Denver 101: The Mile High City bears his name, but James Denver didn’t care much for the place

Editor’s Note: How well do you know the Mile High City? Denver 101, a University of Denver Magazine online feature, introduces you to some of the historic figures and storied sites that make DU’s backyard such a fascinating place.  

The man for whom Denver was named visited the city twice and wasn’t pleased. He also killed a man in a duel, creating colorful lore for Colorado’s capital. And he’s believed to be the only person to visit a state capital named for him.

But the story of Kansas Territorial Gov. James W. Denver is far richer than that tidy summary. Denver led a wagon train, fought as a soldier in the Mexican-American and Civil wars, and served as a congressman, lawyer and advocate for Native American rights.

“But how did a guy from Virginia, who grew up in Ohio, wind up getting his name surgically seared to a city that he only visited twice?” writes Brian Trembath, special collections librarian for the famed Western History Collection at the downtown Denver Public Library.

History is tricky, but most agree on the following account, for which Trembath credits historian Tom J. Noel (BA ’67, MA ’68), who wrote “Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis,” and Jerome Smiley, author of the 1901 “Denver: A History.”

In 1858, a party of men left Lawrence in Kansas Territory, headed for Arapaho County—a huge swath of land that would become Colorado and Kansas. Among them were Gen. William H. Larimer, Samuel S. Curtis, Edward Wynkoop and Charles Blake. (Downtown streets—but not cities—later were named for those four.)

They wanted to develop a town at the foot of the Pikes Peak Gold Region. And they wanted it to be designated Arapaho County’s seat, which would increase the town’s chances to succeed, Trembath reports.

Gov. Denver had appointed them county commissioners. So they created the Denver City Town Co. on Nov. 22, 1858, and returned to Kansas, assuming a pleased Gov. Denver would grant them the county seat. But Denver had resigned a month earlier to become commissioner of Indian Affairs. “News traveled much slower back then,” Trembath notes.

Denver finally came to his namesake city in 1874 at the invitation of a friend. He had been awarded plots of land when the city was founded. But by the time he visited, they had been sold and re-sold many times, and Denver gave up his claim.

“My friend did not even visit me at the American Hotel when I got to Denver. I only saw him when I went to his office. Naturally, I felt that was an unusual reception,” he wrote.

Yet back he came in 1883, after getting a “strong and pressing invitation from the city council to visit the mineral exposition. The council extended me the ‘freedom of the city.’ I felt highly complimented.

“But my reception was very cool,” he wrote March 4, 1892, to Frank Hall, author of the 1890 “History of the State of Colorado.”

“There was nobody to receive us or give us information … I naturally received the impression there were not many people in Denver City who cared much about me.

“I’ve always taken a very lively interest in the growth of the city and in all its interests and had never failed to help it along whenever I could, and I felt mortified and humiliated when I was confronted with such neglect.”

“Sadly,” Trembath notes, “the crying smiley face emoji was not yet invented to help fully express the general’s pain.”

The duel that tainted Denver’s reputation  

Denver is most remembered for killing a man, but it wasn’t his fault.

He led a wagon train to California in 1851 and, by the next year, was a state senator appointed to lead an expedition to rescue travelers stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Edward Gilbert, an influential newspaper publisher, called the rescue a cheap political stunt. Denver said such comments came from someone with an “envious and malicious heart.”

Gilbert retorted, “If any gentleman attached to the train, or any other friend of the governor desires to make issue upon the matter, they know where to find us.”

“The dispute spiraled rapidly out of control until Gilbert formally challenged Denver to a duel with rifles at 40 paces (roughly 100 feet),” writes Trembath.

Such duels had strict rules. Gilbert and Denver used the century-old Irish code duello, which could stop the duel by way of apology. But who would apologize wasn’t determined.

So Gilbert and Denver met in Oak Grove, California, about 100 miles east of San Francisco, on Aug. 2, 1852. They paced off, and Gilbert fired a quick round, missing Denver. Denver graciously fired into the air, a common practice that allowed both men to leave with their honor and lives.

But Gilbert had criticized such “bloodless duels” in his newspaper, and he demanded a re-do.

“This lit a spark in Denver that Gilbert would not live to regret igniting,” says Trembath.

Denver cast off his coat and said he wouldn’t be “standing here all day to be shot at.”

When the signal came, he instantly shot Gilbert, who died within minutes. 

In a letter a quarter century later, Denver was still pondering the event. “He invented a newspaper controversy and, as soon as he got me involved in it, he challenged me,” Denver wrote. “I was a stranger to him … and we had never before had any misunderstanding or controversy of any kind on any subject. What the motives were, I know not.”

The duel besmirched Denver’s legacy, but he has plenty of successes to his credit. Even if he hadn’t killed Gilbert or had a city named for him, Trembath writes, Denver served in Congress, was active in state politics wherever he lived and advocated for American Indian rights.

He fought for better education for Native Americans and helped secure a multimillion-dollar payment to the Choctaw Nation after it had “sold” its land to the government but never was paid. Shortly before his death, he got involved in a similar case involving the Shawnee.

Some scholars have questioned his motives, given the amount of land speculating he did, including speculation on Native American lands. 

A few months after his last visit to his namesake city, Denver died in Washington, D.C., supposedly just moments after the “sundown gun” fired from a local barracks, Trembath reports. “A friend who sat by his bedside is said to have remarked, ‘What a fitting time for a soldier to die.’”

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