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The Rise of the Centennial State: Colorado Territory, 1861-76

by Eugene H. Berwanger, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2007, $40.

The Pike’s Peak gold rush of 1859 brought an estimated 100,000 Anglo-American gold seekers to the frozen slopes of the Front Range in what was soon to be Colorado Territory. In 1865 only about 37,000 settlers remained in the entire territory. Eugene H. Berwanger’s The Rise of the Centennial State starts by explaining the territory’s near-downfall, as the twin pressures of declining placer mining—$3.4 million panned in 1862 versus virtually none in 1866—and the Civil War kept settlers from putting down roots. He goes on to document its subsequent re-growth and regeneration by the eve of statehood.

Economic growth during the 1860s was slow due to Colorado Territory’s vast distance from the corridors of economic power in the East. Railroad transportation did not arrive in Denver until summer 1870, and communication in the form of the telegraph wire was fragile and under constant threat from Plains Indians. The danger of Indian attack kept the price of transportation and basic goods high, and the settlers’ violent attempts to quell Indian resistance further sapped the economy. Colonel John Chivington, commanding the 1st Regiment of Colorado Volunteers, drew the ire of Eastern newspapers for his assault on Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle’s camp at Sand Creek, and this negative press in turn created an image of Colorado Territory as a place too violent for Eastern investment. A retaliatory war launched by Cheyenne Dog Soldiers under Tall Bull and Roman Nose sacked Julesburg and reinforced this perception.

Despite these challenges to growth, the Battles of Beecher’s Island and Summit Springs destroyed the Cheyenne Indians’ hold on the Colorado Plains. While cavalrymen fought the remnants of the Dog Soldiers, the group of politicians known as the “Denver Crowd,” including Governors John Evans and Samuel Elbert, worked tirelessly. They wanted to make their city the seat of government, connect Denver with the Union Pacific and Kansas Pacific railroads, bring investments from the East and achieve statehood.

When Governor Alexander Cummings took a stance against statehood, papers in Denver called for “a cottonwood limb and a rope if HIS EXCELLENCY did not yield.” He opposed statehood on the belief that it would place an undue tax burden on citizens, and he spoke out against a state constitution that did not guarantee voting rights for women. However, Cummings was fighting a losing battle. The Rise of the Centennial State is a great one-volume (157 pages) history of Colorado Territory.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.