Colorado Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The history of Colorado is marked by its geographical features, divided as it is by the Rocky Mountains, with rugged territory lying to the west and agriculturally productive plains to the east.

History of Colorado

The history of Colorado is marked by its geographical features, divided as it is by the Rocky Mountains, with rugged territory lying to the west and agriculturally productive plains to the east. Mining in the central and western parts of the state was influential in its early history, while agriculture, and its thirst for water in the parched eastern plains, was influential in later decades. Colorado’s mountainous terrain has attracted generations of tourists, who flock to winter and summer recreational attractions.

Colorado History

The earliest inhabitants of the area were nomadic hunters, around 10,000 b.c.e. About the first century c.e., the southwestern area of the state was populated by a people known as the Basketmakers. By 800, the Cliff Dwellers had established their civilization in the state’s mesa country. From 1000, the civilization of the Cliff Dwellers flourished, but around 1300, for unknown reasons, it died out.

Though their origins are unknown, many other Native American peoples populated today’s Colorado when whites arrived. A number of Apache bands raided Colorado territory, but only one such band, the Jicarilla, lived permanently in Colorado and its environs, mainly in the southeastern portion. Bannock and Shoshone Indians roamed over the northwest corner of the state. The Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Comanche tribes hunted and made war in eastern areas, as did the Kiowa and the Kiowa Apaches, who always accompanied them. The Navajos occasionally entered the state from New Mexico, but the Utes occupied the state’s entire central and western portions. Most of the Pueblos inhabited the state’s north, in Colorado’s famous cliff ruins, sometimes intermarrying with the Utes.

Spanish Exploration

In the sixteenth century the Spanish became the area’s first European explorers. Searching for rich cities of gold, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado arrived in 1541. During the next 250 years, a number of Spanish explorers traversed parts of what would become Colorado, among them Juan de Ulibarri, who claimed the territory for the Spanish crown.

American Exploration and Settlement

In 1803 parts of Colorado were sold to the United States when the administration of Thomas Jefferson concluded the Louisiana Purchase with France. Thereafter, the territory was explored by a series of American expeditions: in 1806 by Zebulon Pike, for whom Pikes Peak is named; in 1820 by Stephen Long; from 1842 to 1853 by John C. Frémont; and in 1853 by the Gunnison-Beckwith Expedition. In 1833 Bent’s Fort, the first permanent American settlement in Colorado, was completed. The area was also inhabited by various nomadic Indian tribes, as well as by American “mountain men,” who lived by trapping and fur trading. Among them were those who became the subjects of American folklore, such as Kit Carson and Jim Bridger.

From Territory to Statehood

In 1848, Mexico ceded part of Colorado to the United States with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War. Two years later, a portion of the western area of modern Colorado became part of Utah Territory. In 1854 some eastern areas were incorporated into Kansas and Nebraska Territories. In 1858, gold was found in Colorado, first at Cherry Creek, near Denver. The next year, a rich vein was discovered in Central City. These finds brought thousands of adventurers in search of a new life, who adopted the slogan Pikes Peak or Bust. The miners ignored the claims of Indians to the land that had been deeded to them in past treaties. In place of Indian lands, newcomers attempted to set up a new, so-called Jefferson Territory, which Congress did not approve. After Kansas became a state in 1861, Colorado Territory was organized, with much the same boundaries as the subsequent state.

Colorado entered the Civil War on the Union side in 1861 and was the scene of significant fighting in the western phases of the war. Other notable events of these early years were wars between whites and American Indians, and a number of gold and silver strikes. By the late 1860’s new mining methods brought both further prosperity and more immigration from the East. The increased population was a key factor in the territory’s seeking statehood. After several failures, statehood was finally attained in 1876.

Economic and Social Development

The formation of modern Colorado was preceded by a society and economy dominated by decades of gold and silver mining followed by agricultural development. The same year statehood was achieved, the Leadville area began to surrender its millions of dollars of gold and silver ore. More than a decade later, Cripple Creek was the scene of another notable gold strike. This discovery was especially welcome, because the free coinage of silver sent silver mining into a tailspin that the Cripple Creek find helped to offset.

