North Denver History: Those Who Came Before

By Rebecca Hunt

Hello there, I am Rebecca Hunt, a resident of Highlands since 1993.

A native of Casper, Wyoming, my family and I arrived in Denver in 1985 after a number of years working in museums around the U.S. Just as we arrived, the economy went into recession. That, plus a dare from my husband, Geoffrey, led me to apply to the history PhD. program at CU Boulder.

Rebecca Hunt

When they accepted me, I persevered and got my degree. My dissertation studied identity and community on the Northside and in Globeville. I have been studying and writing on our section of Denver ever since.

After graduate school, I taught at Metropolitan State College of Denver for six years and at CU Denver until I retired on June 1, 2020. I taught U.S., Colorado, and Denver history; women’s history; and immigration and ethnicity; and I trained students to work in history museums and do community history.

Geoffrey Hunt is also a retired history professor having taught at Community College of Aurora. We are still active historians working with museums and working on writing projects. I just wrapped up my fifth book, and I am finally turning my dusty dissertation into a book on the Northside.

One of my inspirations was Dennis Gallagher, beginning when I worked on his 1986 mayoral campaign. At one point he was our cross-street neighbor. He was a friend and someone whose historical writing I thoroughly admired and enjoyed.
Now, as I begin my new role as columnist, I know that I am stepping into big shoes. I will present new stories in different ways than Dennis might have, but I hope to give you new ways of seeing North Denver.

Those who came before

This month’s article will look at the people who were here before the Europeans. This is the beginning of a series where I intend to weave stories about the long history of the Northside. I am using this approach because so many of our neighbors are new residents who likely do not know much about our story.

We acknowledge that the land currently known as Colorado has been the traditional homeland of Indigenous peoples for many centuries. Over time, 48 tribes lived in and passed through Colorado. Those who were in our area were the Cheyennes, Arapahos, Shoshonis, Comanches, and Utes, with other tribes passing through on the way to and from their own traditional lands. In the nineteenth century, some of this land became Northwest Denver.

Beginning about 13,000 years ago, indigenous people of Colorado were nomadic. They hunted and gathered, and some, like the Cheyennes, also farmed, growing corn, beans, and squash. To survive, they located areas that had water, wood, shelter, and the plants and animals they depended on.

They moved seasonally, ranging across the plains, foothills, and into the mountains. The confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek was an important stopping place, especially in the winter. Before Europeans brought horses, these early humans walked everywhere they went.

They lived in hide and brush wickiups that were shaped somewhat like modern camping tents. Suitcases were leather bags and folding boxes carried by women, children, and dogs.

And yes, just like today, these people had pet dogs, all of which worked for a living. Most were brown or yellow and were about the size of a golden retriever. The main trails from the east followed Cherry Creek and north/south trails followed the South Platte. Another trail left the Platte going in a northwesterly direction along what is now Speer Boulevard.

Speer follows the original trail, going through the grounds of present-day North High School and then heading for the foothills through what are now the West Highland, Grandview, and Berkeley neighborhoods. Both Rocky Mountain and Berkeley Lakes were buffalo wallows so there were usually bison in the area that could be hunted.

A Bannock wickiup photographed in 1871. Photo courtesy of the Yellowstone National Park Photo Collection

Hunters used spears until about 1,000 years ago, then bows became the most common weapon. The points were stone, collected in the hills and carefully chipped by the men. Women also used stone, bone, and wood tools to do their daily work of processing food and working hides for clothing and shelter.

Archeologists increasingly credit women with chipping their own knife blades and hand scrapers. Decoration on clothing was plant and earth-based paints and dyed porcupine quills. Foods were eaten raw or were roasted or boiled in a bison stomach.

Although modern Northsiders think our urban gardening is something new, these early residents gathered many native plants to supplement their diet. Wild plums grew near the water. Mixed with dried meat and fat, the pemmican made long-lasting, high protein food for their journeys.

Other protein sources were fish and crayfish, rabbits, turkeys, geese and other small game. Plants included wild onions, many varieties of berries, and roots like tipsina or prairie turnip.

Early indigenous people adapted to the different ecosystems they encountered in their travels. They made the most of what resources they had. This meant that when they encountered new and sometimes better foods, materials, and tools, they added them to their lives.

There was a lot of indigenous trade, and they continued trading when they met Europeans. Some of the interactions were useful, although many were harmful. That will be the topic of my next column.



  1. Legend has it that my great-grand owned the land where Union Station stands. And an “Indian” stole grandma’s hat, so she made him sell the land to the railroad and move back to Trinidad! LoL 😉

  2. Rebecca, I was disappointed to see that your column wasn’t in this month’s Northstar, because I appreciate your approach of starting our history at the beginning and wanted to see your second installment. And I truly hope at some point, you’ll write a short history of my neighborhood, Jefferson Park!

  3. I was wondering if I could get a copy of the Northside History about the Irish in the Highlands in your Dec. 13, 2022 edition. I mistakenly threw it out and would like a copy if possible.

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