In the summer of 2004, I drove our pickup truck west, pulling my family’s 4-wheelers and motorcycles. Winding alongside the Arkansas River on US Highway 50 on the way to Salida, I reveled in the gravitational pull as I swung into the curves and marveled at the ascetic beauty of the harsh canyons and the white-water of the river. The deep canyons and river-winding curves brought to mind childhood memories of riding in the back seat of an International Scout that overflowed with sleeping bags, tents, water jugs, my Mom and Dad, my brother Brian, and Smokey, our black Labrador. Just as it did in my childhood, anticipation filled me to the point of bubbling over because the Arkansas River signaled the beginning of a family camping trip at Spring Creek.
The Arkansas also represents the connection to my family roots. The memories of camping with my family were just the beginning. I recalled Grandpa’s stories of growing up in tiny mining towns in the region and in Canon City. His father, Lewis, worked in the mines when the glory days of the mining era were a faded memory. I thought about Lewis’ older brother, Ernest, the cattle rustler who had a ranch north of Howard, and wondered how he ever herded cattle through this harsh territory. And I thought about my great-great-grandparents, Wilburn and Elizabeth Christison, who traveled from Kansas in a covered wagon pulled by oxen in 1861, settling first near the headwaters of the Arkansas River at Cache Creek. They raised nine children in the upper Arkansas Valley and South Park while Wilburn endeavored to bring truth and justice to a lawless land.
Although I’ve never lived in the area, I always feel an uncanny sense of coming home. Maybe it is the camping trips and memories of Grandpa cooking pancakes on the griddle over the campfire. Maybe it is walking down a road leading to a mine knowing my great-grandfather tread those same rocks or climbing the stairs of the Fairplay courthouse where Wilburn practiced law and served as a county judge.
While camping at Spring Creek with my husband John and our children Kate and Kenny, I thought about Wilburn and Elizabeth. What were their hopes and dreams? What heartaches made their journey in life more difficult? What drove them to move to the wilds of Colorado just as it became a territory? I wanted to know more about my people. And I wanted to share my people with my family so they could have a glimpse into the past; a glimpse into the lives of ancestors that intertwined with the history of Colorado.
And so, I renewed my journey in researching and writing the family history. Over the past two years I have driven to Canon City, Howard, Salida, Buena Vista, Cache Creek, Granite, Leadville, Fairplay and La Veta and I’ve spent countless hours in libraries, museums and courthouses. What an adventure! I’ve discovered amazing things about my family, their neighbors and the region they lived in. Join me as I share more about my adventures and discoveries in Colorado history!