The history of the Denver area is sometimes thought of in broad strokes — before this time there was one of black and white, cowboys and miners, bonnets and butter churns.
But our region was settled by families with thesame hopes and fears we have today.
“When we look to the past and think about what they went through, it reminds us how familiar their experience was to our own,” said Dr. Derek Everett, a Colorado State University history professor. “What motivated a person in Colorado 150 years ago is what people worry about today: family, friends, your job, finding a place to live, opportunities for your children.”
Early Littleton settler Mollie Sanford, a newlywed farm girl from Nebraska, here with her husband Byron, kept an eloquent journal that reveals the similarities across the ages. And by immersing in her words — for a little while — and meeting the people who keep her lifestyle alive today, we can see for ourselves the lives of families who settled the frontier.
“June 26, 1860: The Promised Land is gained and we are in Denver tonight… There are no houses to be had, and hundreds of families are living in wagons, tents, and shelters made of carpets and bedding. I like the looks of the place.”
Mollie arrived a year after Denver was founded at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. People, including families, were steadily arriving in hopes of getting in on the ground floor of a new boomtown.
The telegraph was still three years away, the railroad a decade away.
“They were willing to take a chance,” said Dr. Stephen Leonard, a history professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “People had grown up hearing of settling Indiana or Minnesota. They had an adventuresome spirit.”
But one person’s adventure is another’s nightmare.
“Husbands write about what an exciting adventure this is,” Everett said. “Wives write that they married the stupidest man on the planet, who has dragged them off into the middle of godforsaken nowhere to be murdered or starve to death.”
Down on the farm
Mollie and Byron eventually found themselves in the upper South Platte Valley, among a growing community of farmers and ranchers about where Sheridan is today.
Mollie took to prairie life with good graces.
“June 1, 1861: There can’t be much jealousy, for one is not much better off than others, so there is a feeling of brotherhood with all.”
Life on a prairie farm was monotonous and labor intensive, said Andrea Wilhelm, a historical interpreter at the Littleton Museum, a living history village.
Typical farms of the region were 160 acres, and often had a garden and livestock to provide sustenance, and fields of rye, barley and wheat.
“Someone got up before dawn to milk the cow,” Wilhelm said. “Then a big breakfast before heading out to the fields to work. There was never much down time.”
While men worked the fields, wives’ tasks included laundry, ironing, cooking and cleaning.
On Sundays many people went to church, a rare chance for entertainment and music. Men often congregated on Sunday afternoons at the post office, where all news of the outside world arrived.
Suffer the little children
Life on the frontier was hard on the body.
“September 25, 1861: My little babe was born, a beautiful boy, but he did not stay with us. God took him to his fold, this one pet lamb. When I first looked on his little face, he was in his little coffin, dressed in one of the sweetest robes I had made, into whose stitches I had woven dreams of my angel baby.”
Mollie fell into a bit of a funk after the stillbirth, writing nearly a year later, while pregnant again:
“July 4, 1862: O! but this is the most indolent life I ever led. Were I to write each day’s events, it would be, `Got up. Got breakfast, eat, washed dishes, got dinner, ate again,’ and so on, each succeeding day the same.”
Mollie’s first child was born that fall:
“November 10, 1862: I introduce to these pages my sweet baby boy, my little Bertie… A regular little captain, already giving his orders, with no intention of having them disregarded.”
Little Bertie likely grew up fast, Wilhelm said.
“There wasn’t much of a notion of childhood,” Wilhelm said. “Parents allowed some level of play, but children were learning to sew by age 2 or 3. There were no idle hands. If you were sitting around the fire, you might as well be knitting.”
Families often had five or six kids, and sometimes more than a family could handle. Wilhelm recalled a Western Slope doctor of the period who sent out young assistants with wire to perform abortions.
The influx of settlers displaced the native tribes who had lived in the region for ages prior.
A series of reprisal killings in the summer of 1864 heated relations between settlers and natives to the boiling point.
In June 1864, ranch hand Nathan Hungate, his wife Ellen, and their two daughters were found murdered, scalped and mutilated on a remote ranch near what is today Elizabeth. The Hungates’ bodies were displayed on Larimer Street in Denver, and the story of the murdered family was used to whip up public anger and calls for a final solution to the Indian problem.
In September 1864, Mollie took in three recently recovered settlers who had been held hostage by natives, including a little girl:
“The girl saw her father butchered... She would wake from a sound sleep, and sit up in bed with staring eyes, and go in detail over the whole thing.”
Paranoia ran high in the charged atmosphere, and Mollie writes,
“It was about 11 o’clock that a horseman came tearing up the road, dismounting at our door… he gasped out, knees knocking together, `Run, wimmen! Run for your lives, the Injuns are coming!”
The warning turned out to be a false alarm.
“It turned out people got scared of a cloud of dust they thought was Indians,” Leonard said.
The paranoia culminated in the Sand Creek Massacre, when on Nov. 29, U.S. forces launched a dawn sneak attack on a peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne village, killing upwards of 200, mostly women and children. Ensuing years saw natives pushed back to the margins, herded onto barren reservations.
Not so wild west
Mollie had a second child in 1866, introducing “my baby girl, a dimpled, blue-eyed, brown-haired darling. We call her `Dora Bell,’ and although hard times are with us, and troubles surround us, we are happy.”
With the arrival of the first locomotive in Denver in 1870 came an era of explosive growth. Denver’s population in 1870 was virtually unchanged from when Mollie arrived 10 years earlier, but in the decade following the train’s arrival, the city swelled by almost 650 percent. Telephones, streetcars, opera houses, churches and hotels transformed the city. The rough frontier Mollie and her family settled was fading into memory.
The young lady who watched the rugged West go tame died at age 76 in 1915, only a few months after her husband.
She closes her journal:
“I pray for grace, patience, and judgment, and for long and useful lives for us all.”