Published May 11, 2017 in the Weekly Register-Call
To the Pike’s Peak Country in 1859 – Part II
My expectations as to the outward appearance of these two towns (Denver City and Auraria), which as it is undoubtedly well known to your readers, are situated immediately opposite each other, on both banks and right at the mouth of Cherry Creek and the South Platte, not being very high flung, I felt no disappointment when the clusters of log cabins, intermixed at intervals with frame structures and Indian lodges, rose upon my vision. Were it not for the beauty of the location and the surrounding country, these two much talked of towns would, indeed, be sorry places. Each of them numbers from 100 to 150 structures of the already described kind, at least one-half of which are, however, at the present moment either half-finished or vacated. They are, almost without exception, floor, ceiling, windowless. Lumber is so very high ($100 per 1,000 feet) that but few can afford the luxury of a regular floor. The absence of the ceiling is explained by the same reason, and the window glass has reached this quarter of the world in but insignificant quantities. In its stead canvas is used, which renders it necessary to keep the doors open during daytime in order to procure a sufficiency of light. Canvas and dirt are generally used for roofing purposes.
Both Denver City and Auraria are regularly laid out. Rectangular streets and squares form their respective areas. The former place is located partly on a bluff-like ridge, extending from the right bank of Cherry Creek in a northeasterly direction, and partly in the bottom bordered by the same ridge. The site of Auraria, on the contrary, consists of nothing but bottomland. The western city boundary is the South Platte, the eastern Cherry Creek. The former runs toward the latter in a northeastern direction, thereby giving the northern part of the city area an angular appearance.
Both towns contain a number of one-horse stores, the aggregate stocks of which would hardly fill a third-class Western Row grocery; one or two abortive hotels, whose guests are obliged to repose on bare ground, a number of whiskey dens that strongly indicate a precocity, as far as the spiritual wants of the inhabitants are concerned; and the inevitable appendages of border towns in the shape of legal, medical and land offices. In one of my succeeding letters I will endeavor to give you the results of my peepings into the inner life of these original localities. For the present I shall confine myself to generalities.
The population of the towns is made up of elements of the most heterogeneous character. Indians of several tribes, Mexicans, mountaineers in buckskin, gold-hunters in flannel, blacklegs with stove-pipes, can be seen about here. The number of actual residents has, however, become greatly reduced, in consequence of cause that I will mention hereafter.
The most attractive feature in this and (the) adjoining town is the beautiful mountain scenery, which one has constantly in view. When the eye becomes weary with the wretched appearance of the improvements in both towns, it needs but turn upon the towering peaks, their eternal snows and dark green pine dress, and new life will at once be felt. From Cherry Creek to the foot of the mountains, it is but a few miles of a mountain tour, is spoken of by all as paying for the journey across the plains alone.
When I left the Missouri River at least ten thousand had already left and were leaving from the various river towns for this reputed Eldorado. I supposed myself justified in the belief that upon arriving here I could find many thousands of people breathing in and about these two towns. But on the day I made my advent I am satisfied there were not over five hundred individuals to be found within the limits of both places. On the one hand, the gold washing on Cherry Creek—which I am strongly inclined to believe was never carried on except in the letters of some interested newspaper correspondents—was no longer thought of, and everybody that had the means to go had struck for the mountains; and on the other, a good many gold-hunters that had arrived here with the expectation of making an instantaneous plunge into a rich harvest out of Cherry Creek, easily found themselves most refreshingly mistaken, had become chopfallen and taken the back track towards the States after a stay but a few days. I am reliably informed that several hundred of that class have become guilty of such folly, and also that they succeeded in producing panic among those that they met on their way back moving hitherwards, in consequence of which thousands are returning without having seen the “elephant.”
Much misery has been and is experienced by many in crossing the plains, and upon coming here. The hand-cart and footing gentry had and have to pass through indescribable sufferings. Most of them started with an entirely insufficient stock of provisions, and if not starved before arriving, found themselves without the least particle of food upon coming in sight of the land and water of hope. As money is also a scarce article among most of them, starvation is their lot, from which to escape they resort to all possible means. Every morning the rapidly articulating voice of a backwoods auctioneer may be heard exerting his eloquence to the utmost in the attempt to find buyers for articles of outfit belonging to fundless gold-hunters. Whole and tattered garments, picks, shovels, hand-carts, etc., can be bought in any quantities, at mere nominal prices. Thus I was offered a good steel pick and shovel for twenty-five cents this morning. A handcart was sold in my presence for thirty-five cents. As a general thing everything, with the exception of provisions, can be bought at half the money it would cost in the States. A number are building skiffs to go down the Platte, which is at present very high and swift, in consequence of the melting of the mountain snows. This is, however, a rather perilous undertaking. A good many poor devils that landed here without anything either to eat or sell, are at present hanging about the doors of those who are better provided with the necessaries of life, begging in the most pitiful terms for something to subsist on.
What it takes to live on in this section of the country you may conceive an idea of when I tell you that bacon sells at 50 to 75 cents a pound, coffee and sugar at 50c, flour at from 15c to 18c, New Mexico onions 25c apiece, molasses $5 per gallon, and everything else in proportion. Fresh meat, however, particularly game, is cheaper here than in the States. Any quantity of antelope, mountain sheep and elk can be bought from white and copper-skinned hunters at very reasonable rates. The provisions now here have mostly been brought from New Mexico. Some domestic animals, such as a few grunters and majestic Shanghais, have also been imported from that latitude. Several milch cows have lately arrived from the States.
“To the Pike’s Peak Country in 1859 and Cannibalism on the Smoky Hill Route” by Henry Villard, Colorado Magazine, V.8, November 1931