William Gilpin (1815–94) served as the first governor of Colorado Territory in 1861–62. A gifted speaker with a flair for the dramatic, Gilpin was a firm believer in Manifest Destiny and in Colorado’s importance to the young American West. As governor during the Civil War, Gilpin illegally raised the Colorado Volunteers, the Union troops who turned back a Confederate Army at Glorieta Pass in 1862. Raising the volunteers cost Gilpin his job but saved the territory and its all-important goldfields from falling into Confederate hands.
Before serving as governor, Gilpin was a member of the US Army. He fought in the Seminole Wars in Florida and accompanied army explorer John C. Frémont through Colorado in 1843. Today, Gilpin is remembered as one of the most bombastic and significant founders of Colorado.
William Gilpin was born in 1815 into a large Delaware Quaker family. He was home-schooled and became partial to history, poetry, and geography. When he was twelve, his father sent him to school in England for two years, and in 1833 Gilpin graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Thereafter, he embarked on a series of military adventures, including a semester at West Point in 1834–35, a participant in Florida’s Seminole Wars in 1836, a journey across the Rockies with John C. Frémont in 1843, and a campaign to protect the Santa Fé Trail from Indian attacks during the Mexican-American War in 1847.
Champion of the West
By the 1850s, Gilpin had settled in Missouri. There he solidified his reputation as a passionate, if incessant, orator, as well as a premier booster of western settlement. In speeches and writing, Gilpin waxed poetic about America’s Manifest Destiny. According to Gilpin, “to subdue the continent” was a “divine task” that would bring the United States to the pinnacle of world civilization. At a time when many Americans believed that the West was a “Great American Desert,” Gilpin made a habit of emphasizing the immense potential of the land west of the Mississippi.
After its Gold Rush in 1858–59, Colorado, and Denver specifically, lay at the center of Gilpin’s vision for the future of the country. He imagined a worldwide railroad network that spanned from Denver across the Bering Strait to Asia and eventually to Europe. In his mind, Colorado’s mineral wealth would be the linchpin of this industrial American empire.
Governor of Colorado
In the wake of the Colorado Gold Rush, the US government organized Colorado Territory in 1861. Many in the territory believed that the governor post would go to Denver founder William Larimer, Jr. But to gain favor in an important border state ahead of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln chose Gilpin at the recommendation of Missouri governor Frank Blair.
Preoccupied with the looming Civil War and without much money to send with him, President Lincoln hastily ordered Gilpin to Denver in the spring of 1861. When Gilpin arrived on May 27, he faced a multitude of challenges: rival cities vied to become the new territory’s capital, immigrants feared Indian attacks, and a nascent southern secession movement threatened Colorado’s future as part of the United States.
The lack of funds did not deter Gilpin from his duty. In his first few months as governor, he organized the territorial courts, which legitimized haphazard laws within Colorado’s mining districts, and the legislature, which began its first session on September 9, 1861. The legislature met in Denver, but the mining camp of Colorado City (part of present-day Colorado Springs) was named the territory’s capital because its residents successfully lobbied for the territory’s creation in Washington, DC.
In his typical booster fashion, Gilpin waxed poetic in his inaugural address, booming to the legislature that “our territory will be [bi]sected by the grandest work of all time,” a “transcontinental railway” that will “draw the travel and commerce of all the nations, and all the continents of the world.” Copies of the speech were distributed throughout the territory, including a Spanish version in the San Luis Valley that referred to Gilpin as “Guillermo Guilpin.”
Moving toward his long-held vision of Colorado as a universal nexus of civilization, Gilpin worked closely with the legislature to establish a tax system, roads, police, schools, and universities, including the University of Colorado. He was directly involved in publishing the first map of the territory, developing irrigation systems, and incorporating water companies. The legislature divided the territory into seventeen counties, naming one Gilpin County.
As the territory’s superintendent of Indian affairs, Gilpin leaned on the expertise of Indian agents, such as Lafayette Head. As a veteran Indian fighter in Florida and along the Arkansas River, Gilpin feared that Colorado’s Indians would band together to assault the territory or assist the Confederacy. Still, Gilpin generally preferred to deal peacefully with Native Americans, especially those who had agreed to the Fort Wise Treaty, signed just before he assumed his post.
Of the all the problems in his fledgling territory, the Confederate threat was perhaps Gilpin’s greatest challenge. From Denver to Fairplay and Breckenridge, Colorado was filled with southerners who had either come during the Gold Rush or fought for slavery in neighboring Kansas during the 1850s. By September 1861, the territory’s chief justice, B. F. Hall, reported to Lincoln that there were about 6,000 Coloradans “with Confederate proclivities.” In response, Gilpin thwarted a Southern sympathizer’s scheme to sell Colorado arms and ammunition to the Confederate Army, and he set up a jail for Confederates in Denver. He also got other army posts to supply guns and ammunition for the territory’s defense.
The gravest threat appeared in July 1861, when Confederate general Henry H. Sibley began organizing an army in Texas to invade New Mexico and, ultimately, Colorado. As the Confederates advanced in 1862, Gilpin petitioned the federal government for resources to raise an army. His requests were denied, even though in August 1861 he received orders from the army’s Western Department Headquarters to “increase your force to 1,000 men.” Lacking an alternative and finding plenty of willing recruits in Colorado, Gilpin created two regiments of Colorado Volunteers, illegally offering vouchers amounting to $375,000 from the US Treasury. That March, the Volunteers turned back Sibley’s Confederates at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico.
Gilpin’s quick action would save the Colorado and New Mexico territories from falling to the Confederacy. But in the meantime, the soldiers, as well as the merchants who supplied them, wanted their money. The federal government refused to redeem Gilpin’s vouchers, turning his constituents against him. Gilpin’s political rivals in Colorado, including William Byers of the Rocky Mountain News, territorial representative Jerome B. Chaffee, and congressional delegate Hiram Bennet, seized on the unrest. They argued that Gilpin had raised an unnecessarily expensive force to meet an exaggerated Confederate threat, thus casting his fellow Coloradans as rebels and hurting their business interests. They petitioned Lincoln to replace Gilpin as governor. On March 18, 1862—eight days before the troops Gilpin raised gave the Union a decisive victory at Glorieta Pass—the president acquiesced, replacing him with John Evans of Illinois. Gilpin remained in office until May, leaving him enough time to welcome his victorious volunteers back to Denver.
After the Civil War, Gilpin made a small fortune in land deals in Colorado and New Mexico. In 1874 he married Julia Pratt Dickerson of St. Louis. They had three children: twins named William and Mary, and another son, Louis, who died in a fall in Platte Canyon in 1893.
Gilpin’s marriage was reportedly tumultuous, as he and his wife, a devout Catholic, disagreed over everything from child-rearing to where their charitable donations should go. He and Dickerson separated in 1887. He devoted much of his later life to promoting his idea for a global railroad route across the Bering Strait. Gilpin died in Denver on January 20, 1894, and, in a final jab, his wife chose a Catholic cemetery—Mt. Olivet—for her late husband.
Although a few later observers chose to focus on Gilpin’s financial misadventures and removal, Gilpin biographer Thomas L. Karnes and Colorado historian Thomas J. Noel credit Colorado’s first governor for bringing order to the territory and raising the troops to defend it from the Confederacy. Along with Horace Greeley, Gilpin can be considered the quintessential Western “booster” whose writings and speeches undoubtedly helped hasten the Euro-American conquest of the West.