The History Behind the Fiction: James Michener's "Centennial"

One of the great novelists of the twentieth century, James A. Michener, set one of his best-known novels right here in Colorado.  Michener spent a great deal of time in Colorado researching Centennial, renting an apartment in Capitol Hill and also spending much time in the northern part of the state, where the novel is set.  Published in 1974, Centennial was adapted as a television mini-series in 1979.  Upon giving Colorado the national spotlight on prime-time TV, Centennial is considered to be one of the factors contributing to Colorado's population boom in the 1980s.

There is a city in Colorado today called Centennial, but this is not the place the novel was based on; rather, the Arapahoe County locale is fairly new and took its name from the novel.  Instead, Michener placed his Centennial in northern Colorado, mostly based on Greeley.  Many of the events depicted in the story, however, were inspired by true events in Colorado's history. 

The early portions of the novel look at the geological and natural formation of what would be Colorado.  You can learn more about this topic by visiting the Colorado Geological Survey.

Much of the book concerns the Arapaho Indians and their struggles through Colorado history.  The Arapaho and their allies the Cheyenne lived on Colorado's eastern plains.  The horrible Arapaho massacre and the character Col. Frank Skimmerhorn depicted in the novel are based on the true story of Col. John Chivington, the "fighting parson," and the Sand Creek Massacre, which actually occurred 148 years ago today.  You can read about Silas Soule, on whom the character Captain MacIntosh is based, in Western Voices, a Colorado Historical Society publication available from our library.

The novel is sprinkled with other characters based on our state's history.  The trader Levi Zendt is somewhat based on the real-life George Bent.  Hans "Potato" Brumbaugh may have been inspired by Rufus "Potato" Clark, a major potato farmer south of Denver who carved out a road to the city to sell his potatoes.  That road became known as Broadway.  Like Brumbaugh, Clark started out as a prospector and later became a pioneer in irrigation.  Other characters may not be so obviously based on specific historical persons, but all of the characters typify those who made the West what it was (and is) -- Indians and Mexicans, trappers and traders, settlers, soldiers, ranchers and cowboys, farmers and laborers, lawmen and those who didn't respect the law -- as depicted in Michener's classic.

The second half of the novel emphasizes Centennial's (or, northeastern Colorado's) heavy reliance on agricutlure.  The Venneford Ranch is probably inspired by Monfort, a major cattle marketing and distributing company near Greeley until 1987.  Another topic covered in Centennial is dryland farming.  The eastern plains of Colorado experienced the effects of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, so memorably depicted by the character Alice Grebe in the story.  The Grebes reflect many small farmers who struggled during the simultaneous Dust Bowl and Great Depression.  For a first-hand look at what dry farming was like in the early years of the twentieth century, before the Dust Bowl hit, see the 1917 publication Dry Farming in Colorado, published and circulated by the Colorado State Board of Immigration -- who sought to attract farmers to Colorado the same way Mervin Wendell did in Centennial. 

James Michener is no longer living, but his legacy continues at the Michener Library at the University of Northern Colorado, which houses many of his papers.  For an interview and in-depth look at Michener and the writing of Centennial, see "Colorado's People:  Through the Pen of James A. Michener" in the 1982 Annual issue of Colorado Heritage Magazine, available from our library.


License Plates

You may have noticed that Colorado has quite a few different license plate designs.  Motorists can choose a license plate that reflects their military status, heritage, alma mater, favorite sports team, favorite cause or charity, or just a special designer plate.  For all the available options, along with pictures, see the Colorado Dept. of Revenue's License Plates page.  Click on the category, such as Military, for all available plate designs.  Plates for sports teams, charities, etc. are listed under the "Group Special" category.  On this website you can also find out about personalized plates (or should it be PL8s?)  and motorcycle/scooter plates.  The website will also link you to all the other information you need about titling and registering a vehicle.  And, if you're curious just how many people have a certain design of license plate, check out the monthly statistical summary Registered Vehicles by Plate Type, available on our library's website.  You can find out how unique you can be with a certain plate (only 55 vehicles in Colorado carry the Alive at 25 plate) or other interesting facts (the statistics suggest that Colorado is home to at least 3 Medal of Honor winners and 44 Pearl Harbor survivors).  Finally, check out Colorado License Plate History.  Before 1978, when the validating stickers were introduced, license plates were replaced each year with a new color.  So, what does your plate say about you?


