Thursday, October 16, 2014

Yellowstone National Park: Early Explorations of America's First National Park

Mammoth Hot Springs: Yellowstone National Park/Public Domain

It is home to grizzly bears, wolves, huge herds of bison and elk and the world's largest collection of natural geysers. It is one of the last nearly intact natural ecosystems in the world. It was America's first national park, established in 1872, making it all-around unique. 

Once called Roche Jaune (Yellow Rock) by French trappers, it is now known as Yellowstone National Park, a wonderland beyond compare. It is also on a dormant volcano, a volcano overdue for an explosion, a volcano many people believe could destroy most of North America at any time, which in my opinion just adds to its mystique!

 This adorable photograph was taken by Brian W. Schaller at Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone National Park was established as a National Park by the US Congress in 1872 in an effort to preserve its unique geothermic features and protect the wildlife. This mystical, magical park consists of 3,468 square miles of shimmering lakes and raging rivers, towering mountain ranges, and deep canyons. 

It is on top of a volcano, which is the cause of the large amounts of geothermic activity including 300 geysers; hot springs; mud pots; and fumaroles (openings in the planet's crust emitting steam and gas). It has two of the most famous geysers in the world--Old Faithful and Steamboat Springs. 

It is also home to 50 animal species; 311 bird species; 18 fish species; six reptile species; four amphibian species; and five endangered or threatened species. It is like a combination biopark and wildlife refuge! 

Old Faithful in Yellowstone at its peak of eruption. Photo by Debeo Morium.

Since its early discovery, Yellowstone has endured rumors of hauntings, as well as accusations that its very existence was a rumor. When trappers and explorers first reported its existence the public reaction was that nothing so fantastic could possibly exist, but to this day it continues to inspire artists and leave tourists with a sense of wonder and awe beyond compare.

Yellowstone's Wild West History

Why is Yellowstone National Park a part of the Wild West? In order to understand its historical importance we have to go back to the early explorers and mountain men who reported Yellowstone's magnificent beauty. 

Albert Bierstadt 's "Yellowstone Falls," 1881. 

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself as the first trapper or explorer to see these incredible natural wonders. You might even question your own sanity! 

Early Reports

According to PBS.org's National Parks, the first reports of Yellowstone came from explorers such as John Colter, who was actually a respected member of the original Lewis and Clark expedition, but when he tried to explain that he had found a magical place in the northwest corner of Wyoming territory where "mud boiled, water spouted, and steam came out of the ground" Colter was mocked and humiliated, and Yellowstone was referred to jokingly as "Colter's Hell." 

The famous trapper, law enforcement officer and politician Joe Meek also saw Yellowstone and reported his findings to the public. His stories were also dismissed. Trapper Jim Bridger said there were canyons so deep that a man could shout into its depths at night before he went to sleep and be awakened by the echo of his voice the following morning, and his report was also dismissed as the exaggerations of a storyteller. 

However, the intense, mysterious beauty described by these men was too great to ignore. A series of expeditions were planned and financed in order to confirm the rumors of these early mountain man explorers. If you've visited Yellowstone National Park, follow along with the descriptions of these expeditions and see if you recognize any of these names:

Yellowstone Expedition

An early frontier expedition was first authorized by US Secretary of War John C. Calhoun in order to establish a military fort near Bismarck, North Dakota where the Yellowstone River begins. 
Steamboat Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, Public Domain.

This early expedition is often referred to as the Atkinson-Long Expedition and is credited with establishing Fort Atkinson in Nebraska, which was the first US Army post west of the Missouri. Unfortunately, the fort was considered a failure due to its extreme cost. 

Cook-Folsom-Peterson Expedition

The first organized expedition of Yellowstone National Park took place in 1869 and was privately funded by David E. Folsom, Charles W. Cook, and William Peterson of Diamond City, Montana. The group kept carefully-detailed journals of their trip, which proved to be invaluable to the expeditions that followed.

Cook, Folsom and Peterson left Diamond City, Montana on September 6, 1869 traveling up the Missouri River to Three Forks, Montana. At Three Forks they started on foot up the Gallatin Valley making a brief stop to resupply in Bozeman on September 8. They made camp at the base of Bozeman Pass four miles east of Fort Ellis and two days later started over the pass then down Trail Creek reaching the Yellowstone River near Emigrant Gulch. 

