Land of Contrast: A History of Southeast Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 17)
BLM Logo

Chapter VIII

Placer mining, Colorado's sole heavy industry, faded quickly during the 1860's. The Rush of 1859 gave way to ever-decreasing finds and abandonment of early mining regions. South Park was particularly hard hit in the mid-1860's. Towns were emptied, mines closed, and boundless optimism that pervaded, died. Alternatives to mining were needed if the territory was to survive as a viable political and economic unit. Agricultural goods were the one item that miners, store keepers, gamblers and, indeed, everyone needed, but nobody had. Goods were imported from Kansas, as was live beef. David Wall, in 1859, diverted Clear Creek and established a little vegetable garden near Golden. From these modest efforts, Colorado's agriculture began. Miners not only bought garden crops from farmers along the South Platte River, but also beef from Texas cattlement such as John Dawson, who brought Texas Longhorns in during 1859 to feed hungry miners. Dawson trailed his herd north of the Arkansas River, along Fountain Creek and into Denver. [1] South Park's cattle industry began, meanwhile, in 1860 when Samuel Hartsel homesteaded at the junction of the South and Middle Forks of the South Platte and imported 148 Shorthorns and some bulls. By 1866, Hartsel had a thriving cattle business that provided beef to Denver and the eastern plains. [2] That same year Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving were trailing cattle from the Pecos River over Raton Pass, through Trinidad, Pueblo, Colorado City, and into Denver. From Denver, this trail went north to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where cattle were shipped on the Transcontinental Railroad. The Goodnight-Loving Trail was the most famous cattle route in Colorado, and it certainly helped establish a north-south route along the Front Range. In fact, Interstate Highway 25 very closely parallels the trail from Pueblo to Raton Pass. [3]

These early efforts at cattle ranching led to further developments along the Arkansas River. After the Civil War, American industry boomed. Hundreds of thousands of European immigrants flooded into this nation and the demand for red meat soared. As need increased, so did price. At the same time, American and British capitalists, having made their fortunes in the Industrial Revolution, sought investments with high returns. By the early 1870's it became obvious that cattle could be raised on the vast western plains with little effort and expense. Men like Goodnight and Loving proved just that. As America's economy picked up, men like John Wesley Prowers built cattle empires with nothing but grass and water. Prowers, who began his ranching days along the Arkansas, imported Shorthorn Herefords from Kansas and grazed them on free public lands. By 1881, his domain consisted of forty miles of Arkansas River frontage and some 400,000 acres, feeding 10,000 head of cattle. [4] James C. Jones, arriving in Colorado during 1879, preempted lands south of the Arkansas and was running some 15,000 head by the early 1880's. The "JJ" brand was seen from Trinidad to Kansas and from the Arkansas south to Raton Pass. [5] These "Cattle Barons" were able to build their empires because there was minimum investment, grazing land was free, and labor was cheap. Cattlemen merely moved onto public domain and, using rather questionable methods, proceeded to tie up hundreds of thousands of acres. Homesteading, authorized under the Homestead Act of 1862, was used to gain lands that were never intended for cattle raising. By capturing waterholes and stream banks through homestead applications, ranchers controlled the plains. Homesteaders who dared claim public land were expelled, as were sheepmen attempting to share the range. The cattle industry in southeastern Colorado was typical of most western operations. Generally, a headquarters was constructed on a homestead filing and consisted of a log or adobe house, a bunkhouse, corrals, and other support structures. Contrary to western movies, most ranches did not have two-story Victorian houses but rather quite functional buildings that could be quickly amortized.

