The Colorado Gold Rush was the boom in the prospecting and mining of gold in present-day Colorado in the United States that began in 1859 (when the land was still in the Kansas Territory) and lasted throughout the early 1860s. It is still considered to be the largest gold rush in American history, and an intricate part of the history of the country in general.
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.
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 until another major strike was made in 1891 in the Cripple Creek area.
Related: The following video summarizes the amazing history of SW Colorado
Hard rock and placer mining followed exhaustion of the easy-to-reach surface deposits in all those areas and the region continues to produce gold ore and many other minerals up to the present day, although gold has been a minor part of the picture for decades. 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. 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 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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