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Capt. Gunnison’s photo comes to Colorado

Brief by Central Staff

History – August 2005 – Colorado Central Magazine

Army Captain John W. Gunnison was not born in Colorado. Nor did he die here, and he spent only a few weeks in what is now our state. But he did leave his name on a lot of Colorado territory after passing through in 1853, and an original photograph of him has come to the Colorado Historical Society.

Gunnison, a West Point graduate from New Hampshire, led an 1853 trans-continental railroad survey for the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, looking for a route between the 38th and 39th parallels. They camped near Saguache on Aug. 29, 1853. Gunnison sent most of the crew west over Cochetopa Pass, while he and seven men rode north and crossed “Punche” pass the next day. At Poncha Springs they turned around and caught up with the others.

On the west side of Cochetopa, he left his name on a river, which provided the name for a city, county, and national forest. The expedition made its way to Utah, where Gunnison and several other men were killed by Utes. The expedition was completed by his second-in-command, Lt. Edward J. Beckwith.

The photograph is a glass plate positive known as an “ambrotype,” and is probably the last picture taken of John W. Gunnison. It was apparently passed down through the family of a brother. After his great-granddaughter died in 1997, a California collector purchased it from her estate, where it was found wrapped in paper with the notation that it was the Gunnison “after whom the town was named.”

In a deal brokered by Mount Gothic Tomes and Reliquary of Crested Butte, the Colorado Historical Society purchased the Gunnison photo in late June for $8,500, and hopes to have it on display at the state museum in September, along with other John W. Gunnison memorabilia.

We might note that there’s one place that Gunnison’s name isn’t on the map, even though that was suggested by Beckwith. And we’re glad the proposal fell through. In the expedition’s journal, Beckwith christened Poncha Pass as Gunnison Pass, “as a testimonial of respect to the memory of the officer who explored it.”

Gunnison’s memory is well preserved, though. And can you imagine how confusing it would be if we had a Gunnison Pass that did not lead to or from the City of Gunnison? Or Gunnison County? Or the Gunnison River?