To learn Denver ’s history is to wonder how there came to be a city in this place at all.
The Laramie Treaty of 1851 had conceded this land to the Arapaho and Cheyenne, but that agreement was pretty much ignored when prospectors found flecks of gold in the Platte River in 1858. Others had come through this stretch before, only to categorize it as a “desolate wasteland” and keep on going. Though there wasn’t really a fortune to be found in the waters near the confluence of the Cherry Creek and the Platte River, prospectors set up their town on the banks. General William Larimer of Kansas put some sticks on a nearby hill to make his claim, which later became Denver.
Denver is that rare city that was not built up along a road, railroad, or navigable body water. There were initially three towns, but in 1859 a shared barrel of whiskey was all it took for the two smaller towns to be convinced to become part of Denver. Even the naming of the city was a bit of a bumble when local leaders strove to impress territorial governor James Denver, who lived in Kansas, by naming the city after him, but he had already retired and never came to Denver.
As the first Denver City was established with cabins and tents set up at what is now Confluence Park , Native Americans were edged out—often in violent and bloody confrontations. There is evidence that people had used the same spot as an ancient hunting ground as many as 11,000 years ago. The new settlers and members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes clashed, and a new treaty was drawn up in 1861 that gave Denver to the United States.
In those early years Denver  was the “Wild West,” with saloons, brothels, and lawlessness. Once gold was found in the mountains, the town was briefly left practically deserted. But rather than fold up, the city established itself as a supply center for the thousands flocking to the newest gold discoveries in the nearby mountains, and the mountains’ harsh winters sometimes drove people to the more hospitable Denver weather. The population in Denver was only 3,500 in 1866, one year before it was named the state capital. The town weathered devastating fires and floods, but there were always those optimists who saw the potential for Denver to be more than a dusty frontier town.
It was a shock then when Cheyenne, Wyoming, 100 miles north, was selected to be a stop on the transcontinental railroad. In other towns, the loss of the railroad may have been the last word and the place could easily have become a ghost town. Instead a spur was built to the railroad, and this saved Denver. With new millionaires from the mining boom ready to flaunt their wealth, mansions and elegant hotels and opera houses were built, making Denver more attractive to tourists, businesses, and people who wanted to relocate. The railroad lines were key to bringing all those people, as well as freight, to the city.
The city continued to find ways to reinvent itself as industries such as mining, ranching, and agriculture, then the federal government, developed in the area. The cowtown reputation came about during the many years that huge stockyards did a lot of business not far from downtown. By inviting the federal government to set up bases and weapons-making facilities Denver  gained importance nationally as well as regionally.