The men followed the river into what is now the region of Yellowstone National Park on September 13, 1869, entering where Gardner and Yellowstone Rivers converge. They crossed Gardiner then traveled along the west side of Yellowstone to Tower Fall where they crossed the Yellowstone River to explore the Lamar Valley. They returned to Yellowstone traveling West into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. 

The men then turned south and were forced to cross the Yellowstone River twice before reaching Yellowstone Lake near Pelican Creek. They continued to follow the western shore of the lake to West Thumb, then crossed the Continental Divide, emerging on the north side of Shoshone Lake. There they turned northwest, crossed the Divide again and traveled down Firehole River to the geyser basins. Can you imagine the sights that greeted them there! 

The group followed Firehole River and Madison River to exit the Yellowstone Park area near what is now the town of West Yellowstone on October 3, 1869, but their trip was not over. The continued to follow the Madison River through the Madison Canyon and into Virginia City, Montana. They ended their expedition on October 11, 1869 when they returned to Diamond City, Montana after 36 days of hard travel. 

The Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition

In 1863, engineer Walter De Lacy created a map of Yellowstone using journal notes from the previous expedition, and one year later a second expedition of nine men left to verify the information of the first expedition--apparently such great beauty was still believed too good to be true, but this is America, where great natural beauty is found in abundance.  

Henry D. Washburn, a surveyor from Montana, was made the captain of the expedition into Yellowstone. Photo in public domain.

One year after the last expedition nine men decided to defy the warnings of their families and friend--and the Crow, who believed the land was haunted by angry spirits--and set out to prove the existence of these magical geysers; pools of boiling color; and mountains that appeared to be made of glass. 

The men were shockingly unprepared for such an expedition--middle-aged businessmen including merchants; a bank president; and a lawyer; a county assessor--but they had determination on their side. They decided Henry D. Washburn, a surveyor from Montana, would be their captain, and the expedition began. 

An IRS collector, Nathaniel P. Langford, was the first to begin the adventure, riding ahead to request protection from Lt. Gustavus C. Doane of the United States Cavalry. 

Lt. Gustavus C. Doane. Photo in public domain.

Doane later wrote an account of the expedition in his diary and descriptions of what the men found. A post from 1870 reads, "fairy-like, yet solid mound of rock growing up amid clouds of steam and showers of boiling water...the period of this geyser is fifty minutes. First an increased rush of steam comes forth followed instantly by a rising jet of water which attains...the height of one hundred and twenty-five feet." 

Ferdinand V. Hayden, 1870. Photo in public domain.

The men succeeded and the detailed journal accounts of their expedition inspired the United States Congress to fund the next expedition, a more "official" expedition led by Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden. 

The Hayden Expedition

In 1871, the Hayden Geological Survey was federally funded to explore and document the Yellowstone region. Led by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, the expedition led to the passage of legislation establishing Yellowstone as the country's first National Park. 

The expedition began in 1894 and was a bit different from previous expeditions because it was federally funded with $40,000 by the Pacific Railroad Survey, a bill passed by congress in 1853 with the intention of finding the most efficient routes for railroad travel from the Mississippi to the Pacific. 

The Hayden Expedition, as you will see, was much more extensive, and included explorers, engineers, scientists, topographers, and artists to document the area and included famous experts, such as John Wesley Powell; Clarence King; and George Wheeler. 

On June 8, 1871, the Hayden Expedition left Ogden, Utah traveling north to Taylor's Bridge on the Snake River, which they reached on June 25. Five days later the party reached Montana and camped near Monida Pass near the Continental Divide. Following the path of earlier expeditions, they moved into Virginia City, Montana on July 4, 1871 then Fort Ellis near Bozeman on July 10, 1871. Unfortunately, their botanist, George Alle, and entomologist, Cyrus Thomas, were both forced to leave the expedition at this time due to health issues. 

The group resupplied and coordinated their efforts with the US Army at Fort Ellis then started out once more on July 15, moving along the Yellowstone River. They met up with another expeditionary group--the Barlow-Heap Expedition--and traveled together for 45 days. Colonel Barlow was the Chief Engineer for General Sheridan and was sent into Yellowstone on orders from the US Army.

