A tailing tale of James B. Arthur

A Colorado Pioneer

By Maggie Magoffin

James B. Arthur was born in Londonderry, Ireland, in March of 1835, one of several sons of Scotch Highlanders who like thousands of their neighbors were forced to seek shelter in other lands to avoid persecution for their religious beliefs. Religious and Civil wars swept Old Scotia for many years. The Arthurs, being Presbyterians and a steadfast breed, continued to worship as they pleased even if doing so meant wielding swords, daggers, or pikes at their services. These devoted, hardy people were ancestors to those who settled in the North and South Carolinas, crossed the Alleghenies, spread over Kentucky and into southern Ohio.

When he was fourteen-years-old, James secured passage on the Caithness-Shire and sailed for America. He was bound for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where a sister resided. The young man was hired to work in a store and remained in the “The Smokey City” for only a few months. The river boats traversing the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio offered attractions he could not resist. The floating palaces that plied between Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, New Orleans, and intermediate ports were the chosen means of travel and they afforded just the excitement a red-blooded, hardy, daring boy like James was looking for. Through late fall, winter, and early spring young Arthur made numerous trips. His honesty and attention to business details was noted and he was promoted to positions of trust. During low-water times on the river, James worked on the Great Lakes so as not to be idle and exhaust his earnings.

The great panic of 1857 decided Arthur’s future. This great financial disaster in the U.S. was caused by the declining international economy and over-expansion of the domestic economy. Because of the interconnectedness of the world economy by the 1850’s, the financial crisis that began in late 1857 was the first worldwide economic crisis. That great financial disaster paralyzed all industry and plunged the whole country east of the Missouri River into despair. Realizing hard times would hold business in its grip for months, in 1858 James joined his brother in Kansas.

In 1859, news of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush in Colorado drew the attention of James and his brother. With several traveling companions, oxen, wagons and plenty of provisions, they set off across the plains. Arriving in Colorado during the height of the gold fever, the men settled around Gregory Gulch, and for a few weeks James did his share of placer mining. However, being the bold entrepreneur he was, he determined washing or mining for gold was a speculation at best. He did not expect to get rich in a day, a month, or a year, but he did aim to acquire compensation which would pay for time and trouble spent. For that reason, gold mining did not appeal to Arthur.

Hay sold in the mining camps for $75 to $150 a ton. The plains, which were public domain, were covered with rich buffalo and grama grass. Having teams and wagons, James saw a better chance to make money in hay than in placer mining. He gathered together several other men and set out to pitch his tent east of the Rocky Mountains. The men cut the grass with scythes, hand raked it, and baled it with a makeshift baler. They used a 3 by 6-foot wood box which was 4 to 6 feet high. Ropes were placed inside the crude box and the ends and sides. Hay was pitched in and a man tramped it down until the box was filled. The ropes were then hauled taut and tied. The plan kept the hay in place, and for hauling to points of destination, was far superior too loose hay on a rack.

However, the loads were too bulky for their weight. James recalled a method of baling he had seen hundreds of times on the Mississippi at New Orleans. Once a cotton press was found and purchased they no longer needed to use the old method. James B. Arthur and John Hahn were the first men to use this machine in Colorado and it paid them well to do so. They could put as much hay in half the space as by the box methods, consequently, enabling them to haul more hay and in better shape.

While engaged in the hay business, Arthur located a claim on the Cache la Poudre River, situated a few miles below what is today Fort Collins. It was a lonely spot with the nearest neighbor being miles away. The only form of government existing in the Poudre and Big Thompson Valleys at that time was among the ranchers. There being no regular form, a Claim Club was organized, with bylaws and officers, and all questions in dispute were settled by it. The justice of the peace (one of the officers) gave his decision first, then it was given to the president of the club and his decision was considered final.

In the spring of 1870, James returned to Bay City, Michigan and married his betrothed Mary A. Kelley. The couple became acquainted in 1855. When James decided to go West to seek his fortune, he proposed to Mary. She waited twelve years for him to return and marry her. Though they kept in touch through letters they never saw one another during that time.

James and Mary returned to Colorado where he became a stock man, buying his first herd of cattle in Missouri and driving them across the plains. Years later, he purchased cattle in New Mexico, Wyoming, Oregon, Utah, and Idaho. At times he owned as much as 5,000 head and earned the bulk of his fortune through cattle trading.

In 1883, realizing open range grazing would soon come to an end, James sold every cow. He then devoted his time and money to other pursuits. He invested in irrigation ditch propositions, bought and sold land, and became an active member of the Empson Packing Company of Longmont. He bought and opened to trade the gypsum beds at Red Butte, Wyoming, and organized the Rocky Mountain Plaster Stucco and Manufacturing Company. He was director of the Cache la Poudre Bank. He was appointed by territorial Governor John Evans to the Board of Commissioners to perfect the organization of Larimer County. He was a member of the Fort Collins council for two terms, mayor for one term, and state senator to fill a vacancy.

James B. Arthur died on August 11, 1905.


The Real Pioneers of Colorado, by Marla Davies McGrath.

Books by Maggie

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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