"The territory of the new County of Garfield includes the White River Agency, the Meeker Agency and the Thornburg Battle Field. It is said to be remarkable for its grazing advantages. Over 100,000 head of cattle are now within its borders."
- Leadville Daily Herald, February 24, 1883
As the Fourth General Assembly of the Colorado Legislature convened in January 1883, Otto Mears, representative from Saguache, wasted no time in convening his committee on counties and county lines. His committee's task was to divide the lands of western Colorado into new Colorado counties.
The area to be divided was originally set aside for the Utes through a series of treaties. Mears, a pioneer entrepreneur, toll road and railroad builder, and former indian commissioner, was intimately familiar with the history between the Utes and Colorado's white settlement. He had traded with the Utes, and was an interpreter and negotiator with the Utes who helped open the San Juan region to white settlement.
After what has become known as the Meeker Massacre in 1879, Mears personally convinced the Utes to cede their remaining holdings in western Colorado and move to a reservation in Utah. While Mears personally profited by the relocation of the Utes, he also recognized that the Utes as a people stood no chance of survival as the conflict between whites and Utes escalated.
Mears' actions years later would be viewed as an attempt to preserve the remaining Ute culture, while at the same time embracing the inevitable progress and the profits to be made from that progress.
House Bill 82 sponsored by Mears forming Garfield County passed on Feb. 2, 1883, and was made official by Gov. Grant on Feb. 4, 1883. Grant appointed as commissioners Fred Childs, George Ryan and Frank Enzensperger. The remaining appointments were Charles McBriarity, county clerk; John C. Blake, sheriff; William Gelder, county judge; George Banning, county treasurer; and Cornelius Cooper, county assessor. The mining settlement of Carbonate was named county seat.
Garfield County covered more than 6,000 square miles and possessed a sparse population. The way to boost the population and the tax roles was to advertise the mining fortunes of Carbonate located on the Flat Tops. Word quickly spread of the potential to get rich, and miners followed. The town was above 10,000 feet in elevation, and deep winter snows lingered well into the summer. The roads were nearly impassable, supplies were short, but speculators kept coming.
The location made it difficult for the county commissioners to meet in Carbonate, and on Aug. 25, 1883, it was voted to move the county government to Glenwood Springs, where most of the government officials already lived. The commissioners predicted the harsh winter to come would prevent any official business from occurring at Carbonate until next summer. Additionally, Carbonate's boom was about to bust with miners publicly declaring that the purported riches were a hoax. Canvas from the town's tents wrapped county's precious record books, and they were loaded onto mules just as the first winter storm ushered the county government from Carbonate to Glenwood Springs.
Glenwood Springs needed voter approval to become the official county seat. Residents in the county's northern region pushed for Meeker as the county seat. When Isaac Cooper, developer of Glenwood Springs, got wind of the support for Meeker, he offered eight city lots for county use, deeded his toll road to the county, and donated $500 for the road's upkeep.
In November 1883, voters approved Glenwood Springs as the county seat, and a new, largely Republican administration replaced the previously appointed officers.
In 1889, Rio Blanco County was formed from Garfield County, reducing Garfield County's area to just under 3,000 square miles. Today, Garfield County is Colorado's eighth largest county in area and 12th largest in population. Undoubtedly, Garfield County reflects Otto Mears' vision of 130 years ago.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. "Frontier Diary," which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Fall, winter and spring hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.