The Colorado Gold Rush

The Colorado Gold Rush, originally known as the Pikes Peak Gold Rush, started in 1858 and was the second largest mining excitement in United States history after the California rush a decade earlier.

Over 100,000 people participated in this rush and were known as "Fifty-Niners", a reference to 1859, the year the rush to Colorado peaked.

At the time of the rush, Colorado was still part of Kansas and Nebraska territory.

The gold rush, which followed approximately a decade after the California Gold Rush, was accompanied by a dramatic influx of emigrants into the region of the Rocky Mountains and exemplified by the phrase "Pikes Peak or Bust", a reference to the mountain in the Front Range that guided many early prospectors to the region westward over the Great Plains.

somewhere in Colorado during the late 1800's
A miner pans for gold somewhere in Colorado during the late 1800's

The prospectors provided the first major white population in the region, leading to the creation of many early towns, including Denver and Boulder, as well as many other smaller mining towns, some of which have survived (such as Idaho Springs and Central City) but many of which have become ghost towns.

The first decade of the boom was largely concentrated along the South Platte River at the base of the mountains, the canyon of Clear Creek in the mountains west of Golden, and South Park.

As prospectors flooded the region in search of quick riches, the rapid population growth led to the creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861 and to the U.S. state of Colorado in 1876.

The easy-to-reach gold deposits were largely played out by 1863. Hard rock mining followed exhaustion of the placer mines and continues to produce gold ore and many other minerals up to the present day.

The railroad lines built to haul gold from the mountains were a major part in creating the economic base of the region in the following decades, especially as Colorado experienced a companion mining boom in 1879 with the Colorado Silver Boom.

In 1848, a group of Cherokee on their way to California over the Cherokee Trail discovered gold in a stream bed in the South Platte basin. The Cherokee did not stop to work the stream beds, but they reported the information to other members of their tribe upon returning to Oklahoma.

Gold mining in Borens Gulch. La Plata County, Colorado 1875
Gold mining in Borens Gulch. La Plata County, Colorado 1875

The information remained unused for the following decade, however, until it reached William Green Russell, a Georgian who had worked the California gold fields in the 1850s. Russell was married to a Cherokee woman, and through his connections to the tribe, he heard about the reported gold in the Pikes Peak region of the western Kansas Territory.

In 1858, upon returning from California, Russel organized a party to the area, setting off with his two brothers and six companions in February 1858. They rendezvoused with Cherokee tribe members along the Arkansas River in present-day Oklahoma and continued westward along the Santa Fe Trail. Others joined the party along the way until the number reached 104.

Upon reaching Bent's Fort, they turned to the northwest, reaching the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte on May 23. The site of their initial explorations is in present-day Confluence Park in Denver. They began prospecting in the river beds, exploring Cherry Creek and nearby Ralston Creek, but without success. After twenty days, a number of them decided to return home, leaving the Russell brothers and ten other men behind.

In the first week of July 1858, they finally discovered "good diggings" at the mouth of Little Dry Creek on the South Platte, panning out several hundred dollars of gold dust from a small pocket, the first significant gold discovery in the region. The site of the discovery is in the present-day Denver suburb of Englewood, just northwest of the junction of U.S. Highway 285 and Interstate 70.*

Central City Colorado 1862
Central City Colorado in 1862

When word got back east, the Colorado Gold Rush was on; Pikes Peak or Bust! was the slogan. By 1859, large numbers of prospective miners and settlers had come up the Kansas River valley to the Denver area. At first, there was only the slight showing in Cherry Creek and the South Platte River, but soon paying quantities of gold were discovered at Idaho Springs and Central City.

By 1860, Central City had a population of over 10,000 people, and Denver and Golden were substantial towns serving the mines.

*An astute reader noted that the discovery likely occurred a northwest of the junction of U.S. highway 285 and Interstate 25 (not Interstate 70).

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