To explore Colorado today is to step into its past, from its dinosaur graveyards and impressive stone and clay cities of the Ancestral Puebloan people (also called the Anasazi) to reminders of the Wild West of Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday. The history of Colorado is a testimony to the human ability to adapt and flourish in a difficult environment. This land of high mountains and limited water continues to challenge its inhabitants today.
The earliest people in Colorado are believed to have been nomadic hunters who arrived some 12,000 to 20,000 years ago by way of the Bering Strait, following the tracks of the woolly mammoth and bison. Then, about 2,000 years ago, the people we call the Ancestral Puebloans arrived, living in shallow caves in the Four Corners area, where the borders of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet.
These hunters gradually learned farming and basket making, and then pottery making and the construction of pit houses--basically large underground pots. Eventually they built complex villages, examples of which can be seen at Mesa Verde National Park. For some unknown reason, possibly drought, they deserted the area around the end of the 13th century, probably moving south into present-day New Mexico and Arizona.
Although the Ancestral Puebloans were gone by the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the mid–16th century, in their place were two major nomadic cultures: the mountain dwellers of the west, primarily Ute; and the plains tribes of the east, principally Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Comanche.
Spanish colonists, having established settlements at Santa Fe, Taos, and other upper Rio Grande locations in the 16th and 17th centuries, didn’t immediately find southern Colorado attractive for colonization. Not only was there a lack of financial and military support from the Spanish crown, but the freedom-loving, sometimes fierce Comanche and Ute also made it clear that they would rather be left alone.
Nevertheless, Spain held title to southern and western Colorado in 1803, when U.S. President Thomas Jefferson paid $15 million for the vast Louisiana Territory, which included the lion’s share of modern Colorado. Two years later the Lewis and Clark expedition passed by, but the first official exploration by the U.S. government occurred when Jefferson sent Capt. Zebulon Pike to the territory. Pikes Peak, Colorado’s landmark mountain and a top tourist attraction near Colorado Springs, bears the explorer’s name.
Colorado Takes Shape
As the West began to open up in the 1820s, the Santa Fe Trail was established, cutting through Colorado’s southeast corner. Much of eastern Colorado, including what would become Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs, was then part of the Kansas Territory. It was populated almost exclusively by plains tribes until 1858, when gold-seekers discovered flakes of the precious metal near the junction of Cherry Creek and the South Platte, and the city of Denver was established, named for Kansas governor James Denver.
The Cherry Creek strike was literally a flash in the gold-seeker’s pan, but two strikes in the mountains just west of Denver in early 1859 were more significant: one at Clear Creek, near what would become Idaho Springs, and another in a quartz vein at Gregory Gulch, which led to the founding of Central City. The race to Colorado’s gold fields had begun.
Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States in November 1860, and Congress created the Colorado Territory 3 months later. The new territory absorbed neighboring sections from Utah, Nebraska, and New Mexico to form the boundaries of the state today. Lincoln’s Homestead Act of 1862 brought much of the public domain into private ownership and led to the plotting of Front Range townships, starting with Denver.
Controlling the American Indian peoples was a priority of the territorial government. A treaty negotiated in 1851 had guaranteed the entire Pikes Peak region to the nomadic plains tribes, but that had been negated by the arrival of settlers in the late 1850s. The Fort Wise Treaty of 1861 exchanged the Pikes Peak territory for 5 million fertile acres of Arkansas Valley land, north of modern La Junta. But when the Arapaho and Cheyenne continued to roam their old hunting grounds, conflict became inevitable. Frequent rumors and rare instances of hostility against settlers led the Colorado cavalry to attack a peaceful settlement of Indians--who were flying Old Glory and a white flag--on November 29, 1864. More than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho, two-thirds of them women and children, were killed in what has become known as the Sand Creek Massacre.
Vowing revenge, the Cheyenne and Arapaho launched a campaign to drive whites from their ancient hunting grounds. Their biggest triumph was the destruction of the northeast Colorado town of Julesburg in 1865, but the cavalry, bolstered by returning Civil War veterans, managed to force the two tribes onto reservations in Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma--a barren area that whites thought they would never want.
Also in 1865, a smelter was built in Black Hawk, just west of Denver, setting the stage for the large-scale spread of mining throughout Colorado. When the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the Union Pacific went through Cheyenne, Wyoming, 100 miles north of Denver; 4 years later the Kansas City–Denver Railroad linked the line to Denver.
Colorado politicians had begun pressing for statehood during the Civil War, but it wasn’t until August 1, 1876, that Colorado became the 38th state. Because it gained statehood less than a month after the 100th birthday of the United States, Colorado became known as the Centennial State.
The state’s new constitution gave the vote to blacks but not to women, despite the strong efforts of the Colorado Women’s Suffrage Association. In 1893, women finally succeeded in winning the vote, 3 years after Wyoming became the first state to offer universal suffrage.
