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Better History along the Road

Article by Allen Best

Roadside History – March 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

MANY OF US don’t even notice the historical markers along Colorado’s highways, and even when they do catch our attention, we seldom stop more than once. After all, we’re not going to see anything new.

But that’s changing with a new series of signs from the Colorado Historical Society which aims for inclusiveness and accuracy.

The worst of Colorado’s old historical markers may be near Pagosa Springs. Albert H. Pfeiffer, it declares, was “one of the bravest and most colorful Indian fighters in the West.” After Indians had murdered Pfeiffer’s beautiful young wife, he campaigned under Kit Carson against the Apaches and Navajos.

In 1866, representing Utes, he killed a Navajo tribesman in a duel for possession of the Pagosa Hot Springs.

Quite a guy, except for one problem. Pfeiffer was a bum. Drummed out of the service in 1862, before his wife’s death, he was described by Kit Carson as a drunk and a gambler. It’s unlikely he fought for the hot springs, as the few Navajos who had escaped detention in New Mexico were starving by 1866.

Like too many historical markers of old, this one is mostly fiction. Even the markers erected 50 to 75 years ago that got their facts right were usually hard to read, though, and perhaps worst of all, many sinned in omission.

“They reflected their times. They reflected a very white, male point of view,” says David Halaas, chief historian for the Colorado Historical Society. “There was not one sign that dealt with women, there was not one sign that dealt with native peoples except as barriers to white settlement. There was nothing about blacks, nothing about Hispanics.”

Now, a new generation of 120 roadside historical markers is going up along highways in Colorado. Employing signs, readable text, and even color photographs, they tell about Hispanics, Indians, and Japanese, and they tell about more than battles and railroads.

[New roadside historical marker at Poncha Springs]

In Glenwood Canyon, for example, an exhibit tells about Utes of the 17th century and Mormon sheep ranchers of the 20th century. At Rifle, a panel tells about the curtain hung in 1971 by Christo, the Bulgarian-born artist who now wants to drape the Arkansas River in similar fashion. In Grover, on the high plains northeast of Greeley, there’s commemoration of the “Petticoat Government,” a town board composed entirely of teetotalling women elected during Prohibition.

Near Sterling, an exhibit tells about the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, while a panel near Yuma tells about “buffalo soldiers,” as black cavalrymen of the U.S. Army were called, who figured into two Indian battles in Colorado.

Dead, white guys still get ink. In Saguache, town father John Lawrence and road-builder Otto Mears get attention, while the Gunnison exhibition tells of railroad explorer John Gunnison. However, the coal miners of Crested Butte, although similarly white and male, also get their due for Slavic origins, while the Poncha Springs exhibit talks about live people loving the fourteeners to death.

Cotopaxi, Westcliffe, and Wetmore will all get panels, as will Granite and Leadville. The task at Leadville, says Ben Fogelberg, an assistant coordinator for the interpretive program, is to avoid saturation by retelling familiar stories. No markers are planned for Salida or Buena Vista.

The fundamental challenge is to “tell the history of our state and region and the West in a full way,” says Halaas. “The old highway interpretive scheme was one to shine on the Anglo conquest of the region, and everything else was a barrier. ”

With that in mind, the new markers focus less on sites, more on regional generalities. For example, one exhibit in Colorado’s farm country explains tractors, a second the sugar beet industry, while a third notes how federally sponsored rural electrification significantly changed the lives of mid-20th century farmers. “Markers do not have to be events, battles, etc.,” says Halaas.

Colorado’s roadside history program began in 1907 with a $2,000 state grant to the Daughters of the American Revolution to erect stone markers along 200 miles of the Santa Fé Trail. Later markers got more elaborate, but sometimes were esoteric. At Raton Pass, for example, the old marker noted it was crossed by the First Regiment, Colorado Volunteers during the Civil War, but neglected to explain that the volunteers were enroute to La Glorietta Pass to block Confederate soldiers who hoped to seize Colorado’s gold fields.

In supervising creation of new historical exhibits in this $2.9 million program, Halaas also was insistent that the historical markers recognized that life existed in Colorado prior to the gold miners, ranchers, and railroaders.

“It’s not just all the Wild, Wild Old West,” he says. “That’s just the old patriotic school, the old pioneer societies, where everything was in praise of those intrepid pioneers who created life out of the wilderness. That was crazy. It was wilderness to them, but not to those who had lived here for a long, long time.”

[Old roadside historical marker north of Poncha Springs]

OUR NARROW VIEW is represented in our common telling of the Lewis and Clark story. In that story the Indians have been, except for Sacajawea, almost incidental to this great search in the wilderness, he says. In fact, Indians were on hand for every leg of their journey, guiding the Americans and supplying them with food and horses. Lewis and Clark were, in his telling, essentially tourists.

Halaas and his assistants accept suggestions from local historical groups, except in the case of Sand Creek. There, in southeastern Colorado, militia from Denver slaughtered several hundred fleeing Cheyenne and Arapahoe men, women, and children in November 1864.

The marker installed there in 1950 hedged on what happened, calling it a “battle and/or massacre.” No uncertainty will be found on the new marker.

“It’s going to be hit, and it’s going to be hit right, that this was an act of genocide and a criminal act,” says Halaas. That much had been conceded by the U.S. government even in 1865, and it baffles him why the old marker was ambiguous. “These are things,” he adds, “that need to be told.”

Allen Best lives in Vail and Arvada, and examines highways all over Colorado.