Overview of Colorado History from 1860 to 1916

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The state of Colorado had some distinct ideas about itself in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this lesson we'll cover Colorado's journey from territory to state to an attempted American utopia.


Some people call it the Centennial State. I call it home. Whatever you call it, Colorado is a pretty great place. Not that I'm biased. But it wasn't always the place we think of today. Colorado's journey from territory to state involved a long process of figuring out exactly what this region should mean to the country, a debate some Coloradoans are still having to this day. Should Colorado focus on mineral wealth? Agriculture? Social utopianism? Building up its Comic-Con? Okay, that last one wasn't a debate in the 1800s. Regardless, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were a formative time, when America discovered how much it loved the Rocky Mountains, and Coloradoans had their first chance to figure out who they were.

The current Colorado flag was first adopted in 1911

The Territory of Colorado

The area we now call Colorado was added to the United States not all at once, but in pieces. Roughly half was claimed by the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase , a huge real estate deal with France that doubled the size of the country. The rest of Colorado came from Mexico in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War. However, it wasn't until around 1858 that the region saw a major increase in population, when gold was discovered around Pike's Peak, a mountain in Southern Colorado which was then part of the Nebraska Territory. The resulting Pike's Peak Gold Rush, which lasted from 1858-1861, brought the first substantial wave of settlers to Colorado. It wasn't long before the mineral wealth of Colorado became obvious, and in 1861 Congress passed an act reorganizing parts of the Kansas, Nebraska, Utah and New Mexico into the Territory of Colorado. The name came from the Colorado River, so named by the Spanish for its reddish color.

The State of Colorado

The Territory of Colorado quickly gained fame for its gold, silver, copper and other value minerals that were discovered throughout the Rockies. Mining towns sprung up in both the mountains and foothills. Colorado residents may recognize some of these towns, places like Central City, Black Hawk, and of course, Denver.

Establishing settlements wasn't always a simple process. In 1864, hundreds of members of the Colorado Territory Militia attacked and destroyed peaceful villages of Cheyenne and Arapaho living in southeast region of Colorado. Known as the Sand Creek Massacre, this event reveals the violence that marked the process of organizing an American territory in the West.

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, Colorado already had the population and wealth to apply for statehood, and it did. President Andrew Johnson vetoed it. One major problem was the lack of railroads. With the mineral booms slowing down, businesses were starting to leave Denver in favor of cities, like Cheyenne, which were located along major railroad lines. So, the wealthy citizens of Denver pooled their money to finance the Denver Pacific Railroad, connecting Denver to Cheyenne. Finally, in 1876, Colorado was admitted to the Union as the 38th state. The year was the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which gave Colorado its nickname of the Centennial State.

Denver in 1881

Utopian Colorado

Right after Colorado achieved statehood, it had another major silver boom and more and more people poured in. The residents of Colorado were feeling pretty good about themselves, their state's beautiful landscapes, its economic growth and the rising population which now included a far more diverse group than the miners who originally flocked to the region. Colorado started developing something of a reputation as a utopia, or a perfect place to live.

The people of Colorado encouraged this idea and latched onto the latest and most progressive movements in the nation. In the late 19th century this meant women's suffrage, or the right of women to vote. Wyoming was the first state to grant women's suffrage, which it did in 1890 as part of its original state constitution. Colorado, however, wasn't far behind. The nation-wide economic depression of 1893 convinced Coloradoans that a change was needed. Under the rallying cry, They can't do any worse than the men have!, Colorado's male citizens granted women the right to vote by an overwhelming majority on Nov. 7, 1893. Colorado became the second state to grant universal suffrage, and the first to add it into their state constitution by popular vote.

After 1893 they could vote, too

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