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article number 217
article date 03-14-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Your 1860 Trip to Colorado and Your Resulting Lifestyle
by Leroy Hafen

From the 1933 book, Colorado, the Story of a Western Commonwealth.

GO WEST, young man, go West and grow up with the country,” was the sage counsel of the famous Horace Greeley. Among the thousands who took his advice were the vigorous young founders of Colorado. To portray the life and conditions which these pioneers experienced while laying the foundations of the state is the object of this chapter.

It is the spring of 1860, the brown earth is turning green with tender grass and the odor of growing things is in the air. The valley roads are muddy from spring rains but on the plains the buffalo grass is ready for cropping and there is no need for further delay. The pioneer family has secured its outfit; food, bedding and perhaps a few pieces of household furniture are packed in the wagon, and the journey begins. On the front seat sits the father, dressed in his overalls and calico shirt and beside him the mother in checkered calico dress, peers from beneath her starched sunbonnet. Back of the seat in the little house made by the canvas cover stretched tightly over the wagon bows, the quilts are arranged to make a comfortable nest for the children. Perhaps a milk cow or two are led behind the wagon or driven along by the boy on his pony. There may be a rack of chickens tied to the side or rear of the wagon and perhaps a dog and cat accompany the family.

After a few days of travel out from the Missouri River, through the rolling country of eastern Kansas, past the frontier towns and outlying farms, they reach the Platte River at Fort Kearny and follow the main traveled road along the south side of this shallow winding river shining in the sunlight. This is the Oregon Trail which for over a decade has been carrying the heavy emigration to Oregon, California and the valley of the Great Salt Lake.


The novelty of the first days are soon over and travel is settling down to a routine, which at times grows monotonous. Early rising is the rule, for hobbled horses and wandering oxen that have strayed far from camp through the night must be gathered in. Only small fires are made, for there is no wood on the treeless plains and drift wood is scarce in the river bed. But out on the open prairie, buffalo chips are plentiful and these make a fire sufficient to fry the salt pork and flapjacks for breakfast.

With the morning meal over, the train is soon in motion, wagon trailing wagon in a long creeping line. A little before noon a camp is made. The horses and stock are allowed to graze for several hours, while the noon meal of the emigrants is prepared and eaten during the halt. At sunset the afternoon drive ends and the night camp is made. The horses are unharnessed; the cattle are placed in charge of a herder. Campfires are lighted, and supper is prepared.

As darkness envelops the company, the emigrants gather in groups about the fires to tell the experiences of the day, plan the morrow’s travel, or discuss some bit of news that has been dropped to them by passing stagecoach or pony express. Perhaps the strains of the violin and guitar compete with the far off yelp and howl of the lonesome coyote. On a moonlight night a group clusters about the melodeon, where the singing of folk and love songs recalls fond memories of the home and friends being left behind. Many a courageous mother, through a film of memories, has fallen to sleep on a dampened pillow in her bed in the covered wagon.

Indians, not yet openly hostile, occasionally visit the emigrant train to beg for “beescuit” and “tobac” and do a little petty stealing when they can. The white children shy back or cry and their mothers are far from comfortable when these painted, befeathered “bucks” come nosing about the wagons, but a few gifts and a stern “vamoose” from the men usually suffices to send the visitors away.


Vast herds of shaggy buffalo are met on the plains. The numberless, dusky bodies darken the prairie for miles. On occasion the emigrant train must be halted while the mowing mass of lumbering bison pass across the trail. On hot sultry days, swarms of gnats and flies annoy the animals and pester the travelers, and at times clouds of dust rise in billows that nearly suffocate both man and beast. Then on other days the scene is changed; heavy clouds pour out their volumes amid the flash of summer lightning and the crack and rumble of resounding thunder.

Twenty miles per day is the average drive. Four to six weeks of travel bring the emigrant caravan across the plains. From Fort Kearny to Denver no white inhabitants occupy the land, save the resident keepers of the stage stations along the line of travel. The sameness of the landscape grows wearisome before the mountains come into view. Mrs. Daniel Witter, a pioneer mother, writes: “I never shall forget those dear old mountains. The first sight we had of them 75 miles out, they looked like silver and gold piled up in the sunlight and I thought, ‘Well, we can dig most any place and get the gold,’ but oh, how disappointing such thoughts.”


