Logo Things to do in Colorado

Colorado State History

History | Symbols | Interesting Facts | Famous People


1684—Robert La Salle claims the region of Colorado for France

1803—The United States acquires Colorado in the Louisiana Purchase

1806—Zebulon Pike explores Colorado and discovers Pikes Peak

1848—The U.S. gains control of Colorado after the Mexican War

1858—Gold is discovered at Cherry Creek; gold rush begins

1861—Congress creates the Colorado Territory

1870—Completion to Denver of the Denver Pacific Railroad

1876—Colorado becomes the 38th state

1879—The Meeker Massacre is the last of serious Indian conflicts

1906—The U.S. Mint opens operation in Denver

1927—The Moffat Tunnel is completed

1959—The Colorado-Big Thompson irrigation system is completed

1966—The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) opens in Colorado Springs (renamed North American Aerospace Defense Command)

1977—The Solar Energy Research Institute opens near Denver

When European explorers first visited the Colorado region, they encountered several different groups of Native Americans.  The Apache, Kiowa, Comanche, and Pawnee roamed the Great Plains and the Ute lived in the Colorado Plateau.

In 1540, Spaniard Francisco Vasquez de Coronado traveled through present day Colorado in search of gold.  In 1682, Robert La Salle explored the Mississippi River and claimed the land surrounding this area for France.  Although both Spain and France claimed the Colorado region, neither chose to settle the area.

In 1803, the United States acquired Colorado in the Louisiana Purchase.  Zebulon Pike led an expedition of the Rocky Mountains in 1806, including Pikes Peak that is named after him.  John Wesley Powell was the first to climb Longs Peak and the first to explore the Colorado River.  In 1833, the first permanent American settlement, Bent’s Fort, was built near present-day La Junta.

In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain and claimed control of western Colorado.  The United States took control of Colorado during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).  Until the early 1850s, the only Americans that came to Colorado were explorers and mountain men interested in beaver pelts.  But in 1858 gold was discovered in Cherry Creek, near what is now Denver.  Nearly 100,000 people came to the region, but more than half went home when they didn’t quickly find gold.  However, the great increase in population needed protection and government.  In 1861, Congress created the Colorado Territory.

The Homestead Act gave pioneers free land out West and brought many farmers to Colorado.  Irrigation systems were created near the mountains.  Railroads connected Denver to Wyoming and the East in 1870.  As thousands were drawn to Colorado in search of prosperity, battles between the Indians and settlers grew larger and more frequent.  The Meeker Massacre was the last major battle in 1879.  The following year, the Indians were forced to move onto reservations.

Colorado became the 38th state on August 1, 1876.  During this time, the United States was celebrating its 100th anniversary of independence.  Colorado thus became known as the “centennial state.”

During the late 1800s, silver was discovered in Colorado.  Leadville, Aspen, and Denver grew tremendously during this time.  As silver prices dropped in the United States, gold was discovered near Cripple Creek.  Irrigation projects allowed agriculture to become Colorado’s major industry.  New coalmines and steel mills began operating.  The state’s first sugar refinery opened in Grand Junction in 1899. 

Colorado continued to grow tremendously during the early 1900s.  The U.S. Mint opened production in Denver in 1906.  Oil was discovered and became Colorado’s most important mineral by 1920.  In 1927, the completion of the Moffat Tunnel greatly shortened the time between Denver and Salt Lake City.

During the Great Depression (1929-1939) farm prices dropped and many lost their jobs.  State and federal programs brought jobs to Colorado.  World War II (1939-1945) also helped the economy to rise by creating needs for Colorado’s oil and minerals.  Several government agencies established offices in Denver and the army opened Fort Carson near Colorado Springs.

After the war many large companies moved to Colorado.  Because of this, Colorado’s suburbs continued to experience a huge population increase during the 1950s.  The National Bureau of Standards laboratory moved to Boulder in 1954.  The Air Force set up a large financial center in Denver and the Air Force Academy established a campus in Colorado Springs in 1958.  In 1966, the North American Aerospace Defense Command also based its operations out of Colorado Springs; building its structure 1,200 feet underground the Cheyenne Mountains.

Water storage became a concern during the early 1950s.  Several dams, reservoirs, and tunnels were completed as part of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project in 1959.  The Colorado River Storage Project also began in 1959.  This project included power plants, reservoirs, and water purification systems.  Other projects also helped to provide recreation and irrigation needs.

Energy related companies expanded during the energy shortages of the 1970s, until Colorado’s economy dropped in the mid-1980s.  Today, Colorado has a healthy economy.  Millions of tourists come to enjoy the state every year.  The manufacturing industry has also grown while agriculture and mining industries have declined.  Colorado has become an international center for business and tourism in the West.