They survey team moved alongside the Yellowstone River until they reached Paradise Valley, then realized the trail was impassable and they would have to leave their supply wagons behind. They established a base camp near Emigrant Gulch for communications where they left the wagons and headed for Yankee Jim Canyon on July 20, 1871. 

Hayden Expedition Map of Yellowstone, 1871/Public Domain


The Hayden Survey Expedition didn't actually enter the park region until July 21, 1871 when they arrived at the Gardner River and traveled to Mammoth Hot Springs. They remained at the hot springs for two days. There they discovered two men--J.C. McCartney and H.R. Horr--claimed 320 acres as their own and had already established a ranch and bath house near Liberty Cap. The men were eventually evicted when Yellowstone became a National Park.

The Hayden team left Mammoth on July 24 traveling along Mammoth-Tower road past Undine Falls and Wraith Falls on Lupine Creek. They reached Tower Creek the following day, then spent three days exploring Mount Washburn and the western edge of the Yellowstone River in what is now known as Hayden Valley in order to locate the source of the Yellowstone. They camped at Cascade Creek and W.H. Jackson took the first known photographs of Yellowstone Falls.

Four days later, members of the Hayden expedition carved oars from trees and built a boat, which they called Annie, the first known boat to sail the Yellowstone Lake and explore the islands. The first trip was made by James Stevenson and Henry Elliot to what is now known as Stevenson Island.

While some team members stayed behind to continue documenting the area, Hayden and other members of the survey team left on July 31, 1871, to head back into Hayden Valley then west into the geyser basins of the Madison River. They reached the Nez Perce and traveled six miles from Firehole River then spent two more days in the Lower, Midway, and Upper Geyser Basin. They left the area on August 6, 1871, following Firehole River back to Madison Lake then over the Continental Divide to Shoshone Lake where they established camp at Lost Lake near the West Thumb area of Yellowstone Lake. They remained in this area for two days to document their findings while some members of their military escort returned to Fort Ellis to deliver specimens.

For the next ten days the Hayden Survey party traveled along the south and east sides of Yellowstone Lake and crossed the Continental Divide numerous times in their exploration of the Yellowstone River. They arrived at Steamboat Point on August 19, 1871 and camped near Turbid Lake, then returned to Yellowstone River. While there, the men experienced two extreme earthquakes lasting 20 seconds or more, but long enough to leave them in a state of shock as they watched the trees shake and bend and the horses leap to their feet and try to run. They documented three aftershocks.

Poor Annie was taken apart on August 23, 1871 (wouldn't she have made a great museum exhibition!) and the Hayden party move northeast to Pelican Creek then on to Mirror Lake. The following morning they followed the Lamar River to Soda Butte Creek where they camped for the night. On August 25, 1871, they crossed into the Lamar Valley and traveled to Baronette Bridge.


It was about this time that one of the men, Truman C. Everts, became separated from the expedition and lost along the Yellowstone River. A Helena prospector, John C. Baronett, helped the man return to the expedition. After he rescued Everts, Baronett went on to construct a pack train bridge across the Yellowstone above the Lamar River--the first bridge across the Yellowstone. Hayden named a nearby peak Baronett Peak in honor of the work of the compassionate prospector.

On August 26, 1871, the survey party left the park region and camped north of Gardiner on the Yellowstone, then met up with the rest of their group at Bottler's Ranch to post a report of their progress. They spent two days traveling back to Fort Ellis and six days recuperating from the long expedition while they prepared their correspondence and shipped specimens for documentation. The party then traveled on the Union Pacific Railroad to Fort Bridger and on October 2, 1871, Hayden officially declared that the expedition was concluded and the group disbanded.

Yellowstone National Park, which is primarily located in the state of Wyoming, but extends into Montana and Idaho, as well, was established and signed into law by American President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.