The cattle industry was an early, and important, contribution to southeastern Colorado's economy. Grazing continues to this day. (Photo by A.J. Senti)

The Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail was one of the most famous, and important, routes north from Texas into Colorado. It was used from 1868 to 1875 when the Santa Fe Railroad arrived along the Arkansas River. (Photo by F.J. Athearn)

As the 1870's progressed, interest in cattle rose. Hiram Latham's work, Trans-Missouri Stock Raising, received attention as did the Baron von Richtofen's Cattle Raising on the Plains of North America. Perhaps the most famous work was that of James S. Brisbin, who entitled his treatise, The Beef Bonanza, or How to Get Rich off the Plains. All of these narratives touted the ease of cattle raising, noting that land was free, water was available, and cattle did not cost much. For a ten-dollar investment, one could expect to sell a grass fed cow in several years for $40, or a 400 percent profit. [6] Of course, these figures did not calculate the costs of transportation or winter losses, and here is where the dream of easy money died. More and more cattle were placed on an overburdened range. Not only was native vegetation wiped out, but hard winters began to take their toll. Additionally, the invention of barbed wire in 1873 increased fencing of the range which, in turn, made old-fashioned, open grazing even more difficult. Fencing became a major issue during the 1880's. With increased settlement pressures, homesteaders demanded the right to use public domain. In 1882, for instance, Special Agent H.W. Jones of the General Land Office (GLO) in Pueblo, complained to the Secretary of the Interior and cited a number of cases where cattlemen had closed public lands. The pressure increased, and finally, Interior forced fence removals on public lands, hence opening them to homesteading. The Prairie Cattle Company of Trinidad removed fences from some 36,000 acres of public land while the Barela family took down fences on 38,000 acres. [7]

The western American cattle industry was, by 1886, badly overextended. Despite the handsome dividends, cattlemen suffered from decreasing prices and short counts of cattle. Then the winter of 1886-1887 roared across the plains killing thousands of cows and wiping out, forever, the open-range cattle industry. [8] Southeastern Colorado suffered losses along the Arkansas River as blizzards howled across the flatlands, freezing cows stiff. Some accounts stated that up to fifty percent of herds were lost, while in milder regions, near the foothills, losses were "only" ten percent. This disaster not only destroyed western cattle fiefdoms, but it showed ranchers that open-range grazing was not an effective manner in which to use the land. A further problem was the introduction of sheep.

Sheep raising was hardly new to this region. Spanish settlers brought "woolies" into the San Luis Valley during the 1850's, while Raton Basin saw sheep grazing along the Purgatory from the 1860's on. The influx of sheep from New Mexico was such that the Pueblo Chieftain reported in 1868 that there were 185,000 sheep in Costilla and Conejos counties alone, while ". . . Las Animas County has about 87,500 and Huerfano and Pueblo Counties about 35,000, totalling 317,500 sheep for southern Colorado." [10] The problem with sheep, alleged cattlemen, was that they grazed vegetation to the roots, they smelled so bad that cattle would not graze where sheep had been, and they were greater users of the range, which in turn caused overgrazing. None of this was true, but for years these myths continued. A further problem was that many sheepmen in southeastern Colorado were of New Mexican or Mexican descent and "Anglo" cattlemen considered them inferior persons. Tension that arose caused conflicts over range use and cattlemen determined to "protect" themselves by forming associations. Political power rested with cattlemen, as seen during the 1870's, when brand laws were enacted, the Colorado Cattlemen's Association was chartered, and a process of roundups was begun under State statute. Laws favoring the cattle industry were passed, while sheepmen struggled to gain access to the public lands. Generally, cattle empires flourished from 1865 to 1889 in southeastern Colorado. Sheep were prevalent in the San Luis Valley and, to some extent, the Raton Basin, while cattle was king on the eastern plains from Pueblo all along the Arkansas River into Kansas. Those days were doomed, however, for more and more settlers pushed onto the plains closing lands that had previously "belonged" to the cattle barons.

