“Pike’s Peak or Bust,” that was the slogan that electrified the nation during July, 1858 when word was received that gold had been discovered in Colorado. The frenzy that occupied the country after the 1849 strike in California had diminished and, for all practical purposes, so had the fever for “getting rich quick.” And it all started in Salina, Indian Territory, head of the Cherokee Trail.
The national gold frenzy begun in 1829 when it was discovered in a stream in the eastern Cherokee Nation. The state of Georgia and Cherokee tribesmen had been in a dispute over the territory in the northwest corner for over a decade. Arguing about territory was one issue, but when gold was discovering, that was quite another. White settlers ignored Cherokee national rights, flooding the area and forcing tribesmen out. By 1830 there were 4,000 white miners on one creek alone, by 1831, 15,000 in the area. Among the thousands descending on the region was James Russell and his family including 11 year old William Greeneberry Russell, nicknamed “Green.” Growing up in the mining camp environment, Green became infected with “gold fever,” and, four years after his marriage to Susan Willis who was 1/8th Cherokee, he joined others, prospecting himself. By 1852 he had led several wagon trains from Kansas City following the Oregon trail west. In fact, because of the many Cherokee’s experience mining in Georgia in 1830, California had more Cherokee place names than any other state.
A few pioneers on a route called the Cherokee Trail, established in 1849, had found traces of gold along Colorado Rivers, but at the time the rush to California was occupying everyone’s attention. The Cherokee Trail originated when a wagon train, led by Lewis Evans, consisting of northwest Arkansas and Cherokee residents, initiated a trail from Salina, west to the Verdigris River continuing northwest to McPherson, Kansas. It intersected there with the Santa Fe Trail, following it to the front range of the Rocky Mountains to Pueblo, then continuing north to Wyoming where eventually it connected west with the Oregon Trail. Eventually, the Cherokee trail was used until 1880 by gold seekers, emigrants and cattle drovers from the Cherokee Nation, Arkansas, Texas and Missouri. From 1851 through 1860. Along with immigrants, tens of thousands of cattle were driven over the trail until California could take no more.
For the next several years “Green” Russell continued to be involved in trips west. Then through his Cherokee connections he became aware of rumors of gold along the Rocky Mountain front range. In February, 1958 he and his two brothers met at McPherson with several Cherokee tribal members who had mined for gold in Georgia. They formed a small caravan, picking up enthusiastic members that eventually swelled the wagon train to 107 members as they following the Cherokee Trail to Colorado. Arriving at Cherry Creek, southeast of present- day Denver on May 23rd, they began prospecting. The early results of their efforts were unsuccessful, discouraged most of the caravan members returned home. But during the first week in July, Green and an associate found a small deposit totaling 20 troy ounces near today’s Englewood. It was the first significant discovery in the Rocky Mountains.
News about the discovery quickly spread when a miner returned to Kansas City with samples, but the fact that gold had been discovered in Colorado turned out to be only one incentive. A depression was steadily growing in the east and, in addition, there was increasing tension between northern and southern states over the issue of slavery.
The new discovery, a decade after gold was found in California, and now in Colorado resulted in an onslaught of over 100,000 would-be miners, primarily young men who soon became known as “the 59’ers.” Most were either unemployed because of the depression or hoped to avoid the pending war. The hopeful miners became identified with the slogan “Pike’s Peak or Bust” because Pike’s Peak in Colorado was well known across the nation. Actually, the gold that was discovered was nowhere near Pikes Peak, it lay in several rivers many miles north. And, unlike the California Gold Rush that ended populating most of the state, this one lasted for only three years although later, other significant gold strikes occurred further west in the mountains.
Green Russell’s discovery in July of 1858 saw a rapid influx of population into the territory. By September his camp had swelled into a settlement called “Russell Gulch” with a population of 891, all men. But “Russell Gulch” soon spawned other towns as the search for gold spread along Colorado streams. That same month saw the founding of Montana City. In November, the name was changed to Denver because at the time, Colorado was included as part of Western Kansas Territory and its founders hoped to curry favor with its governor, James Denver. Today, Denver has become the center of a metroplex of prosperous communities much more valuable than the gold found there. But its origins date back to the Cherokee Trail, to McPherson and to a Cherokee named William Greeneberry Russell.
Author's note: Pathfinders, 19th Century Pioneers of Cherokee Territory is available on amazon.com and BARNES AND NOBLE.com
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.