"We trace the creation of the park from the Folsom-Cook expedition of 1869 to the Washburn expedition of 1870, and thence to the Hayden expedition (U. S. Geological Survey) of 1871, Not to one of these expeditions more than to another do we owe the legislation which set apart this "pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." --Nathaniel P. Langford, Yellowstone National Park's first park superintendent and a member of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition


Yellowstone: The First National Park, Full Vintage Documentary

Sources: 

I did not know that! The controversial fires that struck Yellowstone National Park in 1988 affected 793,880 acres, which accounts for 36 percent of the park's lands. This natural disaster consisted of five fires that actually burned into the park from nearby public lands. The largest fire--North Fork Fire--burned more than 410,000 acres and was started by a single discarded cigarette.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Peace--Black Elk

Dove, a symbol of peace, photographed in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. 
Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

"The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere.
It is within each of us."

--Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, 1932






Sunday, June 8, 2014

Colorado, Here I Come!

Horsetooth Mountain, one of the most famous landmarks in Northern Colorado. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Just a short note to let you know I am moving, which explains the long delay in posts--selling, buying, and moving to another state is a time-consuming process, but by the end of the week I will be living in a small town in Northern Colorado

I will be living closer to my family and friends and where I also attended and taught at the local universities. I lived in Colorado most of my life. I love Colorado and I am fascinated by its wild west history. If you notice a change in my posts, a few more focusing on mining towns, ghost towns, and the history of Colorado, now you know why!

There is still so much about the Wild West that I haven't even touched on, such as mining, logging, the early explorers, and the far western states such as California, Oregon and Washington. 

If you study a particular topic regarding the Old West and would like to guest blog or trade guest blogs, please contact me at dsdollman@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

XIT Ranch: The Largest Fenced Ranch in the 1880s

Cowboys at Escarbada Bunkhouse at the XIT Ranch, 1891. Image from the Portal to Texas History.

Moving closer to the end of the alphabetical journey through the American Old West, we will take a short break from Wounded Knee to examine the XIT Ranch for the letter X, then return briefly to Wounded Knee for yet another terribly painful story starting with Z for Zintkala Nuni, the little girl found four days after the massacre beneath the body of her mother. Let's take a breath, though, first, and a look at a 3,000,000 acre cattle ranch, the XIT Ranch. 

XIT Ranch Office Plaque. Photo taken in Channing, Texas by Billy Hathorn (who quite often makes his photos of the Old West available for use for educational purposes. Thank you Mr. Hathorn!) 

In the 1880s, the XIT was the largest ranch in the world, and believe it or not, it was completely fenced, too. Three million acres stretched out from the "Yellow House" headquarters to Lubbock, Texas. The ranch land resembled a strip that was only 30 miles wide with the remainder of the ranch in its length. It had pieces in ten different counties--Dallam, Hartley, Oldham, Deaf Smith, Parmer, Castro, Bailey, Lamb, Cochran, and Hockley--and according to the XIT Museum many people believed this was the reason for the name, that XIT stood for Ten in Texas. In fact, XIT was a brand chosen because it would be difficult for rustlers to imitate. 

A beautiful photo of the revised XIT Ranch Office in Channing, Texas. Photo by Billy Hathorn.

So, where did this ranch come from? How did a ranch this size possibly get started? It was a trade! The Texas State Capital Building in Austin was too small to handle the business for all of Texas and to make matters worse, it suffered from a terrible fire on November 9, 1881, destroying most of its structure. Purely by coincidence, just two years earlier, in 1879, Governor Oran M. Roberts called a Special Legislative Session to discuss the matter. The Texas Constitutional Convention had already set aside 3,000,000 acres in the Texas Panhandle to help pay for a new capital building. After the fire, Charles B. and John V. Farwell, brothers from Chicago, agreed to buy the 3,000,000 acres for exactly $3,000,000. 

This lovely photo of the Texas State Capital at 1100 Congress Ave. in Austin, Texas was taken by photographer Roger heslop. The building is made of red granite and is still one of the largest state capitols in North America, second in size only to the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. according to the XIT Museum. It's dome stands seven feet higher than the US Capitol's dome. 

The corrals, foreman's house and bunkhouses were built at the Springs in Dallam County and still remain as the oldest structures in Dallam County, Texas. The first cattle--mostly Longhorns--arrived on the XIT ranch in 1885. At one point the ranch had over 150,000 head of cattle! They were well-contained within the 1500 miles of fence. The ranch also had 325 windmills and 100 dams to regulate the water supply.   

