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Celebrating Colorado Day

Andrew Gulliford

On Aug. 1, 1876, Colorado became a state. As a territory, we had tried to get Congress to agree before, but President Andrew Johnson vetoed the legislation. A hard man to get along with, Johnson was impeached. Finally, thanks to President Ulysses S. Grant, Colorado achieved statehood.

We built our stunning, gold-leafed Capitol in Denver, passed our Constitution, began our state Supreme Court, and enacted laws, granted toll roads and started public schools. Tuesday is Colorado Day, and we have much to celebrate and think about. We have numerous stories to tell about ourselves and Colorado’s colorful characters.

Cheyennes and Arapahoes buffalo-hunted on the plains, Utes into the mountains. Our pre-history goes back beyond 10,000 years. Archaic peoples and Ancestral Puebloans left rock art, spear points, hunting camps, pottery, basketry, and at Mesa Verde the largest cliff dwellings in North America. Centuries later, immigrants from Italy, Austria, Wales, Germany and the Ukraine came to work in our gold and silver mines, and to plant wheat and grow beets on Colorado’s eastern plains. Czechs, Greeks and Serbians arrived in southern Colorado to work in dangerous coal mines, start their families and leave a linguistic legacy. Hispanics moved north from New Mexico into the San Luis Valley, establishing the oldest town in our state, San Luis, in 1851. African-Americans built a community at Deerfield and served as Buffalo Soldiers at different military forts.

We haven’t always gotten along together; implicit and explicit racism has been ugly. The Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 was an attempt to force Native Americans off Colorado’s high plains. Chinese were not allowed to work in precious metal mines, but they could run restaurants, laundries and build railroads. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan thrived in Denver and in small towns. We elected local and national politicians, and even a governor who supported the Klan.

We had boisterous boomtowns like Cripple Creek, Victor, Black Hawk and Caribou, full of energetic, brawling single men, and quieter agricultural communities like Greeley, Delta, Yuma, Akron and Lamar, where families tried to farm though many got “dusted out” during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, locally known as “the Dirty Thirties.”

Over the past century, the Front Range has mushroomed, grown and expanded, thanks to federally funded transmontane water diversions and tunnels bored through rock. Homesteaders claimed almost all the flat land east of the Continental Divide and the bottoms of river valleys, but to the west among the high mountains and deep canyons, 43% of our state is still public land.

We have snowy peaks, gurgling creeks, canyon ecosystems flush with mule deer, mountain lions, sage grouse, big horn sheep and ubiquitous prairie dogs. Grizzly bears are gone. They no longer drink from Grizzly Creek or climb Grizzly Peak, but wolves will return this year.

For every landscape, there have been people, families and stories. Across our state are thriving communities but also forgotten cemeteries, towns with boarded-up storefronts and small farms struggling to survive. Yet, thousands of people continue to move to Colorado, and they need to know our history, our taste for local beer and our steadfast belief in access to public lands.

We celebrated our centennial in 1976 along with the nation’s bicentennial. I remember that year because I collected oral histories from “old-timers” and learned from a generation that had survived the Great Depression. They had made it through lean times and believed in family first.

Now in 2026, another big event will occur. It will be the nation’s 250th birthday and Colorado’s 150th birthday, our quincentennial. What should we plan? Whom should we celebrate? What hard truths should we seek to share among ourselves, among newcomers and with our visiting tourists? As a historian, I believe it is vitally important to look into the rearview mirror of history. What have we accomplished? How far do we need to go?

History Colorado will spearhead our 250/150 whoop-dee-do. Former History Colorado board member Ellen Roberts is chairing a local organizing committee. “The America 250-Colorado 150 project is an open invitation to dream together of our future,” Roberts says.

Sure, there’ll be T-shirts, ball caps, slogans, memes and posters. I think we should have a speakers’ bureau so folks with diverse expertise can talk across our state. The question is what can we do as a permanent contribution? How do we make Colorado a better place for all of us to live? Let’s be certain our state’s 150th birthday really counts.

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is a professor of history at Fort Lewis College in Durango. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.