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The Territory of Colorado

by Frederic Logan Paxson
Reprinted from University of Colorado Studies, Vol IV, No. 2, Boulder, Colo., Feb 1907.
Transcribed by J.S.

It is commonly taken for granted that the Kansas-Nebraska legislation of 1854 settled the territorial question in the United States, and that the territory question itself was only a single phase of the larger question of slavery. The tranny of the slavery problem over the historical mind has completely subordinated the problem of the expansion of the agricultural West, the settlement of new areas, and the providing of adequate institutions of government for the citizens of the frontier. The erection of the territory of Colorado in 1861 is itself proof that slavery as not in its own day destructive of interest in all other topics, however it may have impeded their consideration, and is an illuminative precedent in showing the manner in which territorial problems have been forced upon Congress and ultimately adjusted.

The acquistion of the southwest at the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848 extended the legal frontier of the United States far beyond the frontier of actual settlement and complelled Congress to give serious thought to the subdivision of large and relatively uninhabited areas of public lands. The act of May 30, 1854, which has commonly been misunderstood as saying the last important word upon the territorial question, merely  marked the end of the earliest period of preliminary adjustment. The residuum of the Louisiana purchase and the lands acquired through the Mexican War were at last distributed among 2 states, California and Texas, and 4 territories. The two territorial organizations of New Mexico and Utah covered the whole area between California and the Rocky Mountains, while the 40th parallel divided most of the unorganized area east of the mountains into Kansas and Nebraska territories.

The distribution in effect at the end of the session of 1854 was only preliminary, and within three years Congress had begun to consider the division of three of these territories, Nebraska, Utah and New Mexico, whose gigantic size precluded the rigorous execution of law by single territorial establishments. In the 1st session of the 35th Congress, 1857-1858, it was finally proposed to divide 2 of these territories, creating Arizona in the western end of New Mexico and Nevada in the western end of Utah, while the next session brought a bill to erect Dakota in the northern end of Nebraska. The division was required by various facts of population and migration. The location of the great Pacific trails, the discovery of silver-mines, the willingness to restrict the territory of the Mormons, all appear as inspiring a further subdivision of the scantily populated West.

The Congress of 1857-1858 passed no laws for the erection of new territories in the areas marked out in the debates. There is some internal evidence throughout these and later debates that the young sponsors of the new Republican party were interested in territorial development as a means of continuing the antislavery argument which all parties had agreed in 1854 to forget. But whatever may have been the motives underlying the agitation, the arguments make entirely clear the facts that the boundaries of 1854 were only temporary and that the great, shapeless territories must some day be divided. The session of 1857-1858 contented itself with the suggestion of 2 new territories of Nevada and Arizona; when the same Congress met for its 2nd session in 1858-1859, 2 more new territorial projects, those of Dakota and Jefferson, had been added to the list.

In the migration to the far West, beginning to be heavy in the 40s, the 2 principal routes had branched from Missouri River near its northern bend on the western boundary of the state of Missouri. From this point the northern or Oregon route had run westwardly along the Platte, the southern or Sante Fe route along the Arkansas. And of the 102nd meridian the 2 trails were already 250 miles apart, and were deviating still futher to the northwest and southwest respectively. The angle between the trails covered the heart of the "great American desert," which Major Long had described in 1820 as utterly uninhabitable for man, and which men had since 1820 been willing to take at the word of the explorer. It was this uninviting, uninhabited area which in the fall of 1858 appeared before Congress. It demanded not a slicing-up of existing great territories, but a new grouping of lands taken out of the crest of the Rockies and in part from every one of the territories of the central and south West. To this area those who advocated the new project gave the name of the Territory of Jefferson.

Since the discovery of gold in California and the rush of the 49ers along the overland trails there had always been bodies of prospectors scattered over the mountain region. Rumors of gold discoveries in the desert triangle had been heard early in the 50s, while the panic of 1857 sent fresh numerous parties were exploring the lands between the Arkansas and the Platte, and the arrival of Omaha on Jan 5, 1859, of several quills filled with gold-dust proved to the Missouri settlers that success had rewarded the prolonged search, and started a new westward movement of large proportions to the Pike's Peak country.

