An Isolated Empire: A History of Northwest Colorado
BLM Cultural Resource Series (Colorado: No. 12)
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Man's use and occupation of the northwestern corner of Colorado dates from about 10,000 years ago. The first men historically recorded were the Ute Indians; early Europeans found these natives thriving in the area. The Spanish were the first white men to see this region, reaching the White River basin in 1776. The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of that year provided some sparse information about the land and people, but little else. The first true exploiters of the land were the fur trappers who came after 1800.

Before 1820 scattered trappers had worked the central Rockies, but no organized effort was made at wholesale trapping. In 1822 William H. Ashley organized a major expedition that went into the Green River country and opened it for trade. For the next twenty years the fur trade in the northwestern section of Colorado boomed, and thousands of beaver were trapped. In 1838 a trading post named Fort Davy Crockett was built to serve the trade, but by 1843 the fort was abandoned, as the trade died. The decline of the fur trade in the region was attributed to changing styles in fashion and the natural depletion of the resource.

Shortly before and following the collapse of the fur trade, several explorers came into this area. The first men to write about the region were private travelers; F. A. Wislizenus came in 1839, Willard Smith and Thomas J. Farnham in 1840; all noted the area was of little consequence. The first true explorer to reach the area was John C. Fremont; in 1844 he brought an army expedition into the Green River, Brown's Hole, and west. He was on an official government mission designed to map the region and seek routes for new trails west. Fremont said very little about Colorado, but noted that, in his opinion, this country was nearly worthless; in 1845 his second expedition into the area concluded much the same.

The next official exploration came in 1869, when John Wesley Powell was commissioned to map the Green and Colorado Rivers. He gathered much new data about the Great Basin, noting that the Brown's Park area was of little value, and the only way this part of the state would ever develop would be with irrigation.

The discovery of gold in 1859 near Denver precipitated a major rush to Colorado in that year. Despite the promise of the discoveries, the initial boom died out; however, not before prospectors and miners had flowed over the Continental Divide into Middle Park, the Blue River region, and even North Park. Breckenridge was founded in 1859 and became a major population center. By 1861 gold had been discovered near Hahn's Peak, but the Civil War prevented its development until 1865. By 1870 Hahn's Peak was a booming mining town, and Middle Park was being settled. Placer mines were developing on Independence Mountain in North Park. However, two factors kept the region from developing on a larger scale: the first was the presence of the Ute Indians, and the second was the lack of transportation.

The second problem was alleviated first in 1869. When the Union Pacific (the Transcontinental) was completed in that year, rail transport across Wyoming was within sixty miles of the northwest corner. Soon cattlemen moved into Brown's Park, and by 1871 a major industry had developed along the Little Snake, the Green, and the Yampa (Bear) Rivers. By 1876 cattle were grazed in North Park by J. O. Pinkham, and along the Whie River near the future site of the town of Meeker.

The first problem, the Utes, was not solved until after 1879. The Ute Nation owned all of northwestern Colorado by the terms of the Brunot Treaty of 1873. By this treaty two reservations were established:
to the south the Los Pinos Agency took care of the Southern Utes, while to the north the White River Agency was founded to care for the Northern Utes. A series of agents had come and gone by 1879, and the next to the last, Reverend H. A. Danforth, resigned in disgust over U. S. Indian policy and its failure to keep promises to his wards. He was replaced by Nathan C. Meeker in 1879. Meeker, a typical product of the Nineteenth century, felt that the American native was not productive, and that to make the Indian a useful citizen, he had to be taught the ways of the white men. This meant, in Meeker's mind, that the Indian must become a copy of all the best in the white men as he saw them.

The Utes were not willing to give up their traditional ways for Meeker or any other white man. The conflict between the two cultures developed over agriculture and Meeker's compulsory conversion of the Ute from a nomadic to a sedentary citizen. Finally, in September of 1879, the explosion came. Meeker was shoved by a Ute chief, Johnson, and he wired for help from Fort Steele, Wyoming. By the end of that month, troops were sent under the command of Major Thomas T. Thornburgh. The Thornburgh detachment was ambushed along the Milk River, despite attempts by both Thornburgh and the Ute Chiefs, Douglas and Colorow, to avoid hostilities. The Thornburgh Battle occurred at the same time the White River Agency was attacked by Utes under Chief Johnson. Meeker and eleven male employees were killed; Meeker's wife, daughter, and several other women were captured. After nearly three months of negotiations, with the help of powerful Chief Ouray and his wife, Chipeta, the women were released; the leaders of the rebellion gave themselves up, and a commission was established to determine guilt. In the end, the citizens of Colorado who had cried, "the Utes must go" won. The Northern Utes were moved to Utah in 1881, where they still reside, and the land that was taken from them was opened to settlement.

Once the northwest corner was cleared of Indians, homesteaders moved in, and the open range cattle industry expanded. Between 1880 and 1895 a series of towns sprang up and became merchandising centers. Steamboat Springs was founded in 1885, Craig in 1889, Hayden in 1895, Meeker in 1882, Rangely in 1882, and numerous smaller places like Lay, Maybell, and Axial developed as a direct consequence of the Ute removal.

