What good are official symbols and emblems? In the abstract, they associate the state or nation with representative features or desirable traits. Symbols usually emphasize something unique, or at least characteristic, about a particular state. The United States and every individual state possess an official flag, motto, tree, and flower.
Arguably, Colorado’s first universally accepted symbol was Pikes Peak, the promontory that served as both a fixed geographical point and an imaginative anchor for the hopes and dreams of the gold seekers who flooded into the Rocky Mountains after 1858. A stylized version of the peak circulated on the unofficial currency issued by Denver’s Clark and Gruber mint in 1859 and 1860, equating the region with riches from the very start. Colorado Territorial Governor William Gilpin coined Colorado’s first official symbol in 1861, when he suggested the Latin phrase Nil Sine Numine, or “Nothing without Providence,” as the territory’s motto. Controversy immediately followed. Critics accused the governor of fostering paganism by using the term numine, which means “god,” “goddess,” or any other divine spirit. The first territorial legislature sorted out Gilpin’s theology to mean “Nothing without the Deity,” but wags quipped that “nothing without a new mine” was really more appropriate.
Gilpin’s case aside, the adoption of official symbols traditionally involves endorsement from children or women’s groups. Schoolchildren overwhelmingly selected the white and lavender columbine by a vote of 15,000 to 1,027 over the cactus and forty-eight other contenders in 1891; the Cripple Creek Women’s Club successfully lobbied for it as an official symbol in 1899. The columbine became victimized by its own success, uprooted nearly to extinction by scores of picnickers on summertime wildflower excursions until a 1925 law prohibited the picking of the flower on public lands and further limited its gathering elsewhere.
The naming of new state symbols has accelerated rapidly in recent decades. In the 1970s, schoolchildren memorized a mere nine official symbols and emblems. When Governor Richard Lamm declared the stegosaurus Colorado’s official state fossil by executive proclamation on April 28, 1982, it was the state’s first new symbol in eleven years. It joined the Rocky Mountain columbine, Colorado’s distinctive “C” flag, the blue spruce, bighorn sheep, lark bunting, aquamarine, and state song, “Where the Columbines Grow.” Since 1982, the greenback cutthroat trout; the hairstreak butterfly, blue grama grass; the mineral rhodochrosite; Colorado Yule marble; the square dance; an official tartan; and a second song, John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High,” have all joined Colorado’s official menagerie. The recent adoption of the Western painted turtle as Colorado’s representative reptile, and of skiing and snowboarding as the state’s emblematic winter sports, brings the number of official symbols and emblems to twenty.
Colorado’s place on the relative list of state symbols is somewhat modest. The state cannot gaze at a registered state star like the “Delaware Diamond,” or choke down a state drink like Rhode Island’s “coffee milk.” Colorado does not ask a state question to match New Mexico’s “Red or Green?” (referring to that state’s chile pepper–based cuisine), or boast a tall ship like Rhode Island’s “Providence,” or an official state hero such as Connecticut’s Nathan Hale. Unlike Colorado, Massachusetts has a state bean, berry, muffin, marine mammal, dog, cat, horse, cookie, dessert, poem, ode, polka, and soil, along with approximately thirty other official symbols. And the Colorado state fish, while a refugee from the endangered species list, is nowhere near as fun to say as Hawaii’s Humuhumunukunukuapua’a.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, official symbols sometimes invite controversy. Colorado’s first state song, “Where the Columbines Grow,” was panned as one of the only state songs that failed to mention the name of the state in question. “Rocky Mountain High” received similar flak for its perceived drug connotations, although John Denver dismissed such critics as never having experienced the natural high induced by a Rocky Mountain campfire. When Larimer County students in 1928 selected the lark bunting as their choice for Colorado’s state bird, defenders of the meadowlark and the mountain bluebird howled. Critics derided the salt-and-pepper colored prairie bird as an unimpressive Mexican migrant. A subsequent statewide vote of schoolchildren endorsed the meadowlark by a large margin although, somehow, the lark bunting was left off the ballot. State legislators spent three days debating the relative merits of all three birds on the House floor, provoking outside critics to suggest alternate contenders such as the night owl and the dodo bird.
Detractors will always doubt the impact of state symbols on Colorado’s quality of life and question the commitment of legislative time and resources to symbolic debates. Colorado Springs Representative Douglas Bruce, for one, called the proposal to adopt the Western painted turtle “official stupidity.” Others view state symbols as an important and relatively inexpensive means of introducing schoolchildren to the political process. From a tourism perspective, state symbols raise Colorado’s profile whenever commemorative stamps or brochures evoke Colorado’s image in the minds of potential visitors.
Perhaps most important, state symbols create a gateway for hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren to get to know Colorado better. The Colorado State Archives web page on state symbols receives between 40,000 and 50,000 visits each month, demonstrating the essential role that the lark bunting, bighorn sheep, Western painted turtle, and stegosaurus play as Colorado’s ambassadors to the world.