The city of Denver, named for the governor of Kansas territory, became the settlement around which the Pike's Peak country grouped itself in the winter of 1858-1859. Boulder and Golden, Colorado City and Pueblo became secondary centers, each situated as Denver was, at a point from which trade and travel branched from the great trails and entered the valleys leading to the mining camps.

As early as Jun 1858, the forks of the South Platte and Cherry Creek were being examined by prospectors. As the summer and fall advanced more adventurers appeared; the names of Montana, Highland, Auraria, and St. Charles came to designate settlements in the vicinity of the forks; and by  Nov the inclusive name of Denver was heard.

In a governmental way the new camp of Denver was situated in Arapahoe County, Kansas. But Arapahoe County had never been organized, and remained only a name after the legislature of Kansas abolished it in Feb 1859. The settlers themselves saw from the start that the 500 miles of trail between the diggings and the territorial capital forbade protection from, as well as interference by, that government, and that their political salvation lay nearer home. They saw that 4 territorial governments were involved in the Pike's Peak country, and that the country was in itself an economic unit. It was this understanding scheme, and which ever earlier than this had produced a spontaneous political activity in the mountain camps.

Th beginnings of Colorado politics are to be found in the movement originating in Denver in Nov 1858 and culminating in the territorial organization of Jefferson in Nov 1859. The origin seems to have been in a typical early snowfall that drove the miners into their bins in Nov 1858 and by enforcing idleness upon them gave an opportunity for talking politics. Perhaps 200 miners were in Denver when the snowfall came, of whom some 35 attended a meeting on Nov 6, and determined to erect a new government for the Pike's Peak country. "Just to think" wrote one of them, "that within 2 weeks of the arrival of a few dozen Americans in a wilderness, they set to work to elect a Delegate to the United States Congress, and ask to be set apart as a new territory! But we are of a fast race and in a fast age and must prod along." To secure an attention to their demand they chose one Hiram J. Graham to appear on their behalf at Washington, and one A.J. Smith to represent them in the legislature of Kansas. The arrival of these men in Omaha seems at once to have confirmed the report of the discovery of placer gold in the western streams and to have announced the birth of a new center of population. Four months after the 1st election a new political whim struck Denver camp, and a set of local officers was chosen Mar 28, 1859 for Arapahoe County, Kansas, in spite of the fact that Kansas had on Feb 7, 1859, foreseen the coming emigration, reshaped Arapahoe, and cut out of it 5 new counties of Montana, Oro, El Paso, Fremont and Broderick. The only significance of this March election, for its officers seem never to have held power, lies in the fact that nearly 800 votes were then cast. Already the heavy migration of 1859 had begun to throw its thousands along the trails to Denver. Whether these 1000s were 60 or 100, no one can tell today; but it is certain that after half or more of them had gone home in digust there remained in Jefferson nearly 30,000 settlers to reiterate the demand that Congress provide a government for them and to maintain their provisional territory for the interim.

The mission of Hiram J. Graham to the 2nd session of the 35th Congress failed to produce either an enabling or a territorial act. His arrival in Washington in Jan 1859, was followed by the appearance of his territorial scheme in the House, when A.J. Stephens introduced a bill for the erection of Jefferson Territory. Grow of Pennsylvania moved to amend the name of Osage, and when it was reported back from the Committee on Territories on Feb 16, it was tabled without any serious discussion or opposition. The fate that had postponed the erection of new territories in 1858 continued to postpone in 1859 when Jefferson had been added to the list. Slavery debate forbade territorial legislation, and the single scheme which had a real population behind it was left without local or legal government, and was forced to find its way through 1859 until the next session of Congress might perhaps attend to business and provide for it a legal frame.

