The History of the Pitkin County, Colorado Area
The Aspen area was originally discovered by the Ute Indians and called “Shining Mountains”. Before 1879, when the first mining prospectors arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley, the area had been used by and was home to the Ute Indians for over 800 years.
On August 1, 1876, Colorado became the 38th state. Many of the Ute Indians left the Aspen area in 1881. The first silver miners arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley in the summer of 1879 and by that fall a small group of entrepreneurs and speculators had staked claims and set up camp at the foot of Aspen Mountain. Prospectors settled in Aspen hoping to strike it rich in silver.
Not far away, Colorow (pictured on the right) was one of several leaders of a small, unsophisticated splinter group of Utes in Northwestern Colorado, called the White River Band. In the spring of 1879, Colorow’s followers were pressured by local Indian agent, Nathan Cook Meeker, to plant a field of garden crops in a field they had traditionally used to graze their horses. In anger, one of the Utes confronted Meeker overreacted and sent telegrams to Gov. Pitkin, residing 200 miles away in Denver, requesting troops were sent for his protection.. The army, lulled by general peace on the frontier, and anxious to give its men some “field experience,” sent two companies of cavalry and one mounted infantry, (about 200 men) from Wyoming’s Fort Rawlins with specific instructions that the Utes not be molested. The Utes, however, clearly remembering the massacre at Sand Creek 15 years earlier, panicked. Many moved to new camps or fled the area. But, in the ensuing confusion, a shot was fired beginning events, which would end in the grizzly death of Meeker and all other agency employees. In addition, the Utes abducted 2 women, including Meeker’s wife, and 2 children.
Back in town, previously called Ute City (now Aspen), before a permanent settlement could be established. When news of the nearby “Meeker Massacre” arrived, Colorado’s Governor Frederick Pitkin urged the settlers to flee back across the Continental Divide to the safety of Leadville. Most of them followed the Governor’s orders, and only a handful of settlers remained in the Roaring Fork Valley during the winter of 1879. Those that remained attempted to organize the camp and passed a resolution to respect the claims of those who had fled, as well as the claims of those settlers who had chosen to stay. This action transformed the small group of settlers into a “sovereign” body in the eyes of the State of Colorado and recognized that the rules of local mining districts under the federal mining law of 1866 were to be followed. The citizens then began the process of organizing themselves into a political body.
First called Ute City, the town of 300 residents, was renamed Aspen in 1880 due to the abundance of Aspen trees surrounding the area. By 1891 Aspen had surpassed Leadville as the nation’s largest single silver producing mining district. Around the year 1893, Aspen was a booming silver town with 12,000 people, six newspapers, two railroads, four schools, three banks, electric lights, a modern hospital, two theaters, an opera house, and a very small brothel district. In 1893 however, the Sherman Silver Act was repealed demonetized silver and marked Aspen’s decline as a mining town.
Known as the “Panic of 1893,” it led to a collapse in the silver market, and the city began a half-century called “the quiet years,” during which its population steadily declined, reaching a nadir of less than a thousand by 1930. Aspen’s fortunes reversed in the mid-20th century when neighboring Aspen Mountain was developed into a ski resort. Industrialist Walter Paepcke bought many properties in the city and redeveloped them. “Today, it is home to three renowned institutions, two of which Paepcke helped found, that hold international importance: the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Aspen Institute, and the Aspen Center for Physics.