· · · COLORADO · · ·

ROBERT W. STEELE

Rocky Mountain Rogue?

Gov. Steele informs his constituents … that “the eyes of the Union are upon them.” … The eyes of the Union, we venture to say, have not even discovered the Territory.… Not one man in five hundred, we presume, in the country at large, is aware of the existence of any such political community as the Territory of Jefferson. In point of fact, it has as yet no legal existence.

—NEW YORK TIMES, NOVEMBER 26, 1859

In the winter of 1859, a group of gold prospectors and miners in the Pikes Peak region of the Rocky Mountains idled away the time until the snow melted by deciding to take the law into their own hands and form a territory. No matter that they were already in a duly constituted U.S. territory, that being Kansas (which at the time extended west to the crest of the Rockies). The boundaries the mining men stipulated for their “Territory of Jefferson” went beyond the western region of Kansas, extending into the Nebraska Territory, Utah Territory, and New Mexico Territory.1

Territory of Jefferson, 1859-61

The idea had originated a year earlier and spread rapidly among the men working in the gulches and ravines. Spending the upcoming winter making their own territory would be a welcome alternative to drinking, brawling, and shooting each other. When the snows began, they held a convention, sent a proposal to Congress, and, when Congress did nothing, elected as their governor Robert W. Steele, a man who had been in the region less than a year. He and the legislature elected along with him then proceeded to write themselves a constitution and laws. Legally speaking, it was all very woolly.

Robert W. Steele (1820-1901) (photo credit 33.1)

Were these just a bunch of bewhiskered varmints thinking they could simply take control? One need only glance at their legislation. Take, for example, their law for evicting some scoundrel or squatter from one’s property. “Judgment of forfeiture and eviction,” it began, “may be rendered against the defendant whenever the amount of damages so recovered is more than two-thirds the value of the interest such defendant has in the property wasted, and when the action is brought by the person entitled to the reversion.” That sounds like lawyer talk, and indeed it was. Steele was a lawyer, and he had been a member of the Nebraska territorial legislature.2 While he was serving in that legislature, word came of gold in the foothills of Pikes Peak. After his term expired, Steele set out for the region, established a stake and a homestead, and was soon joined by his wife and children.

Steele was clearly not a woolly varmint. Indeed, he and his cronies were trying to rein in the woolly varmints. Being hundreds of miles from the nearest Kansas sheriff, the region’s bandits, disputants, and liquored-up miners were misbehaving with impunity in the settlements that had sprung up in a matter of months. In lieu of threats, assaults, murders and vigilantes, Steele and his cohorts sought to substitute due process of law.

The Territory of Jefferson, which at first glance appears to have been a wild and rebellious creation, was actually the opposite. Its founders were seeking to create a government only because the established governments—both in Kansas and Congress—had failed to do so.

In fairness to Kansas, only a year earlier this western region of its sprawling territory had been nothing but desolate hills, described in an earlier military exploration as “uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.”3 When the discovery of gold suddenly brought hordes of inhabitants, Kansas, itself only four years old, had its hands full with the much bloodier issue of slavery.

Kansas struggled during its first four years to decide whether or not to permit slavery, as permitted in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Among the thousands of advocates, pro and con, who entered the state to vote on this issue, many joined paramilitary armies that attacked each other’s settlements in pitched battles. Flattered as Governor James Denver may have been to have a gold rush town named after him, deciding whether to deploy his overwhelmed resources toward the suppression of paramilitary armies close to home or brawlers and gun slingers in the western mountains was a no-brainer.

Congress too could have stepped in by acting upon the proposal sent by the men who had convened at Denver. Indeed, Congressman Alexander Stephens proposed the creation of a Territory of Jefferson in January 1859. But Stephens, a Southerner, had been the floor manager for approval of Kansas’s first proposed constitution, which was proslavery. That effort failed. This one was relegated to a committee. Slavery continued to paralyze Congress.

The mining men responded by simply declaring themselves a territory and holding their first election. Governor Steele deftly navigated the legal white water. To avert conflict with Kansas or Congress, should they seek to act upon their jurisdictions, his administration always included the word “provisional” in its territorial documents. Although its provisional laws specified the taxes it would levy and the salaries it would pay, Steele received no compensation nor authorized payments to anyone. Likewise, his administration collected no taxes, since Steele knew that any revenue they received could be challenged—probably successfully—in federal court.4 When elections for the legislature were held again the following year (after Congress again failed to act), Steele cautioned the candidates, “All persons who expect to be elected to any of the above offices should bear in mind that there will be no salaries or per diem allowed from this territory.”5

Steele and his colleagues also averted conflict regarding the ad hoc miners’ courts that had previously sprung up in various camps. While the provisional laws of the Jefferson Territory established county courts, district courts, and a supreme court, they also included the miners’ courts. This provision limited the miners’ courts to disputes regarding “mining claims and miners’ interests.” But no effort was ever made to assert the jurisdiction of a county court over a miners’ court—though litigants often disputed which of the two illegally created venues was the appropriate venue.6

On January 30, 1861, Congress again took up a motion to create the Jefferson Territory. This time, rather than being relegated to a committee, the motion was subjected to debate, with ensuing arguments over whether to name the territory Jefferson or Idaho or Colorado. Colorado won out, and three weeks later President Buchanan’s signature turned the less-than-legal Jefferson Territory into the fully official Colorado Territory.

Why was it suddenly so easy? Earlier that month, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana had seceded from the Union and were no longer participants in the issue. South Carolina, too, was gone, having left in the previous month.

Steele had achieved his goal, but it cost him his job. The national crisis caused by secession, which enabled Congress to create Colorado, also caused outgoing President Buchanan, a Democrat, to put country above politics and leave the appointment of a territorial governor to his Republican successor, Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln appointed William Gilpin, a Republican, to replace Steele, a Democrat. Party affiliation, however, was only one element in the decision. Though Steele had legal and governmental expertise, that contribution was now in place. Gilpin had a military background and a wide-ranging knowledge of the western territories. If war commenced, his military skills would be of more value.

Steele, for his part, recognized this. He issued a proclamation dissolving the Jefferson Territory and urging the citizens of the Colorado Territory to remain “loyal and true” to the U.S. government.

Robert W. Steele’s days in the limelight were over. He returned to his work in the mining industry and, four years later, moved with his family to Iowa to secure better educational opportunities for his children. But he had been a father of Colorado as well, and he later returned to his out-of-wedlock territory, living to see it become the nation’s thirty-eighth state. He passed away in Colorado Springs in 1901 at the age of eighty-one, surrounded by his family.

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