Who controls the past, controls the future.
Who controls the present, controls the past.
– George Orwell, 1984.
Everyone has their own pet peeves. Since becoming a history blogger, one of mine has been hearing people repeat history “facts” that simply aren’t true. Granted, most of the things I hear aren’t on the level of Newspeak á la George Orwell and the Ministry of Truth. Believing that these theories or mistruths are true probably doesn’t affect how we live. But I believe there’s power in understanding our history (on a local level, national level, and international level) and if we’re willing to settle for untruths in the small things, will we be more inclined to do so in the big things as well?
There are many reasons why historians get things wrong. Sometimes there just isn’t enough information to go on, so a theory is developed and may even be proposed as just that, a theory. But the theory is then taken up as truth and repeated from person to person. Other times a historian might just not dig deep enough to get the whole story, or the most accurate story. Or they might think they’ve gotten the whole story, but they missed something, either because they didn’t look, or perhaps the information was buried in rolls of microfilm.
Being a historian is a tough job. We can’t always get things exactly right. I’m not saying that everything that’s ever been written should be spot on because that simply might not be possible. But what I would like to see is a willingness to recheck the facts and to correct them when it’s warranted.
One advantage to being a history blogger, as opposed to a journalist or book author, is that when I publish my articles, every reader becomes an editor and has the ability to comment on the accuracy of my post. And because websites are editable, I can then go back and improve what I’ve written so that it better reflects the corrected information. I also do my best to include all of my sources at the end of each post. I want every reader to have the opportunity to dig deeper if they so desire, not just to learn more, but to correct me if needed. I’d rather have someone point out what I’ve gotten wrong, so I can fix it, than to have everyone just roll with what I’ve said.
That said, today I want to pick on a few “facts” that I frequently hear bandied about in Fort Collins. Some of these are the fault of authors who I believe didn’t dig deep enough. Others are the fault of the hearers, who took a theory and repeated it as though it were truth.
Origins of the name of the Cache la Poudre river
There are almost as many theories about the origins of the river’s name as their are historians who have written about it. But there are no first person accounts that detail exactly how it happened or even when it happened. We just know that somewhere along the way, it did happen. And based on the name, we can pretty reasonably guess that powder (poudre in French) was stored (cached) somewhere near the banks of the river and that led to the moniker. …And there was probably at least one French person involved.
Rheba Massey gives a good overview of the mystery surrounding the naming of this river, which is available on the city’s history site. The upshot is that a group came through in 1820 with Major Stephen H. Long and in notes on the trip, Long refers to Pateros Creek, which is thought to be a reference to what we now know as the Poudre. And by 1835, Colonel Henry Dodge came through and wrote in his diary that his group had passed by the “Cache de La Poudre.”
So in between 1820 and 1835, the river came to be called the Cache la Poudre, but no one really knows when, or by who, or what the real story was.
(Some early newspaper references to the river call is the Cache a la Poudre. I don’t know French, so I’m not sure what difference that “a” makes. Scroll to the end of this page to see an example of an old article that included the “a” in the name.)
In 1910, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed their first historic marker along Bingham Hill Road in Bellvue. It was to mark the approximate location of the naming of the Cache la Poudre river. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we don’t know the true story of when the river was named, that means we also don’t know where it was named. The DAR members based their location upon some fiddle faddle that Ansel Watrous had come up with. But despite the fact that the marker might very well be in the wrong location (It’s 1/3 of a mile away from the river anyway.) and the date is certainly wrong, the fact that it was placed there in 1910 makes it a historic artifact in its own right.
The wide streets of Fort Collins
When we come across anomalies in history, we often want to know “Why?” Why is this situation here different than all of the others that we’ve come across? If you go to almost any town in America and you seek out their historic neighborhoods, you’ll often find yourself traveling along one way streets. It’s the only way present day engineers have found to allow for on-street parking, and safe travel of commuters, on the often skinny streets from days gone by. But when you travel about the older neighborhoods of Fort Collins, what you’re struck by is how wide the streets are. There’s room for parking on both sides of the street (or even in the middle), bikes lanes, and travel lanes. Of course the first thing people wonder is, “Why?”
This is yet another example of a detail in history that’s simply gone missing. We don’t really know why. Apparently Franklin Avery was known to have said that there’s plenty of space and he was of a mind to use it. This was Ansel Watrous’s recollection, at least, according to other historians. But when I searched Watrous’s History of Larimer County (the online version, at least), I’m at a loss to find any such quote.
