I think everybody liked Robert Williamson Steele. Every one who knew him speaks in glowing terms; he was genial, honest, an entrepreneur, a good neighbor and a true friend. Maybe he was a little distracted by his pursuit of money, but that's no sin in America. Then, in 1860, with the Civil War building to a roiling boil, “J.W.” presented the Federal government with a ready-made, right-out-of-the-box, pro-union local government to smooth passage of the gold rich Colorado territory into the federal union. And his fellow politicians turned him down flat. For some reason they just didn't trust “JW”. And that was only partly because he was a Democrat.
See, in the 1850's there were only two kinds of Democrats, southerners willing to go to war to protect slavery and northerners who were willing to make any compromise to keep southern Democrats happy. The leader of the latter group was Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who shepherded the Compromise of 1850 through Congress - protecting slavery but keeping it south of the Kansas border. And then four years later Douglas flip-flopped with his Kansas-Nebraska act, which let the locals decide the issue of slavery. His spin was “Let the people rule”, but the effect was to allow slavery supporters to drag their grievances north, across the Kansas border, where they barged into abolitionists. This intimate mixing of political ideologies set off “Bleeding Kansas” where neighbors like John Brown began settling political arguments by literally beheading their opponents. That was the real start of the American Civil War; not at Fort Sumter in 1861, but in Kansas in 1855. And, surprisingly, if anybody had taken notice, a practical solution to the political anarchy unleashed by Senator Douglas had appeared in July of 1858.
William Greenberry Russell was a Georgia peach who was a “49'er”. He had been fairly successful in the California gold fields, running other people's claims. But he really struck gold with his in-laws. His wife, Susan Willis Russel, was 1/8 Cherokee, and that side of her family had been forced marched across the Mississippi River in the infamous Trail of Tears, back when Kansas and Nebraska were supposed to be the new “Indian Territory”- like Indiana before them and Oklahoma afterward. Separate but equal has never worked in America, not for Indians, not for blacks, not for women and not for gays.
Anyway, Susan's Cherokee relatives wrote her about rumors of gold in the Rocky Mountain foothills. Looking to make his own fortune, Russel immediately rushed To Denver. One early July day he panned 20 ounces of gold out of Cherry Creek, a tributary of the South Platte River. And news of that one day bonanza was like opening a safety valve on an overheated steam engine. Overnight, violence levels across Kansas dropped as the most adventurous (meaning the most violent) young males packed up all their excess energy and marched 300 miles westward toward the 14,000 foot high Pikes Peak. They weren't actually going to Pike's Peak, but it was the most visible bit of the Rocky mountains as you crossed the rolling prairies; thus “Pike's Peak or Bust”.
Over the first two years of the Pike's Peak gold rush, one hundred thousand abolitionists and pro-slavery men came pouring out of Kansas and Nebraska. You might have expected a repeat of Bleeding Kansas in the gold fields. In 1860 a Kansas newspaper noted that “It is difficult...to walk half a square (mile) in Denver, without meeting some familiar face...” So the “59'ers” were the same folks who had been shooting each other back in Kansas in '58. Oh, they were still shooting each other in the gold fields, just not over slavery. Now it was over failed business deals and cheating at cards. In fact, it seems that all these violent people were suddenly no longer interested in politics. Greed had changed the political ethos.
The two largest towns in the region sat right atop the gold fields. One, Auraria, even adopted the Latin word for gold as its name. But the other was named to curry the favor of the governor of Kansas Territory, James W. Denver. See, the gold fields were part of the huge Arapahoe County, Kansas Territory, and the residents of the town of Denver were hoping for win favorable treatment over Auraria.. But by the time the town of Denver had adopted its new name, Governor Denver was out of office, and the toadying to him did them no good. So Denver the town returned the favor. They kept the name, but when the ex-governor visited his namesake, the residents largely ignored him. And that would prove the new reoccurring theme in Colorado politics.
