and his businesses depended on the stage line for customers. But Beni continued to plot with outlaws to steal money and horses from the company, and his relations with Slade quickly soured.
Various later accounts describe an initial confrontation between Jules and Slade and a rivalry that persisted for at least a year. The most recent scholarship, presented by Dan Rottenberg in Death of a Gunfighter (2008), finds that Beni ambushed and shot Slade—how many times is unclear—at his restaurant/saloon. Slade survived and returned to manage the stage company’s operations. In 1861, according to Rottenberg, Slade learned of Beni’s whereabouts and sent a group of men to arrest him. The posse found Jules near Cold Springs Station, Wyoming, but was forced to kill him in an altercation. Denied his revenge, Slade allegedly cut off both of Beni’s ears before continuing his career with the stage company.
Slade played an instrumental role in Julesburg’s early history, helping to secure the passage of goods, people, and mail across the American West at a critical time. But later in his life, Slade descended into a brutish career of drunken crime and violence. After several drunken rampages, he was hanged in Virginia City, Montana, in 1864.
Julesburg, meanwhile, had grown into a prominent stop along the Overland Trail as well as the Pony Express. The tiny stopover, consisting of just four buildings in 1860, saw hundreds of immigrants pass through on their way to the Colorado gold fields. By 1862, Julesburg featured a hotel, several houses, and a general store.
Relations with Native Americans
The gold rush caused the federal government to shift its Indian policy in Colorado away from recognizing Indian sovereignty and toward removal. In 1861 the Colorado Territory was established, and the federal government and Plains Indian leaders negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wise. Under this new agreement, the territory of the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho was reduced to a much smaller area far away from the gold fields—between the Arkansas River to the south and Sand Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas, to the north. However, the Native American leaders who signed the treaty did not have the unanimous support of their people, meaning that many Cheyenne and Arapaho continued to frequent the larger territory that the United States recognized in the earlier Treaty of Fort Laramie. Many saw the whites as invaders, and they occasionally raided wagons, burned ranches, took white captives, and stole cattle and horses.
Camp Rankin was established near Julesburg in the early 1860s to protect the stage lines and white travelers from Indians. Tensions between Native Americans and whites erupted into all-out war after US troops under Col. John Chivington slaughtered more than 150 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians—mostly women, children, and the elderly—at Sand Creek in November 1864. The Indians were camped on the agreed-upon reservation in present-day Kiowa County. In January 1865 a retaliatory force of some 1,000 Sioux, Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho raided Julesburg, destroyed surrounding ranches, and drove away cattle and horses. In this first assault, the Indians left Julesburg’s buildings intact, figuring that the town would be resupplied and they could raid it again later. But in a second attack, on February 2, they burned Julesburg to the ground.
While the former residents of Julesburg wondered whether their town would rise from its ashes, the federal government decided a proper fort was needed near Julesburg. Fort Sedgwick was completed in September 1865. It was named after Major General John Sedgwick, who was killed in the Battle of Spotsylvania in May 1864. Three years later, under the terms of the Medicine Lodge Treaty, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were to relocate to present-day Oklahoma. But many, especially the younger members of both tribes, decided to keep fighting. In 1869 the US Army defeated the Cheyenne leader Tall Bull’s Dog Soldiers at the Battle of Summit Springs in present-day Washington County, marking the end of Native American resistance on the Colorado plains.
Julesburgs II, III, and IV
Former Julesburg residents staked out a second iteration of their town in March 1867, on the south side of the Platte River near its confluence with Lodgepole Creek. The Union Pacific railroad had not yet decided which bank of the Platte its route would follow, and so founders of Julesburg II took a guess. They were wrong, but fortunately had not put too much work into the new town. In the summer of 1867 the residents pulled up stakes and established a third Julesburg about two and a half miles north and across the Platte. J. P. Allen built the first hotel in June, and on June 23 the Union Pacific arrived. By July 16 Julesburg III had the old town’s telegraph office and a large freight house owned by the stage company Wells Fargo.
The town’s population numbered around 3,000 in 1867. With its numerous saloons, gambling and prostitution houses, and posses of armed residents (both men and women), Julesburg III soon earned a reputation as “The Wickedest City in the West.” Many residents and visitors compared the town to hell, and the many large watch fires that burned around it at night undoubtedly made the comparison more apt in the eyes of observers.
