Denver’s Hardscrabble Beginning

[Denver] is infested with hordes of villains of the blackest dye, murderers, thieves, and blacklegs of all kinds. It appears to be an asylum for renegades and outlaws from surrounding regions. Nearly every day we hear of depredations being committed . . .1

Denver’s origins are murky and unsettled. While other cities in the country had a reason to spring forth, Denver’s foundations were far more haphazard. As near as anyone can tell, what is now known as the city of Denver started as a group of rough camps: St. Charles, Denver, and Auraria. There may have been others; if so, their names have been lost to history.

2021 Colorado Book Awards finalist for History

It seems probable that near the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River there was a trading post run by one of Denver’s founding fathers, William McGaa. He also went by the name Jack Jones, denoting a troubled background. Regardless, he’s gone down in Colorado history as William McGaa, a mountain man of questionable reputation who was disliked by his peers. McGaa was known to exaggerate, if not lie outright, and his boastings and imaginings were fueled by large quantities of alcohol. Rumor had it that the hard-drinking mountain man had at least two Native wives at the same time. Two downtown Denver streets still bear their names: Wazee and Wewatta. 

Even the land where Denver lurched into existence is not without controversy. The settlement sprung forth on Indian land, guaranteed in 1851 under the Treaty of Fort Laramie. McGaa obviously knew of the treaty, yet he claimed that, on account of his Native wives, he had the authority to transfer the land to white settlers.

Of course, that was a lie. However, the white settlers probably didn’t disagree with his conclusions, and at the time the local Indians didn’t seem to mind. If the Arapahoe and Utes knew what the future held in store, no doubt they would have taken a different approach.

Randi Samuelson-Brown’s roots go deep in Colorado. Born in Denver, she grew up in Golden and returned to Denver as an adult. She has a BA in History, with a stint in post-graduate research at Trinity College, University of Dublin.  One of her favorite past times is exploring old Colorado towns, mining camps, assorted other historical sites and riding horses. Her book “Bad Old Days of Colorado” was featured on C-SPAN.

Although McGaa had no right to disburse Indian territory, he could rightfully claim that his son (with wife Jennie Adams) was the first “white” child born in the area, on March 8, 1859. Beyond that, he certainly could claim a bad problem with alcohol. Who precisely Jennie Adams was remains a mystery, but it is believed that, despite her name, she was an Arapahoe woman. William McGaa would later die in a Denver jail, inebriated, in 1862. For a time, a street bore his name as well, but more about those events later.

In the summer of 1858, the discovery of gold along the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek changed everything. Although the quantity was hardly worth mentioning, the discovery marked the beginning of measurable white settlement in the area. The early inhabitants and gold seekers populated a patch of scrub land that would become known as Denver City.

The first month or so of Denver’s existence are believed to have passed peaceably enough; however, gold and alcohol have a way of doing strange things to certain people. In late September the first crime of record took place. A man named Vincent shot one John Atwell over his pouch of gold dust, although Atwell survived the ordeal. Vincent fled into the wilderness to escape but was brought back to the settlement by a group of friendly Indians (who might not have seemed so friendly to him).


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A citizens’ jury was quickly assembled, and a trial proceeded forthwith. The verdict passed that Vincent was indeed guilty. The punishment stipulated that Vincent must furnish Atwell with a horse. When the horse had been handed over, Vincent was given ten days’ rations and banished from the camp with a warning: If he returned, he would be shot on sight.

He didn’t come back.

Meanwhile, log buildings sprang up along the banks of Cherry Creek in a haphazard manner. In those early days possession was nine-tenths of the law, and squatters’ rights were respected. There are recorded instances of men inhabiting previously vacated cabins, only to have the original builders return. At such encounters the first owners usually decided not to press the issue but to simply start building again. As for the physical location of the new Denver settlement, Ute Indians cautioned against building on the floodplain. As usual, their warnings went unheeded, which proved unfortunate—the fledgling town would be virtually wiped out in 1864. 

On January 7, 1859, George A. Jackson discovered gold in Clear Creek, which flows through the mountains to the west. The settlement of Idaho Springs sprang up near his findings almost instantaneously. And Jackson wasn’t the only prospector in those hills. Gold was found near Boulder, and a camp aptly named Gold Hill sprang up. All these reports, when combined, were enough to spark a full-scale rush.

Weather in the mountainous terrain was not to be underestimated. A hitherto unknown man named John Gregory, on his way across the Wyoming Territory, was forced to winter in Fort Laramie. Bound for California, he changed his plans once news of Colorado’s gold reached the remote military outpost. Once the weather permitted, he headed down to Denver and, from there, west into the mountains.

It was a fortuitous decision. In April 1859, he encountered a gold vein in what would later become Central City. Once again, weather intervened. A heavy snowstorm fell that same night, obscuring his discovery. Frantic, no doubt, he tried to find the gold-bearing ledge again, but to no avail. Provisions dwindling, he was forced to head down to the supply town of Golden. He availed himself of one of the saloons in the township. In need of money, he extolled his misplaced discovery in the snow.

