Edward Wynkoop — an early believer in Denver humbug

This article first appeared in the Broomfield Enterprise (5/18/08).

Colorado has battled a boom and bust curse throughout its history, and its early days were no exception. In 1859, wild rumors spread throughout the East that western travelers had discovered a new Eldorado in the Pikes Peak region. By the tens of thousands, eager men struck out for the mountains, thinking they would soon be plucking potato-sized gold nuggets from alpine streams.

The Broomfield area, which later produced plenty of coal, was largely ignored during this initial onslaught. Not that they didn’t try — one early pioneer by the name of Anselm Barker claimed credit for his group in the naming of Rock Creek, which, impressively enough, was so christened because of its numerous rocks. Apparently lots of rocks but no gold.

Anselm Barker's cabin on Wynkoop Street

The rumors of gold might have inspired fantasies of easy riches, but getting to it was another story. Many were duped into taking a “short cut” called the Smoky Hill route, which turned out to be much longer than its proponents claimed. Stories of misery, death and cannibalism flourished along that trail.

One well-known pioneer, Edward Wynkoop, arrived in 1858 on the banks of Cherry Creek. A brash young man with a better-than-average education, he almost immediately signed up to return to Kansas in order to file a charter for the new Denver City. During this journey, which followed the Platte river along a northern route into Nebraska, Wynkoop nearly lost his feet to frostbite, then had his wagon and mules fall through winter ice into the Platte.

Portrait of Wynkoop, taken by his father-in-law, George Wakely

When he finally made it to Omaha, as a man of good taste, he headed straight for the town’s premier hotel, the Herndon. He later wrote, “…[A]s we walked into the Herndon House, I saw my full figure displayed in the mirror; and I must confess it was as horrible a looking specimen of humanity as ever I gazed upon; dressed in buckskin from head to foot, an otter skin cap and Indian moccasins; long matted hair falling below the shoulders; unshaven and dirty face; belt around the waist with Pistols and Bowie Knife attached.”

By the time he began the trek back to Cherry Creek a few months later, many gold-seekers had discovered that “Pikes Peak” was more humbug than Eldorado. “[T]he stampedes came pouring back like a routed army, much suffering ensued and many were starved to death; we met them every day…many curses loud and deep were leveled at the heads of those who were accused of bringing in false reports.”

Unfortunately for Wynkoop, he was recognized by an “infuriated mob” as one of the rogues who had contributed to those false reports and he “came near becoming a victim of lynch law.” Wynkoop was a charismatic and clever fellow, however, and he managed to talk his way out of the noose. It helped that he was heading west and not east, showing that, if nothing else, he believed his own humbug. (Source: Edward W. Wynkoop, “Unfinished Autobiography.”)

To read more about Edward Wynkoop, see Forgotten Heroes and Villains of Sand Creek (June 11, 2010) by Carol Turner from The History Press.

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