They also had strict rules for their many employees, including no alcohol allowed on the premises; no gambling or card playing; no hunting of wild game using any ranch horses; no non-ranch horses allowed on the ranch (which would just about cover any of the previous listed activities as the employees could not leave the ranch); and no employee-owned weapons. 

A gorgeous Texas Longhorn grazing among the bluebonnets outside Kingsland, Texas. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

With a ranch of this size you may wonder why we don't hear more about it! Because sadly, it didn't last long. With a ranch that size it was difficult, if not impossible to thwart cattle rustlers and predators, such as wolves. The ranch was actually syndicated, and when the cattle market crashed in 1886 the Farwell brothers were forced to sell off large parcels of land to repay investors.

Edited to add: While researching my next post I found a note stating that in the late 1880s the XIT Ranch added 15,000 square miles of Montana land to its Texas holdings (remember it was syndicated) then established a trail between the two properties through seven states--now that's a cattle trail!  

Resources: 
  • Anderson, Allen H. "XIT Ranch." Texas State Historical Association. Accessed December 2, 2013.
  • Forbis, William H. The Old West: The Cowboys. Time Life Books. Canada:1974.
  • "Thumbnail History of the XIT Ranch.XIT Museum Website. Accessed December 2, 2013.
  • "XIT Ranch." Story of the Great American West. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. New York: 1977.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

William N. Byers and the Rocky Mountain News



William N. Byers circa 1903. Photographer unknown, public domain.

I still remember reading the Rocky Mountain News as a child. When I was raised in Colorado there was only two newspapers worth reading--The Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post--and they were constantly at war with each other. And yet, between them they provided flawless coverage of every event in the state. Odd as it sounds, I was deeply saddened when the Rocky Mountain News shut down, as if I'd lost a part of my childhood. But the story of the Rocky Mountain News is more than the story of a newspaper, it is a chronicle of the history of the City of Denver and the State of Colorado, as well. 

This is the story of the man who created The Rocky Mountain News. The history of the Rocky Mountain News begins with two mining towns and one man, William Newton Byers, with a dream of uniting a community.

Panorama of Denver taken sometime between 1865 and 1900, photographer unknown. 

Ohio farm boy William Newton Byers had little formal education, but a tremendous amount of courage and pluck. According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, at twenty-four years old, Byers had served as the first deputy surveyor of the Nebraska territory, issued the first official plat of Omaha, was a member of Omaha's first city council and a member of the first session of the Nebraska Territorial Legislature.

Byers had already demonstrated an inclination toward reinventing his life, but when he heard that gold was discovered in the Pikes Peak region of Kansas territory, he made a drastic move. He bought a used printing press and hired a couple of employees with the intention of starting a newspaper in the mining towns.

Before he could leave Omaha, Byers got into a scuffle with some men attacking a German immigrant and was shot in the shoulder. According to Keith Wheeler's The Townsmen, Byers spent his recovery time writing a guidebook to the Pikes Peak region and selling advertising space to Omaha business owners for the front page of his newspaper.

Pikes Peak Mountain viewed from Manitou Springs region of Colorado, circa 1870. Photographer B.H. Gurnsey, public domain. 


Byers decided to name his newspaper the Rocky Mountain News because he had no specific town in mind when he left Omaha on March 8, 1859. What he did have was two wagons filled with paper, a press, and type set for the front page of his first issue.

A Fierce Competition Produces the First Issue of the Rocky Mountain News

According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, Byers arrived on the banks of the Cherry Creek on April 17, 1859. At that time, there were two mining camps, one on each side of the river, called Auraria and Denver City. As soon as he arrived, Byers discovered that another publisher, Jack Merrick, was busy setting up type in a nearby cabin. According to the Rocky Mountain News "History Timeline," Byers rented a room in the attic of Uncle Dick Wooten's Saloon, which would now be located at 1413-15 11th Street, and furiously went to work interviewing the local residents for stories.

Byers finally had his stories and the necessary type in place. He started the press, then snow began to fall. The roof leaked, and Byers had to rig a tarp over the press. He somehow managed to print his first issue and rushed into the street just as the sun began to rise on April 23, 1859 waving a few snow-smudged copies in his hand. He completed his first edition 20 minutes before Merrick. Byers' advantage, of course, was his previously-set first page. According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, Merrick conceded his defeat, sold his printing equipment to Byers and became a prospector.