Swelling Soils: Homebuyers Beware

If you're looking at buying a home in the Denver Metro area, particularly in the area around C-470 near Bowles and Wadsworth in Jefferson County, or if you currently live in the area, make certain you read the Colorado Geological Survey's Guide to Swelling Soils for Colorado Homebuyers and Homeowners, available for checkout from our libraryThis booklet contains everything you need to know about "Colorado's most significant geologic hazard."  The Colorado Geological Survey's Swelling Soils page explains how Bentonite clays expand when exposed to water, "more than enough to break up any structure they encounter": 

"Where the claystone layers turn up on end near the foothills, the effects of swelling are intensified and the phenomenon is called heaving bedrock, which causes heave ridges.  These ridges cause roads to ripple, including C-470 near Bowles Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard, a telling sign that extraordinary precaution is needed to prevent structural catastrophes in the area."

However, the Colorado Geological Survey assures us that "sound building techniques can prevent swelling-soil damage to homes, but it is crucial that builders follow these techniques faithfully." So be sure you know the facts next time you are searching for a new home, and check out this essential guide.  


Lincoln's Colorado Connection

Abraham Lincoln never visited Colorado, just a fledgling territory in the early 1860s.  But he did leave his mark on the state through the appointment of his friend John Evans as Colorado's second territorial governor.  Evans, who lived in Illinois (Evanston is named for him), vigorously campaigned for Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, and as a result was rewarded with a political appointment as governor of the wild and woolly new territory.  Evans only served two years as territorial governor, but he and his descendants would leave an indelible mark on Colorado over the next century -- and all as a result of Lincoln's decision.

Born in Waynesville, Ohio, in 1814, John Evans, a physician specializing in gynecology, made his name teaching at Chicago's famed Rush Medical College and as the inventor of a number of surgical instruments, as well as helping to found the Illinois Medical Society and Northwestern University.  Evans was also interested in politics, and as founder of the Illinois Republican Party became personal friends with Abraham Lincoln. 

The President appointed Evans territorial governor of Colorado in March 1862.  He had previously been offered the governorship of Washington Territory but declined.  While governor of Colorado, Evans strived to bring the intellectual culture he had left behind in Chicago to his new home.  He founded the Colorado Seminary, which became the University of Denver.  With William Byers, Evans also helped found the Denver Board of Trade.  In 1864, Evans appointed John Chivington as Colonel of the Colorado Volunteers, whose task was to deal with "hostile" Indians.  Col. Chivington attacked a group of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapho on the banks of Sand Creek on November 28, 1864, killing over two hundred, mostly women and children.  For his part in the massacre, Evans was forced to resign in disgrace.

The former governor continued with public life, however.  He is perhaps most responsible for keeping Denver from dying out when a railroad was planned through Cheyenne, leaving Denver in the dust.  Evans successfully advocated for a spur to come to Denver, linking Denver with the rest of the country and making sure it remained and thrived as viable city that attracted new settlers.

Evans' children and grandchildren also played important roles in the development of Denver.  His son William Gray Evans served as president of the Denver Tramway Company and, although never holding political office himself, controlled Denver's political machine for many years.  On the more positive side, William's sister, Anne, devoted herself to arts and culture in Denver.  She served on the Denver Public Library Commission, donated her own art collection to help found the Denver Art Museum, and organized the Central City Opera Association, preserving the old Central City Opera House in the process.  Her nephew, William Gray's son John II, became president of the powerful First National Bank of Denver.  And Governor Evans' son-in-law, Samuel Elbert, husband of Evans' daughter Josephine, also served as Colorado governor.  Colorado's highest peak, Mt. Elbert, is named for him.

