Everything I Believed About General Larimer Was Wrong and Here’s Why

My celebrity crush is a man who has been dead for nearly 143 years. But it wasn’t love at first sight. I didn’t get the best first impression of him.

William Larimer Jr. was one of the earliest residents of Denver and undeniably one of the most influential. Many consider him a founder because of the legacy he left behind.

Though he wasn’t an original settler to the area during that first summer, he did rename the place upon his arrival, which at the time consisted of two town sites. One was named Auraria, and the other, St. Charles. Because of his part in the formation of our lovely city, his name always popped up on my walking tours.

I used to joke that General Larimer was as much a general as Colonel Sanders was a colonel. That got me laughs, by the way.

It’s easy to mock someone who is portrayed as a brute in the history books. Or at least in the online sites I had briefly fact checked to spin a rough-and-digestible history of Larimer Square, its namesake, and Denver’s early beginnings.

What I understood of the story was this: General Larimer showed up a few months after prospectors, who had parked the area in search of gold in Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. He usurped the St. Charles side of the creek because its original inhabitants had departed for the winter without staking significant claim. He established Denver to win favor with territorial governor James W. Denver. Then he built a cabin on the site and sold off property, working toward the eventual annexation of the other half of the settlement (Auraria) once conditions were right, roughly two years later.

Sounds a bit domineering, right? But there’s always more to the story.

I had heard that there was also a Larimer neighborhood of Pittsburgh, as well as a Larimer Avenue. Then, too, was Larimer township in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, the Larimer County in Colorado, and a Fort Larimer in Arkansas. Who was this man who went around the country naming places after himself? Was he a complete narcissist or a savvy entrepreneur?

Who the heck was General William Larimer?

General William Larimer was buried in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, PA. Around the holidays I traveled back east to visit my family and search out his final resting place. In my efforts to locate his grave, I discovered he was also a staunch abolitionist and proponent of women’s suffrage. It was the first time I’d heard anything encouraging about the man, and it piqued my curiosity. Surely, he couldn’t be all bad if he fought for the freedoms of others.

The Larimer family plot at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, PA.

Finding the Larimer family plot in a snow-covered cemetery should have been relatively simple since he was planted in the first section, right on the corner. Heavy weathering of the writing on his obelisk made it difficult to read. But there he was, interned in the frozen hillside along with his wife, Rachel, and several other kin bearing similar names as his.

There was nothing remarkable about his headstone. But my childlike glee was hard to hide. I puffed out condensed breaths of air, amazed to stand before the legend. I’ve lingered on the corner of 15th and Larimer Streets in Denver on so many occasions, staring up at the Granite Building and trying to imagine what his cabin must have looked like with its coffin-lid doors. I’ve said his name at least a thousand times.

As a tour guide, it’s easy to keep healthy distance from those in your stories. They are long gone. They take on a fictional quality in the way you tend to sensationalize their lives for the delight of visitors and guests. Though accuracy is one of my concerns, it’s easy to skip due diligence on the research because these people have been dead for so long that urban legend typically suffices.

Thank goodness I decided to dig deeper.

(Continue to part 2…)

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