The six hundred miles of plains were crossed also by modes of travel other than the emigrant wagon. While the ox-trains with their wagon bosses and bullwhackers were usually two months upon the road, the stagecoaches required only six or seven days. Many pioneers to Colorado chose this speedy passenger carrier for their trips across the plains. The coach traveled day and night, stopping at the stations only long enough for change of teams and for passengers to take their meals.


Nine people could be accommodated in the three inside seats of the coach and additional ones might ride on the front and rear seats of the upper deck. One passenger writes: “A through ticket and fifteen inches of seat, with a fat man on one side, a poor widow on the other, a baby on your lap, a bandbox over your head, and three or four more persons immediately in front leaning against your knee, makes the picture, as well as your sleeping place for the trip.” But all coaches were not so crowded and pioneers often looked upon a stage trip across the plains as a vacation jaunt, much to be preferred to the prolonged journey by covered wagon.

Four spirited horses pulled the coach and responded quickly to the word of the arrogant driver or the crack of his silver-mounted whip. The body of the coach was swung on heavy leather thorobraces which took the place of springs and permitted the coach to rock slightly to and fro. In the front and rear were the triangular leather “boots” which carried the mail and express. The Concord stagecoach was one of the most elegant passenger carriers of pioneer times and many an emigrant was proud to ride the famed vehicle to the Pike’s Peak country.

Close-up of a stagecoach shows that it’s chassis is built for speed.

For the stagecoach passengers or the covered wagon emigrants, the immediate destination usually was Denver. From this center they then distributed themselves to the other towns and the mining camps. Though far from being the beautiful city that greets one today, the little pioneer town was none the less welcome to weary emigrants. It marked the end of the plains journey and symbolized the Colorado which was to be their home. In 1860 most of the buildings were as yet in the Auraria section (West Denver) but the higher ground to the east of Cherry Creek was being dotted with frame buildings.

Larimer and Blake streets were crowded with freight wagons and ox teams and the business houses which lined them were doing a thriving trade in provisions and supplies. The town was treeless except for a few huge cottonwoods along the river, the streets were ungraded and billows of dust went swirling through them on dry summer days. There were no lawns or flowers about the houses and the sidewalks were but trails through the sand. There were no street lights, no fire department, no police force. There was no water piped into town nor none as yet in ditches along the sidewalks. Instead, private wells or barrels of water hauled from the river furnished the culinary supply, but a six mile ditch had been surveyed for bringing water from the Platte to the city and was later to supply the growing metropolis.

Blake Street in Denver, 1860.

The year before, in early 1859, the best houses were rude log cabins with dirt floors and canvas or dirt roofs. Of their furnishings, A. D. Richardson, a pioneer journalist, writes: “Chairs were glories yet to come. Stools, tables and pole bedsteads were the staple furniture, while rough boxes did duty as bureaus and cupboards. Hearths and fireplaces were of adobe, as in Utah, California and Mexico. Chimneys were of sticks of wood piled up like children’s cob-houses and plastered with mud. A few roofs were covered with shingles split by hand, but most were of logs spread with prairie grass and covered with earth.”

The Denver House was the leading hotel in early 1859. Henry Villard, (later president of the Northern Pacific Railroad), who took lodging there in 1859, says that it “was about 60 feet long and 30 wide. Its four sides consisted of roughly-hewn logs. It had a slanting, skeleton roof, covered with canvas. In the interior were neither floors nor ceilings, nor walls, nor solid partitions to divide the space; but canvas nailed on frames served to set it off for different purposes to the height of seven feet. The front part was occupied by a bar for the sale of strong drinks only, and a dozen gambling tables.

Next to the barroom came another space, enclosed by canvas partitions where the meals were served. Immediately behind it six apartments for sleeping purposes, divided only by the same light material, were set off on each side of a passage … There was no furniture but the gambling and other tables and benches and chairs, made out of rough boards. Bedsteads were provided of the same material, without mattress or pillows, and also tin wash basins, which the guests themselves filled out of barrels of water standing in the passageway, and emptied, after use, on the dirt floor.”

But now, in 1860, the log houses of previous years were being boarded up with siding or were giving way to neat frame structures with board floors, glass windows and shingle roofs; and even substantial brick buildings were going up. Painted buildings were becoming common, while artistic signs on the business fronts announced the line of trade being carried on within. There were several two story business blocks housing small shops and providing offices for lawyers, doctors and real estate agents.

