(Continued from part one…)
General Larimer’s son, William H. H. Larimer, had been with his father during the founding of Denver. The boy had written of his experiences at the time, cataloguing early memories into a collection of letters and notes inherited by proceeding family members and eventually published.
It was in this assembly I found a softer, more relatable, side to the man who had arrived here in the fall of 1858.
“But on our very first night here, my father, without consulting anyone outside of our own Leavenworth Party, packed his blankets and some provisions, left camp and crossed the Creek to pick out a new site. He left instructions for us to get up the oxen and join him, as he believed the east side of the Creek was much the best location for a town and no one in the country laid claim to it, or if so had abandoned it and left the country. As soon as we could yoke and pack we followed him. In crossing the creek our wagon stuck in the sand and it was with great difficulty that the team finally extricated it. When we finally reached the eastern side of Cherry Creek, we found him near the bank with a camp fire awaiting us. He had four cottonwood poles crossed, which he called the foundation of his settlement and claimed the site for a town,—for the town which has now grown into the one of which Colorado is the proudest. This was early in the morning of Wednesday, November 17, 1858.” (pg. 87, Reminiscences of General William Larimer and of his son William H. H. Larimer, two of the founders of Denver City)
“The Town Company was organized on 22 November and most of the prominent men in the country were made members of it. I was made a member on the Company before I was eighteen years of age and nothing was thought of it and no objection was raised to giving a mere boy such rights. The meetings of the Town Company were held in Auraria in the cabin of Jack Jones and usually in the evenings. There were two or three meetings before they agreed on a name. Several names were suggested and among them “Golden City”: this was the name for at least twentyfour hours. But one evening my father left me in the tent to keep house, while he went to attend a meeting of the Town Company. When he returned to the tent after the meeting he found me writing a letter to my mother. It was a cold night, the ink was freezing on my pen almost before I could get it on the paper. I had already headed my letter with the name “Golden City”, but as soon as he saw it he said: “Will, we have changed the name again and are going to call the town Denver.” I then scratched the “Golden City” out and wrote over it “Denver City.” That was undoubtedly the first letter ever written from Denver, and that night I had been on the town site of Denver as its sole occupant.” (pg. 89, ibid)
Jerome Smiley’s 1901 book, History of Denver, asserts that all the local leaders had decided unanimously on the name Denver at their first meeting on November 17th. But this young man’s account outlines a very different reality, and one not to be overlooked since it might have captured a rare glimpse of the moment of conception of Denver. The night it all started.
I imagined the General’s face illuminated by the light of a smoky campfire, his eyes sparkling with resolve that he had just picked out the perfect place to begin Denver. And then I pictured Larimer Square now, with its strings of white lights, vintage architecture, and charismatic allure. What would he think of his namesake today?
The truth about the General
Reading his letters revealed that General Larimer obtained his title by legitimately, first in 1848 when Governor Johnson appointed him Brigadier-General in Pennsylvania and again in 1852 when he was promoted to Major General of the state militia by Governor Bigler of Pennsylvania.
So, I stand corrected on the Colonel Sanders joke.
The man crossed the plains almost of out necessity when his investments evaporated due to the 1854 business depression that struck the entire country and quickly ate away fortunes. His early letters from Denver reflect lightheartedness at the discovery of the frontier’s beauty. One dated November 19th, 1858, reads:
“The weather reminds me very much of my old Pennsylvania home with less rain and more clear sunshine. Yesterday it was as warm as the middle of May…The learned and scientific men of all countries can find everything combined here, upon these mountains, to amuse and instruct them, from the grizzly bear down through the different objects of attraction combining all the minerals and petrifactions.”
“I often think it is well that the Pilgrims landed upon Plymouth Rock and settled up that country before they saw this, or that would now remain unsettled. I have now spent nearly four years in the great and glorious Western country; but, until now, my longings for the beauties and grandeur of nature as it is had not been satisfied.” (pg. 104, Reminiscences of General William Larimer and of his son William H. H. Larimer, two of the founders of Denver City)
General Larimer’s life was not without hardship, an intrinsic part of being a pioneer, but also unrealized political aspirations both in Pittsburgh and Colorado. Included in those was a snub from President Abraham Lincoln when Larimer petitioned him for formation of the Colorado Territory and governorship thereof. Lincoln passed him up for William Gilpin instead, whose political connections were much more illustrious than those of the General.
A summary from the editor of the letter collection best summarizes the overarching sentiment of the General’s correspondences.
“His letters from the latter part of May, 1855, until 17th February, 1857, are dated from Council Bluff and La Platte. While these letters are full of enthusiasm and hopefulness, they show, nevertheless, that he was still worrying over the financial losses left behind him in Pittsburgh, the inability to collect claims which he had against others, and the defending of himself against unjust charges and unjust claims, which were made against him, in many cases, by others who were so hard pressed with misfortunes that they did not scruple, sometimes, to take undue advantage of those who might be somewhat less unfortunate than themselves.”
“These letters show, moreover, that General Larimer was a man of integrity and scrupulous in his endeavor to meet fairly every indebtedness left behind him, but that he could rise to great heights of indignation against those who were trying to take undue advantage of him.” (pg. 22, Reminiscences of General William Larimer and of his son William H. H. Larimer, two of the founders of Denver City)
The obvious takeaway from the information I uncovered about him is his humanity. Can we can ever definitively judge the character of another person? Did he do wrong by being assertive and molding Denver into what he imagined it to be? Look what he created.
The General’s story leaves more open to interpretation than what we may have learned about him in school. He fascinates me to no end. And I’m appreciative of his contribution to Denver and its lasting impact as a western gateway to the Rockies, not to mention examples of his determination in the face of setback and willingness to start all over again.
Because I’m willing to start all over again with him as many times as necessary, too.
Colorado Encyclopedia. William Larimer, Jr. https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/william-larimer-jr. Retrieved Feb 4, 2018.
History of Denver, with outlines of the earlier history of the Rocky Mountain country. 1901. By Jerome Smiley. Old Americana Pub. Co.
Reminiscences of General William Larimer and of his son William H. H. Larimer, two of the founders of Denver City. 1918. Compiled from letters and from notes written by the late William H. H. Larimer. By Herman S. Davis, Ph.D. Preface, Pages 18-23, 86-89, 100-105, 222-223.