William Slaughter – Miner, Judge, Statesman, Fruit Farmer
William M. Slaughter was born on July 25, 1830 in Pike County, Ohio — a county that had been named for explorer Zebulon Pike (the same Zebulon Pike for whom Pike’s Peak was named). So perhaps it was inevitable that William would one day end up in Colorado, following in Pike’s footsteps.
William married Martha Shock in 1849, when they were both 18 years old. Martha’s family lived just a few miles down the road from the Slaughters. In 1850, Sarah Alice was born.
By the mid-1850s, the family had moved to Plattsmouth (twenty miles south of Omaha) in the recently formed Nebraska Territory. There William ran a store for a few years until news came that gold had been discovered near the Rocky Mountains. In 1858, the family of four (Mary Grace was born in 1856) packed their things and headed west where they settled in Auraria, a small mining community located at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek.
At a time when everyone seems to have been a multi-tasker, William got involved in mining, law and politics. He became an active gold prospector, sluicing for gold in Dry Creek. He was made the chief justice of a provisional court. And he was involved in public affairs. (There’s also a passing mention in a couple of newspaper articles that he was the proprietor of the first hotel opened in Denver/Auraria.)
In early July, 1858, gold was found in Little Dry Creek, in what is now Englewood. It was the news of this find that led William to pack up his family and high-tail it to the Rocky Mountains (along with about 100,000 other prospectors who would flood the area over the next year).
Though we tend to think of mining as something that involves digging, especially deep under ground, when William Slaughter mentions that he was a miner, he was referring to placer mining, which involved sloshing sand and other sediments from a creek or river around in water and sifting out the precious metals. Groups of men would form joint stock companies and work an area of the creek together. According to a letter that William wrote and had published in the Rocky Mountain News (April 23, 1859), one could expect to make anywhere from $3-$8 a day (or the equivalent of about $94 – $251 in today’s dollars, according to an inflation calculator).
William was swift to follow up on news about new gold finds. When John Gregory discovered gold in May of 1859, William was up working in the same area within a month or two. (The place was called Gregory’s Diggings, but soon after changed it’s name to Mountain City. The community was annexed into Central City in 1880.) It was near Mountain City that William Slaughter nearly lost his life.
On Sunday, June 26th, 1859, William was camping in the mountains with two other men, Dr. J. L. Shank and J. B. Kennedy. They were in the area in order to prospect for gold. At this point, I will allow William to tell his own story.
During the afternoon some four or five Utah Indians were around our camp who appeared to be friendly, thus causing no uneasiness in our party. About four o’clock, two hours after we had dined, the Dr. started toward the summit of the ridge to take a look at the country around as well as to keep an eye on camp; while Mr. Kennedy and myself went eastward to prospect in a gorge of the mountain half a mile off.
We left the camp a little before the Dr., and when we had gone three hundred yards heard the report of a gun over the hill in the direction the Dr. had taken; but thinking he had shot at some Bison calves seen before in that vicinity, we did not feel uneasy. We had advanced some twenty steps farther and were descending a precipice when we heard another shot in the same direction. We turned to go back, thinking, perhaps, the Dr. might be in some difficulty with the Indians, when two shots were fired upon us, one hitting Mr. Kennedy in the centre of the back, near the waist and passing through him, felling him quickly; the other striking the ground near my feet. I turned and went to Mr. K’s side and he told me he could not live.
Seeing no Indians, I ascended the rocks the way we had come, and looked for the Dr. I could not see him, but saw two Indians coming down the hill toward me. I fired at one of them with my revolver, but without apparent effect as they were some eighty yards off. They fled back over the ridge when they saw me. Having seen nothing of the Dr. I returned to Mr. Kennedy. He was still alive and I got his revolver, which he had dropped when he first fell, and gave it to him, telling him if further attacked in my absence to use it if possible.
I then went toward camp to look out for the Dr. and saw four Indians ride over the ridge, come down about half way to camp and stop about where I supposed the Dr. had probably fallen, two of them alighted and commenced, apparently, to strip and scalp him—the rocks around prevented my seeing his person at all. All things at camp seemed undisturbed—the horse grazing and the fire uninterrupted.