At the time of statehood, most of Colorado’s vast western region was still occupied by some 3,500 mountain and plateau dwellers of a half-dozen Ute tribes. Unlike the plains tribes, their early relations with white explorers and settlers had been peaceful. Chief Ouray, leader of the Uncompahgre Utes, had negotiated treaties in 1863 and 1868 that guaranteed them 16 million acres--most of western Colorado. In 1873, Ouray agreed to sell the United States one-fourth of that acreage in the mineral-rich San Juan Mountains in exchange for hunting rights and $25,000 in annuities.
But a mining boom that began in 1878 led to a flurry of intrusions into Ute territory and stirred up a “Utes Must Go!” sentiment. Two years later the Utes were forced onto small reserves in southwestern Colorado and Utah, and their lands opened to white settlement in 1882.
Colorado’s real mining boom began on April 28, 1878, when August Rische and George Hook hit a vein of silver carbonate 27 feet deep on Fryer Hill in Leadville. Perhaps the strike wouldn’t have caused such excitement if Rische and Hook, 8 days earlier, hadn’t traded one-third interest in whatever they found for a basket of groceries from storekeeper Horace Tabor, the mayor of Leadville and a sharp businessman. Tabor was well acquainted with the Colorado “law of apex,” which said that if an ore-bearing vein surfaced on a man’s claim, he could follow it wherever it led, even out of his claim and through the claims of others.
Tabor, a legend in Colorado, typifies the rags-to-riches success story of a common working-class man. A native of Vermont, he mortgaged his Kansas homestead in 1859 and moved west to the mountains, where he was a postmaster and storekeeper in several towns before moving to Leadville. He was 46 when the silver strike was made. By age 50, he was the state’s richest man and its Republican lieutenant governor. His love affair with and marriage to Elizabeth “Baby Doe” McCourt, a young divorcée for whom he left his wife, Augusta, was a national scandal that became the subject of numerous books and even an opera.
Although the silver market collapsed in 1893, gold was there to take its place. In the fall of 1890, a cowboy named Bob Womack found gold in Cripple Creek, on the southwestern slope of Pikes Peak, west of Colorado Springs. He sold his claim to Winfield Scott Stratton, a carpenter and amateur geologist, and Stratton’s mine earned a tidy profit of $6 million by 1899, when he sold it to an English company for another $11 million. Cripple Creek turned out to be the richest gold field ever discovered, ultimately producing $500 million in gold.
Unlike the flamboyant Tabor, Stratton was an introvert and a neurotic. His fortune was twice the size of Tabor’s, and it grew daily as the deflation of silver’s value boosted that of gold. But he invested most of it back in Cripple Creek, searching for a fabulous mother lode that he never found. By the early 1900s, the price of gold, like silver, began to be driven down by overproduction.
Into the 20th Century: Growth & Tourism
Another turning point for Colorado occurred just after the beginning of the 20th century. Theodore Roosevelt had visited the state in September 1900 as the Republican vice-presidential nominee. Soon after he became president in September 1901 (following the assassination of President McKinley), he began to declare large chunks of the Rockies forest reserves. By 1907, when an act of Congress forbade the president from creating any new reserves by proclamation, nearly one-fourth of Colorado--16 million acres in 18 forests--was national forest. Also during Roosevelt's term was the establishment in 1906 of Mesa Verde National Park, in the state’s southwest corner.
Tourism grew hand in hand with the setting aside of public lands. Easterners had been visiting Colorado since the 1870s, when Gen. William J. Palmer founded a Colorado Springs resort and made the mountains accessible on his Denver & Rio Grande Railroad.
Estes Park, northwest of Boulder, was among the first resort towns to emerge in the 20th century, spurred by a visit in 1903 by Freelan Stanley. With his brother Francis, Freelan had invented the Stanley Steamer, a steam-powered automobile, in Boston in 1899. Freelan Stanley shipped one of his cars to Denver and drove the 40 miles to Estes Park in less than 2 hours, a remarkable speed for the day. Finding the climate conducive to his recovery from tuberculosis, he returned in 1907 with a dozen Stanley Steamers and established a shuttle service from Denver to Estes Park. Two years later he built the luxurious Stanley Hotel, still a hilltop landmark today.
Stanley befriended Enos Mills, a young innkeeper whose property was more a workshop for students of wildlife than a business. A devotee of conservationist John Muir, Mills believed tourists should spend their Colorado vacations in the natural environment, camping and hiking. As Mills gained national stature as a nature writer, photographer, and lecturer, he urged that the national forest land around Longs Peak, outside Estes Park, be designated a national park. In January 1915, President Woodrow Wilson created the 400-square-mile Rocky Mountain National Park. Today it is one of America’s leading tourist attractions, with more than three million visitors each year.
