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Native History: The Birth of Denver, From Boom to Bust to Boom

The first store in Denver is believed to have opened on October 29, 1858, less than a month before the frontier town was incorporated and given a name
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This Date in Native History: The first store in Denver, Colorado is believed to have opened on October 29, 1858, less than a month before the frontier town was incorporated and given a name.

The store was likely located near the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, where central Denver is now. The juncture of the rivers was also a meeting point for two cultures—the Southern Arapaho and white settlers who were chasing rumors of gold.

The land belonged to the Arapaho tribe under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, State Historian William Convery said. Gold was discovered there in June 1858—nine years after the famous gold rush in California—triggering a stampede of 100,000 people, but those seeking fortunes trespassed on Indian land to get it.

“In essence, everyone who raised a cabin or opened a store was a squatter,” Convery said.

Southern Arapaho Chief Little Raven initially welcomed the settlers, said Tom Noel, history professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. For decades, the Arapaho had camped at the two rivers during the winter months.

Southern Arapaho Chief Little Raven is seen here in 1871.

“In 1858, they returned to quite a surprise to find palefaces camped in their home,” Noel said. “There was not a lot of water in the area, so Little Raven offered to negotiate. He offered to let the settlers co-exist for a few years, so there were teepees next to town.”

Wikimedia Commons

Former Kansas Territorial Governor James W. Denver visited his namesake city in 1875 and in 1882.

Denver was founded on November 22, 1858, named after Kansas Territorial Governor James W. Denver. A man named Uncle Dick Wootton opened the first saloon in December of that year, Noel said. Legend has it that Wootton served free Taos Lightning—a mixture of engine whiskey, chewing tobacco, gun powder and jalapeno peppers.

For a couple of years, Arapaho and Cheyenne people traded with the settlers. As quickly as miners settled the area, however, they left.

“That’s the irony,” Noel said. “Denver was expected to be the biggest boom town in the West, but it almost because a ghost town.”

The town stagnated because mining was difficult and the railroad bypassed Denver in favor of Cheyenne, Wyoming. The Indian wars also hindered Denver’s growth, Noel said.

In 1861, chiefs of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes entered into the Treaty of Fort Wise, relinquishing their rights to the land. This came despite opposition from tribal members who argued they weren’t consulted. Disagreements continued until the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, five years after Denver was incorporated.

That massacre, which left between 165 and 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho dead—two-thirds of them women, children and elderly—and another 200 wounded, forever changed racial relationships in Denver. The city grew, topping 35,000 people in 1880 and 106,000 in 1890.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

A panorama photo of Denver, Colorado and the Eastern gateway to the Rocky Mountains from 1898, just 40 years after the first store is believed to have opened.

Denver now is the second biggest city in the West, after San Francisco, and it plays host to some of the most heated protests among American Indians.

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Colorado was the first state to recognize Columbus Day, honoring the Italian explorer with a statewide holiday in 1907. It became a national holiday in 1937.

Denver, which acts as a hub for tribes across the West, became a nucleus for Columbus Day protests. In the 1980s, the American Indian Movement rallied against the celebration, calling Columbus an anti-hero.

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“They are seeking for Columbus’ name to be removed and for him to not be honored as a great American hero because of all the Native Americans he killed and raped,” Noel said.

During the 1992 parade, sponsored by the Federation of Italian-American Organizations, Russell Means was arrested for throwing fake blood on a statue of Columbus. The parade was canceled for two decades, but resumed this year with minimal protests.

Russell Means leads a chant at a Columbus Day protest in 1998 in Denver, Colorado.

In his 1995 autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread, Means wrote about the protest and his arrest.

“To indigenous people of this hemisphere, the celebration is the ultimate affirmation that since 1492, Western society has regarded us as expendable,” he wrote. “Columbus was a murdering heathen who ‘discovered’ the heaven on earth that was home for my ancestors and immediately set about turning it into a living hell for them.”

Means protested because it was the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival, he wrote. Columbus believed Natives were “subhuman, and therefore could be slaughtered or enslaved with impunity.”

About defacing the Columbus statue, Means wrote: “I threw a can of water-soluble red paint on it to symbolize the centuries of bloodshed Columbus was responsible for inciting. I was arrested but the charge was dismissed.”

According to 2010 Census numbers, more than 8,000 American Indians live in Denver, or about 1.4 percent of the total population.