Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Importance of the Colorado Gold Rush

I returned on Sunday from a bicycling tour in western Michigan. The tour, organized by my friend Leann, was based in Onekama, and for five days our group bicycled in various areas near Lake Michigan. If you have never been to that part of the country, then I encourage you to visit sometime! The many lakes of the region are beautiful, the beaches are grand, the summer weather is delightful, and the folks are friendly. During the week, I bicycled about 180 miles and encountered no rude motorists or angry dogs—what a great experience.

A few days before I left for Michigan I finished reading The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado by Elliott West, a history professor at the University of Arkansas. It is true that this book is not directly related to the Civil War in the trans-Mississippi, but it provides a great deal of valuable background material as well as a smattering of information more directly linked to the war. The Colorado Gold Rush occurred in 1859, just a short time before the conflict started, and about 100,000 people engaged in the “Rush” to the Colorado gold fields. This gold rush was far larger than the more famous California Gold Rush that occurred just ten years before. West argues that the Colorado Gold Rush profoundly altered the Great Plains environment and the nomadic Native Americans of the area. Even before the Colorado Gold Rush, the Plains Indian tribes were involved in a great deal of conflict among themselves as tribes vied for control of the Great Plains. West states that “a family among the horse nomads was three or four times more likely to lose a husband or son to fighting in the mid-1850s than a corresponding white family during its own tribal war several years later” (p. 256).

This thoughtful and well written book won many prizes when it was published in 1998, and I learned much of value from it.

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