I went back and found Kennedy not yet dead but sinking fast, it being about half an hour since he was shot. I left him to find a place of defense for myself, expecting every moment an attack. I found a nook in the rock, about thirty steps from where Kennedy lay; here I was located until dark. About sundown a shot was fired, close to where I was, as I supposed at Kennedy, and I heard a tramping as of persons passing down the rocks toward where he lay–all was then still.
Supposing from these circumstances that he had been killed and scalped as well as robbed, and deeming it unsafe for me to wander among the rocks after dark in search of him, I left my place of retreat and started across the Snowy Range in the night. I reached the summit about ten o’clock P.M. and commenced my descent through a dangerous and difficult gorge, which I completed between twelve and one, I traveled all that night and the next day, intending to reach Jackson’s Diggings before dark. At noon I found myself fifteen miles S.E. of Jackson’s and five miles from the road leading thereto.
Wearied with fatigue and hunger so as almost entirely to prevent my progress, I travelled by small distances until I came to the read, where, meeting a team, I camped for the night. Late in the afternoon of the next day, the 29th, I arrived at Gregory’s, where a meeting of the miners was immediately called, a statement of the facts made, and one hundred men enlisted to go in pursuit of the murderers, and revenge the death of our men. Messengers were also sent to all the mines, Auraria and Denver, to acquaint the people of the occurrence. (Rocky Mountain News, July 9, 1859)
It should be mentioned that, as stated earlier, prospectors were flooding into this area from the United States. Though the Nebraska Territory was legally owned by the U.S., having been annexed as a part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the government had made an agreement in 1851 with the Indigenous residents that a substantial portion of that land was to be reserved for the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Ute People. It was agreed that the government could place some forts and trading posts within the area, but that the Native People would be compensated with an annuity of $50,000/year for 50 years. Not only did the American government renege on these payments, but the sudden inundation of men prospecting for gold must have felt very much like an invasion to the people who had called the mountains their home for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (See more on this in my article on Friday, the Arapaho.)
Though William seems to have spent quite a lot of time sluicing through creeks for gold, he also maintained a respectable business in town. Given the number of men that had recently come to the area in search of riches, it makes sense that there was a need for legal documents to track their mining claims.
In addition to providing real estate and mining documents, William Slaughter was also made the chief justice of the territory with three judges under him. (See my footnote below for a little context.) As a judge, he oversaw numerous cases, including one in which a close friend was tried for murder.
One evening in August of 1860, James Gordon spent the evening drinking himself into oblivion. Somewhere along his route into that drunken stupor, an immigrant German farmer by the last name of Gantz crossed his path. It’s unclear what happened. There’s no mention of a fight or even an argument between the men. What’s clear, however, is that Gordon shot Gantz in cold blood, and Gantz died. Gordon promptly forgot all about it until the next morning. And when he remembered what he had done (or perhaps someone had to tell him), he swore that he would rather die than be caught for his crime. So he quickly flew the coop.
A posse was formed to hunt Gordon down. He was surrounded in Fort Lupton and managed to escape through a shower of bullets. On another occasion he was shot at, but again escaped. He appears to have made it as far as Leavenworth, Kansas, where he thought he was finally safe. But somehow (and the papers don’t explain this at all) he was almost hung by an angry mob. He managed to escape being lynched and was returned to Denver in irons where he was tried for the crime of murder.
Several of Gordon’s friends rallied to save him, drawing up petitions and standing along the roadways into Denver getting people to sign as they passed. (The newspaper declared that most of the signers had no idea who James Gordon was, nor what he had done. But a substantial number of signatures were procured nonetheless.) At the trial, Judge Slaughter, though a friend of the accused, found the man to be guilty and sentenced him to death. As an act of kindness, he gave Gordon a week to get his affairs in order, and even visited him in jail to help him in doing so. But in the end, James Gordon was hung for his crime. (See my second footnote for more on this story.)
