Frontier Diary: Prospectors crossed the 107th Meridian West
Prospectors are leaving Leadville for the borders of the Ute reservation. They are not liable to remain outside the line if they see a good thing inside.
— Leadville Weekly Herald, May 15, 1880
The 107th Meridian West divided an 1870s Colorado culturally and ideologically. On the west side of the meridian, the land was reserved by treaty to the region’s indigenous people, the Utes. On the east side of the meridian were prospectors, miners, fortune seekers and investors clamoring to extract perceived mineral riches from that reserved land. This clash of cultures and ideals lead to the creation of the town of Glenwood Springs.
An invisible line, the 107th Meridian West was a porous border. The Hayden Geological Survey of 1873 noted carbonate formations, like those fueling the silver mining boom in Leadville, present on the Ute Reservation near the confluence of the Grand and Roaring Fork rivers. Piqued with curiosity, prospectors in the 1870s illegally crossed onto the reservation. A short prospecting season dictated by weather and potential attacks by the Utes limited their activities.
Two men from Boulder, John C. Blake and James M. Landis, crossed onto the reservation in 1878 intent on laying early claim to land and mining interests. Finding some potentially rich strikes on the Flat Tops, the men staked their claims, and constructed a crude log structure, which they christened Fort Defiance, near those claims. In 1879, Landis claimed land containing a hot mineral spring near the Grand and Roaring Fork river confluence.
Leadville in the winter of 1879-1880 was a bitterly cold and muddy town approaching a population of 20,000 people. The ores from the mines supplied wealth, but the opportunity for speculation was dwindling. Blake had relocated to Leadville during that winter. He knew many prospectors had not shared in the wealth of the boom and that Eastern mining investors clamored for more profit. In conjunction with Dr. William R. “Doc” Bell, Blake began the promotion of mining interests on the Ute Reservation and specifically near the claims he held on the Flat Tops. It was time to open Western Colorado to white settlement.
The push for access to the reservation culminated in April 1880. Bell and about 125 men formed in Leadville the Defiance Mining District. The miners and investors signed a proclamation and declared “it to be our unalterable purpose to explore and develop the country known as the Ute Reservation.” The organization’s defiance was not in defiance of the United States government but more likely a protest of the perceived length of time Congress was taking to relocate the Utes.
In mid-May 1880, Bell’s Expedition left Leadville for the Ute Reservation. Avoiding the appearance of invasion, groups of prospectors on horseback journeyed to the reservation in staggered intervals. All of them were heavily armed. Blake led the third detachment, which left Leadville for Red Cliff, traveled over Battle Mountain to the Eagle River, commenced overland at Beaver Creek to Brush Creek, and connected again with the Eagle River at Gypsum Creek. Once they crossed the Eagle River and the 107th Meridian West, Blake’s detachment headed northeasterly across the reservation, crossing Grizzly Creek and upward to Blake’s claims on the Flat Tops.
None of the mining claims staked inside the reservation would be recognized as legal by the Department of the Interior. In response to Bell’s Expedition, the U.S. government dispatched military troops onto the reservation, charged with keeping the peace. After a few weeks of prospecting, assay samples showed low grade ores, proving there would be no mining boom on the reservation. Prospectors flooded back to Colorado’s known mining districts to begin again seeking fortunes there.
The organization that formed the Defiance Mining District was dissolved in 1881. However, a personal boom was beginning for Blake. In August 1881, as the Utes were being escorted by troops to their new reservation in Utah, Blake entered a partnership with Landis to develop a town near the Grand and Roaring Fork river confluence. To save filing fees for the new town site, a simple change of direction on official documents moved Fort Defiance from the Flat Tops to the new town site to be known as Defiance.
Defiance was renamed Glenwood Springs. Blake, a property holder, sold lots in the new town to speculators and to those desiring settlement in a fledgling community. His mining claims on the Flat Tops became the town of Carbonate, which after the creation of Garfield County in 1883, was the county seat. Location and poor weather moved the county seat from Carbonate to Glenwood Springs that autumn. However, a few hardy souls continued to work mining claims, hoping for that big strike.
Blake left Glenwood Springs in 1885 a wealthy man. Today, a street in Glenwood Springs bears his name, and thousands of commuters cross the 107th Meridian West between Dotsero and Eagle, unaware that they are crossing a border that, nearly 137 years ago, charted Colorado history.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and Frontier Historical 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.
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