Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Arkansas Valley and the Lake County War

As Colorado moved toward statehood, there were many starts and stops along the way. Many were the men who wanted statehood, but where starts and stops along the way. One such man was Charles Nachtrieb. His story follows the quest for statehood and the growing pains the Arkansas Valley, Lake County which was later divided into Lake and Chaffee County. One such episode in the journey was what became known as the Lake County War. Here then is the story.

The Lake County War, was full of vigilantes, traveling preachers, judges, criminals and chaos. To this day the true story isn't fully known. Into this mix was Charles Nachtrieb, early settler in the area between what are now the towns of Buena Vista and Salida. While I knew of the Lake County War, I was unaware of Nachtrieb and his part in the story until research on his daughter, Dr. Josephine Dunlop, brought him to my attention.

Mr. Nachtreib, born April 20, 1833 in Germany, arrived in the Lake County area around 1859. He was a candidate from Lake County to the convention to admit Colorado as a state in 1865, which was approved by the voters. Although a constitution was adopted, President Andrew Johnson rejected the petition in 1866. (Colorado was not admitted as a state until 1876, becoming known as the Centennial State)

In addition to having a business along with being postmaster in Nathrop, Colorado, Nachtrieb also owned land in Gunnison County, located just west over the pass from Nathrop, where his large ranch was located. (Nathrop is an Anglicized version of Nachtrieb). He is also credited with having the first grist mill west of the Mississippi. An old school in Nathrop.

In 1879, Nachtrieb, along with Otto Mears and Issac Gothelf filed articles of incorporation with the state for the Poncho (Poncha), Marshall and Gunnison toll road which would run over the mountains and into Gunnison county. The toll road was expected to cost twenty-five thousand dollars and run from Poncha Creek in Chaffee County to the Gunnison River. Apparently there was a verbal agreement between Mears and Nachtrieb that Mears would build from the Gunnison side to the top of Poncha Pass and Nachtrieb would build from the Lake County side. This arrangement came about as a result of Nachtrieb's grist mill and the farming, especially wheat. this was coupled with the fact of higher prices being paid for flour in places like Oro City and other mining communities in the area. 
Mount Ouray from the north side of Poncha Pass, U.S. 285

On October 3, 1881, according to newspapers of the time, a man named Burt (Bert) Remington shot and killed Nachtrieb in his store. Some reports say Remington was a disgruntled former employee of Nachtrieb. Remington escaped after the shooting and the search was on. On Thursday October 6, 1881, Governor Pitkin issue a proclamation and offered a reward of $300 dollars for the arrest of Remington. Nachtrieb was forty-nine at the time of his death.

How does the Lake County War fit into all of this?

In 1874 Elijah Gibbs and George Harrington quarreled over property, fencing and water. About fifteen days later, one of Harrington's outbuildings was set of fire and when he went to deal with the blaze he was shot and killed. Due to the quarrel Gibbs had with Harrington, he was the prime suspect. Tempers and gossip fueled the flames over the killing and soon Gibbs was marked for a lynching. Cooler heads prevailed and Gibbs, along with his hired hand were bound over for trial. With emotions running so high, the venue for the trial was changed to Denver. There Gibbs and his hired hand McClish were found not guilty. McClish left the area, but Gibbs returned to his home in Lake County (Now part of Chaffee County).

It appeared things had to return to normal, but in January of 1875 the vigilantes got a warrant for assault, for the first quarrel between Gibbs and Harrington, and went after Gibbs. Gibbs, along with others made a run over South Park, down Ute pass and ended up in Colorado City, a town just west of the new town of Colorado Springs. The sheriff secured warrants and followed the men to Denver.  Gibbs and his cohorts were allowed by the sheriff to stay, due to implied lynching stories put out by the papers in Denver.

At the end of January of that same year the Committee of Safety organized in response to Gibbs and the Regulators he was purported to be a part of. This Safety committee, composed of most of the prominent men in the region, including Nachtrieb, intended to rid Lake County of all suspected murderers, cattle thieves, land grabbers and any other undesirables. In following through with their agenda, the flames grew greater. Anyone coming into the area was questioned, and if they were determined to be 'undesirable' they were asked to leave. One of the men questioned was Judge Elias Dyer, son of the itinerant preacher 'Father' Dyer. He took exception to being told to resign, when he told his inquisitors he believed Gibbs was not guilty. Dyer returned to the area and while holding court was shot and killed. There were those who said Dyer, by his actions, brought about his own demise, while others said the opposite.

Judge Dyer, in writing his thoughts in the matter, indicated that the man who killed Charles Nachtrieb was the nephew of Mr. Harrington, the man whose murder started the whole affair. To this day, the who, whats and wherefores are hidden in time and memories. Story after story offers conflicting information. In the end, was Charles Nachtrieb killed over 'wages' or the 'war'. We may never know. The Lake County War, a year long, impacted the lives of so many. Like the death of Charles Nachtrieb, we may never know the whole true story.

What I've shared is just a small part of the story of Charles Nachtrieb and the Lake County War. For more on the War, the book by Don and Jean Griswold, “History of Leadville and Lake County Colorado” is a good place to start. There is additional information by Gayle Gresham, whose great great grandfather was also involved, in the book “Rush to the Rockies” published by the PPLD as part of the Regional History Series.

Colorado, while a beautiful state, had many rough times on its journey to the place we now know. Perhaps this story will help to understand the history that made it part of the Wild West.

Doris McCraw who also writes under the name Angela Raines is an Author, Speaker, Historian-specializing in Colorado and Women's History

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  1. Excellent, Doris. This is a fascinating piece of history I have never read or heard about before. A little close to home to a series we are working, isn't it? Makes it that much more interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    1. When I heard you were writing about that area, I wanted to share some of the research the applied to your work. Not that you would use it, but to help fill out some of what made that area interesting. Glad you enjoyed it. Doris

      PS: Not many people have heard of the incidents surrounding this event. I do have a friend who is helping to research a book that is being written on the subject.