Vagneur: Seeking the full story of Aspen’s history |

Vagneur: Seeking the full story of Aspen’s history

In June 1879, three silver prospectors hiked to Aspen from Leadville based on geologic reports gleaned from the Ferdinand Hayden survey party of 1873. Of course, there wasn’t an Aspen in those days, nor an Independence Pass — it was all a wing and a prayer at the time. And no one bothered to question the illegality of their trespass, I’m certain, for the land on this side of the Continental Divide still belonged to the Utes. As we’ve learned in hindsight, the ever-westward flowing mass of humanity in this country couldn’t be stopped, Ute land or not. Coincidentally, but critically, a Ute uprising on Milk Creek near present-day Meeker in fall 1879, ignited by mistreatment of the Utes by Indian Agent Nathan Meeker, would unfairly make sure the Utes lost all of their land in the Roaring Fork Valley.

In 1885, a ton of hay in Aspen cost around $150 to $200. In 2015, a ton of hay costs between $150 to $200 in the same town. Much is said about the amount of money earned from the silver mines, but unless you were an actual mine owner, it might have made more sense to be a farmer or rancher in the neighborhood around Aspen. And make no mistake about it ­— the mines couldn’t have existed without the backing of the farmers and ranchers.

When we read of history, we find we are examining a selection based on the writer’s view of how it all transpired. Oh sure, dates and names are generally indisputable, but many historians attach their interpretation of events to the backs of well-known individuals, thinking such personages can carry the story, without taking the time to showcase the multiple layers of hardship, elation, heartache and truly personal accounts of the common folk.

Such stories are many and intricate, but in the end, we see Aspen’s early history narrowly through the deeds of a few. Some of the names are likely familiar to your ear: Jerome B. Wheeler; that other Wheeler, B. Clark; Walter Paepcke; D.R.C. Brown; and a few others. What we very rarely see, even today, are the stories of the almost invisible folks, those people who, like scarce and sacred herbs, gave Aspen its unique flavor.

My first two paragraphs of this column exemplify how we sometimes fail to acknowledge the complexity of history. In the first, maybe it’s understandable why few talk about the white man’s trespass because that was simply the way we did business. Toward Native Americans, we mostly shared the view of Thomas Jefferson, who believed there were three choices for the natives: Keep moving west to stay out of the white man’s way, take up the customs of the white man and blend into his society or three, be exterminated. It’s reasonably clear that no one asked the Utes about their hopes and aspirations, their dreams for the future or even how they viewed their various domains. They certainly didn’t get out of our way fast enough, and whether through greed or ignorance — probably both — we usurped Ute land like an unstoppable lava flow.

In the second paragraph, we can see that not only did the miners need to be fed, but so did the numerous burros, mules and horses that were required to get silver to market, lumber out of the hills and coal from Marion, near Carbondale, up to Aspen. It sometimes is amusing to read that after the repeal of the Silver Purchase Act in 1893, leading to the silver crash, many of the miners turned to ranching in the valley. Oh, a few did, like Hildur Hoagland Anderson’s father, who got a hardscrabble piece of ground high in the Brush Creek Valley, but for the most part, ranchers and farmers were leaving the land behind and heading to places such as Cripple Creek or going home to wives and families and assumed stability because the easy money had run out.

As many of the existing ranchers and farmers decided to leave the valley after the silver crash, immigrants from northern Italy eagerly arrived and either took over the deserted farmsteads or bought the land from those wishing to leave. Just as most of history declares that Aspen and the surrounding area was in decline, hardworking, parsimonious, and closed-mouthed Italians, most of them with French surnames, put entire families to work and they prospered, thanks in large part to the railroad. From Aspen to Glenwood Springs, almost every farm or ranch was owned by people from the same small area of northern Italy. During the commercial growth of the 1940s and ’50s, these people with funny-sounding names filled the need for more banks by quietly loaning money to those who could demonstrate a need.

The definitive history of Aspen has yet to be written, but we’re working on it.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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