If Disney could create the ultimate amusement park ride it might be based on events that occurred February 28th, 156 years ago, when the Colorado Territory was established, brought forth from portions of four other territories. Add drama in the form of the impending start of the United States Civil War, the departure of President James Buchanan, who signed the bill establishing the Colorado Territory, the arriving of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency who opposed slavery, and the ride would be something resulting in wonder and awe, a source of certain inspiration and motivation for so many.
For me, a Coloradan, February 28th is not only a birthday worthy of celebration (as are such occasions, and should remain so), but it is also important in relation to another fact: Sixteen years after the establishing of the Colorado Territory, on August 1, 1876, the State of Colorado was established. (For those who take note of and observe such milestones, that anniversary is celebrated as “Colorado Day”.)
How the Colorado Territory was established and the events surrounding it involves a willingness to believe in what is perceived by some to be near-impossible events that produced the result: Had it not been for a bit of luck and a strike revealing a gold deposit near present-day Denver the Colorado Territory and the subsequent state might have become part of four other territories, and the states that were eventually created from them.
In order to understand these events it is important to know facts leading up to them: In 1858, three years prior to the establishing of a territory, what would become the State of Colorado was part of western Kansas, northern New Mexico, eastern Utah, and southwestern Nebraska. It was the arrival of a mining group from Georgia, led by William Green Russell, who discovered gold that would change this definition of boundaries forever: Where Dry Creek flows into the South Platte River, a few miles from where Cherry Creek flows into the South Platte the future of Colorado was determined. When word of the gold strike made its way eastward thousands were quick to respond, taking part in what would become known as “The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush”.
With the onslaught of gold seekers and pursuers of wealth the City of Denver was established at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platter Rivers. From Denver, which supplied miners and other gold strikes, towns including Central City, Black Hawk, and Idaho Springs were born and remain today.
A relevant aside: Because the initial gold strike was located in the Kansas Territory Denver was named for the governor of the Kansas Territory, James W. Denver.
With the arrival of fortune hunters the population of Colorado increased and would-be governmental bodies took form – some of them less-than honest and upstanding in their intentions. To provide for and ensure law and order Arapahoe County, now part of Colorado, was established within the Kansas Territory.
But because the capital of Kansas was several hundred miles away in Topeka, and because the new governmental bodies in the Denver area were problematic, it was proposed that the gold mining towns and cities be gathered into a territory of their own, with the prospect of statehood in the future. One group that expressed interest in the establishing of a territory proposed the name of “Jefferson”. The effort met with failure, but the future would have been interesting: Instead of the State of Colorado it would have been the State of Jefferson; instead of Colorado Springs it could have been Jefferson Springs.
Regardless of the desired outcome, the establishing of a territory was affected by politics, specifically those related to the forthcoming Civil War: In the United States Congress pro-slavery Southerners rejected the establishing of statehood for the Kansas Territory (which include parts of present-day Colorado) because they believed the senators from the proposed state – Republicans – would vote for the abolishing of slavery.
The matter became further complicated with the election of the Abraham Lincoln in 1860, a Republican who opposed slavery. His election and pending inauguration resulted in Southern states seceding from the Union, and senators and representatives from Southern states resigning their seats in the United States Congress in protest – actions which did not bode well for those desiring a future for Colorado.
In early 1861 a surprising turn of events alleviated the concerns of those in the Colorado Territory: With the departures of elected officials from the South there were enough votes to provide statehood for the Kansas Territory, and at the same time the remaining members of the United States Congress moved to create Colorado from Kansas, New Mexico, Utah, and Nebraska. The action, though, would remain problematic for years to come because the boundaries were not accurate and because some opposed the name given: Colorado. A small group still favored “Jefferson” and another faction wanted ‘Idaho’.
Despite the controversy “Colorado” became law.
February 28th marks 156 years since this series of events resulted in the State of Colorado. Since this event history has been made every day, and every day since Colorado has been a place without equal.
A challenge to Coloradans: How many counties existed when the Colorado Territory was established? How many counties does the State of Colorado now contain? If you know without looking it up please let me know. (Even if you don’t know off-hand, let me know after you research the matter.)