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Old Colorado City Springs to Life with a Vigilante System of Government

 

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The cry went out!  There’s gold in the Colorado Rockies.  This started Americans rushing to the gold fields in 1859, hoping to relieve some of the financial stress from the economic panic in 1857. As a result of the thousands of people entering the Pike’s Peak region, several men incorporated themselves into the Colorado City Town Company on August 11, 1859. Since Ute Pass was the best route at the time to the South Park gold fields, the company established Colorado City (later know as Old Colorado City) at the base of Pike’s Peak on Fountain Creek, hoping to become the major mining supply town.  On August 12, 1859, the company officially claimed the site of Colorado City.  Henry M. Fosdick surveyed and platted the town, one mile wide and two miles long with Fountain Creek running through the southern portion of the town.

The town grew quickly. During the remainder of 1859 and early 1860, these hearty folks built over 200 houses and businesses. The residents built the buildings mostly out of logs and hewed-wood.  Some people didn’t want the rough looking log homes so they quarried stone out of the nearby hills and cliffs to construct their buildings. During the winter of 1859 and 1860, the Town Company contracted men to construct a wagon road through Ute Pass to accommodate the South Park mining camps. In return for the labor, the Company paid the construction crew in town lots which gave them even more new residents.   In 1859, when Colorado City and other mining and farming towns were formed in the Pike’s Peak region, the federal government had the responsibility for law enforcement and protection through the territorial governors of Kansas, Nebraska, Utah, and New Mexico.  These territories were large in physical size which caused policing problems for the governors;  the Indians also had legal right to a large portion of the land within the territories through treaty agreements. By 1859, the government had not opened the federal lands for public occupancy. Thus, prospectors, land speculators, settlers, and others migrating into the western territories were trespassing, though the feds did not hinder or stop western migration and the people of the area started their own vigilante government as the governors with oversight were usually too far away to render any assistance in times of need.                   

Prior to 1861, the people of Colorado City and El Paso County organized a temporary, vigilante justice system that the locals accepted and followed as the governing authority for the Pike’s Peak region. Since the region consisted primarily of miners and merchants, when someone committed a crime, the local people always attempted to expedite the matter to a satisfactory conclusion, avoiding any unnecessary delays from the more important tasks of mining and selling goods.  

Both Anthony Bott and Irving Howbert recorded two examples of this early vigilante justice system. The first incident occurred during the summer of 1860. John (or Jim) Laughlin and Pat Devlin were partners in a ranch located northwest of Colorado City. Problems arose in the partnership between Laughlin and Devlin, resulting in the two men becoming enemies. While both men were in town one day, Laughlin shot Devlin with a double-barreled shotgun. Because the town’s people assumed that Devlin was going to die immediately, the people arrested Laughlin for murder. By quickly assembling themselves, the town’s people shared responsibilities for conducting a trial. The people appointed three judges to hear the evidence and appointed a sheriff to contain Laughlin. In this form of justice system, all of the people in the area participated as jurors. In fact, Anthony Bott brought his construction crew down from working on Ute Pass to act as jurors. After hearing the evidence, the jurors rendered their verdict of “justifiable homicide” by crossing to the side of the street represented as the “not guilty” side. The irony of the whole procedure was that Devlin did not die for two weeks but justice was served in a matter of hours.  

The second incident also occurred in 1860 when several local men caught a Mexican man trying to stealing two horses. When the local men brought the man before an assembly of local people, the locals appointed three judges, a sheriff, a prosecuting attorney, and a defense attorney. After hearing the evidence, the judges requested the locals to render a verdict. The people found the Mexican guilty and sentenced him to death by hanging. Reverend William Howbert intervened on behalf of the accused man, explaining the seriousness of hanging a man and requesting to conduct a religious ceremony.  The people would not allow any interruption in the trial and sentencing of a convicted horse thief. Irving Howbert reported that “in less than thirty minutes from the time of [the man's] conviction, he was executed.”  This is the wild west system of justice that was seen throughout the western states before they officially became part of The United States and I’m sure it kept some folks from committing crimes as the sentence was quite severe.  These stories made good fodder for our later cowboy and Indian movies of the 1940′s and 50′s.

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