A tailing tale of how Denver got its name

And Pike’s first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains

By Maggie Magoffin

Many thanks to Bill Spellman of Black Hawk for sending me this article from the Sunday, February 3, 1946 edition of the Rocky Mountain News.

“How Denver Got Its Name” by the Sage of the Rockies

A soldier came into my office the other day to ask me how Denver got started and where it got its name.

“Take a chair, Sarge,” I said, “and I’ll tell you. Denver was founded by claim jumpers,” I continued. “They named it.”

He remarked he thought claim-jumping wasn’t legal.

“Oh, not at all,” I replied, “as a matter of fact, these men turned out to be our most respected citizens. They came here from Leavenworth, Kan., and spent a week looking the camp over.

“Gen. William Larimer (nobody knows just how he got to be called general, but the title stuck) was their leader. The settlement on the west side of Cherry Creek called itself Auraria, and the one on the east bank was called St. Charles. Larimer and his gang preferred the east bank, so on Nov. 22, 1859, they jumped the creek to St. Charles.

“General Larimer thought it might be advisable to soften up the authorities because the St. Charles shareholders were bound to—and did—make a yell. So he got the idea of naming the town for James W. Denver, governor of Kansas Territory, which at that time extended to the Continental Divide.

“The theory was that Governor Denver who was the chief law enforcement authority could not very well send a posse to evict people who had named a town for him.”

The sergeant asked whether the scheme worked.

“Perfectly,” I said. “Governor Denver never made a yip. So Larimer and the others not being molested took over and ran things their own way.

“For example, take what happened to William McGaa.

“He was an Indian trader and the first white settler on what is now Denver. With John Smith he laid claim to the town on the east side of the creek and he was the first president of the St. Charles Town Association.

“His son was the first child born on the site of what is now Denver. What is now Market St. was named McGaa St. in his honor—probably named by himself. Glenarm Place bears the name of the village in Scotland where he was born.

“But McGaa wasn’t good enough for Larimer followers. Before long they decided he was of lax moral character, that he drank, and his and Denver’s first child had been born without benefit of clergy.

“So he and his family left town, by request, and disappeared from history. McGaa St. was re-named for Holliday, a pioneer whose reputation was regarded better, and the chief business artery was named Larimer St. for the No. 1 claim jumper, and everybody was happy except possibly the McGaas.”

“But what of Governor Denver?” the soldier asked. “Was he grateful for the honor done him?”

“There is nothing to indicate it,” I said. “There is no evidence that he so much as acknowledged the fact that this community was to carry his name. He never visited the camp that was to grow into a metropolis. Probably he never gave the matter further thought after the claim-jumpers had appealed to him.”

“So the connection between James W. Denver and his city is tenuous. There is one portrait—and only one—of him in Denver. We went our way and he went his, and that was that.”

The sergeant asked what happened to James W. Denver after the town was named.

“Well, he became a general and eventually died,” I said.

The sergeant remarked that if he got to be a general he must have been a big man.

“He was that,” I said. “He was even bigger that most generals. He topped six feet four and weighed in at 260 pounds.”

Pike Looked At a Peak

On Nov. 15, 1806, Zebulon Montgomery Pike caught his first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains.

“At 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” wrote Captain Pike, “I thought I could distinguish a mountain to our right, which appeared like a small cloud; when our party arrived on the hill they, with one accord, gave three cheers to the Mexican Mountains.

Two days later, Pike camped on the site of Rocky Ford, and on Nov. 24 reached the site of Pueblo. At the mouth of Fountain Creek he built a small fort of logs for defense against the Indians. It was the first structure erected by Americans in Colorado.

Resource: “Colorado,” by Hafen and Hafen

Maggie’s Books

The first two books of my Misadventures of the Cholua Brothers series are available at Mountain Menagerie on Main Street in Central City, Colorado; at,, and The third and final book in the series, Bonanza Beans, will be available February 2017.

For past columns and other information on my speaking engagements, book releases, and events visit me at

I’m always looking for interesting stories about Colorado pioneers and local folk instrumental in the founding and/or development of Gilpin County. If you have stories about family members or friends to share, please contact me at or send snail mail to Maggie Magoffin, P.O. Box 746495, Arvada, Colorado 80003.

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