In his premier edition of the Rocky Mountain News, Byers stated, "With our hat in our hand and our best bow, we make our first appearance upon the stage in the capacity of Editor." In The Townsmen, Wheeler described Byers as an "extraordinary voice," and his premier publication of the Rocky Mountain News as a "bragging, scolding, counseling, jealous, defensive, aggressive and thoroughly irrepressible newspaper."

Byers and the "Gobacks"

According to The Miners by Robert Wallace, newspapers around the country called the Cherry Creek "the new Eldorado." By April of 1859, 100,000 men and women left their homes, destined for the Cherry Creek. Wallace states that less than half of these emigrants arrived alive. Many travelers lost their wagons and supplies on the plains, or died from starvation and disease.

In The Townsmen, Keith Wheeler tells the story of three brothers who lost their pack horses. Two of the brothers died of starvation and the third was found by an Arapaho hunter, so desperate he was eating the body of one of his deceased siblings.

When they arrived to find the promised river of gold had already run dry, some emigrants headed back home. Byers, who quickly gained a reputation for castigating editorials, did not respond well to the retreating masses. Byers referred to those who left the area as "Gobacks." As quoted in The Townsmen, one of Byers' many editorials on this subject said 'Farewell to these 'gobacks.' They have had their day and soon will be forgotten."

Byers predicted in his newspaper that more gold would be found. A few months later, John Gregory announced his discovery near Clear Creek, and two weeks later, 'Gregory Gulch' was packed with 30,000 returning "gobackers" returning to the mining camps.

Byers Convinces the Miners to Create the City of Denver

According to Byers, it was illogical for the two mining camps to divide their efforts toward building communities and he repeatedly urged Auraria and Denver City to join forces. On April 3, 1860, the inhabitants of the two mining camps took a vote and merged under the name Denver City. This act not only strengthened the community, but the reputation of William Byers, as well.

Soon, a Masonic Lodge and Ladies Union Aid Society formed. the Colorado National Bank was created with the combined efforts of brothers Luther and Charles Kountze, and two other brothers named Clark, along with E.H. Gruber, constructed a two-story brick building and started Denver City's mint. The first $10 gold eagle coin was presented to William Byers, Editor of the Rocky Mountain News.

Byers Fights City Crime

According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, Byers primary concern for the City of Denver was crime control, and his enemy in this endeavor was Charley Harrison, a Southern-born ruffian, and owner of Charley Harrison's Criterion Saloon. Harrison used threats and violence to control saloon owners and brothels.

Unfortunately for Harrison, he grossly underestimated Byers' determination to eliminate crime. On July 12, 1860, Harrison shot the local blacksmith when the man tried to join a card game. Byers described the act in the Rocky Mountain News as "cold-blooded murder." Within three days, the100-man Denver Committee of Safety was formed on the urging of William N. Byers.

Charley Harrison was infuriated by what he perceived to be a threat to his control over the city. His thugs, known as "Bummers," were also tired of Byers' editorial criticism. They stormed into the offices of the Rocky Mountain News one morning and marched Byers down to Charley Harrison's bar. Harrison wisely ushered Byers out the back door with a warning.

The Bummers, angry that Byers was released by their boss, once again marched into the newspaper offices. This time, Byers was waiting with a shotgun. He wounded one of the Bummers. The other three were chased out of town by the Denver Committee of Safety, but the remaining Bummers were not ready to surrender and tried to burn down the newspaper building. Soon, Byers was forced to travel to and from work in disguise to protect himself from attacks.

In response, the Denver Committee of Safety became a vigilante group. They broke into houses, using violence and other means to extract confessions, then hung suspected murderers and thieves. According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, Byers would later state: "We never hanged on circumstantial evidence. I have known a great many such executions, but I don't believe one was ever unjust."

Denver and the American Civil War

On February 28, 1861, President James Buchanan signed an Act of Congress establishing the Territory of Colorado. On May 27, 1861, Colorado's first governor, William Gilpin, arrived in Denver. Gilpin organized the First Colorado Volunteers and issued $375,000 in drafts from the U.S. Treasury to purchase uniforms and other necessities from Denver merchants. The First Colorado Volunteers, guided by Major John Chivington, destroyed Confederate General Henry H. Sibley's dream of capturing Denver and its wealth of mines by burning Sibley's supply wagons.

