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Don’t forget the Civil War

Letter from Virginia McConnell Simmons

History – February 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

Dear Ed:

Your review of my book, Drifting West: The Calamities of James White and Charles Baker, in the January issue was greatly appreciated. One statement made prompts me to offer a correction, since it involves the effect of the outbreak of the Civil War on prospecting in Colorado in general and in the San Juan Mountains in particular.

Ed’s statement that the prospectors of the 1861-1862 period in the San Juans were driven out by Ute Indians is inexact. Granted, neither Ute nor Navajo Indians contributed to the peace of mind of those early gold seekers, but other factors were greater influences on their abandonment of the diggings in the spring of 1861.

My first point is that during the seven or eight months of activity by several hundred prospectors (many more than the 100 Ed mentioned) in the San Juans in 1860-1861, a good number drifted away quite soon in search of other will-o-the-wisps farther on, because the rewards were disappointing. The meager results are not surprising to us since the panning and sluicing were being performed mostly in a snowy winter and since the real riches of the San Juans were locked up in veins, to be mined in subsequent years.

Second, the point that I especially wish to make here was that the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861 broke up the camps, whose denizens were about evenly divided in allegiances to Union and Confederate causes. When the prospectors departed, several joined volunteer and regular companies of respective military forces while others returned home or settled in Colorado’s towns.

We need to recognize the importance of the Civil War whenever we discuss many incidents that occurred in Colorado during the years of 1861-1865, the San Juan misadventure offering just one example.

Best wishes,

Virginia McConnell Simmons

Del Norte