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Fortune Seekers

It was not mineral wealth that originally brought Americans from the East to the Rocky Mountains in the early 1800s; it was a demand for hats made of beaver fur. Pelts brought $5.99 a pound in Philadelphia in the early 1830s, a period that saw at least 500 trappers, those whom contemporary society refers to as the mountain men, plying their trade in the Rockies. The 1830s also saw several trading posts established on the Arkansas and South Platte Rivers to cater to the trade in beaver furs and a growing trade with the Indians for buffalo robes. A shift in fashion to silk hats and falling prices for beaver pelts led most mountain men to look for other occupations by the 1840s, but the commerce in buffalo robes flourished.

Business was also booming to the south. Just a few months after Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, a party of six Missourians arrived in Santa Fe, the first Americans to enter the royal city without risk of imprisonment. Tied to their horses were a few packs of goods which they sold at an enormous profit. For the next several decades, wagon caravans drawn by mules and oxen would annually travel what became known as the Santa Fe Trail, carrying cloth and other manufactured items to New Mexico and beyond and bringing back Mexican silver in return.

After gold was discovered in Colorado in 1858, a different breed of fortune seeker flooded to that portion of the Front Range loosely referred to as the Pike’s Peak gold regions. Most came to dig for the valuable metal; others came to make profits off the diggers. When gold was found in South Park in 1859, the town of Colorado City sprang up on Fountain Creek, its businessmen intent on supplying those gold seekers using the Ute Pass route to the Park. Denver City and Auraria had already been established the previous year.

While few found their fortunes in the diggings, many discovered that they could make a living here. Various crops could be grown along stream valleys, and the native Grama and Buffalo grasses were ideal for ranching. The arrival of the railroad in Colorado Territory in 1870 gave these settlers access to distant markets. It also brought more fortune seekers, homesteaders, and a spurt of town building along the tracks.