General William Larimer, Jr. (1809–75), was a prominent nineteenth-century town promoter, prospector, and legislator in the Kansas and Colorado Territories. He is known for establishing the city of Denver. Larimer’s life serves as an example of the pitfalls of conducting business in the American West. He is the namesake of Larimer Street in Denver and Larimer County in northern Colorado.
Larimer’s ancestors emigrated from Scotland to what became Adams County, Pennsylvania, around 1700. He was born on October 24, 1809, in Circleville, Pennsylvania, and grew up on his family’s homestead. As a young adult, Larimer embarked on many different business ventures: he acquired stone for the Philadelphia Turnpike, managed a Conestoga wagon line, organized a profitable coal company, and established a wholesale grocery store. He also worked as an innkeeper and a banker in Pittsburgh and founded two railroads in the area: the Pittsburgh and Connellsville and the Remington Coal Railroad.
Between 1833 and 1855, Larimer served in the Pennsylvania Militia, eventually obtaining the rank of major general. Never one for modesty, he used the title General for the rest of his life. Politics also drew Larimer’s attention. A Presbyterian and abolitionist, Larimer associated himself with the Whig Party from 1844 to 1852 and then became a Republican. In 1835 he married Rachel McMasters, and by 1854 the couple had nine children.
An economic depression in 1854 destroyed the modest fortune Larimer had amassed. The next year he left his family in the east and traveled alone to the area of Council Bluffs, Nebraska. In February 1855 Larimer and Nebraska Governor T. B. Cumming, Colonel R. Hogoboom, and Colonel B. P. Rankin formed the La Platte (Nebraska) Town Company and laid out a site at the junction of the Platte and Missouri Rivers. Although Larimer did not invest any of his own money into the La Platte venture, he borrowed the necessary funds and therefore owned the town and its surrounding lands.
La Platte was only one of Larimer’s town ventures in Nebraska. In the summer of 1857 he filed for the site of Larimer City, describing himself as president of the Larimer City Town Company. He began a sales campaign for Larimer City, or “Larimer,” and sent circulars to potential settlers in the east. The town of Larimer survived only briefly; so fleeting was its existence that deed records today do not even specify its location.
Larimer served in the Nebraska Territorial Legislature in 1855–56 and supported the abolitionist agenda as he had in Pennsylvania. After being defeated in an election by his former development partners, Cumming and Rankin, in 1858 Larimer moved his family to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a key staging point for treks westward. Always recognizing transportation as a keystone of opening the frontier, Larimer organized a freighting company in Fort Leavenworth, and on at least one occasion he addressed a meeting urging railroads into the region. Involved in his favorite pursuit—boosterism—Larimer prospered in Kansas while working for the formation of the Kansas Republican Party, and he was elected president of its first organizational meeting.
In 1858 Larimer’s two oldest sons wanted to go to Colorado to participate in the Gold Rush following the discovery of gold in Cherry Creek. On October 1, 1858, Larimer, his son William Henry Harrison, and four other men—the so-called Leavenworth Party—set out for Colorado. The party traveled from Easton, Kansas, to Topeka, Council Grove, Diamond Springs, and along the Santa Fé Trail to Bent’s Fort in southeast Colorado. Larimer’s group reached the headwaters of Cherry Creek, east of present-day Denver, on November 12, 1858.
Four days later, the men moved their camp to the west side of the junction of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. A virtually unimproved townsite called St. Charles already stood at the site, so the Leavenworth Party jumped the claim and made it their own. Charles Nichols of the St. Charles Town Company, who had made a trip back east for supplies, returned and found his townsite occupied by Larimer’s group. Larimer argued that Nichols’s group did not have a binding claim to the site, and threatened to have him hung if he caused more trouble. On November 22, 1858, Larimer helped organize the Denver City Town Company. For the first day, the hamlet was named “Golden City,” but soon changed its name to “Denver City,” after Kansas territorial governor James Denver. Forty-one shares were issued in the original Denver City Company, and the site encompassed 2,200 acres.
Larimer began buying and selling real estate in Denver City from the outset. Records of land transactions in the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s Office show him as receiving property eleven times and disposing of land seven times during the 1859 fiscal year. Between 1859 and 1875, he is recorded fifteen times as land grantee and twenty times as grantor, with prices ranging from $1 to $1,000. Larimer was listed in the Denver City Directory of 1859 as a real estate agent from Leavenworth.
Denver quickly became the seat of Arapahoe County, Kansas Territory, but the city’s promoters sought more. Ever the booster, Larimer outlined other prospects for the city’s continued growth, including agricultural and mining developments, as early as the winter of 1858–59. A firm believer in Manifest Destiny, Larimer also emphasized the prospects for rail transportation, which he said would arrive in 1870. On May 7, 1859, Larimer attracted the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Stage Line to Denver. That spring, Larimer and William Clancy laid out a graveyard on the later site of Cheesman Park, naming it Mount Prospect Cemetery. On April 5, 1860, Larimer’s tireless campaigning saw the consolidation of the nearby settlement of Auraria and Denver City; the new town dropped city from its name and became simply Denver.
Bid for Governor
A week after Abraham Lincoln was elected president on November 6, 1860, Larimer helped to assemble and organize Denver’s Republicans. He was selected as a local party secretary, and made two speeches: one in support of the Republican Party in general, and one specifically backing President Lincoln. On December 5 Larimer left Denver for Washington, DC to lobby for the creation of the Colorado Territory and to see about a political appointment for himself. Colorado became a territory on February 28, 1861, and on March 5 the Colorado delegation and Larimer met with the newly inaugurated President Lincoln. Despite Larimer’s high hopes that he might fill the office of territorial governor, Lincoln selected William Gilpin, who had the backing of Missouri, a slave state that Lincoln hoped would remain in the Union during the ongoing secession crisis. Gilpin also had more experience in territorial government, having helped set up the government of the Oregon Territory. Larimer, meanwhile, was haunted by his earlier failures in Nebraska and was considered by the president to be little more than a local dreamer with no great accomplishments.
Larimer returned to Denver in May 1861, his popularity and energy apparently unaffected by his failure to become the first territorial governor. Larimer remained active in city and territorial governments, but the Civil War, mining slowdowns, and conflicts with local Native American bands led to a downturn in Colorado’s economy, diminishing his real estate holdings. On January 18, 1862, Larimer and his two oldest sons returned to Leavenworth. After a short and unsuccessful trip to Denver to recruit for the Union Army the following August, on December 6, 1862, Larimer received commission as second lieutenant in Company A, 14th Kansas Cavalry. Larimer spent the remainder of the war in Kansas and Arkansas before being discharged as a captain.
From 1867 to 1870, Larimer served in the Kansas Senate. His name was occasionally mentioned for both Kansas governor and US senator, but neither campaign materialized. During the 1872 presidential election, Larimer worked for the election of his old acquaintance and fellow Colorado colonizer Horace Greeley. Before he could realize his next plan for organizing a bank in Carson City, Nevada, Larimer died May 16 on his farm near Leavenworth at the age of sixty-five.
Adapted from Joan Ostrom Beasley, “Unrealized Dreams: General William Larimer, Jr.,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 16, no. 3 (1996).