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Native History: Colorado Territory Created Amidst Gold Rush

On February 28, 1861, parts of Utah, Kansas, Nebraska & New Mexico were joined to create the Colorado Territory, known today as the state of Colorado.

This Date in Native History: On February 28, 1861, parts of Utah, Kansas, Nebraska and New Mexico were joined to create the Colorado Territory, known today as the state of Colorado.

Emigrants had been passing through Colorado Territory since the California gold rush began in the 1840s, but it wasn’t until the late 1850s that Anglo-Americans came to stay. As the gold rush hit Pike’s Peak, two smaller cities, now joined together as Denver, became known for their lawlessness, dirty inhabitants, saloons, and vigilante law enforcement.

Miners and other white residents pressured congress to create the new territory but because of the national slavery debate, Congress had avoided it. Finally, in 1861, “Abraham Lincoln had been elected but not yet inaugurated, and Congress declared the area Colorado Territory, with the understanding that slavery would be prohibited once Lincoln took office,” William Convery, Colorado state historian, said.


Slavery laws varied throughout the four newly connected states. Convery noted that New Mexico’s law kept free blacks out, and the Hispanic population had Ute and Navaho slaves. In Kansas, slavery had been hotly contested with its own minor civil war. In Nebraska, slavery was illegal; but in Utah, the law was unclear. “Technically, it was illegal, but Governor Brigham Young kept inviting slave owners to Utah,” Convery said.

In the end, the increased pressure of the miners resulted in the creation of the Colorado Territory. Among the first to find gold in the territory was Captain Fall Leaf, a Delaware Indian, who had been a leading scout with Major John Sedgwick during the Sumner Sedgwick Expedition. “During the expedition, the soldiers encountered a group of Missouri prospectors, and Fall Leaf acquired some of their gold,” Convery said.

Major John Sedgwick and the Colorado Territory

Major John Sedgwick

Exaggerated stories of massive gold strikes abounded. Fall Leaf, highly regarded as a truthful man, told tales of gold nuggets as large as boulders, and inspired merchants in Lawrence, Kansas, to travel to Pike’s Peak in 1858. In The Illustrated Miners Handbook and Guide to Pikes Peak, some miners said gold was hanging like stalactites in caves.

Many Cherokees were also involved in the Pike’s Peak gold rush. One veteran gold miner was Lewis Ralston, who was married to a Cherokee woman. In 1850, Ralston headed to Oklahoma, and joined up with 105 free men, 15 free women, and 15 slaves. Headed for California, they passed through Colorado Territory where Ralston found $5 worth of gold simply by dipping his pan in a stream. The stream was named after his find, and he later, in 1858, was another inspiration to miners.

“In 1858, the national economy had softened due to the collapse of several banks through over-speculation on farms, real estate and railroads,” Convery said.

During the hard times, many Cherokees remembered Ralston’s discovery. According to Convery, a group of more than 100 Cherokees and non-Indians met up in Oklahoma to head to Pike’s Peak. When they encountered starving Arapaho, they ended their trip, well aware of the hardships gold had imposed on the Cherokee people in Georgia, which had resulted in the Trail of Tears.

In a report Convery prepared for “History Colorado” historic markers, the Cherokee met up with 2,000 Cheyenne and Arapaho, who had clearly suffered and were begging for food. John Hicks, pro-removal Cherokee leader, encouraged the tribes to recognize the onslaught of Euro-Americans. He explained that their only hope was to “live peaceably and quietly, so that their treaties with the whites would be more respected,” Convery reported.

According to books and promotional material of the times, there were few problems between the Natives and the Anglos previous to the gold rush. But by 1861, the Natives recognized their dilemma. The miners had depleted much of the game and natural resources in the area, and some were nearing starvation. The diminished resources led to Native raids on homes and wagons emigrating across the state. The raids led to Anglo’s fears, which led to organized attacks on Natives.

According to the Northern Arapaho website, the Treaty of 1851 had allowed the Arapaho and Cheyenne to share land that encompassed one-sixth of Wyoming, one-quarter of Colorado and parts of western Kansas and Nebraska.

Ten years later, the 1861 Treaty of Fort Wise reduced the massive land allotted to the Cheyenne and Arapaho to a barren reservation in southeastern Colorado. Many of the tribes’ leaders had refused to sign that treaty, but according to Convery, any tribes that ignored it were deemed enemies of the United States. The refusal to relocate may have contributed to Colonel John Chivington’s justification to be mired in the innocent blood of Black Kettle’s Band at the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864.

Sand Creek Massacre, Colorado Territory

Sand Creek Massacre landmark

“A lot of us were able to survive Sand Creek,” William C’Hair, historian for the Northern Arapaho, said. “Many were unarmed, they thought they were under protection of the United States. The government took that land away, the land they set up in the Laramie Treaty, and in 1861 they illegally made it Colorado. That was a nation-to-nation treaty, and they didn’t honor it.”

The transcontinental railroad was a major factor in the gold rush in California and then at Pike’s Peak, C’Hair said, adding, “Each time the government needed more land they made another treaty, until the tribes ended up with nothing. They were never given a reservation. It was all illegal and contrary to the constitutional convention.”

The Arapaho website states that the Treaty of 1868 left the Northern Arapaho without a land base, and they were placed with the Shoshone in west central Wyoming, on the Wind River Reservation.

This story was originally published February 28, 2014.