Of this influential family, however, it is still the gray-bearded Governor Evans who is best known.  Evans died in 1897 after a fall from a moving streetcar.  His home, at 14th and Arapahoe downtown, no longer stands, but you can visit the Byers-Evans House Museum, where William Gray Evans and his family lived.  In the home's library you can see chandeliers and other furnishings from Governor Evans' house.

The Colorado State Archives is home to Governor Evans' official papers.  On their website you can read a biography of the Governor and view several documents from the collection, including the letter requesting his resignation as Governor of the territory, and a letter from F.W. Seward (Assistant U.S. Secretary of State and son of U.S. Secretary of State William Seward) regarding the governor's appointment.  The State Archives also has railroad records and records on Sand Creek and the Colorado Volunteers.


Silver Mining

Colorado is famous for its gold - our State Capitol dome is clad in the precious metal, and the Pikes Peak Gold Rush was one of the major reasons settlers started moving to our state.  But did you know that in the 1870s through the early 1890s, Colorado's economy was much more dependent on silver than on gold?  Silver was a hot commodity during that time because it was purchased by the federal government for use in making coins.  Then, in 1893, Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, sweeping Colorado into the Panic of 1893, one of the worst financial panics in the Nation's history.  Many mines were forced to close, and the great silver boom era was closed.  It was, however, a colorful time in Colorado's history, giving rise to a number of legendary millionaires and causing the birth of numerous towns, many of which are still thriving today, albeit through different industries, such as tourism.  You can read more about Colorado's silver mining towns in these books, available from our library:
  • The Rise of the Silver Queen:  Georgetown, Colorado, 1859-1896.
  • Silver Saga:  The Story of Caribou, Colorado.
  • Aspen:  The History of a Silver Mining Town, 1879-1893.
  • History of Leadville and Lake County, Colorado.
  • Mining Among the Clouds:  The Mosquito Range and the Origins of Colorado's Silver Boom
Also see the following resources on silver mining in Colorado and its relationship to gold mining:
  • The Trail of Gold and Silver:  Mining in Colorado, 1859-2009.
  • The Quest for Gold and Silver:  Including a History of the Interaction of Metals and Currency.


Electronics Recycling

Today is America Recycles Day, so it's a good day to unload all of the useless old electronic equipment you have laying around the house.  Many times we hang on to these items because we don't know how to get rid of them.  Just recently I threw an old printer in the dumpster because I didn't know what else to do with it (I know, bad, bad, bad), but now, thanks to the Colorado Dept. of Public Health & Environment, I know better - and by visiting their Electronics and Computer Waste webpage, so can you.  Here you can find out exactly how - and where - to dispose of your old computer parts, because, as I also learned, 

View detailsElectronic equipment like computer monitors, central processing units (CPUs), keyboards, mice, scanners, and cell phones contain a number of hazardous constituents such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chromium and silver. Many of these constituents are found on the circuit boards or in the glass. Computers also contain a battery such as nickel-cadmium, lithium or sealed lead acid. These constituents are not a concern while the equipment is in use, but if disposed of in a landfill, harmful chemicals could leach out and contaminate groundwater and soil.   ---CDPHE

In fact, starting on July 1, 2013, it will be against the law in Colorado to dispose of electronics in landfills, according to SB12-133, passed last session.  This includes not only computer parts, but also household appliances, televisions, and exercise equipment.  The new law also asks counties to hold more electronics recycling events. 


Child Welfare Investigation

Recently the Denver Post and 9 News commenced a large investigation of the state's child welfare system (read the Post series here.)  Currently the Colorado Dept. of Human Services (CDHS)'s homepage has listed all of the documents they provided to the two media agencies; also, you can find more at CDHS's Child Welfare Division website.  The media invesigatio focuses on the issues of child abuse and child fatalities.  In 2007 the CDHS published a Child Maltreatment Fatality ReportYou can find various other recent resources on child abuse and child welfare in our library, including:


Holiday Gift Ideas

Are you looking for a gift that says "Colorado"?  Are you shopping for someone who doesn't want more "stuff"?  Is there a gourmet food lover on your gift list?  Looking for a unique corporate gift?  If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, then be sure to check out the Colorado Dept. of Agriculture's Colorado Food and Agriculture Gift GuideHere you will find listings, descriptions, and purchasing locations/websites for Colorado-made specialty food products and gift baskets.  Homemade jams and jellies, sauces and salsas, desserts and confections, honey, cider, chocolate, tea, sausage, spices, popcorn, cheese, and jerky, are just a few of the products made right here in Colorado that you can find by using the gift guide.  So give a unique gift this holiday and support Colorado agriculture and small business at the same time. 