The migration of 1859 multiplied the population of Denver many times and increased the need for orderly govenment as well by the character as by the number of its habitants. A knowledge that no aid from Congress could be had for at least a year revived the local movement until it induced a group of pioneers to hold a caucus, with William Larimer in the chair, on Apr 11, to consider the local situation. As a result of this caucus a call issued for a convention representatives of the neighboring mining-camps to meet in the same place 4 days later. And on Apr 15, 1859, the camps of Fountain City, El Dorado and El Paso, Arapahoe, Auraria, and Denver met through their delegates, "being fully impressed with the belief, from early and recent precedents, of the power and benefits and duty of self-government," and feeling an imperative necessity "for an immediate and adequate government, for the large population now here and soon to be among us. . . and also believing that a territorial government is not such as our large and peculiarly situated population demands."

The deliberations thus informally started ended in a formal call for a constitutional convention to meet in Denver on the 1st Monday in Jun for the purpose, as an address to the people stated, of framing a constitution for a new "State of Jefferson". "Shall it be", the address demanded, "the government of the knife and the revolver, or shall we unite in forming here in our golden country, among the ravines and gulches of the Rocky Mountains, and the fertile valleys of the Arkansas and the Platte, a new and independent state?" With a generosity characteristic of the frontier the convention determined the boundaries of the prospective state as the 102nd and 110th meridans of longitude and the 37th and 43rd parallels of latitude - an area including, in addition to the present state of Colorado, large portions of Utah and Nebraska and nearly half of Wyoming. The arrival in Denver, a week after this convention, of William N. Byers was important in that it brought an active advocate of statehood into the field, and produced on Apr 23 the first number of the Rocky Mountain News.

When the statehood convention, called on Apr 15, met in Denver on Jun 6, the time was inopportune for concluding the movement, for large numbers of the pioneers who had rushed out over the plains for "Pike's Peak or Bust" were already on their disconsolate way back "busted". The first reputation of the diggings was based upon light and exaggerated discoveries of place gold; when productive lodes came into view they called for more capital and experience than most of the early prospectors possessed. The height of the gold boom was over by June, and the return migration made it somewhat doubtful whether any permanent population would be left in the country to need a state. So the convention met on Jun 6, appointed some 8 drafting committees, and adjourned, to await developments until Aug 1. But by the 1st of Aug a line had been drawn between the confident and the discouraged elements in the population, and for 6 days the convention worked upon the question of statehood. As to permanency, there was by this time no doubt; but the body divided into 2 nearly equal groups, one advocating immediate statehood, the other shrinking from the heavy taxation incident to a state establishment and so preferring a territorial government with a federal treasury to meet the bills. The body, too badly split to reach a conclusion itself, compromised by preparing the way for either development and leaving the choice to public vote. A state constitution was drawn up on one hand, while, on the other, was prepared a memoiral to Congress praying for a territorial government; and both documents were submitted to a vote on Sep 5, 1859, when the memorial was chosen instead of the constitution. Upon Oct 3 another election was held, pursuant to the memorial, and a delegate to Congress was chosen in the person of Beverly D. Williams, who was local agent of a new Leavenworth and Pike's Peak Express Company which had run its first coach into Denver in May, and whose zeal for mail contracts may have inspired some of his earnestness for congressional countenance.

The adoption of the territorial memorial failed to meet the need for immediate government or to prevent the advocates of such government from working out a professional arrangement pending the action of Congress. These advocates held a mass-meeting in Denver on Sep 24, while on the day that Wiliams was elected to Congress, Oct 3, they also elected delegates for a preliminary territorial constitutional convention, and upon Oct 10 this conventions met. "Here we go", commented Byers "a regular triple-headed government machine; south of 40 deg., we hand on to the skirts of Kansas; north of 40 deg., to those of Nebraska; straddling the line, we have just elected a Delegate to the United States Congress from the "Territory of Jefferson," are ere long, we will have in full blast a provisionla government of Rocky Mountain growth and manufacture." In this convention of Oct 10, 1859. the name of Jefferson was retained for the new territory, the boundaries of Apr 15 were retained, and a government similar to the highest type of territorial establishment was provided for. If the convention had met pursuant to an enabling act, its career could not have been more dignified. It adopted a constitution with little trouble, and then dissolved after calling an election for territorial officers for Oct 24, 1859. The election of this day seems to have been orderly adn generally participated in, for the need of government was obvious. It resulted in the choice of a legistature and an executive staff headed by Governor Robert W. Steele of Ohio. Two weeks later Steele met his assembly and delivered his 1st inaugural address.

