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Rabbitbrush Rambler: Gilpin, the promoter Part I

Posted: Tuesday, Aug 6th, 2013

While writing about John L. Routt, Colorado’s first state governor, last week, I was thinking also about William Gilpin, our first territorial governor—two very different men. Routt started from modest beginnings and progressed with honesty, diligence, sagacity, and tact that won him promotion to high office, whereas Gilpin was basically honest and opportunistic, like Routt; impractical, unlike Routt; ardent about Western expansion, like nearly everyone from the East and Midwest; but removed from office in less than a year, which is Gilpin’s chief claim to fame in our history books.

So who was this enigmatic man who was greeted so enthusiastically in the new territory in 1861?

Born in Pennsylvania at the headwaters of the Delaware River he was probably a bit pampered as the youngest son of a well-to-do mill owner, whose family socialized with the upper crust in the areas of Baltimore and Philadelphia. William obtained his education at home and in England, but he was taking his time “finding himself” and not living up to family expectations.

Thanks to family connections and some hard study in the nick of time, he managed to get into West Point. He left the Academy for a while, then came back, and graduated as a second lieutenant. From there, he was sent to Florida which he did not like because of insects and climate, to Louisiana which he did not like because of unfriendly Spanish and French officials, and to St. Louis which he liked so much that he resigned from the Army, and stayed.

Besides getting a job on a newspaper and practicing a little law in St. Louis, he speculated on land near Independence in 1841 and edged himself into the ring that surrounded influential Thomas Benton who was promoting Western expansion, a continental railroad, and free land. Because of these connections, Gilpin was permitted to tag along with John Charles Frémont, the son-in-law of Benton, on the explorer’s Second Expedition of 1843-1844.

During this expedition, Frémont passed through Colorado but not the San Luis Valley, en route to California and Oregon, with rugged mountain man Kit Carson of Taos as the guide. Gilpin left the Frémont party to remain in Oregon for several weeks and afterward returned through Utah, up the Gunnison River, over Cochetopa Pass, and into the San Luis Valley.

Gilpin had seen the West, even some traces of gold, and he would never be the same!

When he returned, he was carrying reports from his new acquaintances in Oregon who were backing the treaty to acquire the territory for the United States. With the help of some intercession from his influential family, Gilpin delivered the papers to the right political figures in Washington and returned to Missouri. He then used every available opportunity to publicize and promote the acquisition of Oregon.

President Polk, meanwhile, was also looking for any justification to start a war with Mexico, and he succeeded in 1846. The Mexican-American War was declared, and Gilpin was back in the Army again.

Now a major, he was serving as the first assistant to Colonel A. W. Doniphan and was headed to New Mexico, where they arrived in Santa Fe in August 1846. With inadequate food for the invading Army but no fandangos, Gilpin was put in charge of a battalion overseeing mules and horses out in the bleak countryside.

Native Indians began causing trouble as soon as New Mexico’s former officials fled, so General Stephen Watts Kearny sent Army units to make contact with Indian leaders for the purpose of making treaties. Gilpin was assigned to tracking down the Ute Indians and, next, Navajos farther away in Arizona.

The quest, which started in the Chama River Valley including the outpost of Abiquiú on the Old Spanish Trail, took Gilpin through the San Juan Mountains and then southwest into Arizona. Later, when Gilpin wrote about his familiarity with the region, he was not boasting.

To be continued.

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