William Gilpin — Colorado’s ‘peculiar’ first governor

This article first appeared in the Broomfield Enterprise (1/20/08).

Back in the day when we were part of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories, several visionaries worked very hard to make this region a territory. Some were fervent believers in Manifest Destiny — the idea that the United States was destined to extend all the way to the Pacific. Others just thought it would be pleasant to become a governor or a senator and needed a platform to make it happen.

One of the most colorful and idealistic characters, and the fellow who became first Governor of Colorado Territory, was William Gilpin.

William Gilpin

Gilpin was described this way by early pioneer, Nathaniel Hill: “Gov. G. knows almost everything, but he is the most impractical man I ever knew. When driving, he talks incessantly. Part of the time I think he is talking to me, part of the time to [his ponies] Toby and Fanny. The rest is soliloquy.” ― Nathaniel P. Hill to his wife, 23 June 1864 (The Colorado Magazine, Oct 1956.) William Byers, editor of the Rocky Mountain News, simply stated that Gilpin was a “very peculiar man.”

Gilpin was an East Coast Quaker and lawyer whose connection with the west blossomed in 1843 when he ran into the famous explorer and exponent of Manifest Destiny, John C. Fremont, on the Santa Fe trail. He joined Fremont’s expedition and they traveled through Colorado together. During this journey, Gilpin became convinced there was gold to be had in Colorado ― though Fremont and most others were focused on California.

In 1859, during the Pikes Peak gold rush, Gilpin wrote a book called “The Central Gold Region.” He predicted that Denver would become the capital of the new center of western civilization, and that they should build a railroad north to Alaska and across the Bering Strait to Siberia.

In 1861, Gilpin’s alignment with the Republican party (Lincoln’s party) brought him the appointment by Lincoln as governor of the newly formed Colorado Territory. Almost all military personnel were back east fighting the Civil War and Gilpin was worried about the local tribes, who were getting a bit more cynical and hostile by then. Gilpin solicited for a volunteer army and simply printed up a fresh batch of “scrip” (a substitute for currency) to pay for it. He assumed the Feds would honor the scrip later on, a faulty assumption that caused him much grief over the next year.

These volunteers were referred to as “Gilpin’s Pet Lambs,” though they came in handy in 1862 when a Confederate force out of Texas made a move toward the Central City gold fields by way of New Mexico. The “Battle of Glorieta Pass”, which made a hero out of John Chivington (of later Sand Creek Massacre notoriety), routed the rebels and secured Colorado Territory on the Union side.

Despite this victory, Gilpin had lost the confidence of just about everyone who mattered, and Lincoln tossed him out in 1862. In 1894, Gilpin was run over by a horse and buggy and killed. Gilpin County (home of Central City and Black Hawk) was named after him.

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4 thoughts on “William Gilpin — Colorado’s ‘peculiar’ first governor

  1. This is a very informative article however, there is one inaccuracy. The statement:
    “Despite this victory, Gilpin had lost the confidence of just about everyone who mattered, and Lincoln tossed him out in 1862.” – – implies that Gilpin was removed from office after the Battle of Glorieta Pass, but despite that victory he was removed from office anyway. That is not the case. Gilpin stepped down as governor of Colorado Territory on March 26, 1862 and John Evans was sworn in as Gilpin’s replacement that same day. The Battle of Glorieta Pass began on March 26, 1862 (the same day Gilpin stepped down and Evans took over), however, the Union did not achieve victory until the final day of the battle March 28th two days after Gilpin left office. Had the Battle of Glorieta Pass been won by the Union Army before March 26, 1862, there is a very good chance Gilpin would have remained governor of Colorado Territory because of the victory’s strategic importance and notoriety. As it turned out, Gilpin was exonerated and the bogus Treasury Notes he printed were honored by the U.S. Treasury.

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