Despite being unable to pinpoint the gold’s exact location, he found people willing to grubstake his claim. On May 6, 1859, he returned to the approximate location where his treasure had been buried, and with a practiced eye and a considerable dash of luck, he managed to locate the rich vein for a second time. 

Word spread like wildfire.

A Hard Journey

There was no easy way to get to Denver, and the plains were perilous. The Overland Trail provided the main route, hazardous as it may have been. It was on the Overland that early Denver citizen Libeus Barney travelled. A self-described “dupe” regarding Colorado’s abundant riches, Barney wrote of his early adventures for a Vermont newspaper called the Bennington Banner. When the first stagecoaches of the Leavenworth & Pike’s Peak Express crossed the plains, Barney was one of the passengers, and he recorded the crossing faithfully. From his early accounts, game was plentiful. So were rattlesnakes. Hardships abounded. Tellingly, he wrote of emigrants who travelled with disastrous results.

Our mules gave out this afternoon and we were compelled to walk the last 12 miles to the station where we arrived at 8 o’clock. Here we found about fifty emigrants who came via Smoky Hill route, and they were indeed objects of compassion. Some of them started with horses, some with mules, and some with oxen, but the most of them now were without either, their teams having been deprived of food and water perished, and their wagons were burned to cook with. Many were sick and sought shelter from the frosty nights beneath their few remaining wagons. Full 300 miles from any house, without fuel, save a scanty supply of wild sage, (very much resembling our garden sage), and destitute in almost every particular, it is not to be wondered at, that they should all repent and even curse the day their folly sent them on this desperate chase for filthy gold. One of the lady emigrants here became a mother. Her child lived but a few hours, was buried upon the margin of a convenient brook, which from this circumstance, has taken the name of Infant Creek.5

As sad as that passage is, matters could get worse.

MAY 4—An Indian brought into camp this evening a man he had picked up the day before in an almost dying state. The man gave the following account of himself:

“Two brothers of mine, myself and five others left Whiteside County, Ill., the latter part of February last for Pike’s Peak. Leaving Kansas City, MO. . . . the pony, for want of food and drink, became exhausted and died. We were then compelled to carry our own grub, which we continued to do until it was all consumed . . . four of our company now started ahead to find, if possible, a settlement. A Mr. Roach and my brothers were left behind, already too weak for pioneers. By and by the strength of Roach failed him and starvation looked us all full in the face. We killed our dog one day and devoured him; next day Roach died of starvation, and upon his corpse we subsisted till it was consumed to the very marrow of its bones. . . . My eldest brother, conscious he could last but a little longer implored us to feed upon him as soon as he should die. . . . He died, and we devoured him. Next my younger brother died, and was eaten by me. After consuming the flesh, gnawing the bones, and breaking them for their marrow, horrible to relate, but oh! How desperate is hunger, I mangled the skull, and breakfasted upon my brother’s brains!”6

A retrieval party including Barney, the survivor, the stagecoach conductor, and the rescuing Indian went back to the location described. They found the remains of the younger brother, which bore out the sorry tale, and buried the scattered remnants. The family’s name was recorded in history as Rule: Charles, Alexander, and George. This is the first recorded account of cannibalism in the territory, but it isn’t the last.

Barney travelled onward to the burgeoning city of Denver, arriving on May 7, 1859. With tongue in cheek, he described the locale as containing “about 150 log cabins, some with roofs, and more without. One hotel, 40 by 200, built of logs and covered with canvas. Here I am stopping at the moderate price of $3 per day.”7

Prices were high, nearing exorbitant. Supplies required transport across the same dangerous and arduous routes the emigrants travelled. The rough settlements along Cherry Creek were described by an anonymous writer of the time. Signing his letter as “T,” he wrote to St. Louis’s Missouri Republican the following description, which was published on July 9, 1859:

Men are perfectly wild and crazy. . . . Gambling and whiskey drinking flourish here extensively. Tanglefoot whiskey sells for 25 cents a drink, and would almost make a man shed his toenails. I find a much better town here than I expected. Denver and Auraria, taken collectively, make quite a large place. I will write you again soon, if I do not immediately come home.8

One wonders what became of “T” and whether he stuck it out or turned around then and there. But whether he stayed or not, liquor remained in full glory. Indeed, spirits consumed in the “unseasoned” Denver during 1859 were barely fit for consumption and were the topic of many discussions. 

All early theorists, and that of practical judges, too, agreed that the whiskey Denver consumed in her youthful days was of an exceeding bad quality. It was colored and otherwise doctored to suit the fiery tastes of various grades of customers. It retailed from bottles bearing popular nick-names, one virgin barrel usually serving as the base for all these operations. The customary retail price in 1859 for all qualities—none of them good—was twenty-five cents a drink. Whiskey was at the bottom of most of the frequent brawls and fights.9

The popular nicknames give a good indication of the quality, if not the ingredients. Coffin Varnish, Family Disturbance, Rotgut or Taos Lightning—none of it could be considered good.

Published by Globe Pequot Press, trade imprint of the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.

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