The history of central Colorado (specifically, the area bounded by the Sawatch/Sangre de Cristo Ranges to the west and the Front Range and Wet Mountains to the east) is a kaleidoscope of colorful people and places. The first Europeans to penetrate the area now known as Colorado were Spanish explorers. As a result, Spanish place names permeate the area - Sangre de Cristo (Spanish for "Blood of Christ"), Sierra Mojada (Spanish for "Wet Mountains"), and Colorado itself (Spanish for "red"). Juan Archuleta (1664) and Juan Ulibarri (1706) were the first Spanish explorers to enter Colorado. To the Spanish in Taos and Santa Fe, the region to the north was regarded as frontier inhabited by hostile Indians. After the explorations of Joliet (1673) and LaSalle (1682), Spanish fears of French incursions into Colorado were awakened. Now, the region to the north became a disputed frontier. In 1706, Captain Juan de Ulibarri led 140 soldiers, settlers, and Indians northward from Taos, New Mexico along the Wet Mountains to the Arkansas River at Fountain Creek in search of invading Frenchmen and hostile Indians. At El Cuartelejo ("The Far Quarter"), on the Arkansas River near Las Animas, Colorado, Ulibarri encountered solid evidence of French expansionism - a new French rifle. It seemed that Spanish fears were justified. In 1720, Pedro Villasur led a military force of 42 Spaniards and 60 Indians northward to the Republican River (near present-day Red Cloud, Nebraska) where a combined Pawnee and French surprise attack wiped out almost the entire Spanish force (including Villasur).
By the middle of the Eighteenth Century, the Spaniards in Taos and Santa Fe had a new menace to face from Colorado - the Comanche Indians. In 1778, the Comanches were led by a notorious and colorful chief named Cuerno Verde ("Greenhorn") who wore a resplendent headdress topped by an intimidating pair of green buffalo horns. Governor Juan Bautista De Anza was dispatched to Santa Fe in 1778 to deal with the Comanche threat and by early August, 1779 had mobilized an army of 103 soldiers and 470 colonists and Pueblo Indians. This military force moved northward along the Rio Grande River to Ojo Caliente (the northern terminus of the Camino Real) and then northward to the San Luis Valley. Traveling east through Poncha Pass (Spanish for "mild"), the army left the San Luis Valley, and entered the Arkansas River Valley. By this time, the trail of the Comanches had grown quite hot. De Anza's force moved north-northeast, over the Mosquito Range and into the pine forests of the west Pikes Peak country. Cutting south of the Peak through the Cripple Creek/St. Peter's Dome District, the army descended through a series of rugged foothills as the mountains finally gave way to the Great Plains. There, at the edge of the plains they encountered the hostile Comanche camp, but Cuerno Verde and 200 of his warriors were not present, having ridden south to raid Taos. De Anza gave chase and caught up with them 30 miles south of the Arkansas River below Greenhorn Mountain (near Rye, Colorado). Cuerno Verde was defeated and killed - in this way, Comanche pressure on the Spanish colonies was curtailed and the Rocky Mountains were penetrated by Europeans for the first time.
By the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, interlopers from a new source were trespassing on Spanish-claimed land in Colorado - the emergent United States. On June 24, 1806, Zebulon Montgomery Pike received orders from General James Wilkinson (governor of Upper Louisiana and commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army) to explore the Arkansas River to its source and then return by way of the Red River to Louisiana. Pike therefore became the first American to see the Rockies (and also the first American to build a structure on Colorado soil). On his way to the Great Bend of the Arkansas River, Pike visited the same Republican River Pawnee village in Nebraska where the Spanish force under Villasur had been ambushed in 1720. By November, 1806, Pike and company crossed into Colorado and on November 15, 1806, sighted Pikes Peak. At the site of present-day Pueblo, the first American structure on Colorado soil was built - a defensive stockade or breastworks was constructed for protection against Ute Indians and Spanish soldiers. On November 27, Pike (with 3 companions) attempted to climb Pikes Peak but after 3 days of futile effort, pronounced the Peak unscalable!! The expedition continued west, ignoring a cut-off trail through the Wet Mountains (the present-day Hardscrabble Pass Road from Wetmore to the Wet Mountain Valley), and followed instead Current Creek to Current Creek Pass. Pike assumed this to be the source of the Arkansas River, the first of several mistakes he was to make. After crossing Current Creek Pass, Pike encountered a treeless basin of grass (South Park) and a new river, the South Platte. Further exploration revealed a second river to the west - Pike assumed this to be the Red River but was forced to admit his mistake after descending the river as far as the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River (Royal Gorge). But the persistence of Pike to fulfill his promise to General Wilkinson to return by the Red River route led him to organize a further effort to find the river. Pike then headed south through the Wet Mountain Valley, past present-day Westcliffe, and over Promontory Divide where they sighted the Spanish Peaks. To the southwest an easy mountain pass beckoned. On January 27, 1807, they walked over the pass to a creek which Pike again declared to be the Red River.
