Manifest Destiny in the mountains
In a preliminary report to the U.S. Congress about his inventory of Colorado, expedition leader Ferdinand Hayden sent a photo of snow forming a cross on a Colorado peak. The 1870 photo of the Mount of the Holy Cross convinced eastern Americans that God truly blessed our country. Motivated more by the potential for gold and silver than by Manifest Destiny, prospectors swarmed Aspen soon after the publishing of Hayden’s final report.
Hayden was one of several expedition leaders who were contracted to inventory and to survey the West. Beginning with the Lewis and Clark expedition, the federal government sought knowledge of what it had purchased and conquered so it could promote settlement and sell land. John Wesley Powell gained fame exploring the Grand Canyon. Clarence King, who crisscrossed the 40th parallel and the Sierra Nevada and became the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, was known for his scientific expertise. Hayden was a grandstander who, by exaggerating reports about Wyoming and Colorado, secured the most lucrative contracts.
An agronomist of Hayden’s survey team postulated that tilling the Colorado plains (called the Great American Desert because there were no trees) actually attracted more rain. The preposterous claim that “rain follows the plow” sent farmers and utopians to Greeley and other Front Range frontiers. When the anticipated rain did not eventuate, pioneer farmers grudgingly built long irrigation channels.
Hordes of artifact hunters violated Anasazi ruins in Mesa Verde, Hovenweep and Chaco Canyon because a Hayden publication exaggerated the number of caches of Indian treasure.
Some of Hayden’s exploits were exemplary. He was the first to engage the services of a photographer. As it turned out he chose one of the best, William Henry Jackson, whose photos document the West artistically. Along with Jackson, Hayden brought landscape artist Thomas Moran to explore the Yellowstone area. Moran’s expansive renderings captivated the imaginations of Congress. The unbelievable beauty and uniqueness that only Moran could portray motivated Congress to establish the first national park.
Anyone who has used a compass with a USGS map will recognize the triangulation points that the Hayden survey established for mapping. He and his team scaled the highest promontories, including Snowmass Peak, to set up the sight-view points that surveyors use to locate property boundaries. The triangulation points and the distances between them were established using 19th-century transits. When, the USGS rechecked Hayden’s work a century later using laser theodolites, they found few discrepancies.
Hayden’s 1873 survey was published in 1878 and highlighted numerous potential mining sites, including some around Aspen. Aspen was technically in Indian territory. Prospectors had not ventured into the area until Hayden’s report.
At the time of the report’s release, Leadville was already experiencing its second mining boom. The first was for gold, and 1878 brought a silver bonanza. Hayden’s geological map identified geology in the Aspen area that was similar to that of Leadville. Using the survey as a guide, prospectors crossed over the Continental Divide into Ashcroft and Aspen.
Pitkin County Library possesses a copy of Hayden’s report and the beautiful accompanying atlas. The back pages of the atlas include perhaps the only hand-drawn panoramic views of some local peaks. The report contains drawings of Anasazi ruins and artifacts. It is a fun tome to thumb through.
One of the perks of belonging to an expedition party in the 1870s was the license to name topographic features. When viewed from the top of Aspen Mountain, Hayden is the most beautiful peak. Perhaps self-adulation actually manifests itself as destiny in the mountains.
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