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Colorado: The Mysterious Anasazi

A state of extremes.

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Colorado is sometimes referred to as the “Centennial State” in honor of the one-hundredth year of the Declaration of Independence and the date it was admitted into the Union as the 38th state on November 7, 1876. Like many of the country’s states, Colorado has a long history that began with indigenous people inhabiting the land, then the influx of the Europeans and the discovery of gold, to what it is today.

The Ancient Anasazi

Thousands of years ago, the Basket Makers, as the natives were called, lived in the southwestern area of Colorado. They were well-known for their basket weaving, which gave them their nickname. Their culture developed into the Anasazi (“ancient ones”) around AD 500. These people made amazing adobe (earth or mud) houses that were sometimes built into the sides of cliffs. The buildings had many rooms and could hold entire communities. Some believe the Anasazi made their homes in the sides of cliffs to keep them safe from dangerous creatures.

Over time, the Anasazi disappeared, and other Native tribes began living in the territory. In the eastern plains, there were the Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Comanche, who hunted buffalo and lived in tepees. In the western mountains lived the Ute, who were hunter-gatherers and warriors. They lived in dome-shaped, brush-covered homes known as wickiups.

European Explorers

Around 1540-41, the Spanish explorer Francisco Vazquez de Coronado led an expedition from Mexico. He was in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, where the streets were thought to be paved with gold. When he didn’t find the city, he left the area and it wasn’t until 1682 that other explorers arrived. Frenchman Robert de La Salle entered what is now eastern Colorado and claimed the land for France.

In 1803, the United States bought eastern Colorado from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase. In 1806, American explorer Zebulon Pike traveled the area, following the Arkansas River, and discovered an extremely high mountain that later took his name as Pikes Peak.

The first settlers started arriving in the early 1800s. They were mostly fur traders and trappers, but after the Santa Fe Trail opened up between Missouri and New Mexico, cutting through southeast Colorado, many more people moved there. Fort Bent was established as a trading post in 1833 and became the first permanent settlement in Colorado.

In 1848, the Mexican-American war ended and the United States gained control of the western part of the state. Ten years later, gold was discovered near Pikes Peak, bringing even more people to the area. Thousands of gold-seekers rushed to Colorado with the motto “Pikes Peak or Bust.”

Contested Land

In 1851, the Fort Laramie Treaty provided some Native Americans tribes with ownership of land north of the Arkansas River to the Nebraska border. However, with so many flocking to the area in search of gold, the land became contested. On February 8, 1861, Arapahoe leaders and Chief Black Kettle, head of the Cheyenne delegation, made another deal with the federal government that saw them lose much of their land, only retaining a 600-square mile reservation with yearly payments. Known as the Treaty of Fort Wise, this arrangement did not last. In 1864, Black Kettle moved his tribe once again, to Fort Lyon, where he was encouraged to hunt near Sand Creek.

Colonel John Chivington led the Colorado volunteer infantry at Sand Creek. He and his men on November 29, 1864, attacked Black Kettle’s people, killing 148, half of whom were women and children. The volunteers returned to kill the wounded and then set fire to the village in what today is called the Sand Creek Massacre.

Black Kettle survived, and eventually, Native Americans were removed to reservations as the state’s population continued to grow and develop.

Interesting Facts

  • On July 4th, 1869, the world’s first rodeo was held at Deer Trail.
  • Rocky Ford is the “melon capital of the world.”
  • Glenwood Springs is home to the world’s biggest natural hot spring pool.
  • Colorado had three governors in a single day, on March 17, 1905: Alva Adams who resigned, James H. Peabody who took the job on the condition that he resign immediately, and Jesse F. McDonald who kept the position.
  • Colorado has several of the most extreme locations in the U.S.: The longest street, the highest suspension bridge, the highest paved road, the highest railway train, and the tallest sand dune.
Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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