Winter Driving Tips

CDOT imageAs fall moves toward winter, now is the time to get ready.  The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has all the information you need on their Winter Driving webpage.  Here you can find links to road conditions and travel advisories; chain laws and locations of chain up stations for commercial trucks; avalanche control near highways; and more.  You can also find several CDOT publications available from our library that offer winter driving information, including the I-70 Eagle County Winter Travel Guide and Slick Tips:  Colorado Winter Driving Handbook.  So whether it's a quick trip around town or a long drive to the high country, be sure and follow these tips, quoted here from CDOT:
  • Be sure to carry plenty of windshield wiper fluid as liquid de-icers may stick to your windshield
  • Let the snowplow drivers do their jobs by giving them extra room
  • Slow down!  Even roads that have been treated with liquid de-icers may be slippery
  • Don’t use cruise control when traveling in winter conditions
  • Be prepared.  Have a scraper, snow brush, coat, hat, gloves, blanket, first aid kit, flashlight, tire chains, matches and nonperishable food in your car
  • Make sure your tires have good tread


Votes for Women

It's hard to believe that, as we went to the polls yesterday, it was not all that long ago that women did not have the right to vote.  It was on this day 119 years ago, November 7, 1893, that Colorado women were enfranchised.  (A few other states passed women suffrage laws, but women did not gain the right to vote across the nation until 1920.)  Colorado was only the second state, after Wyoming, to give women the right to vote.  Visit the Colorado State Archives website to see the original Legislative bill giving Colorado women the right to vote.  For more information on the women's suffrage movement in Colorado, see articles in the July 1956, Winter 1964, and Winter 1967 issues of Colorado Magazine and the Spring 1993 issue of Colorado Heritage, all available from our library.  You can also read about several prominent Colorado suffragists -- Molly Brown, Elizabeth Ensley, Ellis Meredith, and Minnie Scalabrino -- at the Colorado State Library's www.coloradovirtuallibrary.org.


The 1876 Presidential Election

On this election day, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at one of the United States' more interesting and controversial Presidential elections - and one in which Colorado had a direct hand in the outcome. 

Colorado became a state just three months before election day, 1876.  That year, the Presidential race was between Rutherford B. Hayes, Republican, and Samuel J. Tilden, Democrat.  As a territory, Colorado had been entitled to one Territorial Delegate to sit in the House of Representatives; Delegates were allowed to sit on Committees and to take part in debate, but could not vote.  By 1874, Colorado leaned Republican, but a split in the party had resulted in Colorado's leading Democrat, Thomas M. Patterson, being elected to the position of Delegate.  During his two-year term, Patterson lobbied hard for statehood.  Finally, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Colorado Enabling Act so that Colorado could indeed become the nation's 38th state.  It was largely due to Delegate Patterson's efforts.

Part of the reason Patterson fought so strongly for statehood to occur that year was because he believed that, with Colorado's Republican party fighting, Colorado would give its three electoral votes to the Democrats.  But here Patterson made his error.  Because Colorado became a state in August, and election day occurred in November, the new state did not have time to organize a Presidential election, so the Colorado legislature selected the state's electors.  The Legislature was controlled by the Republicans at the time - so Colorado's three electoral votes went to the Republicans.

In one of the United States' closest presidential elections, Rutherford B. Hayes won the race - but by only one electoral vote.  If Patterson had held off his lobbying for just a few more months, Colorado would not have been a state yet - and Samuel J. Tilden would have been President. 