Unfortunately, Medano Creek (Pike's "second Red River") disappears completely in the sand dunes at the base of the pass. Pike soon realized his second mistake and may have been more than a bit frustrated when a hundred Spanish soldiers turned up at this time to arrest the American interlopers. While being detained by Spanish authorities in Santa Fe, Pike encountered mountain man James Purcell who told him of the presence of placer gold near the headwaters of the South Platte River in South Park. This, by the way, was one of the earliest reports of gold in the Colorado Rockies.
In the summer of 1820, an expedition commanded by Major Stephen H Long and guided by the French guide, Joseph Bijeau, visited the Pikes Peak area. This party included botanist Dr. Edwin James and painter Titian Ramsay Peale. On July 14, 1820, Dr. James with two companions became the first men of record to climb Pikes Peak.
Following the Long expedition of 1820, penetration of the Colorado Rockies was accomplished by fur-trappers and mountain men in search of beaver pelts. By 1840, the beaver was trapped out, so fur-trappers and mountain men turned to other occupations well-suited to their backgrounds - that of scout or guide. Lieutenant John C. Fremont (The "Pathfinder") recognized the necessity of having an experienced guide for his expeditions and was usually well-served by his choices. It was during Fremont's 1843 expedition that Major William Gilpin (Colorado's first territorial governor) discovered evidence of gold in 5 separate places in Colorado: Cherry Creek, South Park, Pikes Peak, Cache la Poudre River, and Clear Creek. In 1848, Gilpin added a sixth location - the San Juan Mountains. Unfortunately, "tales" of gold in Colorado couldn't compete with actual nuggets from Sutter's Mill in California. Colorado was largely passed over as a result of the 1849 California gold rush. The first concrete evidence of gold from Colorado was provided by a Delaware Indian scout named Fall Leaf who proudly displayed his finds back east. The "Lawrence Party", led by John Easter, was the first organized gold-seeking party to work the Colorado Rockies. John Easter had personally seen the Delaware's gold. In 1858, a second party of prospectors led by William Green Russell became the first to discover placer gold in paying quantities. The Colorado Gold Rush was on!
The first really big strikes in Colorado occurred early in 1859. In January, 1859, George A. Jackson discovered rich placer gold deposits on the south fork of Clear Creek. Later that spring, John Gregory discovered the first lode gold deposit in Colorado on the north fork of Clear Creek - not far from George Jackson's diggings. Gregory had found the "mother lode" of the Colorado Rockies!
The South Park gold rush occurred as a direct result of the Clear Creek discoveries. Prospectors spilled across the Front Range, finding color in tributaries of the Arkansas River everywhere north of Trout Creek. The first placer gold discovery in South Park was along Tarryall Creek in July, 1859 but by August, all potential panning sites had been taken. Late comers nicknamed the Tarryall diggings "Graball" because of the lack of space. Within 3 years, the rich placer deposits of Colorado had been largely depleted (as had happened in California), but new strikes in South Park rejuvenated the Colorado rush. "California Gulch" (Oro City) at the headwaters of the Arkansas River proved to be extremely rich. And then, in 1869, the discovery of the Caribou silver lode produced a frenzy of excitement as prospectors poured over the mountains in search of silver. Many of the washed-out gold diggings were rechecked for silver. In 1876, William H. Stevens and Alvinus B. Wood discovered that the heavy sand associated with the placer gold at Oro City was actually argentiferous lead carbonate. Further investigation upstream revealed a 10 foot thick body of ore - the mother lode! Thus, was born the mining town of Leadville.
That romantic age of boom towns and bonanzas was nearing its end in Colorado, but one more fabulous gold strike (in the tradition of the Sierra Nevada, Comstock Lode, Pikes Peak, and Leadville rushes) was yet to be made. Cripple Creek was the last of the great gold camps. Situated at an elevation of 10,000 feet, the gold-choked throat of the buried "Cripple Creek volcano" has produced over $430,000,000 in gold. Maximum production at Cripple Creek occurred at the turn of the century but a second peak was reached in 1915 when the Cresson pipe was discovered. The Cresson "blowout" is a brecciated basaltic intrusion within the volcano itself. One "vug" in the Cresson mine was 20 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 40 feet high. The walls of the cavity were lined with crystals of quartz, pure gold, and calaverite. This "vug" alone produced $1,200,000 worth of gold.
Forty years of successive gold and silver strikes in Colorado had culminated in the great bonanza at Cripple Creek. Each strike had sustained and fueled the economy of Colorado at crucial times in its history. The state of Colorado had come of age.