Willoughby: Free land if you can make a living on it

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Record load of wheat delivered to the D and R G in Monte Vista in 1910. Library of Congress
Willoughby Collection

Land around Aspen was once Ute Indian territory, then sold by the federal government through township, homestead and mining claims. There are many assumptions about those first owners, but knowing something of the historical context in which land was acquired rounds out your understanding.

The 1862 Homestead Act opened the land grab of 160-acre parcels that over 1.5 million settlers took advantage of. It precipitated many changes to the country. The ones most relevant to Aspen are not ones often discussed in our history books.

Simultaneous with homesteading, railroads became a dominant business fanning economic growth and causing recessions like the one in 1872 that was just ending when Aspen was founded.

Agriculture and railroads were intertwined. Access to railroads shifted subsistence farming to a cash crop business. The government wanting to stimulate settlement with the Homestead Act also helped railroads expand, giving them huge swaths of land along their routes. The Illinois Central, the first one in the state, while only 700 miles long in the 1850s, is credited with, in addition to the founding of new growing towns along its route, tripling the population of Chicago in one decade. It made the city the country’s wheat and meatpacking headquarters.

That process happened along many railroad routes. The problem was that the railroads often owned the land along the routes, making a fortune selling it to settlers. Homesteaders filing at a greater distance to the tracks had a hard time making a living. Moving wheat by wagon for those distances was not profitable, making them mostly subsistence farmers.

The relevance to Aspen is the large population of workers abandoning farming for another way to make a living: mining.

Between 1850 and 1890, two-thirds of the homesteads failed. Of those that did not fail, only the eldest son stayed on the farm. Younger brothers left seeking other employment. The railroads also ushered in the rapid industrialization of the country and the migration to the cities for those jobs. One study of the period showed no upward mobility for workers. Child labor was prevalent, and large numbers of immigrants meant there was completion for those jobs. The mining West became an outlet.

The Mining Act of 1872 set the stage. Any land that held any promise could be claimed with a small fee. A miner simply had to continuously work the claim and make improvements to it to retain ownership of the mineral rights. For $2.50 to $5.00 an acre, depending on the kind of claim, you could buy the land. Once purchased, you could timber it, build buildings, mine it and even just hold it for speculation.

Aspen had one advantage due to its relatively late founding in 1879. At the time, the railroad had not arrived and the land had just opened up after a settlement moved the Ute boundary. That meant that homestead land, since the railroad had not bought up the land for speculation, was free.

The Ashcroft and Aspen townsites held promise since the cost of acquiring them was minimal, a land speculation we can barely fathom today. Hundreds of mining claims were staked, including gold placer claims along the rivers larger than the regular 300-by-1,500-foot silver claims. Surrounding mountains were covered with claims, and prospectors built cabins on them.

Some were filed for speculation, but most represented a dream. A fifth son from a barely profitable prairie farm, or a city laborer barely making ends meet, could make their fortune. Many had no prospecting or mining experience, just a willingness to endure high-altitude winters and hard physical labor.

If they did not learn mining skills fast enough or file a claim without enough quality silver to be profitable, they opened businesses or worked for others in desperate need of employees.

Homesteaders on ranches, even without the railroad, had a close market. Hundreds of horses and mules needed feed and miners ate meat. Upward mobility was more common in Aspen than elsewhere.

I am not trying to paint a 19th-century utopia, but national context suggests that like today Aspen was a special place for those who called it home.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at