As mentioned, quite a few Pike's Peakers turned to agriculture when mining failed to materialize the great wealth expected. The San Luis Valley, an agricultural area since 1855, provided corn, wheat, beans and other staples. The Raton Basin also was a source of farm goods from 1860 onward. Since there was little mineral activity in the foothill portion of Colorado Territory, this area became primarily farming. However, several problems needed immediate solution. The first was lack of water. While there might be streams, there were no irrigation ditches. To resolve this matter, ditches were quickly dug. David Wall of Golden is one example, while the Arkansas Valley around Canon City was turned into a farming location by 1861. Fruit orchards were planted during 1862 by William Lee only to be wiped out by flooding along Spring Creek. [12] Anson Rudd planted an orchard in 1864, with little success. It took until 1867 when W.A. Helm set out apples, pears, apricots and grapes to begin a local fruit industry. Jesse Frazer planted tree near future Florence in 1868, and in 1869 he established the State's first fruit tree nursery. [13] B.F. Rockafellow bought some trees from Frazer and planted the second orchard in Colorado during 1869, proving that the area east of Canon City could be used for fruit growing despite its high altitude. Up river from Canon City, Frank Mayol, in 1863, homesteaded a farm near Buena Vista and sold his produce to miners at California Gulch, realizing a handsome profit. These efforts caused others to emulate Mayol, and by 1865 several farms producing hay, potatoes, oats, turnips and other farm goods were in operation along Cottonwood Creek, Brown's Creek, Trout Creek and Chalk Creek. [14]

A major reason for agricultural expansion in Colorado, indeed the whole west, was passage of various land laws encouraging settlement and production. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided, for the first time, "free" land to those who wished to settle the western United States. A claimant could, after five years of residence on the land, and with certain improvements, claim up to 160 acres of public land for him/herself. In this way farmsteads could be used to tame the wilderness west of the Mississippi while landless immigrants, farmers and others could become property owners. Homesteading opened millions of acres and provided western territories and states the ability to develop themselves with federal help. As it turned out, 160 acres in the west was not enough to sustain agriculture. In 1873, for example, the Timber Culture Act granted more acreage to settlers who planted trees on their homesteads, while the 1877 Desert Land Act said that homesteaders who irrigated their claims could be given up to 640 acres. [15] Providing public domain for individual settlement encouraged not only private immigrants, but also colonies and town companies. Early attempts at colonization were by-products of the Civil War. In the early 1870's such organizations as the Union Colony at Greeley and the National Land Company's colony at Longmont had "proven" this concept could work.

As it happened, Colorado's first attempt at Anglo colonization occurred in 1869, south of Canon City. The German Colonization Company of Chicago sent Carl Wulsten to Colorado to find a suitable location for a colony. Wulsten visited the Wet Mountain Valley during November 1869, and early next spring a party of settlers was on its way to the valley. The Wulsten group traveled by rail from Chicago to Fort Russell, Kansas, where the Kansas Pacific Railway ended. Arrangements were made for U.S. Army troops to escort the three hundred men, women and children west to Colorado. Vice-President Schuyler Colfax, who had provided Army help, was remembered when Wulsten's settlement was named Colfax. Wulsten's party was supposed to have 160-acre plots based on a 40,000-acre grant that the German Colonization Company requested from the Federal Government. However, the government had not acted by the time all the settlers arrived, so they squatted, hoping their claims would later be validated. Settlements were founded at Colfax, Ula, and Dora. The colonists built houses and began irrigation projects. However, the Wet Mountain Valley was not all that wet, and agriculture was difficult at best. Since Wulsten still did not have a grant, he traveled to Washington, DC, in the summer of 1870 seeking redress. While he was gone, the colony began to fall apart. Individuals refused to farm in a cooperative manner, and then they struck out on their own. When Wulsten returned in late 1870, he found the colony dissolved and Colorado's first Anglo settlers were drifting into Pueblo, Denver and Canon City seeking work. [16]

Homesteaders arrived along the Arkansas River to take up farms. Very often they built sod houses (soddies) and then tried to till 160 acres. The failure rate on the hostile plains was very high. (Photo by A.J. Senti)

Carl Wulsten, founder of the Colfax Colony in 1870 is buried at the Rosita, Colorado Cemetary. His headstone survives even if the colony did not. (Photo by F.J. Athearn)