The election of 1876 was controversial far beyond just Colorado's role.  Fraudulent voting and political intrigue occurred in several states, leaving some 20 electoral votes hotly contested.  Even still, years later, after Patterson went on to be a successful lawyer, owner of the Rocky Mountain News, and United States Senator, "his speech reflected a note of pride that it was generally believed that a presidential election had been lost because of a lowly territorial delegate."*

For the full story with all the details, see Robert E. Smith's article in the Spring 1976 Colorado Magazine.  For more on Thomas Patterson, see also the Winter 1974 and Winter 1977 issues of Colorado Magazine; the Spring 2005 issue of Colorado Heritage, and the full-length biography, Tom Patterson:  Colorado Crusader for Change, University Press of Colorado, 1995.  All of these resources are available from our library.  

*Smith, Robert E.  "Thomas M. Patterson, Colorado Statehood, and the Presidential Election of 1976."  Colorado Magazine, v.53 n.2, Spring 1976.


Native American Heritage Month

November is Native American Heritage Month.  During this month, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and other cultural heritage organizations "join in paying tribute to the rich ancestry and traditions of Native Americans."  For more information visit www.nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov.

The State Publications Library has numerous resources on Native American/American Indian history, life, and traditions, including information on history, arts, language, material culture, and more.  Some of the highlights in our collection include: 

  • Archaeological Landscapes on the High Plains. University Press of Colorado, 2009.
  • Denver:  An Archaeological History, University Press of Colorado, 2008.
  • Report of the State Archaeologist to the Commission of Indian Affairs.  Colorado Historical Society, 1999.
  • Archaeological Investigations at Wolf Spider Shelter, Las Animas County.  Colorado Department of Transportation, 1996.
  • Native American Ceramics of Eastern Colorado, University of Colorado Museum, 2002.
  • Tribal Paths:  Colorado's American Indians, 1500 to TodayColorado Historical Society, 2010.
  • Enduring Legacies:  Ethnic Histories and Cultures of the Colorado Borderlands.  University Press of Colorado, 2011.
  • The Ute Indian Museum:  Capsule History and Guide.  Colorado Historical Society, 2009.
  • The Ute Indians of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.  University Press of Colorado, 2000.
  • Cheyenne Dog Soldiers:  A Ledgerbook History of Coups and Combat.  University Press of Colorado, 1997.
  • The Anasazi of Mesa Verde and the Four Corners.  University Press of Colorado, 1996.
  • A Reference Grammar of the Cheyenne Language.  University of Northern Colorado, 1980.
  • A Guide to Colorado Legal Resources for Native Americans.  University of Colorado School of Law, 2005.
  • Report of the Native American Sacred Lands Forum, University of Colorado School of Law, 2001.
  • Indian Water Rights in the West:  A Study.  Western States Water Council, 1983.
  • Charters, Constitutions and Bylaws of the Indian Tribes of North America.  University of Northern Colorado, 1981.
  • Treaties Between the Tribes of the Great Plains and the United States of America, Cheyenne and Arapaho, 1825-1900.  University of Northern Colorado, 1977.
  • Southern Ute Lands, 1848-1899:  The Creation of a Reservation.  Fort Lewis College, 1972.
  • Tell Me, Grandmother:  Traditions, Stories, and Cultures of Arapaho People.  University Press of Colorado, 2004.
  • Sacred Objects and Sacred Places:  Preserving Tribal Traditions.  University Press of Colorado, 2000.
  • Colorado Ute Legacy (video).  Colorado Historical Society, 1999.
  • Cheyenne Texts:  An Introduction to Cheyenne Literature.  University of Northern Colorado, 1980.
Listed above are just a few of the many resources we have available in our library; search our web catalog for more.

Also be sure to check out the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs' Resource Directory and the Auraria Library/Center for Colorado and the West's Native American Studies Resource Guide

Finally, November is also the month we remember the Sand Creek Massacre, an attack on a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho village that occurred on November 29, 1864.  For more on Sand Creek see this entry from the Colorado Historical Society's blog; see also the chapter in Western Voices:  125 Years of Colorado Writing, also from the Colorado Historical Society (2004) and available from our library.

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