The History of Native American Tribes in Denver

Have you ever wondered who inhabited Denver before it was Denver? Native American tribes occupied Colorado for more than 13,000 years before white settlers and those on a mission to find gold came out West. What is now known as Denver was land that the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes occupied.

In the 1840s, emigrants from the East traveled along the Oregon Trail to Oregon, Utah, and California started to come in the tens of thousands. This came at a cost to all tribes in the West. 

There had been a formal treaty signed by the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes in 1851 called the Treaty of Fort Laramie. The tribes were “given” designated land, but the treaty had far worse implications than that.

The Arapahoes and Cheyennes had also agreed to allow the United States to establish Army posts and create roads through Native territory with the promise to be paid $50,000 a year for 50 years. A year later, the treaty was amended to make the annual amount much less and went from 50 years to ten years.

In 1858, gold was discovered in Colorado, and over 100,000 fortune finders poured into what is now Denver. This was a massive deal because white settlers began creating permanent residences on the land specifically designated for the Arapaho tribe in a formal treaty... just seven years prior.

In less than one year, the first store was built in the South Platte River/Cherry Creek area. It was only a month later, on Nov. 22, 1858, Denver was officially incorporated!

Three years later, in 1861, the chiefs of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes signed another document called the Treaty of Fort Wise. This treaty essentially gave all the land that belonged to both tribes. The U.S. government allotted them a small plot of land between Big Sandy Creek and the Arkansas River. “Tribal territory declined to less than 4 million acres,” according to the National Park Service. It is important to note that the Cheyennes and Arapahoes were not fluent in speaking English and may have had a limited ability to read the English language. 

Conditions from the Treaty of Fort Wise:

1. No communal hunting areas

2. Required to give up their nomadic lifestyle and become farmers

3. Each tribe member would receive 40 acres of land

4. Required to build schools

The signing of this treaty led to outrage among other tribes that were not consulted about what was going on and the land they were giving up. The anger of other tribe members eventually caused the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, five years after Denver was incorporated. 

According to Metro Denver EDC, today, “Metro Denver has a population of more than three million people and has a growth rate that has consistently outpaced the national rate every decade since the 1930s. The region grew steadily in the past [ten] years, and by 2030, Metro Denver’s population is anticipated to increase to more than 3.6 million.”

Did you know?

Community College of Denver is part of Auraria Higher Education Center (AHEC), which presides over all three colleges on the Auraria Campus. In recent years, AHEC formally recognized the history of the land the campus sits on and created the Auraria Campus Land Acknowledgement statement. It is now read at every AHEC board and staff meeting and many events on the campus itself.