The territory of Jefferson, which thus came into existence on Nov 7, 1859, is one of the most illuminating incidents in the history of the American frontier. From the days of the State of Franklin the frontiersman has always resented his isolation, and upon receiving evidence of government neglect has always been ready to erect his own government and care for himself in a political way. There are many incidents in the history of statehood movements in which settlements has rushed forward more rapidly than legal institutions, with results in the erection of illegitimate provisionla governemnts. But none of these legitimate governments has been erected more deliberately or conducted with more propriety than this territory of Jefferson. The fundamental principle of American government which Byers expresses is applicable at all times in similiar situations:

We claim [he wrote in his Rocky Mountain News] that any body, or community of American citizens, which from any cause or under any circumstance, is cut off from, or from isolation is so situated, as not to be under any active or protecting branch of the central government, have a right, if on American soil, to frame a government, and enact such laws adn regulations as may be necessary for their own safety, protection and happiness, always with the condition precedent, that they shall, at the earliest moment when the central government shall extend an effective organization, and laws over them, give it their unqualified support and obedience.

And the life of the spontaneous commonwealth thus called into existence is a credible witness to the American instinct for orderly government.

When Congress met in Dec 1859, the provisional territory of Jefferson was in operation, while its delegates were in Washington pressing the need for governmental action. One of the agents, B.D. Williams, was elected on Oct 3, 1859; the other, George M. Willing, claimed to be the regular choice at this election, and though apparently not recognized at Washington, reiterated the arguments of Wiliams and the territorial memorials. Both houses of Congress gave some heed to the facts thus presented. They received from President Buchanan on Feb 20, 1860, a message transmitting the petition from the Pike's Peak country, and bills to meet the demand were at least introduced into each house. The Senate upon Apr 3 received a report from the Committee on Territories introducing Senate Bill No. 366, for the erection of Colorado territory; while Grow of Pennsylvania reported to the House on May 10 a bill to erect in the same region a territory of Idaho. The name of Jefferson disappeared form the project in the spring of 1860, its place being taken by sundry other names for the same mountain area. Several weeks in the spring were given in part to debate was less upon the need for the erection of several territorial governments than upon the attitude which any bills should take upon the slavery issue. In the demands of the Republican leaders in the territorial debates from 1858 to 1867 can be measured the advance of antislavery attitude, from exclusion of slaves through guarantees to free negros, and up to the abolition of the "white" clause in the francise qualification. This obsession of Congress by the slavery debate precluded territorial legislation in teh years 1859 and 1860, but the session ended with the reasonableness of one of the demands well presented. In a secondary way the governmental argument was strenghtened by petitions for the service of the mails, for post-roads form Fort Laramie to Golden City and from  Atchison to Denver. And though on May 12 all of the territorial bills were tabled for the session, the need for them was clearer than it had been at any time since the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill in 1854.

