Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Lake County War

Here’s the short version of the Lake County War:

George Harrington was shot in the back when he went out to extinguish a fire in an outbuilding on the night of June 17, 1874. Elijah Gibbs was the immediate suspect because he and Harrington had an argument a couple of days earlier. Gibbs was tried and acquitted for the murder in October in a Denver court. The venue was changed because of the inflammatory nature of the case. Gibbs returned to his farm in Lake County, but peace didn’t last.

15 men showed up at Gibbs’ cabin on January 22, 1875 to hang him. They threatened to burn him and his family out of the cabin if Gibbs didn‘t walk out the door. They piled up kindling by the door, then as one of the men lit a match, Gibbs shot him and then fired more shots at the other men. 3 men were killed. Gibbs turned himself into the Justice of Peace, who held a trial the next morning. Wilburn Christison acted as the defense for Gibbs. The court found that Gibbs acted in self-defense. Gibbs immediately left the area.

Denied their revenge, the men formed a vigilante group called “The Committee of Safety.” They rounded up friends and supporters of Gibbs and held a trial where a noose was hanging over the witness’ chair. This was placed around the witness' neck and tightened when the committee found his testimony unsatisfactory. The line of questioning concerned whether the witness believed Gibbs had shot Harrington or not. Two of Wilburn’s sons, Leslie and Ernest, were questioned by the Committee of Safety.

The Lake County War culminated when Judge Elias Dyer, who had also been questioned by the Committee, swore out warrants for the arrest of 16 members of the Committee of Safety. Thirty armed men arrived in Granite on Friday, July 2, 1875. The next morning, Judge Dyer called court to order, but had to dismiss the case because the witnesses were too afraid to testify. After everyone left the courtroom, five men walked back in and assassinated Judge Dyer. No one was ever charged with the murder. The people of the county went on with their lives; the Lake County War died out, but the terror of the vigilante justice and secrecy of the conflict affected the people the rest of their lives.

If you are related to any of the people involved in the Lake County War or have information about it, please contact me at

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection

Several months ago I learned about the Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection:

This project is a collaborative effort by the Colorado State Library, the Colorado State Historical Society and the Collaborative Digitization Program. At this time, 86 Colorado newspapers published between 1859-1928 are available for viewing on-line. This collection is searchable by dates and keywords. It is a goldmine for any researcher of family history in Colorado or of Colorado history.

Imagine how thrilled I was to learn that the Fairplay Flume was one of the newspapers on-line! So now, instead of sitting in the Fairplay library looking through microfilm, I can sit in the comfort of my own home and spend hours staring at my computer screen. Now, if I only had high-speed Internet…
I’ve found many other snippets of information in other newspapers on the site, too, like the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver Daily Times, the Pueblo Chieftain. It reminds me to leave no stone unturned in the search for family history.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Photograph of Wilburn and Elizabeth Christison

When I was young, my parents researched my Dad’s family history in dusty newspaper offices. I remember sitting for endless hours in the Fairplay Flume office as they searched newspapers for articles about my great-great-grandfather, Judge Wilburn Christison. Who would guess that years later I’d be looking at old newspapers for hours at a time?

As Mom and Dad found new information about Wilburn Christison, I often heard my Dad say, “I sure wish we had a picture of the Judge.” Dad always called him “the Judge.” That phrase stuck with me through the years as I dug up more details about Wilburn. But now the phrase became, “I wish I could find a picture of the Judge for Dad.”

One day, on a whim, I posted a message on the Rootsweb and MyGenWeb message boards asking if anyone had a picture of Wilburn Christison, son of Adam. The e-mails started trickling in. After e-mails saying, “I have a picture of my Uncle Wilburn,” I added dates and places to my posting. I never dreamed there would be more than one Adam with a son named Wilburn.

2 ½ months after the initial posting, I received an e-mail from Betty Regnier saying she had a picture of Wilburn. To say I was skeptical is an understatement. I wrote back with the dates and places. She replied, “Yes, that’s him. He’s my great-grandfather.”

I will never forget the day I opened my mailbox and found the large manila envelope. Pulling the photographs from the envelope, I stared at the dignified faces of Wilburn and Elizabeth; faces that matched the resilient pioneers I’d come to know through a few newspaper articles and snippets in local history books.

And the first thing I did was scan the photograph and e-mailed it to my Dad. He finally has his picture of “The Judge.”

Friday, November 24, 2006

Arkansas River and Family Roots

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!