In the early 60’s modern structures began to dominate Denver.

Already a great variety of businesses were represented in the city. Supply and provision stores and saloons were the most numerous, but there were hotels, boarding houses, livery stables, blacksmith shops, drug stores, dance halls, theaters, meat markets, barber shops, warehouses, bakeries, banks, clothing stores, and at least one each of such establishments as a gun shop, jewelry store, bookstore, millinery store, chair factory, ice house, mint and brewery. And to supplement the permanent business houses, were enterprising small traders of whom the pioneer newspaper editor writes in June, 1860:

“Some are in tents, others sell from the rear end of a wagon, and others again, from a box on the sidewalk. Sacks of flour; sides of bacon, barrels of whisky, bars of steel, fuse, blasting powder, sweet cider, fluid lightning, mining tools and an endless variety of all kinds of traps can be bought in the open air. Boot-makers work in tents and the blacksmith sets up his forge in the open air. . . . Vast trains of huge wagons file through the streets and discharge their cargoes of merchandise, or pass on to the mountains with ponderous machinery that soon will drive away forever the solitude that so long has reigned.”

The banks of the Platte are sprinkled with emigrant tents and wagons and a whole village of Arapahoes have set up their smoke-browned tepees among the large cotton-woods in the bottomland. In the opposite direction on the Cherry Creek road, three miles southeast of the settlement, the new cemetery caps the hill (present Cheesman Park) which overlooks the city. Here are recent graves of several men who died with their boots on.

But more interesting than the physical city are the people who inhabit it. Pioneer Denver had an intriguing variety of characters, a citizenry which one pioneer, Dr. Willing, described in his diary as a mixed population of “white, black, red and yellow.” Among the men there were all types, from the proud and pompous operator to the shiftless street loafer. The pioneer newspaper in June, 1860, gives this description of the general group of miners and freighters: “Hardy, brown-faced, weather-beaten sovereigns from the plains, the mountains and the mines, with a profusion of buckskin patches, red shirts and hairy faces crowd every corner, fill up the stores and thickly surround the auction stands.”

But it was no longer wholly a man’s town; the woman in calico dress and sunbonnet was a familiar figure and Dame Fashion had entered, dressed in shimmering crinoline and expanding hoopskirt. The pioneer editor writes of two-year-old Denver: “Ladies promenade its streets, arrayed in the newest, costliest, silks from Stewart’s, made up in strict conformity with the latest Paris fashions. The daintiest bonnets are gracefully appended to the backs of their dear little heads, and butterfly parasols have shielded them from the ardent rays of ‘old Sol’ for months past; Keevil hats, Heenan neckties, patent leather gaiters and the complete get up, that goes to make up a dainty outfit, no longer look strange to admiring savages.”

And there really were “savages” to admire, who also had styles of their own to display as they visited the Denver merchants to barter their buffalo robes and peltries for blankets, trinkets, sugar and whisky. The squaw was dressed in buckskin or calico dress or wrapped in a buffalo robe or blanket, her face brilliantly painted and her arms and dress bedecked in shining tinselry; the black-eyed papoose was tied in its cradle on her back and little half-naked children followed at their mother’s heels. The “bucks” were dressed in a variety of clothes, from a pair of buckskin trousers to the cast off military uniform of some soldier.

The Platte River was a normal camping ground for the Arapaho Indians.

Since Denver is built on a favorite camp ground of the Arapahoes, these Indians continued to set up their village on the Platte bottoms just below the mouth of Cherry Creek for some years after the white men came. They were hereditary enemies of the Utes of the mountains and often the Arapaho squaws and papooses were left at Denver while the braves made a foray into the mountains against their enemies. In May, 1860, such a war party returned to Denver with four Ute scalps and fifty horses, and straightway the scalp dance commenced at their camp in present North Denver where one thousand Indians were assembled under Chief Little Raven. The News of May 23, 1860, records:

“On Friday there was a large accession to their numbers and a grand triumphal entry into the city, with music, banners, and hundreds of gaily caparisoned horses and their riders. During the day the scalp dance was performed several times in the principal streets, in the presence of hundreds of curious spectators.”

