By Rebecca Hunt
By the early 1800s, Euro-American trappers and traders came to Colorado from the north and east. They were trapping beavers to feed a fashion for fancy beaver felt hats.
By the late 1820s, trappers had killed most of the beavers just as the beaver hat fad ended. Then some of the trappers turned to dealing in bison robes. They established posts along the South Platte where they traded with the tribes who gave bison hides in exchange for cloth, beads, knives, and other trade goods.
Some of these Euro-Americans intermarried with the Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes and settled along the Platte, with many settling near Cherry Creek. They and their mixed ancestry families were the first to greet the early 1850s gold seekers when they passed up the old trail through the Northside on their way to California. And they were here when thousands of gold seekers, in 1858 and 1859, came to the region, hoping to get rich quick.
The new migrants established three towns called Auraria, Denver, and Highland, which the tribes saw as a new threat to their regional dominance and indeed, to their very survival. The Euro-Americans, who came with pre-established prejudices against the indigenous people, soon began to drive them from their long-held lands, remaking their trails and campgrounds into emigrant roads and small towns.
In 1867, with the Treaty of Fort Wise, the tribes of the area surrendered their ownership of the land upon which Denver stood. But for a few years, they still came to trade. Auraria, the first mining town, was settled by gold seekers from Georgia, and dated from the summer of 1858.
In addition to homes, it had hotels, bars, saloons, and stores selling tools to greenhorn miners. There was also a school and a newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News. Denver City, just across Cherry Creek, was founded by land speculators from Kansas and named after Kansas Governor James Denver.
It soon competed with Auraria for dominance. At first, the Platte was a barrier for those who were on their way into the ore-rich mountains. Enterprising entrepreneurs crafted log ferries to move horses and wagons across the river.
One was where the 15th Street bridge now stands. Quickly, land rather than gold became a motivator for town building. In winter of 1858, Denver City founder William Larimer and his friend David C. Collier crossed the Platte and claimed the west side, up the hill, for themselves to develop.
They christened the area Highland and began planning and naming streets and blocks. The bulk of what they claimed is what we now call Lower Highland. In Fall of 1858, the town fathers of the three communities named their city Denver, Auraria, and Highland.
That lasted about a month before they renamed the whole area Denver, but Highland remained on the map for years, a town on paper if not in reality. At first only a few hardy souls embraced the west bank community. The quote below shows the hope, or lack thereof, that early speculators had for the Northside.
Dr. Levi Russell, a founder of Auraria gave this description of early Highland: “The City of Highland, or the Highland Town Company, across the Platte, was organized in the summer or early fall of 1859. Henry Allen, W.M. Slaughter, W.D. Mc- Lain, myself, and some dozen or two others constituted the company. We did not attempt to incorporate it. Some portion, if not all, of the site was surveyed and staked off, and a “claim” was filed, or was to be filed, in the Kansas Land Office, but whether we heard from it or not I do not now recall. We didn’t count much on Highland at the time.”
Things would begin to change when, in 1860, Thomas Bayaud completed the 15th Street Bridge across the Platte. But even then, it would take Highland a while to get past the planning stages. Next month, early North Denver and Highland.
Dr. Rebecca A. Hunt has been a Denver resident since 1985 and a resident of the Northside since 1993. She worked in museums and then taught Colorado, Denver and immigration history at the University of Colorado Denver until she retired in 2020.