Some bumper stickers read: “Colorado native.” Others offer: “Not native, but I got here as fast as I could.”
We are a state of immigrants. Immigrants built the roads and bridges, worked in the mines, constructed frame houses and brick buildings, had small farms and re-established themselves thousands of miles from where they were born. I am English, Scotch, German and Dutch. We still have my Auntie Em’s immigrant trunk with its wooden slats, deep bottom and leather straps. My wife’s father’s family hails from Ireland.
The work ethic that immigrants brought to America helped them succeed in a hostile world of discrimination. Newspaper cartoons, published in the era of Charles Darwin’s 1859 book “The Origin of Species,” lampooned the Irish as ape-like, hairy and stoop chested. “Irish need not apply” signs appeared behind glass storefronts before the Civil War. By the late 1880s, the second wave of immigration began with southern and eastern European immigrants, many of them Catholic, called to America to work in forests mills and mines.
La Plata County census records reflect immigration trends across the Mountain West. We had Irish, English and Scottish families come to our part of Colorado. We had Italians in coal mines, as well as Swedes and Norwegians, who worked briefly in hard rock mines and then used the 1862 Homestead Act to “take up” their piece of American soil and become Dryside farmers and ranchers. Other ethnic groups did the same thing. Grandfathers or fathers worked in the mines, either coal mines to the west and southwest of Durango or gold and silver mines in Silverton, and then, when the families could, they homesteaded.
Chain migration brought folks here. A single male would arrive, see the possibilities, and write for his brothers and uncles to come. Once they arrived, got settled and sized up the opportunities, often they sent back to their European villages for a bride. If the men were illiterate, they went into Durango’s saloons and pool halls to find someone who could write their language and address a letter back to their homeland.
Photos would be exchanged. A few letters would pass between the prospective bride and groom, then money would be sent for the ocean voyage and railroad fares. The woman would arrive at Ellis Island, take the train west, step off the Durango & Rio Grande at the Durango station and see her suitor for the first time.
At Breen, Annette Aspaas helped read and translate as neighbor and postmistress of the tiny Breen post office. She spoke Norwegian, German, French and English and surely must have written a few love letters back to the old country, as well as notices of births and deaths. Immigration and resettlement became especially difficult for wives who felt trapped on the homestead, or in small cabins near the mines, isolated by their native tongues and unable to socialize as their husbands did. Their children would break out, have school fights and lose their native languages as they became Americans, but often mothers had little chance to learn English.
Durango saloons hosted immigrant clientele as described in Kay Niemann’s book “Salone Italiano.” When families “came to town” once a month as the women shopped, the men smoked cigars and drank beer and whiskey, often speaking in their native tongues. When it was time to begin the wagon trip home, wives never entered saloons. Instead they sent their children to find Pa at the bar, to pull on his coat and say, “Ma says it’s time to go.” Our cemetery headstones explain where immigrants were born before coming to America.
Lithuanian farmers included the Pauleks, who fled Europe rather than endure years of military service under the Russian czar. They helped organize the Big Stick Ditch, named in honor of Theodore Roosevelt, who proudly said, “All men up, not some men down.” Swedish Ekburgs mined in La Plata Canyon. French farmer homesteaders included John and Louise Petitalot. Their kinsmen Joseph and Christine Curtet became shopkeepers for Hesperus in a family-owned business that thrived under their four sons.
Immigrants embraced travel and new opportunities. Hans Rasmussen Aspaas came to the Dryside via Norway, Denver and Silverton, where he skied to carry mail from Del Norte over Stony Pass. He placer mined in Parrot City, ran a stage stop between Hermosa and Rico, lived in Animas City, and took up land on the Ute Strip, when he became a clerk and teamster at Fort Lewis.
“Tragedy struck the family in 1891, when Hans suffered a fatal heart attack and fell from his wagon on a return trip from Parrot City,” said his great-granddaughter Helen Ruth Aspaas. “When the wagon and team returned to the Fort without him, the subsequent search party found him dead in the snow. Hans was the last civilian burial at the Fort Lewis Cemetery.” Dead at 56, he left a widow and four children. It was his widow, Annette, at the Breen post office who helped immigrants write back to the old country.
If La Plata County flooded with immigrants, we also had emigrants who were American born families moving here such as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who moved north from Farmington, but whose parents may have come from England, Scotland, Wales and Scandinavia. Hispanic families represented both: immigrants from Mexico and emigrants from New Mexico. Some Spanish-speaking families may have lived in America for two centuries and then migrated into La Plata County to help build Marvel, Alison, Tiffany and Hesperus.
It was all hard work, long hours and dusty, dirty days. Life was accidents, injuries, broken bones and crushed spirits as crops failed, mine props splintered and families lost their savings or their lives. But wherever the immigrants came from, they all had the same dream, the American dream of success not for themselves, but for their children and grandchildren. In that, they succeeded. They set down roots deep enough to weather both dust storms and financial turbulence. Many families are here in La Plata County because their immigrant great-grandparents came a century ago to start a new life. What they dreamed, we live.
Of Basque heritage, Robert Laxalt wrote: “All of us together were of a generation born of old country people who spoke English with an accent and prayed in another language, who drank red wine and cooked in the old country way, and peeled apples and pears after dinner.”
As for becoming citizens, he said, “And the irony of it was that our mothers and fathers were truer Americans than we, because they had forsaken home and family and gone into the unknown of a new land with only courage and the hands that God gave them, and had given us, in our turn, the right to be born American.”
As a nation, we have always been a beacon for immigrants. They have shared with us their skills and professions, their desires for a new life and their sons and daughters. On the Fort Lewis College campus, President Tom Stritikus comes from Greek roots and heritage. In our country’s biomedical laboratories, it is dedicated immigrants who help staff the pharmaceutical companies providing us with vaccines to stop COVID-19.
America is a land of immigrants and emigrants. La Plata County represents that diverse, healthy mix with a bright future ahead.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.