Another story that I hear mentioned even more frequently is that Avery wanted the streets to be wide enough that a person could turn around a team of horses with a buggy attached. This theory was developed by Wayne Sundberg, who didn’t think the Watrous version of things fit with the practical nature of Franklin Avery. Anyone reading Watrous’s writings knows to take much of what he says with a grain of salt. Sundberg postulated that it was more likely that Avery created wide streets for the practical ability of turning around a somewhat unwieldy rig of horses.
But even if Sundberg’s guess is better than Watrous’s version, it’s still just a guess. It’s fine to repeat the story, but it’s just a theory and it should be told as such.
A confused ghost
Ghost stories are a popular theme of books and tours in Colorado. One story is particularly prominent because it includes love, drunken rage, a bloody murder, and the city of Fort Collin’s only lynching. It’s the story of James and Eva Howe. You can read about the tale on North of Prospect (which is undergoing renovation, but I made sure to reinstall the Howe page at least). The Cliff Notes version is that James got rip-roaring drunk in the middle of the day on April 4, 1888, came home earlier than his wife Eva was expecting, and saw that she was packing up to leave him. In a drunken rage he hit her. She ran from the house and headed towards town for help when he grabbed her from behind and stabbed her in the throat.
The rumor is that Eva still haunts the area today. But she’s not haunting the Armadillo for two main reasons: 1) That’s not where she was murdered. And 2) that’s not where her house stands today. I’ve got to admit that I don’t know a whole lot about ghosts. But it seems to me like if you’re going to do the whole haunting thing, you’d hang out somewhere that makes sense. And the Armadillo makes no sense at all.
Here’s how the confusion seems to have happened. Back in the days of James and Eva, addresses weren’t a big deal. The couple lived on the edge of downtown — downtown being, for the most part, one block along Linden, and portions of Jefferson and Walnut to the west of Linden. But as the downtown grew, residential properties were literally picked up and moved further out, and the newly vacated land was used to expand the business district. So James and Eva’s house was picked up from where it stood at 320 Walnut and moved to 354 Walnut, where the Armadillo building is under historic review in preparation for its demise. (To find out more about what replaced the Howe house at 320 Walnut, check out this early Forgotten Fort Collins post: The Ghost of Goodwill Soon to be Wandering Illegal Pete’s?) From there, as downtown continued to grow, it was moved to West Myrtle, where it still stands today.
My best guess is that at some point, whoever was wanting to share the ghost story of Eva Howe did a very cursory search to see where the house once stood. They saw mention that it was moved from 354 Walnut in 1947 and they just assumed that that’s where it had been since the days of the Howes.
If Eva is going to be haunting a place, she’ll most likely either stick to where she was murdered (which means she’s probably near the front of the bar at Illegal Pete’s) or she’d stay with the house (which is now close to a mile and a half southwest of where it first stood).
Ego aeque delinquit
I don’t by any means want to imply that I’m perfect in all of this. I’ve already made several mistakes in posts that readers have caught and I’ve had to fix. I’ve also written articles, then found more information later that showed I was slightly off base. I do my best to go back and correct outright mistakes. And I have a list of topics that I want to dig deeper into in order to some day tell a more complete story. But I rely in great part upon the wisdom and knowledge of the community to help keep me in line. Even if the new info I’m given isn’t right on, it’s often enough to point me in the right direction to get closer to the heart of the matter.
These stories are an important part of our cultural heritage, and it’s in telling them accurately that we best understand who we are and where we’ve come from.
While researching the history of the naming of the Cache la Poudre, I came across this article in the Fort Collins Standard. This tongue in cheek tale is a great example of why you can’t always take old newspaper articles at face value.
Sources for this article:
The Ministry of Truth image is from a tee shirt site called TeeRiot on Etsy.
The image of College Avenue looking south from the Laporte/College/Walnut roundabout is from the CSU Archive – Negative #4555.
According to Google translate, “Ego aeque delinquit” is the Latin translation of “I am just as much at fault.”
Wayne Sundberg, retired history teacher from Lincoln Junior High and CSU and author of several books on Fort Collins history, gave me details on both the naming of the Poudre river and the width of the streets. Rheba Massey’s article, Was “Cache La Poudre” the original name of our local river that flows through downtown Fort Collins?, was also a great help and corroborated what Wayne had told me.
All of the research that I did on the Howe house can be found either in the Forgotten Fort Collins article, “The Ghost of Goodwill Soon to be Wandering Illegal Pete’s?” or in the North or Prospect article, “Eva and James Howe… and their house.” Source notes can be found at the end of each of these articles.
“Those Seals” is from the April 8, 1874 Fort Collins Standard and can be accessed through ColoradoHistoricNewspapers.org.