Major John Chivington, US Army, Public Domain.

Sibley's men retreated back to Texas, but the Union government refused to honor Gilpin's $375,000 in drafts. Infuriated by this financial slight on his city, Byers posted scathing editorials demanding a replacement for Gilpin. President Lincoln responded to public demand and replaced Gilpin with John Evans, a physician and founder of Northwestern University.

In 1864, Chivington and Governor Evans met with the chief of the Cheyenne, Black Kettle, at the Camp Weld Conference to sign a peace treaty. Then, on November 29, 1864, Chivington and his men attacked the Cheyenne at their encampment while the warriors were hunting for food. They slaughtered 163 Cheyenne women and children, then scalped and mutilated their bodies in the Sand Creek Massacre. In the Rocky Mountain News, Byers' editorial hailed Chivington and his men as heroes, but most of Denver and the rest of the United States was horrified. Governor Evans was forced to resign and Chivington's career was over.

The Rocky Mountain News Survives Fire and Flood

Denver continued to struggle with the basic necessities of a city, and on April 19, 1863, when the city's fire department was little more than a plan, a fire broke out and burned through the center of town. Damages were close to $350,000, nearly the equivalent of the losses from Gilpin's unpaid drafts, leaving Denver in dire straits. The Rocky Mountain News building survived because it was located in the center of the Cherry Creek on pilings, a position Byers chose to show his neutrality with the affairs of what had once been two separate mining towns.

The following year brought record snow and spring runoff. On May 20, 1864, a flash flood tore through Denver and destroyed the Rocky Mountain News building and all that was inside. According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, 20 Denver residents died in the flood. By this time, however, Byers was a successful businessman. He used his savings to purchase the Commonwealth, a competitive newspaper, and the Rocky Mountain News was in business once more.

Byers Greatest Political Mistake

The popularity of William Byers, as well as the Rocky Mountain News, continued to grow. In 1876, the year Colorado achieved statehood, William N. Byers was considered the best candidate for the Republican nomination for Governor of Colorado.

Bird's eye view of Denver, Colorado--William Byers must have been amazed by how much it had grown by 1887! US Library of Congress Geography and Maps Division.

Then Byers made his greatest political blunder--a romantic affair. According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, when Byers tried to end the affair with the attractive Hattie Sancomb, she stopped Byers near his home and fired on him with her pearl-handled revolver. Byers' wife, Elizabeth, ran for the family carriage and rescued her husband before he was harmed, but news of the sex scandal traveled quickly through Denver and Byers' reputation and political career was destroyed.

The Legacy of William Byers and the Rocky Mountain News

Byers sold the Rocky Mountain News in 1878. He became the Postmaster of Denver in 1880, initiating free home delivery of mail to Denver residents.

From his early days in Denver, Byers showed constant concern for the basic necessities of a city, including food and water. In 1860, he homesteaded 140 acres, experimenting with irrigation techniques and crop rotation. Although his home was eventually torn down to build the William N. Byers Junior High School, may of the trees originally planted by Byers still remain on the property.

William Newton Byers died March 25, 1903 and was buried in Fairmont Cemetery in the City of Denver. He is now considered one of the founding figures of both Omaha, Nebraska and Denver, Colorado.

Unfortunately, the City of Denver suffered a tremendous loss to its heritage when the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rocky Mountain News permanently closed for business on February 27, 2009.

Sources:
  • Hudson, Barbara. "Rocky Mountain News History Timeline." Denverpost.com. Posted Feb. 27, 2009. Retrieved June 1, 2011. 
  • "The Rush for Gold." The Real West. History Channel Documentary. Originally aired Nov. 19, 1992. 
  • Wallace, Robert. The Old West: The Miners. Time Life Books. Canada: 1976. 
  • Wheeler, Keith. The Old West: The Townsmen. Time Life Books. Canada: 1975. 
  • "William N. Byers." Nebraska State Historical Society. Official Nebraska Government Website. Retrieved June 9, 2011. 

Colorado's Deadliest Floods

You may have noticed fewer posts over the past year. I've been working on a history book about flooding in Colorado. Colorado...