by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO- Congratulations are in order. Monday, Aug. 1, will be Huerfano County and Colorado’s 135th birthday. However, it is 150 years since Huerfano became a county.
Colorado became known as the Centennial State for entering the union just 28 days after the United States observed its 100th anniversary, the celebration of which was slightly dampened by the devastating news of the death nine days earlier of General George Armstrong Custer and his command at the Little Bighorn. It took the news a while to reach civilization.
The Territory of Colorado (also known as the Territory of Jefferson) was organized Feb. 28, 1861 from the territories of Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico and Utah. As the territory entered the union, the union was facing disintegration as southern states were seceding. It was anticipated Colorado statehood would be achieved rapidly because of its many natural resources, from water and wildlife to gold and silver. However, when the issue was broached in 1866, President Andrew Johnson vetoed it. Colorado became the 38th state in 1876 during the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. It followed Nebraska into statehood by nine years, and preceded North Dakota by 13. It is the 38th state in terms of size, and despite being the same humdrum shape as Wyoming, Colorado is slightly larger in area. Another difference from Wyoming is that, while Wyoming was the first to grant women the right to vote, it was a legislative decision. Colorado was the first state to grant this right through popular election, in 1893.
Huerfano was one of the original 17 counties of Colorado. There are now 64. The first Huerfano County embraced almost all of southeastern Colorado except for Pueblo County and an Indian reservation along the Arkansas River, from the summit of the Sangre de Cristos to the Kansas border, and from the Arkansas River on the north south to the border with New Mexico.
The original counties were Arapahoe, Boulder, Clear Creek, Costilla, Douglas, El Paso, Fremont, Gilpin, Guadaloupe, Huerfano, Jefferson, Lake, Larimer, Park, Pueblo, Summit and Weld.
Even before territorial days, Huerfano was a well known area. Ancient trails crossed it, the Huerfano Butte and Spanish Peaks were popular landmarks back to prehistoric days, and explorers from several countries followed those same trails across the plains and mountains of this area. It had been under the control of four countries, Spain, France, Mexico, and the Republic of Texas, before being ceded to the United States.
Had it not been for the discovery of gold in 1858 near Denver, Colorado might not have been organized. The discoverers belonged to a party from Georgia and several members were the selfsame men who later settled in Huerfano County and are known to us as the Georgia Colony. Most of these southerners arriving in Huerfano County around 1870 took up ranches around the Apache, Gardner and La Veta areas, and some of their descendents remain here.
Speaking of Denver, the state capital was named for James W. Denver, the territorial governor of Kansas in 1857 and ’58.
The presence of gold and silver was Colorado’s main attraction in those early days. These precious metals were the state’s passport to financial success, with agriculture following somewhere far down the list. In Huerfano County, there were gold, silver, iron, lead, copper, manganese, uranium, and, of course, coal mines. Except for the latter, these resources were neither plentiful nor of a quality that would draw much attention. Huerfano’s topography lends itself more to the grazing of livestock, but prospectors continued to try their luck on its metal resources into the 1980s.
Huerfano County encompasses 1,591 square miles, or more than one million acres. It is the 29th largest county in Colorado. According to the 2010 census, 6,711 of us live in this space, making the population per square mile 4.2. This compares with 48.5 people per square mile in Colorado and 87.3 in the United States overall. Luckily, most Huerfanos like their elbow room!
The highest population count of Huerfano County was back in 1930, when 17,062 people were counted. All but 6,285 of these folks lived in unincorporated areas (in other words, somewhere besides Walsenburg or La Veta), with the vast majority in coal camps. At that time, Huerfano ranked 16th in the state in population. In those days, car license plates began with the number signifying rank by population, so Huerfano plates began with 16 right up until 1958 when the system was changed to letters and numbers instead of just numbers.
When Huerfano was organized in 1861, the estimated number of eligible voters was 50. For these, five voting precincts were organized. Only one is in the present boundaries of Huerfano County (at Badito), and the others were in now Pueblo, Las Animas and Bent counties. It seems incredible people would, and did, cover 100+ miles by foot or horse power to vote.
The entire population of Colorado in 1860 was 34,277. In 1900 it reached 539,700 and in 2010 it surpassed 5,000,000.
Huerfano was named for the orphan butte standing beside the river of the same name, we are told. The butte was used as a lookout for tribes and travelers crossing the plains and became a beacon for trails. It was easily visible from the venerable Taos or Trappers Trail, the Goodnight Trail, the stagecoach route between Denver and Santa Fe, and now watches over the traffic on Interstate 25.