“Never have we seen a more striking contrast between savage and civilized life. Dusky warriors, bedizened with paint and tinselry, dancing to their rude music, precisely as their ancestors danced centuries ago in celebration of the same barbarous rites, and on the same ground; but now over their mystic circles falls the shadow of lofty buildings; around them stand throngs of curious pale faces, and by them—even turning out of the way to pass—rolls and surges the ceaseless tide of advancing emigration—long lines of tented wagons wending their way steadily toward the setting sun, sure harbinger of the speedy disappearance of the red man.”

There were homes in the new “cities” of the Pike’s Peak region; surprisingly well furnished, some of the more prosperous families having brought their household furniture, silverware, china, linen, and the like to their new homes in the West. Such were able to entertain in the approved style of the period, though the scarcity of domestic help usually kept the hostess busy in the kitchen. As early as January, 1860, ladies of Denver began social activity by forming the “Ladies’ Union Aid Society,” with Mrs. W. N. Byers as president. There was a Library Association formed in February, a “Pioneer Club” in April, and a “Literary and Historical Society” in December. Various fraternal organizations such as the Masons and Odd Fellows were meeting regularly in this year.

Dances and the theater were the principal forms of amusement. The violin, accordion, or mouth harp provided the music for the dance and the guests disported themselves in the Quadrille, Virginia Reel, the Schottische, and the Waltz, often continuing their festivities to the “wee small hours” of the morning.

Theatrical performances in Denver were given at the Apollo Theater by a professional troupe and by local talent. Of his visit in 1860, Richardson writes: “Denver already boasted the Apollo Theater, neither celled nor plastered, illuminated by twelve candles and containing rough benches for three hundred and fifty people. As it was the upper story of a popular drinking saloon, clinking glasses, rattling billiard balls and uproarious songs interfered with the performances. The price of admission was one dollar; … Among the spectators were several ladies, and despite the boisterousness of the house there was no gross coarseness and no profanity.”


The “code of honor” was yet in vogue and several duels were fought on the banks of Cherry Creek near present Broadway, Denver, before large crowds in 1859 and 1860. But when the pioneer editor, W. N. Byers, was challenged because of some supposed insult, he gave the absurd practice a telling blow in his newspaper with a strong editorial which ended thus: “You may murder us, but never on the so-called field of honor under the dignified name of duel. To this last we are conscientiously opposed, looking upon it as a relic of barbarism which has descended to us from the dark ages, and the man who upholds it is more fit to live among savages than under a government controlled by law.”

Horse racing, foot racing and such outdoor sports were enjoyed. Horseback riding and buggy riding were common forms of recreation. Occasional prize fights were held. The saloon was as yet the poor man’s club. Baseball was not introduced here until 1866 and the velocipede, forerunner of the bicycle, came about the same time.

There were considerable fluctuations in prices in pioneer Colorado, the chief determining factors being freight costs and supply and demand. Since most goods were freighted by ox teams across the plains from the Missouri River (at a cost of $4 to $6 per hundred pounds) it took weeks to obtain goods in quantity to supply the demand. In January, 1860, flour cost $25 per hundred pounds in Denver (and $30 to $40 in the mountain mining camps) whereas game was plentiful and venison sold at seven cents per pound, bear meat at thirty cents per pound and ducks sold at fifty cents per pair.

As spring opened and freight trains arrived from the East, flour, dropped to $12; then in the fall, on arrival of a large supply from Utah it dropped to $8, and the following summer sold for $5 per hundred pounds. Prices of building materials showed great changes. In 1859 lumber brought $100 per thousand feet and the following year, after logs were floated down the Platte to the boom at Denver, it sold at $35 per thousand. Coal oil, or kerosene, was sold in the drug stores in the early sixties, at $3 per gallon.

Pikes Peak caused a local economy and real settlements.

Fresh fruit was almost unobtainable in Colorado in pioneer times, except the wild berries, plums and cherries which were gathered in the mountains and along the streams. Apples were shipped in and sold at ten to twenty-five cents apiece, and peaches are reported to have sold as high as $1 each. Dried apples was one of the staples for making pies. But since the art of canning had recently been put to practical use, fruits and vegetables preserved by this process could now be had.

Cows and chickens were brought to the Pike’s Peak region by the ‘59ers, and butter, milk and eggs were usually to he had at fair prices. As early as 1860, Denver had the milk man, the ice man and the vender of vegetables. In 1861 a drove of 250 hogs was driven across the plains from Missouri, and bacon and ham soon showed a decline in price. Turkeys also were driven from Missouri in 1863.

