In May of 1861, George Henry and Sarah Church set out on their honeymoon, into an unfamiliar frontier. They loaded their cart with a variety of comforts, from a stack of homemade potato pancakes to Milton's Paradise Lost and a tome of "Grecian mythology." Then, hitching up their team of oxen ("Buck and Bright, Tom and Jerry") they headed west. Along the way, others told them to head back. Colorado was a bust, they heard. "There was no gold and no farming as it never rained." They wouldn't give up.
Sarah looked at the bleak weather outside, where rain had been pouring for weeks. "It would be pleasant to be for awhile where it never rains," she replied. It wasn't just the weather that had turned sour. The Civil War was breaking out; back east, brothers were fighting brothers. The economy had gone sour, as well. As Sarah described it:
Prices for all far products were so low they were hardly worth carrying to market. The little State [Iowa] and individual banks made 'paper money' so unsafe as they were failing every day, that one hardly felt safe to keep their bills overnight. Such a state of things made any outlet acceptable.
And so West it would be. At first, they traveled alone, but soon joined up with an ox train headed their way. Sarah was the only woman along the trail, until approached by two Pawnee women, seeking help for a sick infant. The women asked for some of the "porrage" that was cooking over the fire. The travelers were happy to oblige, but slightly taken aback when the women carried the supper home in a blanket.
Eventually, the wooded lands surrounding the Missouri river gave way to the unbroken prairie. There, they joined other families, and followed the Platte River towards the headwaters in the Rockies beyond. The supply of firewood ran scarce, so they fueled the fire with buffalo chips instead. Sarah, ever positive, noted the chips "made most excellent baking fires, keeping an even, uninterrupted heat."
One evening, a group of naives, accompanied by a government agent, arrived at the camp, where the families were busy washing and cooking. The group approached George and some of the other men. Sarah watched nervously as the men, visibly amused, stood engaged in discussion. Soon, George came back. The natives were interested in buying "white squaws" he said. "What do you think of it? This big Indian will give nine ponies and $100.00 for you and says he has more ponies and more dollars."
The blushing bride played along. "Well," she said, "you will never have a better offer... better close the sale."
Bartering and bantering continued. At one point, it became clear that her admirer preferred the golden-haired "Mrs. R." but considered Sarah "good" anyways. Before she could defend her appearance, the government agent interrupted.
"You white men must not talk to these Indians," he told them. "They are in earnest and you may have trouble." Indeed, the men were honest. (It is possible they'd heard of women going west who were in the market of selling their bodies-this was the Wild West, after all.) The agent told them of a recent incident, where a woman was shot after her "sale" was withdrawn.
The next morning, Sarah noticed the natives had come to watch them depart. "My admirer had a new red flannel band on his straw hat, his beaded moccasins and finest leggings and looked very sad."
In late July, they arrived in Denver, Colorado. After being alone on the quiet, dark prairie for weeks on end, the bustling boom-town, lit with kerosene lamps, was a glaring surprise. "The streets at night look almost as bright as Fairy Land," Sarah wrote on the night of her arrival. Denver was only the edge of the frontier, though. After refreshing their supplies, the newlywed couple headed into the Rockies, through Mt. Vernon Canyon.
A diagram showing the Front Range in the 1860s.
Click the image to view the full size in a new window. Compare this to the diagrams in upcoming posts to see some of the changes over time.
There, they joined the flocks of people who sought precious metals along Clear Creek. They bought a few mining claims, and rented a room in a log cabin. Lining the floor with gunny sacks, purchasing a stove and dining set, they felt right at home. Sarah picked huckleberries on the banks of Fall River, beneath the snowy range (St. Mary's Glacier.) They watched the aspens turn, and drank their fill of the fresh mountain water runoff. By the time winter passed and thawed, they'd fallen deeply in love with Colorado.
By March, they knew they wanted to stay for good. Leaving some belongings with a neighbor in Mt. Vernon canyon, they headed back to Iowa for the rest. The trip back was difficult. Sarah caught ill, and was diagnosed with inflammatory rheumatism. Forced to stop, they took shelter in a sod home along the Overland Stage route. Sarah described the hospitality and advice she received there:
Everyone was so kind and wanted to cure me; some recommended Bear's oil to rub my knees, another said Skunks, and others rattlesnake. Finally, an Irishman who lived alone, 10 miles from anyone, made me such a fine cup of coffee for my dinner and put condensed milk in it-the first I had ever seen. He said, "I will tell you, mam, a sure cure: Get drunk-it always cures me. He looked it.