The fate of the Wet Mountain Valley experiment did not stop colonization. As mentioned, the Union Colony at Greeley, founded in 1870, did quite well. However, for each successful colony there were several failures. For example, in 1878 the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) gathered enough capital to attempt colonization in the West. At the same time, Emanuel H. Saltiel, a Jew of Portugese extraction, and the owner of several mines in the Arkansas River canyon had filed on 2,000 acres of public land with the intention of colonizing his region. The mines at Cotopaxi needed miners and Saltiel saw a cheap labor force available in unsuspecting Jewish immigrants. Saltiel then only needed settlers. He found Jacob Milstein interested in providing new homes for Russian Jews suffering increasing abuse under Czar Alexander II. Saltiel promised houses, barns, implements, rich fields, water, draft animals, wagons and seed. He offered to move these Jewish immigrants to Cotopaxi for a mere $10,000, including land and buildings. HIAS appropriated the money, but, just to make sure, they sent Julius Schwartz to investigate Saltiel's claims. Before a report could be issued, the Russian immigrants were sent on to Cotopaxi in early 1882 where they arrived in May of that year. They were not greeted with warmth. Residents of Cotopaxi met the group at the train station and were openly hostile. Nevertheless, the new colonists proceeded up Bernard Canyon where they found dry, barren slopes and twelve crude shanties measuring about eight-by-eight feet each. [17] Saltiel, needless to say, was accused of fraud. He explained that missing items like furniture and houses were delayed and would arrive soon. Saltiel's store at Cotopaxi cut off credit to the settlers just as their first crops failed. As winter approached desperate colonists went to work in Saltiel's mines for $1.50 per day. However, when Saltiel was about to have his way, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad hired track layers at $3.00 per day and the immigrants at Cotopaxi not only survived that winter, but had money for the crops the next spring. But the next year was hardly better. Some gave up, and by 1884 there were only six families left at Cotopaxi Colony. In June of that year, the colony formally broke up, and these Jewish settlers scattered throughout Colorado. The Cotopaxi experience was a good example of how badly some colonies fared. [18]

The San Luis Valley was also the site of several colony attempts. Here, conditions were more suitable for these social experiments. In November 1877, a group of Mormon converts from Alabama arrived at Pueblo on the Denver and Rio Grande Railway to begin new lives along the Arkansas River. The seventy-two people were housed in the old Thespian Theatre until barracks could be built. A crude structure was erected on an island in the Arkansas River, and here the party wintered; the men worked around Pueblo and picked up cash in preparation for spring. Ex-territorial Governor Cameron Hunt, long interested in settlement and a stockholder in the new Denver and Rio Grande Railway, proposed that the Mormons could find land at the southern end of the San Luis Valley. Their leader, James Z. Stewart, made an exploratory trip to the valley, and in late March 1878, he located suitable lands near Conejos. Here, he bought 120 acres, and in May of that year a D&RG train brought the Pueblo settlers to Fort Garland where the Mormon families hired local Spanish-American drivers to take them to their new lands. By 1879 there were some 400 Mormon settlers in the Conejos area. A townsite was staked out and named Manassa. Three and one-half miles north, Ephraim was established. Some colonists, by 1881, moved to near La Jara, where Richfield was founded. Sanford was later platted just north of Richfield. So successful were the Mormon settlements, that the State of Colorado sold the Mormon Church land for $1.25 per acre, and church officials bought seeds and tools for their colonists. There were so many arrivals that land could not be cleared fast enough. The Denver and Rio Grande Railway was building its line to Antonito at this time, and the Mormons were able to obtain jobs paying from $3.50 to $4.00 per day. Thus, these Mormon colonies survived and prospered. Their Spanish-American neighbors, who had been in the valley since 1852, helped the newcomers and provided support. Within ten years, the Mormons had 40,000 acres of land under cultivation, irrigated by ditches and canals. This was one case where colonization worked well in Colorado. [19]

Another example of colonization was the Holland American Land and Immigration Company's Dutch colony in the San Luis Valley. This organization bought 15,000 acres in the Valley, and in November 1892 some two hundred people arrived at Alamosa directly from Holland, ready to settle their new land. Poorly built quarters caused an outbreak of diptheria among the children, and only thanks to the Denver and Rio Grande Railway's offer of two railroad cars as isolation wards, was an epidemic stopped. While this was going on, the Empire Land and Canal Company agreed to locate individual families on plots north of Alamosa and rent or sell land to the immigrants. Meanwhile, word reached Holland that the colony was in chaos, and the company stopped sending settlers to the San Luis, diverting them to northeastern Colorado, along the South Platte River. This ended efforts at Dutch settlements in the San Luis Valley and put a stop to colonization in the Valley during the 1890's. [20] Failure was due to lack of planning, inadequate resources and poor agricultural potential.