This complaint we read in the Denver Commonwealth of August 6, 1863: “A few people buy hogs in the spring, pasture them in the streets and grow rich out of the proceeds, but every housekeeper is daily pestered with them. Nothing but a sentry at the door keeps them out of the house … Anything left for a moment out of doors is rooted over and eaten up … Will not the Council take means to abate the nuisance.”

Prior to 1860 gold dust was the money of the realm. It was usually carried in buckskin pouches and was weighed out on scales at the stores. In the absence of scales a “pinch” of dust (the amount normally taken up between the thumb and fore finger) was counted as twenty-five cents, and purchases were rarely made for less than that amount. The late Rev. Charles Marshall recalled that as a young boy he was provided by his parents with a pinch of dust wrapped in a paper to drop on the collection plate at church.

In July, 1860, the private mint of Clark, Gruber & Co. at Denver began turning out gold coins. Small change, however, was scarce and paper currency, called “shin plasters,” was issued in small denominations by various banking houses for the convenience of their patrons. The ordinary interest rates in pioneer times would be declared outrageous today, for the borrower paid from two to five per cent a month to obtain a loan.


Life in the pioneer mining camps was picturesque and fascinating. Mining was hard work. Wielding pick, shovel and pan all day, or dragging ore from the hillside to a sluice or rocker, took men of muscle and endurance. But that ever present hope of “striking it rich” lured the miner on and made him forget present labor in his anticipation of the great strike he was one day to make. Always there was a stream of hopeful miners journeying toward the diggings and a similar stream of disappointed ones, who had failed to find their fortune, wending their way back. Richardson writes: “The newcomers going into the mines were sanguine and cheery, climbing with elastic step, and beguiling the way with song and laughter. But the stampeders turning homeward, convinced that gold digging was hard and un-remunerative, left their packs and shovels behind, and trudged mechanically with downcast woe-begone faces.”

Men from all parts of the nation and from many foreign countries were in the camps. There were men who had traveled around the world and boys who had never before left their fathers’ farms. There were doctors, lawyers, preachers and farmers turned miners; there were unschooled lads and university graduates jostling each other in the narrow gulches and voting in mass meetings to make the laws for their district. The success of the day’s panning, the news from another gulch were usual topics of conversation, but discussions of Shakespeare, religion and philosophy were hardly less common.

Clothes did not distinguish the man, for all wore substantial shirts, trousers and boots appropriate to their heavy work. Long whiskers often hid a youthful face. There were no old people in pioneer Colorado. One early comer declares that it was several years before he saw a person with gray hair. Young men and women laid the foundation of this State.


At first, the miner did his own cooking; flap jacks, bacon, beans and coffee being the staples of his diet. These were often cooked over an open fire beside his tent or primitive log cabin. The frying pan, coffee pot, tin cup, tin plate, butcher knife and iron spoon were essential culinary wares, as the pick, shovel, pan and ax were the tools of his profession. Pine boughs were his mattress, and blankets and buffalo robes his cover at night. Writes one miner from the hills: “The sweetest of all rest is on the bosom of mother earth, watched by sentinel stars, lulled by the sad-hearted pine and falling water.” Add to this, pure mountain air, the contentment of successful work, the fatigue of a hard day’s labor—and the miner’s sleep was blissful.

Gambling and drinking were the amusements of some, while others found ample recreation in the reading of books and magazines. And religion was not left at home. A visitor to one of the new diggings asked if there was a church in camp and a miner replied, “No; but we are going to build one before next Sunday.”

A. D. Richardson describes an interesting scene at one of the camps he visited near Gregory Gulch:

“On Sunday morning a walk through the diggings revealed nearly all the miners disguised in clean clothing. Some were reading and writing letters, some ministering to the sick, and some enacting the part of every-man-his-ownwasher-woman—rubbing valiantly away at the tub. Several hundred men, in the open air, were attending public religious worship. . . . They were roughly clad, displaying weapons at their belts; and represented every section of the Union and almost every nation of the earth. They sat upon logs and stumps, a most attentive congregation, while the clergyman upon a rude log platform, preached from the text: ‘Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.’ It was an impressive spectacle—that motley gathering of gold seekers among the mountains, a thousand miles from home and civilization, to hear the ‘good tidings’ forever old and yet forever new.”

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