The 1920s saw the growth of highways and the completion of the Moffat Tunnel, a 6 1/4-mile passageway beneath the Continental Divide that in 1934 led to the long-sought direct Denver–San Francisco rail connection. Of more tragic note was the worst flood in Colorado history. The city of Pueblo, south of Colorado Springs, was devastated when the Arkansas River overflowed its banks on June 1, 1921; 100 people were killed, and the damage exceeded $16 million. The Great Depression of the 1930s was a difficult time for many Coloradans, but it had positive consequences: The federal government raised the price of gold from $20 to $35 an ounce, reviving Cripple Creek and other stagnant mining towns.
World War II and the subsequent Cold War were responsible for many of the defense installations that are now an integral part of the Colorado economy, particularly in the Colorado Springs area. The war also indirectly caused the other single greatest boon to Colorado’s late-20th-century economy: the ski industry. Soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division, on leave from Camp Hale before heading off to fight in Europe, often crossed Independence Pass to relax in the lower altitude and milder climate of the 19th-century silver-mining village of Aspen. They tested their skiing skills, which they would need in the Italian Alps, against the slopes of Ajax Mountain.
In 1945, Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke--he the founder of the Container Corporation of America, she an ardent conservationist--moved to Aspen and established the Aspen Company as a property investment firm. Skiing was already popular in New England and the Midwest, but had few devotees in the Rockies. Paepcke bought a 3-mile chairlift, the longest and fastest in the world at the time, and had it ready for operation by January 1947. Soon, easterners and Europeans were flocking to Aspen--and the rest is ski history.
The war also resulted in the overnight creation of what became at the time Colorado’s 10th largest city, Amache, located in the southeastern part of the state. Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government began rounding up Americans of Japanese ancestry and putting them in internment camps, supposedly because the U.S. government feared they would side with the Japanese government against the United States. Although there was a great deal of prejudice against those of Japanese ancestry throughout the United States at the time, Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr came to their defense, stating, “They are loyal Americans, sharing only race with the enemy.” He welcomed them to the state and authorized the Amache Relocation Center, which at its peak had a population of more than 7,500. Amache was much like other Colorado towns of the time, with a school, post office, hospital, and even its own government, although its residents did not have the freedom to travel.
Colorado continued its steady growth in the 1950s, aided by tourism and the federal government. The $200-million U.S. Air Force Academy, authorized by Congress in 1954 and opened to cadets in 1958, is Colorado Springs’ top tourist attraction today. There was a brief oil boom in the 1970s, followed by increasing high-tech development and even more tourism. Colorado made national news in 1967 when it became the first state to legalize medically necessary abortions.
Weapons plants, which had seemed like a good idea when they were constructed during World War II, began to haunt Denver and the state in the 1970s and 1980s. Rocky Mountain Arsenal, originally built to produce chemical weapons, was found to be creating hazardous conditions by contaminating the land with deadly chemicals. A massive cleanup began in the early 1980s, and by the 1990s the arsenal was well on its way to accomplishing its goal of converting the 27-square-mile site into a national wildlife refuge.
In 1992, Colorado voters approved a controversial state constitutional amendment that would bar any legal measure specifically protecting homosexuals. The amendment would have nullified existing gay-rights ordinances in Denver, Boulder, and elsewhere. Enforcement was postponed pending judicial review, and in the meantime, gay-rights activists urged tourists to boycott Colorado. (Tourism did decline somewhat, although many Colorado ski resorts posted record seasons.) Then, in May 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the measure in a six-to-three vote, saying that, if enforced, it would have denied homosexuals constitutional protection from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations.
On April 20, 1999, in a suburb of Denver, two students shook the city, state, and nation when they went on a shooting spree through Columbine High School. They killed 12 students and one teacher before turning their guns on themselves in the worst school shooting in the nation’s history.
Now in the 21st century, the big event to date was certainly the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, where president-to-be Barack Obama accepted the nomination in front of 75,000 people at Invesco Field at Mile High. The Denver location was a politically calculated pick--Colorado is a swing state--and it worked, with Obama taking the state in the 2008 election.
Since fiscal turmoil struck Wall Street that same season, Colorado's building boom has slowed but not stalled entirely. The state has weathered the recession better than most, with lower-than-average unemployment and a relatively vibrant economy. One industry that has been on fire and captured a fair amount of national media attention has been medical marijuana. In 2009 and 2010, roughly 1,000 dispensaries opened along Denver's Front Range as a so-called “green rush” began.
Beyond this thriving sector, the state saw growth in tourism in 2010 after a slow 2009, with skier numbers rebounding along with hotel occupancy. Economic pundits have put Colorado and several Front Range cities near the top of lists for livability and doing business, and the future outlook remains relatively bright.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.