Not all colonies or settlement schemes were for profit and economic development. One unique example on the plains was the Salvation Army's Fort Amity project. The Salvation Army, an English philanthropic organization, decided it could help reduce poverty in large cities by moving poor citizens to settlements where they could become farmers and learn to be self-sufficient. This social rehabilitation was intended to turn the poverty-stricken into "productive citizens" much like the American native was supposed to become a sedentary farmer. Victorian morality had much to do with these views of "agricultural uplift," for poverty was seen as a moral illness. Of course, it made no difference that most of these potential farmers had never been outside of the city, had never farmed, knew nothing about dry-land agriculture and were so poor that they could not hope to survive the first two years. Yet, the Amity Land and Irrigation Company of New York City purchased land along the Arkansas River twelve miles west of the Kansas line. Using about 1,800 acres of bottomland, the Salvation Army hoped to turn this place into a utopia of abundance. The Army paid between $20 and $27.50 per acre, a rather high price considering the quality of the land. Nevertheless, these lands were to be resold to settlers by means of time payments. The Salvation Army still lost between $60,000 and $70,000, even with resales. Despite the problems, April 1898 saw thirty families arrive from Chicago and other places in the mid-west. None of them had experience on the frontier, and there were no farmers among them. The first year's crop was a total failure, and to survive, the Salvation Army borrowed money to advance to its settlers. The next year, irrigation ditches were dug, houses were built and fences were erected for livestock. While there were a few colonists who left, the bulk of the new farmers remained, and in April 1902 the first member paid off his entire debt of $900. By 1905, Amity had a population of 350 and was a prospering community. The Salvation Army also built an orphanage for $20,000, which was later used as a sanitarium for lung diseases. The orphanage, called the Cherry Tree Home, was populated by children who were transported from New York and New Jersey cities to Colorado on the theory that they could be trained as "useful" workers in the sugar beet and cantaloupe fields around Fort Amity. Amity prospered for a few years, but saline seepage began to destroy fields. Crops failed, buildings settled, and despite frantic drainage efforts, farms had to be abandoned year after year. The ophanage was evacuated, and the children were moved to California. The building was eventually demolished. About ten years after the colony was founded, its lands were sold to J.S. McMurty of Holly, Colorado, who later reclaimed the orchards with modern drainage methods.

The Amity project, finally abandoned by the Salvation Army, was a combination of bad luck, unforeseen conditions such as seepage, and a poor choice in location, all contributing to the loss of this colony. Such an experiment in religion and social development was another example of good-intentioned persons gone wrong by assuming the West was fit for agriculture in the eastern manner. [21]

The period between 1860 and 1880 in southeastern Colorado was one of retrenchment from a failing mining industry. As gold booms faded, agriculture developed and took up the slack. Towns like Pueblo, Trinidad, Walsenburg, Lamar, Alamosa, La Junta, and Las Animas were founded at this time and grew into agricultural service centers. Ranching and farming sustained the economy of the region while optimists waited for the next mineral boom. One factor that slowed growth and settlement during this era was a lack of adequate transportation systems. Wagons and stage coach lines criss-crossed the area, but these methods were slow and expensive to use. Freight cost money to move, and men like "Uncle Dick" Wootton who ran a toll road over Raton Pass made a good profit. Equally, the San Luis Valley was served westward from Saguache by Otto Mears' toll road system into the San Juans. As agricultural efforts continued into the 1870's, other events occurred that, in their own ways, may have been more important than the region losing its dependence on mining.


1. Ora B. Peake, The Colorado Range Cattle Industry (Glendale, California: A.H. Clark, 1937.) See also: Ernest S. Osgood, Day of the Cattleman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1929.)