Being ignored by territorial officials in distant Kansas, on 5 September, 1859, the citizens of Denver and Auraria voted to form their own government, which they labeled the Provisional Government of Jefferson Territory. They laid claim to a huge expanse of plains and mountains, almost as big as California or Texas. The genial Robert Williamson Steele, a lawyer out of Chillicothe, Ohio was elected Governor. Not yet forty, his sole qualification was that he was genial and had served a single term in the Nebraska Territorial legislature before catching gold fever. The prickly Pennsylvanian born lawyer, Lucien W. Bliss, was elected Lieutenant Governor. He had sought his fortune in Leavenworth, Kansas, but had moved on to Denver where he helped start the Rocky Mountain News, and a couple of freight lines. And they were typical of pretty much everybody in the the self proclaimed Territory.
Everybody in Jefferson who wasn't actually mining gold, was trying anything they could to make money off those who were. Governor “J.W.” even started a town in the foothills 12 miles west of Denver, which he called Mount Vernon.(He had a Tea Party 'thing' about the founding fathers). He sold town lots, and built toll roads heading to the new mines further up-slope. Lt. Governor Bliss started a couple of freight lines of his own, hauling equipment, food and fuel into the mines, and carrying the ore out. All of the men elected to the Jefferson Territorial legislature were only part time politicians, often business partners with their political allies and enemies. Even the judges appointed had to fit court sessions into their busy schedules - one of them never did show up for work. And Oscar Totten had been elected clerk of the Supreme Court because nobody else wanted the job.
The whole rickety structure survived for only 16 months. You see, most of the residents of Jefferson Territory, like their political leaders, saw themselves as entrepreneurs first. And being businessmen they hated to pay taxes. So, they supported their new government with a one dollar poll tax. But the natural response from all these entrepreneurs when faced with a tax on voting, was to not vote, and thus not pay the tax. This left the Provisional Government of Jefferson Territory on a very shaky financial and political foundation, made worse by the rickety nature of any business on the frontier.
Of the 100,000 who had joined the Pikes Peak gold rush, seven out of ten went bust and headed back home. The 1860 census of “Jefferson Territory” could find only 25,329, still looking for their Eldorado. Governor “J.W.” argued that many had gone uncounted because they were working isolated claims up in the hills. But being isolated, said the census takers, meant they were not interested in being counted, and so, they should not count. And the evidence was in the ballot box. The vote to create the Provisional Government of Jefferson Territory had been 1,852 to 280 – barely 2,000 participating citizens out of the supposed 25,000 - not what you would call a “popular” election. Certainly Washington didn't call it that.
After their request for recognition had been rebuffed by Washington, in August of 1860 “J.W.” asked Kansas Territory to absorb Jefferson Territory and its power structure, meaning himself and all those other entrepreneurs. Kansas didn't say no, but they didn't say yes, either. They just waited. In November of 1860, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois won election as President of the United States, sweeping the Republican party into power. They were made stronger when most of the southern Democrats walked out, to form the Confederacy. On 29 January, 1861, the new Republican Congress voted to admit the state of Kansas into the union, as a free state, sans the territory claimed as Jefferson. One month later, on 26 February, 1861, the Republican congress created the Territory of Colorado, ignoring the Provisional Government of Jefferson Territory to death. A month later the rebels in Charleston, South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter, and the civil war began in earnest.
On 3 June, 1861, Stephen Douglas died in Chicago, of typhoid fever. Three days later “J.W.” admitted reality, declaring the Provisional Government of Jefferson Territory disbanded. It had lasted barely 16 months. And even before it was gone, nobody missed it, not even its leaders. Lt. Governor Lucien Bliss eventually sold his businesses at a profit, and moved on to Montana, where he repeated his success. But Robert Williamson Steele, like most early entrepreneurs in Colorado, was not quite as successful.
His toll roads closed when the mines they served ran out in the early 1860's. His town of Mount Vernon died shortly thereafter. Today, the only thing to mark its existence is an abandoned cemetery and a roadside plaque. “J.W.” fell back on the law to make a living, but he kept prospecting in his spare time. He lived a long and a productive life, and everybody liked him, right up to his death in Colorado Springs in 1901.
And I suppose if you believed lives can teach lessons, you should remember that genial makes for a good politician, but it ain’t enough to make a viable government - and neither do entrepreneurs. Good government requires shared sacrifice and commitment. And people infected with gold fever aren't interested in sharing anything.