William Slaughter also got involved in politics early on. He was an active participant in the forming of the Jefferson Territory in the Fall of 1859. Though the territory was never recognized by the United States of America, it still operated as an entity for 16 months. And upon the formation of the Colorado Territory, most of the laws of the Jefferson Territory were reenacted as a part of the new Colorado Territory.
As his obituary later declared, “Judge Slaughter served two terms in the Territorial legislature and had a conspicuous part in shaping early legislation.”
Moving on from Denver
In 1862, William moved his family from Auraria to Central City. The following year he was elected mayor. The town was booming with about 10,000 residents at the time.
Martha gave birth to their first son, Charles, in 1863. Rosie Ann followed just one year later. And Edwin Jerome came along in 1867.
In 1872, the family moved again, this time to Larimer County. William found a quarter-section of land about four miles west of the newly minted town of Loveland, right along the Loveland-Estes Park road. (We now refer to it as W Eisenhower Blvd.) He built a cottage on the summit of a gray limestone ridge that ran through his property. And he continued to work as a judge, often traveling to Fort Collins, Greeley or Denver by train for work.
It was also during 1872 that William Slaughter, along with several other early Anglo-American arrivals, created the Society of Colorado Pioneers (AKA the Pioneer Society,… not to be confused with the Pioneer Association set up in Northern Colorado in 1906).
Throughout the 1860s and ’70s, Judge Slaughter continued his legal practice, with a focus on mining law. He also remained involved in Territorial matters during this time.
In 1880, despite the ridicule of his neighbors, William decided to try his hand at fruit farming. The Louden ditch was about to be dug, and it would run right through his property. He saw this as an excellent opportunity for doing a little hobby farming. (William had grown up on a farm in Ohio, so he was undaunted by the task that he had set before himself.)
Unfortunately, that first year before the ditch had been dug, William planted a variety of vines and fruit trees along the slopes of the limestone ridge upon his property. Without a water source, he and his sons were left to haul water in buckets from the Big Thompson river to the south. It was an arduous process, and when the ditch finally came in the next year, the Judge and his family dug up all the surviving plants and moved them to the banks of the ditch.
By 1882, the plants began to thrive, and by 1889, for example, he had seven mature trees which bore 21-barrels of large Ben Davis apples (in addition to other trees and vines bearing a variety of other fruit).
William was a bit unconventional in his creation of new plantings. Not only did he not graft weaker plants onto stronger bases. But he would go so far as to break off a branch and stick it right into the mud around the ditch, thereby proving the practicality of using cuttings to expand his orchard. He was even known to stick cuttings into cactuses.
Moving to Loveland certainly did not change the proclivities of William Slaughter. He continued to keep his eyes ever open for opportunities to mine gold. Once, while trapped with several other men above timberline in the midst of a dense fog amid steep snow banks, William claimed to have found the richest vein of gold ever before seen in the state. He describes the situation of the men, traveling along the “Hupp” trail (or old Middle Park trail) on their horses, fearing for their lives. The fog was so thick that it prevented the man at the back of the line from seeing the one at the front. As a fresh storm came bearing down upon them, they found themselves driven along a route that they wouldn’t have chosen if the sun had been full upon them. But Slaughter felt that it was a divine hand of some sort that put them in this serious predicament because, to their astonishment, he claims that they came upon “some of the richest mines that have ever been discovered in the State.” (The Loveland Leader, June 24, 1892.) Unfortunately for Slaughter and those with him, after making it safely back to civilization, they were unable to ever locate the site again. (At least, I was unable to find any mention of the site ever again.)
The January 1, 1894 Fort Collins Express offers another, similar story. Though the rich mining site mentioned above was apparently located somewhere around Moraine Park, the Express mentions “a rich deposit of brown, honey-combed quartz” with iron located about one mile north of Laporte that William claimed to have stumbled across. This site, also, was never to be found again.
The judge’s legal practice often took him to Fort Collins. On one such occasion, after his work was done, he decided to take in a few races at the tracks (located just west of where Sheldon Lake and City Park are today). The Loveland Reporter describes what happened next.