The introduction of cattle to the range provided a major industry in the northwest corner for nearly fifty years. However, there were conflicts over use of the land. Homesteaders tried to settle land that was used by cattlemen. In some cases they were driven off, while in others they persisted. Cattlemen also fought with sheep raisers, who by the 1890s were beginning to bring sheep into the lush pastures of the forest lands in the Elk River Valley and other valleys. Violent conflicts erupted between these two factions, despite the fact that most cattlemen did not own the land they used, which was nearly all public domain. Sheepmen were murdered and sheep were destroyed. the climax of the sheep wars came in Rio Blanco county with the "battle" of Yellowjacket Pass. That year the Colorado State Militia was called in and peace was restored.

In 1891 the first of the major forest reserves was created. This withdrew millions of acres of prime grazing land from the public domain and forced cattlemen to compete with all others for grazing permits. The White River Timber Reserve of 1891 was followed by the creation of Routt and Roosevelt Forests in 1905, and Arapahoe Forest in 1906. These withdrawals caused much bitterness among cattle raisers, while sheepmen and settlers aligned with the U. S. Forest Service to stop open range grazing, and thereby permit more equitable rights for all. By 1915 this goal had been accomplished, and the smaller cattle outfits, sheepmen, and settlers were all using public lands.

In 1934 the Taylor Grazing Service was created to control grazing (and over-grazing) on public lands other than forest withdrawals. This service allotted land to cattlemen, sheepmen, and others for grazing purposes. For all practical purposes, the balance of public domain land in northwestern Colorado was withdrawn from homesteading by this Act, and the era of the open range ended. In 1946 the General Land Office, the original dispenser of public lands, and the Grazing Service were merged and became the Bureau of Land Management. This organization has continued to issue grazing permits, and for the most part has kept the public domain from being overused.

The cattle industry was not the only factor in the development of northwestern Colorado. New transportation routes developed to serve the various communities that were growing in the region as the settlers came into the river valleys of the Elk, the Little Snake, the Yampa, the Green and the White. Mineral exploitation took place in areas like Fortification Creek and Blue Mountain, while hay and grains were grown to provide food and fodder. The Yampa Valley became a major hay raising area, while the far West was still a cattle region.

In Middle Park, one of the earliest areas of settlement, development continued. Tourism, a mainstay since the 1860s, continued to grow there, and settlers took up increasing areas along the creeks where they raised cattle and some hay. To the north - in the North Park area - settlement was later; ranchers did not turn this land into cattle range until the 1880s. It was discovered that hay was a good local crop, and the area became the source of some of the world's finest hay. Mining continued on Independence Mountain; around the turn of the century coal and copper was discovered in North Park. A small boom ensued, but nothing substantial came of it.

When the famous Moffat Road came into Middle Park, then pushed on to Steamboat Springs, and later into Craig, transportation became cheap and easy. For the first time cattle could be shipped directly to Denver without long drives; sheep also could be shipped more directly; hay, coal, wheat and other crops could be exported easily and at a profit, while the land was opened to more settlers.

The hope was that the Yampa Coal Fields would provide the basic revenue for the Moffat Road; however, while a coal "boom" occurred in towns like Oak Creek, Phippsburg, Mount Harris, and others, the road was bankrupt by 1909. The promise of the railroad was never fulfilled.

Another boom during this period was oil. From its discovery in the White River region in the 1890s, to the exploitation of the minerals near Rangely in 1902 (Poole Well), oil was a marginal product. By 1920 the industry had developed to the point that numerous oil fields, such as the Moffat, Iles, Rangely, Danforth and other areas, were in full production. In North Park, the North McCallum field was also brought in during the mid-1920s.

Other developments after 1900 included the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. In 1920 the construction of Highway 40 provided the first paved road in the northwest corner of the state. These parks and improved roads brought more tourists into northwestern Colorado; railroads, auto roads, and later airplanes, helped to make the northwest more accessible.

In 1917 the last major homestead effort was made north and west of Craig. This was the Great Divide Homestead Colony Number One, developed by Volney T. Hoggatt and promoted by the Denver Post. Hundreds of settlers were lured into the Great Divide area where they scratched out a living dryland farming until the drought-filled days of the 1930s. This experiment in dryland homesteading was a failure; it was one of the last booms in the region.

A final boom occurred with the construction of the Moffat Tunnel, begun in 1923 and completed in 1927. With the completion of the tunnel, it was assumed that the Moffat Road would be finished to Salt Lake City, and the northwest would be revived. However, the Moffat Tunnel only shortened the route of the railroad and, because of the poor financial condition of the Moffat Road, the Denver and Rio Grande Western leased the right-of-way. By the 1930s the Dotsero Cutoff was completed and, for all practical purposes, the Craig route became the branch service line. The northwest again languished.

Since the 1930s the northwestern corner of Colorado has subsisted on agriculture, oil, some coal, and more recently tourists, mainly skiers. Within the last ten years oil shale development has shown promise; more importantly, due to the national energy demands of the last few years, the coal industry has been revived and a new boom seems imminent.

This region's history was one of constant "booms" that never worked out. From fur to mining, cattle to oil, coal to oil shale and back to coal, the northwest corner of Colorado showed great promise, but for various reasons, it has never been able to fulfill the dream that seemed so real.

Northwestern Colorado (click on map for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 31-Oct-2008