“Pikes Peak or bust!” If your ancestors were among the thousands who trekked to the Centennial State looking for gold in the 1800s, they may have cried this popular slogan. Between Green Russell’s 1858 discovery of a gold deposit at the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, and the last major strike at Cripple Creek in the early 1890s, Colorado’s population grew drastically — from around 25,000 to more than 400,000. Many of the new settlers came from the Northeast and Midwest, particularly New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio. Others were immigrants from all corners of the world, including Europe, Canada and China.
Tracing those settlers-and other Coloradans-won’t be a tough uphill climb for you, thanks to the state’s mountainous genealogical resources. Start your trek with these tips.
The gold seekers weren’t nearly the first to explore Colorado’s eastern plains and Rocky Mountains. Ute Indians resided in the area around the time Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado came through the southwest in 1541. More than a century later, French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle appropriated land east of the Rockies. More adventurers followed him, including Zebulon Pike three years after the United States acquired part of what’s now Colorado in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The mountain peak he discovered now bears his name. After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, US winnings included the rest of present-day Colorado.
By 1820, after being forced from their land in other states, the Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Pawnee and Sioux Indians had joined the Utes in Colorado. Numerous forts and trading posts sprang up, and the first permanent non-Indian settlement was founded in 1851. Tensions grew between settlers and Indian tribes, culminating in the 1864 massacre of Cheyenne and Arapahoe at Sand Creek, and Indian attacks on settlers. The US Army built Camp Collins (now Fort Collins) and Fort Morgan to protect travelers. By the late 1800s’ most Colorado tribes had been consolidated onto reservations.
The gold rush era drew to a close by the turn of the 20th century, but mining still remained a prominent industry, along with ranching, and later; oil.
US censuses first counted Coloradans in 1860, when residents were split among four territories: Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico and Utah. Federal enumerations of Colorado Territory, established in 1861, exist for 1870 and 1880, plus a special 1885 count. Post-statehood censuses are available for 1900 to 1930. You’ll find census records on microfilm at the Family History Library (FHL) <www.familysearch.org>, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <archives.gov> facilities, and most major libraries, as well as online at Ancestry.com (with a $155.40-per — year annual subscription) and HeritageQuest Online <www.heritagequestonline.com> (free through subscribing libraries).
If your ancestors were members of a Colorado Indian tribe, you can use the Colorado State Archives’ microfilm copies of the annual American Indian censuses the federal government took from 1885 to 1944. Enumerated tribes are listed at <www.colorado.gov/dpa/doit/archives/census.html>. Before 1930, records provide the person’s name and basic information; after 1930, they give additional details including the degree of Indian blood. You also can access these record indexes and images with an Ancestry.com subscription.
Colorado’s statewide registration for birth, marriage and death officially began in 1907, but some counties started recording vital data as early as 1876. Contact the courthouse in the county where your ancestor lived for pre-1907 records, or check with Colorado’s vital-records office <www.cdphe.state.co.us/certs/genealogy.html> or the state archives <www.colorado.gov/dpa/doit/archives>. Records from 1907 and later are available from the vital-records office. (The FHL doesn’t have copies.) You must prove your relationship to the person in the record and provide identification when making a request.
For help locating vital and other early records, search the state archives’ online Historical Records Database <www.colorado.gov/dpa/doit/archives/hrd> by name, county, time period or record type. It indexes birth certificates before 1907, divorces from 1890 to 1939, vital records from several counties and cities back to the 1860s, plus a slew of court cases, wills, military records and more. Matches show a name, date, record type, and case or record number so you can find the original.
Colorado researches, can strike gold in other online resources, too. For starters, the Western States Marriage Records Index <abish.byui.edu/specialcollections/westernstates/search.cfm>, which has information from more than 240,000 19th- and 20th-century marriage records, contains entries from 52 counties in the Centennial State. Search more than 100 papers published between 1859 and the early 1900s by keyword, publication name and date range at the Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection <coloradohistoricnewspapers.org>; results show digitized pages.
Ancestry.com gives you access to city directories for Denver, Colorado Springs and Leadville from about 1872 to 1915. It also has an index to 40 years of Denver Land Office Records, giving you the landowner’s name and the location of his plot. A few land records prior to the opening of Colorado’s Denver Land Office are with New Mexico records. You can search land patents for both states on the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office site at <www.glorecords.blm.gov>. Tract books and land entry case files (including those for relinquished and incomplete claims) are at NARA’s Rocky Mountain Region in Denver; order copies using the Order Online system <archives.gov/order>. The FHL has only a few miscellaneous land titles and private land claims from the 1800s and earlier.
Coloradans fought in the Civil War (for the Union) and several Indian Wars from the early 1800s to early 1900s. The FHL has microfilm indexes for volunteer Union soldiers and for pension records; the original service and pension records are at NARA in Washington, DC. You can purchase copies through NARA. Name and service details of soldiers on frontier military posts are on microfilm called Registers of Enlistments in the United States Army, 1798-1914. Both NARA and the FHL have copies.
You can browse the Denver Public Library’s (DPL) online index to residents’ WWI draft registration cards <history.denverlibrary.org/research/draft_wwico> and see the cards on microfilm at the DPL, FHL and NARA. Images of the cards are part of Ancestry.com’s US Records collection.
At the DPL — one of the country’s top genealogical research repositories — Colorado visitors can begin scaling the peaks and valleys of their family’s records. The Western History and Genealogy collection <history.denverlibrary.org/collections> offers online indexes and transcriptions for pre-1963 Colorado mining fatalities, state reformatory prisoner records (1887 to 1939), Colorado Statesman newspaper obituaries (1904 to 1954), Denver obituaries (1936 to 2005), mortuary records (1889 to 1909 and 1900 to 1956), Denver Old Ladies Home records (1897 to 1980), WWI casualty indexes, pioneers indexes, voter lists and more.
Researchers making a stop there can access historic documents including newspapers, ephemera, maps and books, plus another helpful finding aid: a general index card file to help you locate your ancestors in newspapers, local histories, biographical works, newsletters and journals.
About a stone’s throw away, the state archives has a mountain of other records, including those related to military service, schools, railroads, penitentiaries, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the state children’s home and mines. You can find indexes and holdings information for most of these records online at <www.colorado.gov/dpa/doit/archives/resource.html>. Go to <www.colorado.gov/dpa/doit/ archives/geneal.htm> and use the links on the left for details on the archives’ naturalization, school, probate court and other records.
The Colorado Historical Society <www.coloradohistory.org>, also in Denver, boasts the state’s largest collection of newspapers, dating as far back as 1859. You’ll find, lots of books, manuscripts, maps, photographs and city directories there, too. A bit further down the road in Boulder, use the extensive map holdings in the University of Colorado’s Norlin Library <ucblibraries.colorado.edu/norlin>. With all these resources at hand, your new slogan might be “Genealogy or bust!”
From the March 2008 Family Tree Magazine