On this day nearly a century and a half ago, Colorado was admitted to the Union as the nation’s 38th state. Thanks to its statehood in 1876, a century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Colorado earned its nickname as the “Centennial State.”

This anniversary seems like the opportune time to look at what life was like back in the newly admitted state and see what’s changed and what’s endured.

If you lived in the early days of Colorado’s statehood, there’s a decent chance you may have seen Ulysses S. Grant, president at this time, who would make three trips out to Colorado. Individuals living in the Colorado territory adored Grant — so much so, that in an 1873 trip, residents of Gilpin County raised more than $20,000 to roll out the silver carpet for Grant. Literally. A brick sidewalk made entirely of silver mined from the Caribou Mine was constructed for Grant.

The president would have been easy to spot in a crowd because, up until the 1850s, Colorado wasn’t very populous. There were, however, upwards of 50 different indigenous tribes which called the Front Range home, the true lifeblood of the area for more than 12,000 years prior to Colorado’s statehood. The Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Pueblo along with countless others lived throughout the state and were the dominant populace in the land. Today, less than 2% of the state’s population identify as being American Indian or Alaskan Native. The other dominant group that lived in Colorado were descendants of Hispanic settlers, who could trace their ancestry back several hundreds of years.

The Colorado Gold Rush of 1858-1861 saw the first boom of immigration from more eastern states. By 1870, 16% of the Colorado populace was comprised of immigrants settling in the plains and along the Front Range before migrating further west. The Irish and Germans were some of the most prominent in the initial immigrant waves. The completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 — with a line that would connect Cheyenne to Denver — would bring more diversity to the state, as Chinese immigrants, often serving as laborers, came to Colorado either to work or set up businesses and their families in growing cities like Denver.

By 1876, more than 75% of Colorado residents were born in America, with the main occupations being agriculture, professional and personal services, trade and transportation, and manufacturing and mining. Physical labor was far and away the most common job type in the state at this time, with newer immigrants being overrepresented in agricultural labor and mining. The population would grow at a rapid pace, increasing from 39,864 to 194,327 between 1870-1880.

At this time, rising nativist sentiment led to animosity not only towards Indigenous tribes and Hispanics, but also Chinese and German immigrants. Many Coloradans were becoming fearful of the population’s demographics shifting. The early wave of Irish immigrants flourished in the new state; Reginald Horsman noted in his study, Race and Manifest Destiny: “An Irishman might be described as a lazy, dirty Celt when he landed in New York, but if his children settled in California (or in Colorado) they might well be praised as part of the vanguard of energetic Anglo-Saxon people poised for the plunge into Asia.”

Though Colorado’s population was on the rise, this was not thanks to bustling metropolises as we know them. Denver was, and remains, the most populous city. However, 150 years ago, Denver’s population was just less than 5,000 people. Today, Denver has more than 720,000 residents.


Politically, Colorado was predominately Republican. The state wouldn’t vote for a Democratic presidential candidate until 1896, the first presidential election in which Colorado women could vote. A strong Democratic streak — broken only in 1904 thanks to Theodore Roosevelt — would end in the 1920s; between then and 2008, Colorado would vote for a Democratic presidential candidate only five times.

So, if you were to suddenly transport back to Colorado on the day of its statehood, chances are you would be a low-paid laborer with recent immigrant ancestry, likely Irish or German, living in a small, rural town which likely was probably two decades old, and were voting Republican.

It’s sufficient to say a great deal has changed in the last 147 years, but a great deal has endured as well. America as a country is better off with the addition of its 38th state, if not for anything else, then for its natural beauty, which has inspired generations. It shouldn’t be a surprise that less than 20 years after Colorado’s statehood, poet Katharine Lee Bates penned these words after summiting Pikes Peak, which still ring true over a century later:

O beautiful for halcyon skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the enameled plain!

Dalton Valette, of Superior, is a member of the Superior Historical Commission.

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Dalton Valette, of Superior, is a member of the Superior Historical Commission.