The night grew dark rapidly, and in the exuberance of spirit which occasionally overcomes the patrons of the racetrack, he unconsciously wandered upon the railroad track where he stumbled and fell. The train bound for Greeley soon after had occasion to use the track—an action which deprived Mr. Slaughter of his left aim. (Loveland Reporter, September 21, 1893)
His arm had been run over where the Greeley line crosses College Avenue (around Cherry Street). From there he seems to have wandered down Willow street to the Farmers Mill (now Ginger & Baker) where he turned right and walked one more block before he was discovered around the intersection of Linden and Jefferson. He was taken to a nearby restaurant where anesthetics were administered and his arm was removed just above the elbow. After a day and a half of recovery, the nearly 70-year old man returned home by train, and then by buggy to his house.
On November 19, 1897, Judge William M. Slaughter passed away after a short illness with pneumonia. His obituaries recounted several of the events that I have included in this telling of his story. In addition, the Loveland Reporter added that, “Perhaps no resident of this county knew so well as he every section of the almost unexplored portion of Larimer—for he has assisted in surveys, and in many ways traveled over every foot of it.” (Loveland Reporter, November 25, 1897) And the editor of the Fort Collins paper wrote, “Judge Slaughter was one of the prime movers in establishing the pioneer society, and numbered among his warm personal friends nearly every Coloradoan who came to Pike’s peak in the early days.” (Fort Collins Courier, November 25, 1897)
First footnote on Chief Justice Slaughter: Though William Slaughter’s obituary states that “at that time no legal authority had been asserted for the protection of life and property and a provisional court was established, with Mr. Slaughter Chief justice and three associate judges with him,” I was unable to find any evidence that this was the case in the newspapers from that time. In fact, what I found were other chief justices listed, and they had two other judges under them, not three. He was certainly referred to as Judge Slaughter in the early Denver area papers. I just couldn’t find anything specifically calling him chief justice.
Second footnote on the story of James Gordon: Again, though Slaughter’s connection to this story was included in both his and his wife’s obituary as a sign of his willingness to uphold the law, even when it meant the death of his friend, there’s no mention in the papers at the time of the event that refer to who the judge for the case was. Slaughter was never mentioned (as far as I could find) in the 1860 newspapers in conjunction with this story. There is mention that James Gordon was given a stay of execution, so that part of the story lines up. But the newspapers do not mention Slaughter by name as being the judge. It also seems that James Gordon was an all around turd, and not just on this particular occasion. In addition to killing Gantz, he also maimed a man by the name of O’Neil. The fact that he was nearly hung in Leavenworth points toward this fellow having issues. And a man by the name of Mr. Middaugh was said to have traveled for seven weeks, voluntarily, in order to find and apprehend Gordon. (See the October 11, 1860 Western Mountaineer.) It’s possible that James Gordon also joined a horse-stealing ring for a time after the shooting of Gantz. (See the September 13, 1860 Western Mountaineer.)
Sources for this article:
I used early newspapers quite extensively thanks to ColoradoHistoricNewspapers.org.
Ancestry.com enabled me to create a timeline of William Slaughter’s life.
Historygeo.com helped me to locate where the Shock family was in relationships to the Slaughter’s – in other words, how close William and Martha were when they were growing up.
Information on the Colorado Gold Rush came from WesternMiningHistory.com.
GilpinTram.com had information on Mountain City, which I’d never heard of before working on this article.
The Denver Public Library was both the inspiration for this story and the source for the two portraits shared above as well as for the map of Denver City, Auraria and Highland.
Information about William’s property and the story of the planting and productivity of his orchard came from the Annual Report of the Colorado State Horticultural and Forestry Association in 1889. William Slaughter’s land was located where Meadowbrook Natural Area is today. There is also a new housing development, Meadowbrook Ridge, in the area where his house once stood. And down the slope, where his orchard once stood, is now a La Quinta Inn and Berthoud Brewing. There’s also a housing division along Cascade Avenue, and the Foothills Baptist Church, which mark the western half of his property.