2. George G. Everett, Cattle Cavalcade in Central Colorado (Denver: Golden Bell Press, 1966), pp. 159-160.

3. Peake, op. cit., p. 71. Also: Murray, op. cit., p. 40.

4. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit., p. 175.

5. Ibid., p. 176, and Richard Goff, Century in the Saddle (Denver: Cattlemen's Centennial Commission, 1967), p. 110.

6. Hiram Latham, Trans-Missouri Stock Raising (Denver: Old West, 1972 reprint); Walter, Baron von Richtofen, Cattle Raising on the Plains of North America (New York: Appleton, 1885) and James S. Brisbin, The Beef Bonanza (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1881.)

7. Lewis Atherton, The Cattle Kings (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972), pp. 170-192, and Gene M. Gressley, Bankers and Cattlemen (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971.)

8. Osgood, op. cit., p. 22, and also: John M. Crowley, "Ranches in the Sky: A Geography of Livestock Ranching in the Mountain Parks of Colorado" (M.A. Thesis: University of Minnesota, 1964.)

9. As related in Osgood, op. cit., Goff, op. cit., and Atherton, op. cit.

10. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit., pp. 178-179, and Morris F. Taylor, Trinidad, Colorado Territory (Trinidad: n.p., 1966.)

11. As related in: Edward Everett Dale, The Range Cattle Industry (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1930), and Rufus Phillips, "Early Cowboy Life in the Arkansas Valley," Colorado Magazine, 7, (1930), pp. 165-179.

12. In: Fremont County, Colorado: Its Resources and Attractions (Canon City, Colorado: Gazette-Express Print, 1882), p. 16, and Alvin Steinel, History of Agriculture in Colorado (Fort Collins: Colorado A&M University, 1926.) Also: Rocky Mountain News, October 23, 1862.

13. William E. Pabor, Colorado as an Agricultural State: Its Farms, Fields and Garden Lands (New York: Orange Judd Co., 1883), p. 16.

14. Arthur Hutchinson, "Pioneer Days in the Upper Arkansas Valley," Colorado Magazine, 9, (1932), p. 185, and E.R. Emerson, "History of Chaffee County," In: History of the Arkansas Valley (Chicago: Baskin, 1881), p. 479.

15. Roy M. Robbins, Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1970 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1942), p. 206, pp. 218-219, and pp. 219-220. See also: Paul W. Gates, History of Public Land Law and Development (Washington, DC: Public Land Law Review Commission, 1968.)

16. Athearn, Coloradans, op. cit., pp. 111-113, and Raymond Gardner Colwell, "The Wet Mountain Valley . . ." (Unpublished manuscript, Colorado Historical Society, Denver, Colorado, n.d.), pp. 10-16, and Gayle Turk, The Wet Mountain Valley (Colorado Springs: Little London Press, 1976.)

17. As described in Athearn, ibid., pp. 181-182; Flora Jane Satt, "The Cotopaxi Colony" (M.A. Thesis, University of Colorado, 1950), and Dorothy Roberts, "The Jewish Colony at Cotopaxi," Colorado Magazine, 18, (1941), p. 125.

18. Athearn, ibid., p. 183.

19. Athearn, ibid., pp. 120-127. See also: Andrew Jensen, "The Founding of Mormon Settlements in the San Luis Valley," Colorado Magazine, 18, (1940), p. 179, and Nicholas G. Morgan, "Mormon Colonization in the San Luis Valley," Colorado Magazine, 17, (1950), pp. 271-272.

20. As described in Athearn, ibid., pp. 202-203. See also: Dorothy Roberts, "A Dutch Colony in Colorado," Colorado Magazine, 17, (1940), pp. 229-230.

21. As related in Athearn, ibid., pp. 198-201. See also: H. Rider Haggard, The Poor and the Land (New York, n.p., 1905), and Dorothy Roberts, "Fort Amity, The Salvation Army Colony in Colorado," Colorado Magazine, 17, (1940), p. 168.

22. Murray, op. cit., pp. 55-56.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008