When Sarah felt well enough to travel, and returned to Iowa. There, they were greeted by a mixed reception. Everyone wanted to hear the stories of the adventures they had. When they told of the journey, Sarah's mother balked. "This settles it. You will not go out there again. If Henry has left anything, he can go out after it, but you can stay at home."
Sarah admitted, "we did not tell her for several days that we had come for a herd of cattle and must start back in May."
Eventually, her father saved the day. "A woman is supposed to go with her husband. I took a young woman of twenty into the wilds of Illinois in 1836.... Never thought she would desert me because there were hardships to be endured, and she did not."
So, the following May, George and Sarah Church returned to Colorado, with another team of oxen and 50 cows and calves. At first, they settled into another room over Mt. Vernon Canyon, but soon looked for a place to start a ranch. Irrigation had begun north of Boulder, off of Left Hand Creek. They checked it out, and decided to buy a strip of land there.
There wasn't much lumber, for housing or cooking fires, so they had a log cabin from Boulder moved to the new ranch. They decorated the house with carpets and curtains, chairs and tables. They found homes for their books, including poets and classics, as well as the 1861 edition of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary ("which everyone said it was too large to bring to 'Pikes Peak' when you were only going to stay a short while.") It was there, in the middle of a snowstorm in March of 1863, that Sarah gave birth to John Frank Church.
Despite all the luxuries, the Churches weren't happy with the land. Sarah was homesick, and George was having trouble with irrigation. The ditch remained dry. They decided to sell. One day, during a particularly heavy snowstorm, George went to town to find a buyer. Sarah found herself alone, in the cabin, with the baby. In a remorseful mood, she decided to heat some water with a "quick chip fire." She stepped out to fetch the water, returned, and discovered the house was on fire.
At first, she tried to put out the fire by herself, but realized the roof had already caught. She grabbed baby Frank and took him outside, setting him in the snow. Then, in a blind panic, she went back to save whatever she was able.
I went upstairs and got all the bedding I could carry, then got a few hundred dollars that was in the house in a little French work box and took them out in the garden near Frank. He said 'Mama' and put out his little hands; I kissed him and ran back. Did not think of Pa's fine rifle or watch. Saw my goods and such, a pile of things I had in the yard, were too hot. I moved the things, and ran in the house to get some books. As I took the second armful, a beam fell, striking my shoulder and scorching my hair.
Still running on adrenaline, she tried to take the carpet. When it wouldn't budge, she went for a sack of flour. Returning for the sugar, she finally gave up, went outside, and hugged her child. Neighbors arrived to help put out the fire with the drifted snow. Sarah finally took a breath, and looked down at the baby in her arms. In her panic, she had set him in the garden bed. "Poor little Frank," she said, "he had cried and rubbed his eyes in the smoke, and his face was so sooty."
After recuperating at a neighbor's home, the Church family wasn't sure where to go next. They decided to go into Denver to stock up on supplies. On the way, they stopped at a house on Big Dry Creek, which they described as "very uncomfortable quarters."
"It was five miles from any other house, a great sweep of prairie to the west, not a house till you reached the foothills to the north, open country to the Platte River, and one house until your reached Denver," Sarah described. After looking around, they decided to by the place. "It seemed unwise to go off to the ends of the earth for more till these [mining claims] were disposed of." George asked Sarah what she thought. "Well," she said, "the house would not be so bad if it were clean."
So, they bought it, founding Church Ranch, which is still in operation, 142 years later.
Next, "Taming the Great American Desert"
Notes: Quotes from "Recollections of my Trip Across the Plains in 1861" (Memoirs) by Mrs. George H. Church, provided (along with the picture of Sarah) by George Church McKay and Kandi McKay. (A special thanks to the Church family for providing the information, especially to the late Sarah, who kept such delightful notes.) Image of ox train (artist unknown) and images imbedded in Front Range diagram, including the sod and log cabin by William Henry Jackson, 1860s Central City and Boulder skylines (artists unknown) and a wagon train in Denver by W. G. Chamberlain via the Western History Photos collection at the Denver Public Library. All other images are property of the author.