Trail’s End – Struggling to become Colorado

Early days of Gregory’s Diggings. Photo courtesy of Gilpin County Historical Society

In pioneer days there were sometimes many more votes than people

From the first tip of a gold pan, Colorado miners sought law and order to protect their precious gold claims. A correspondent for The Boston Journal in 1867 reported, “Establish a thousand American settlers in the Himalayas, and in one month, they would have all needful laws in operation, with life and property quite as well protected as in the city of New York.”

When the Pikes Peak Gold Rush began in May 1859, the new gold fields were nominally in Indian Territory within the Territory of Kansas. With the capital hundreds of miles to the east, the miners wanted, and needed, justice closer. Only a few weeks after John Gregory’s strike in present-day Black Hawk on May 6, the thousands of miners already in Gregory’s Diggings met and organized the Gregory Mining District, a one-page document with all necessary laws to protect property and people. Other mining districts in Gilpin and Boulder counties swiftly followed.

Donald Hensel said, “The scrap of the pick, the bite of the ax, and the cut of the plow were invariably followed by the rap of the gavel.”

Although the Miners District laws worked well in the mountain mining communities, the plains towns adopted People’s Courts.

Apparently they were not a sufficient deterrent in Denver because Horace Greeley recalled: “During my two week’s sojourn, [there were] more brawls, more fights, more pistol-shots with criminal intent in this log city of 150 dwellings, not three-fourths completed, nor two-thirds inhabited, nor one-third fit to be, than in any community of no greater numbers on earth.”

From the beginning, Colorado pioneers wanted more official representation. A delegate to Congress, which was unauthorized by Washington, was elected in November 1858 when only a few hundred people wintered in Denver and Golden. On Aug. 1, 1859, a Constitutional Convention was convened to draw a document for the State of Jefferson; again, no Washington official had requested this process. William Byers was the author of this document, which he copied nearly verbatim from the 1857 Iowa Constitution. Voters in the new gold towns rejected it on Sept. 5, 1859, by a vote of 2,007 to 1,649, with a curious twist. Fountain City, forerunner of Pueblo, approved the proposed Constitution by a vote of 1,089 to 1, despite the fact the town had a population of less than 100

Thinking the objection was to a state at this early stage, not an official government, Byers proceeded with a proposal for a Territory of Jefferson. Again the document was a shortened version of the Iowa Constitution, and when the voters considered it on Oct. 24, 1859, they approved it. Again Fountain City was overwhelmingly in favor; they approved it by a margin of 1,500 to 0 against.

Proponents of Jefferson Territory had gambled that Washington would acquiesce and recognize this new territory if the popular vote was heavily in favor. They were wrong. The federal government ignored it. Jefferson Territory limped along with an elected legislature and Gov. Robert Steele, but the taxes levied by the Territory were ignored by the citizens, thus hamstringing the new government. Denver residents were so disillusioned with Jefferson territory that they seceded, forming the People’s Government of Denver.

Sixteen months later, Washington created an official Colorado Territory. During our 15 years as Colorado Territory, statehood attempts were promoted several times both here and in Washington, D.C., but the timing between the two arenas didn’t coincide for years.

1864 attempt – Washington stage
This first major statehood movement was a result of the federal Republican Party wanting the three electoral votes Colorado would bring. They pushed through an enabling act allowing our territory to frame a constitution and put it to a vote. However, politics within our territory’s Republican majority led the voters to defeat it soundly, 4,676 votes to 1,510.

1865 attempt – Colorado stage
Jerome Chaffee, a gifted political strategist, had immediately begun another statehood attempt without enabling legislation passed in Washington. This constitution was ratified by the territory’s voters by a thin margin, but politics back east doomed it because President Johnson and the “Radical Republicans” were maneuvering for power. Johnson vetoed the attempt because the enabling legislation was no longer valid.

1866 attempt – Washington stage
Déjà vu all over again, to quote Yogi Bear. Republican leaders passed a new enabling act for Colorado and Johnson vetoed it.

1868 attempt – Colorado stage
The “Denver crowd” – Chaffee, John Evans, John Chivington and William Byers – revived a statehood movement using the 1865 Constitution, while the “Golden/Gilpin crowd” – Henry Teller and W.A.H. Loveland – opposed it. One of their many arguments was that the territorial population was not 75,000 or more as the Denver group claimed, but no more than 30,000. (The 1870 Census proved Teller was closest to the truth. There were less than 40,000.) Washington needed little convincing; statehood in the 1865 election had been favored by only 155 votes and Teller easily swayed Congress to his point of view.

1876 attempt – Colorado and Washington
This election year was worrisome to the dominant Republicans. Their incumbent, Ulysses Grant, was limited by the two-term tradition established by Washington, and the corruption of his administration was becoming common knowledge. The party might need three new electoral votes, so on the last day of the session, March 3, 1875, Congress again approved enabling legislation for Colorado territory and set the boundaries of the state identical to the Territory. Voters were asked to choose 39 delegates to a Constitutional Convention in December 1875; 24 Republicans and 15 Democrats were chosen.

On March 14, 1876, after 87 days, the convention adjourned. Voters overwhelmingly approved the new document 15,443 to 4,092 on July 1. President Grant quickly proclaimed the “Centennial State” on Aug. 1, 1876. Colorado’s three electoral votes did prove decisive in the most disputed presidential election in history prior to Bush/Gore. In the 1876 election, Rutherford B. Hayes edged out the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden, by only one vote!

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