The soldiers who watched the blazing torches of Julesburg from Fort Sedgwick, however, probably wished they were in the city instead of at the post. The fort declined in importance with the end of the Indian Wars and the arrival of the Union Pacific on the opposite side of the Platte. By 1870 just two barracks remained at the fort, and the next year it was officially closed.
After the Union Pacific railroad crew moved on, Julesburg III again shrank to a tiny outpost, holding on until 1881. That year the Union Pacific connected its Denver branch to the transcontinental route at a spot about four miles east of Julesburg III, and so by 1886 the town had again relocated, this time for good.
Sedgwick and Phillips Counties were carved from greater Logan County in 1889. In 1900 Sedgwick County had a population of 971, and its first courthouse was built in 1904.
Farmers in Sedgwick County had long produced staple crops such as wheat and alfalfa, but increased demand for domestic sugar in the first few decades of the twentieth century produced a new cash crop, the sugar beet. Colorado’s beet acreage increased from 108,005 in 1909 to 205,647 by 1924, and sugar-processing plants went up in Fort Collins, Loveland, Brighton, and other places.
In 1925 the Great Western Sugar Company brought the sugar beet boom to Sedgwick County when it established the company town of Ovid and opened a sugar-processing factory there. As late as 1930, Sedgwick County had no meaningful beet production to speak of, but by 1940 county farmers had planted more than 3,500 acres. The value of that crop more than doubled over the next five years, increasing from $198,016 to $442,478.
Since its relocation to the Union Pacific junction in 1886, Julesburg had been an important shipping hub for the area’s produce. The town’s wooden railroad depot had sufficed for several decades, but in the midst of the state’s sugar beet boom in the 1920s, local residents and merchants pushed for a new station. The Union Pacific opened its new passenger and freight depot in Julesburg in 1930, and the one-story building soon became the town’s social center.
Sedgwick County began the 1930s with a sugar plant in Ovid, a new railroad depot in Julesburg, and a population of 5,580, which proved to be an all-time high. But the decade would bring hardship in the form of the worsening Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Huge dust storms, resulting from the excessive plowing of the prairie since 1900, raked the county, and a crash in agricultural prices caused many people to lose their farms. Sedgwick County lost some 286 residents between 1930 and 1940, but overall it fared better than other plains counties. Thanks in part to funding from the Works Progress Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives, the county gained a new courthouse in 1939.
The decades that followed saw innovations in agriculture, including machinery that allowed for larger yields and diesel and natural gas-powered pumps that allowed farmers to tap additional water supplies in the underlying Ogallala Aquifer. The new water source allowed more farmers, especially those in eastern and southern Sedgwick County, to grow more water-intensive crops such as corn in an otherwise dry area. In 1950, when new irrigation techniques were still in development, Sedgwick County had just over 10,000 acres of corn; by 1982 the crop covered 35,426 acres.
Mechanization, meanwhile, allowed for larger farms and encouraged the consolidation of farmland by those who could afford to invest in the new machinery. Sedgwick County reflected this trend, as its 474 farms in 1950 became 253 farms in 1982, despite a minimal gain in total farm acreage. The average farm size, meanwhile, nearly doubled during that period, growing from 660 acres to 1,284 acres.
Mechanization and irrigation allowed Sedgwick County farmers to put an additional 92,577 acres under irrigated cultivation between 1950 and 1982—more than 2,800 acres per year. Sugar beet acreage, however, declined to just 1,707 acres, mirroring a statewide trend. Great Western Sugar went bankrupt in 1985 and shuttered many of its Colorado factories, including the Ovid factory.
Today, agriculture remains the backbone of the Sedgwick County economy. The county ranks eighth among Colorado counties in corn production and thirteenth in wheat production, and also produces a significant amount of sunflower seeds.
Heritage is also a major part of Sedgwick County today, and heritage tourism is augmented by Interstate 76, completed in the 1970s as the latest in a long history of major transportation routes through the county. Julesburg’s rich history, on display at the Fort Sedgwick Museum, offers insight into the history of these routes, as well as into nineteenth-century conflict and town life on Colorado’s eastern plains. Julesburg also features a Depot Museum highlighting the Union Pacific’s history in the town.