History Colorado Center

By Eilene Lyon

On my recent trip to Denver, I spent a couple hours at the History Colorado Center museum. They had a mix of long-term and temporary exhibits to visit. Unfortunately, I was too early for the Sand Creek Massacre exhibit that began on November 19. As I write about Colorado pioneers, I find many connections to that event.

Because I live in southwestern Colorado, two exhibits that resonated with me were “Borderlands” and the “Written on the Land: Ute Voices, Ute History” exhibit. The Borderlands exhibit is excellent for understanding the melding of cultures from the time of Spanish conquest up to the present. It does not gloss over conflicts and enslavement of Native Americans and others.

This case shows a reproduction of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo, which transferred what is now the Southwest to the United States. Mexicans living in this region suddenly became citizens of a different country by default.
As Mexican citizens, women had rights of property ownership, even if married. They lost that and other rights when they became American citizens. Women in the borderlands filled many roles in society.
Colorado became a territory in 1861, created from existing territories: Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, and Utah. It became the 38th state in 1876 and 38-star flags such as this one flew until 1889 when the Dakotas became states.

Though we have a Ute museum not far from my home, the History Colorado exhibit had a broader view. The Ute nation is comprised of twelve different bands that originally occupied area in what are now nine different states, centered on Colorado and Utah. Today they have two small reservations in Colorado and one in Utah. I learned more about their traditional culture, and their views on the treaties with the United States government.

This map shows the areas and extent occupied by the twelve Ute bands prior to colonization. Historians say that the Utes began occupying these areas around 1500 CE.
The U.S. government, up until the mid-20th century, thought that the children of Native Americans should be taken from their homes, families, and cultures to be “civilized.” We are still witnessing and examining the devastating effects of that policy.

A fascinating temporary exhibit is “Zoom In: The Centennial State in 100 Objects.” Each item selected had a story to tell about state history, right up to recent times.

A legendary figure in Colorado history is Christopher “Kit” Carson. His life was popularized in dime novels, even while he was still living. This is his frontier coat. His actual legacy is complicated by his actions toward Native Americans.
These pistols belonged to Felipe and Jose Espinosa. In 1863, two brothers, Felipe and Vivian, along with their nephew, Jose, terrorized central Colorado. They are believed to have been killing Anglos in retaliation for the loss of lands in the Southwest after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. They may have murdered as many as 32 people. They were finally captured and killed. Two of them were beheaded by Tom Tobin, a scout and frontiersman living at Fort Garland.
This silver railroad spike has an amusing tale, which I will quote from the plaque: “This ceremonial railroad spike celebrated Colorado’s new link to the rest of the nation. The long-awaited track from Denver connected to the transcontinental railroad line in Cheyenne on June 20, 1870.
Two days later, the citizens of Georgetown presented this spike to former Governor John Evans, president of the Denver Pacific Railroad. The actual silver spike never made it to the ceremony. The miners responsible for carrying it from Georgetown pawned it in Denver, drank away the proceeds, and slept through the ceremony. In its place, Evans waved a conventional spike wrapped in white paper to appear silver. He later recovered the real silver spike from a pawnshop.”
This figure, known as a bulto, represents Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno (Our Father Jesus of Nazareth). In the early days of Spanish-Mexican occupation of present-day New Mexico and Colorado, priests were few and far between, even non-existent in many areas. Los Hermanos Penitentes (the Penitents) filled the void by offering religious instruction. They provided care to the needy and preserved cultural traditions. They became known for their devotions that bordered on the extreme, such as self-flagellation and carrying bundles of cactus on their backs as punishment. This artifact dates to 1870.

I highly recommend a visit to History Colorado to learn more about this Rocky Mountain state (of mind).

Feature image: John Denver’s special edition Yamaha guitar

41 thoughts on “History Colorado Center

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  1. This was a fascinating read! I’d love to go to the museum in person. It looks very well-curated. I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for women to become citizens of another country over night and stripped of many of their rights.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was difficult for all those in the southwest. For the Hispanics in southern Colorado, it was especially difficult, as they identified with New Mexico and wanted to be part of that state (if they had to be part of the States at all).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It was interesting to see the photo of pistols belonging to the Espinosas. My wife’s great grandfather, Albert Baker Tomlin, according to his journal, was in Fort Garland when Tom Tobin came in with a bag and “untied it, gave a shove, and out rolled two human heads. They were the heads of the outlaw Espanosa and his nephew.”

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    1. We really have come a long way on our perception of human rights. I think about the old debtors prisons and workhouses. Ugh. And asylums for the mentally ill. Lots of ugly history out there.

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  3. An interesting read. I’d never heard of the Ute people before, so read on to u derstand who they were. Here in Oz a Ute is a vehicle with a front seat and a tray back, so I was intrigued. As we all know, each country has its dark side. Why do we have to be so cruel to others? Thankfully there are more good than bad in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jenny, Nice to see you here! I get what you mean about the Ute! Yes, we have so many different indigenous groups in this country. I expect there is some of that in Australia and New Zealand, too, though there is a blanket term for all of them – here it is the completely incorrect word “Indian”.
      Why do we treat one another badly? There is the question for the Ages!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for sharing this. I wanted to visit a couple of years ago and timing was all wrong. Seems like we were in the neighborhood at closing time or something. Anywho, I trust your judgment and will be sure to prioritize this on our next trip through!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Agreed. To me, history holds the key to understanding now and making the future a better place. Making it interesting to kids is a great thing to do. I always found history fascinating, but not how it was taught in school!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. That was interesting Eilene. The “Zoom In: The Centennial State in 100 Objects” looked interesting with its artifacts. I always like when you can see the clothing from various periods, not to mention the headdress. The silver spike and its story was also interesting. So the poor Mexican women lose out if they take American citizenship, essentially becoming second-class citizens with no property rights (and other rights you mentioned). Doesn’t sit well with me, like your last post as to women.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reading about lives of women in earlier eras always gives me pause. What is fascinating is how many women fought against obtaining more rights. Mostly they were very conservative religious women who took the Bible literally.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is interesting and maybe also they thought if men deemed them to have a mind of their own, or that they were “feisty” they were not submissive i.e. good marriage material? Fear to speak your mind and be entitled to rights. SMH

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