The territory of Jefferson, as organized in Nov 1859, had been from the 1st recognized as merely a temporary expedient. The movement for it had gained weight in the summer of that year from the probability that it need not be maintained for many months. Whe Congress, however, failed in the ensuing session of 1859-1860 to grant the relief for which the pioneers prayed, the wisdom of continuing for another year the life of a government admitted to be illegal came into question. The 1st session of its legislature had lasted from Nov 7, 1859 to Jan 25, 1860. It had passed comprehensive laws for the regulation of titles in lands, water and mines, and had adopted civil and criminal codes. Its courts had been established and had operated with some show of authority. But the services and obedience to the government had been voluntary, no funds being on hand for the payment of salaries and expenses. One of the pioneers from Vermont wrote home, "There is no hopes [sic] of perfect quiet in our governmental matters until we are securely under the wing of our National Eagle." In his proclamation calling the 2nd election Governor Steele announced that "all persons who expect to be elected to any of the above offices should bear in mind that there will be no salaries or per diem allowed from this territory, but that the General Government will be memorialized to aid us in our adversity." Upon this question of revenue it was that the territory of Jefferson was wrecked. Taxes could not be collected, since citizens had only to plead grave doubts as to the legality to evade payment. "We have tried a Provisional Government, and how has it worked?" asked William Larimer in announcing his candidacy for the office of territorial delegate. "It did well enough until an attempt was made to tax the people to support it." More than this, the real need for the government became less apparent as 1860 advanced, for the scattered communities learned how to obtain a reasonable peace without it. American mining-camps are peculiarly free from the need for superimposed government. The new camp at once organizes itself on a democratic basis, and in mass-meeting registers claim, hears and decides suits, and administers summary justice. Since the Pike's Peak country was only a group of mining-camps, there proved to be little immediate need for central government, for in the local mining-district organizations all of the immediate needs of the communities could be satisfied. So loyalty to the territory of Jefferson, in the districts outside Denver, waned during 1860, and by the summer of that year its moral influence had virtually disappeared. Its administration held together, however. Governor Steele made efforts to rehabilitate its authority, holding an election on Oct 22, 1860, to choose a 2nd legislature. From Nov 12 to Nov 27 is sat at Denver; then until Dec 7 it continued its sessions at Golden. And upon this last day it dissolved itself forever.

When the 36th Congress met for its 2nd session in Dec 1860, the Jefferson organization was in the 2nd year of its life, yet in Congress there was no more immediate prospect of territorial action than there had been since 1857. Indeed, the election of Lincoln brought out the eloquence of the slavery question with a renewed vigor that monopolized the time and strength of Congress until the end of Jan. And had not the departure of the southern members to their states cleared the way for action, it is hightly improbable that even this session would have produced results of importance.

Grow had announced in the House on Dec 12, 1860, a general territorial platform similar to that which had been under debate for 3 years. Until the close of Jan the southern valedictories held the floor, but at last the admission of Kansas on Jan 29, 1861, revealed the fact the pro-slavery opposition had departed and that the long-deferred territorial scheme could have a fair chance. On the very day after Kansas was admitted, with its western boundary at the 25th meridian from Washington, the Senate revived its Bill No. 266 of the last session and took up its deliberation upon a territory for Pike's Peak. Only by change did the name Colorado remain attached to the bill. Idaho was at one time substituted for Colorado, but was amended out in favor of the original name on Feb 4 as the bill passed the Senate. The boundaries were materially cut down from those which the territory had provided for itself. Two degrees were at once taken from the north of the territory, and after some hesitation over the Green River the western boundary was placed at the 32nd meridian from Washington. In this shape, between the 37th and 41 parallels, and the 25th and 32 meridians, the bill passed the Senate on Feb 4, the House on Feb 18, and received the signature of President Buchanan on Feb 28. The absence of serious debate in the passage of this Colorado act is excellent evidence of the merit of the scheme and the reasons for its being so long deferred.

On Feb 28, 1861, the territory of Colorado became a legal fact; Buchanan left it to his successor to erect the territorial establishment. President Lincoln, after some delay caused by pressure of business at Washington, commissioned General William Gilpin as first governor of the territory. Gilpin had long known the mountain frontier; he had commanded a detachment on the Santa Fe trail in the 40s, and had written prophetic books upon the future of the country to which he was now sent. His loyalty was unquestioned, and his readiness to assume responsibility went so far as perhaps to cease to be a virtue. He arrived in Denver at his new post on May 29, 1861, and within a few days was ready to take charge of the territory and to receive from the hands of Governor Steele such authority as remained in the provisional territory of Jefferson.




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