The last of the battles with Indian tribes came in 1879, when the Utes rebelled. In the last uprising by Native Americans in the American West, the Utes massacred Nathan Meeker, an Indian agent, and his workers in what would become the town of Meeker, in the White River Valley in northwestern Colorado. This massacre resulted in the Utes’ forcible removal to eastern Utah. Some Indians, however, appear to have maintained their presence, though in modest numbers. For example, in 1845, the Jicarilla Apaches were said to number 800. According to the census of 1910, there were 694, and in 1937, the Report of the U.S. Indian Office said there were 714.

If Indian wars were at an end, other conflicts were not long in arriving. When a depression struck in 1893, serious labor problems erupted after the federal government canceled its agreement to purchase substantial amounts of silver. Silver miners were thrown out of work; strikes by miners, now employees of mining companies, not independent adventurers, occurred in silver mines in 1893-1894 and 1903-1904 and in coal mines in 1913-1914. These strikes were settled with military force, a graphic reminder that the days of the romantic West were over.

The Twentieth Century

The opening of the twentieth century saw the beginning of the natural conservation movement that attracted tourists. In 1906, Congress created Mesa Verde National Park to preserve the remains of ancient Indian culture, and nine years later Rocky Mountain National Park was established. During these years, the economy depended on agriculture, as Colorado became the most irrigated state in the Union. Canning and other industries grew along with agriculture. In 1899 Colorado’s first sugar beet factory began operations at Grand Junction; seven years later the U.S. Mint opened in Denver.

The advent of another industry, however, augured well for the future, when oil production and refining became prominent sources of income. With the plentiful availability of oil throughout the nation came the advent of the automobile. America’s love affair with the automobile, coupled with the unsurpassed beauty of western Colorado, gave rise to the state’s considerable tourist industry, which developed rapidly after World War I. Colorado, moreover, has its own oil sources. Small amounts of oil had been discovered in the nineteenth century, when in 1862 the first oil well was drilled near Canon City. In the next century, however, more, and larger, fields were found. By the 1920’s, the importance of oil surpassed all other minerals, though not until after World War II and the development of the Rangley oil field in 1946 in northwest Colorado did oil production approach its zenith. Oil production rose from 1.7 million barrels in 1940 to 23 million barrels in 1950.

Like the rest of the nation, Colorado suffered considerably during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. World War II lifted the state from its doldrums, as its oil and minerals were in great demand. Military and other federal installations opened in several areas, especially around Denver, the state’s capital.

Postwar Developments

Colorado’s population, which had grown to 800,000 in 1910, grew swiftly after World War II. With population increase and demand for expansion of agriculture came the need for water. Irrigation had begun in the nineteenth century. Large irrigation projects existed from the 1860’s, but after the war a series of irrigation projects were carried out. In 1947 the Alva B. Adams Tunnel, which carries water eastward through the Rocky Mountains, was completed. Two years later Cherry Creek Dam, near Denver, was finished. In 1959 the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, a series of dams, reservoirs, and tunnels, was completed, of which the Adams Tunnel is a part. More water-conservation projects were carried out between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, such as the Colorado River Storage Project, begun in 1956, and the Frying Pan-Arkansas project, begun in the early 1960’s and completed in 1985.

Other significant postwar changes in the state’s economy changed the complexion of its society. Manufacturing replaced agriculture in importance by the mid-1950’s. Federal agencies sank important new roots in the state, opening the laboratory of the National Bureau of Standards in Boulder in 1954, the United States Air Force Academy in 1958, and the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in 1966, sunk some twelve hundred feet deep in Cheyenne Mountain.

By the 1990’s, Colorado had emerged as both a significant area of urban development below the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains and one of the nation’s most popular recreation areas. The upscale mountain community of Vail, for example, serves as an icon of winter sports, and the state’s National Parks and other scenic wonders draw millions of vacationers each year. At the same time, the nation’s academic life benefited from its universities, and several of its political figures reached national stature. If in its early decades, Colorado, seemingly connected more to the West, felt marginal to powerful eastern states, a century after its admittance to the Union the state became fully integrated into the nation’s life. Signs of this integration include its thriving urban life, especially in its capital and environs; its significant defense installations; and its sports teams, such as those in professional baseball, basketball, and football.

Categories: History Content