CU’s roots: Tales of the founders

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Dave Kirby

Back in the days when the University of Denver had a football team, DU students used to taunt University of Colorado students by calling CU “Boulder College.” They even had a song, sung to the tune of “Glory, Glory, Colorado,” that went like this:

To Hell, to Hell with Boulder College…

To Hell with the nickel and the brass,

your ass.

Children can be so cruel.

But they had a point there — about CU being Boulder College, that is.

It would be wrong to say the University of Colorado was the creation of the City of Boulder — but not by much.

Think of the relationship this way: “CU: Official University of the City of Boulder.”

Here are some yarns that highlight the role Boulder played in the founding of CU.

Boulder’s first residents wanted a state university to be located in the city and started working to make it happen in 1861 — 15 years before Colorado became a state.

To put the audacity of this in context, this was less than three years after the first settlers arrived in the Boulder Valley (on Oct. 17, 1858).

They were looking for gold. Three months later, (on Jan. 15, 1859), they found it, at Gold Hill 10 miles west of Boulder. (The original find was in Gold Run, behind the Gold Hill Inn.) A month later, there were 2,000 men and 17 women living in what’s now Boulder.

Most of them were living in tents.

Two years later, a man named Robert Culver, a New Englander who had opened a quartz mill in Gold Hill, began working to create a state university and get it located in Boulder.

And darned if he didn’t almost pull it off right then and there.

On Feb. 28, 1861, the U.S. Congress created the Colorado Territory out of pieces of the Kansas, Nebraska, Utah and New Mexico Territories. Culver and his allies actually got the First Territorial Legislature to pass an act locating a “state” university in Boulder.

According to Glory Colorado, William E. “Bud” Davis’ massive two-volume history of CU, it happened like this:

The First Territorial Legislature was scheduled to convene in the fall of 1861. Delegates from the mining region that included Boulder and Gold Hill were to be picked at a convention to be held in Golden.

Each legally organized mining district, regardless of its size, was entitled to have one delegate at the convention.

Culver approached another Gold Hill resident, Charles F. Holly, who later became Chief Justice of the Territorial Supreme Court, and told Holly he’d help get him elected if Holly promised to run a bill locating the university in Boulder.

And Culver did just that — by causing a bunch of new mining districts to be organized that then chose delegates to the Golden convention. Culver then obtained the proxies of most of them and used them first to get himself picked as secretary of the convention and then to get Holly nominated and elected.

Courtesy of Carnegie Branch Library, Boulder Historical Society Collection
CU used to be way out in the country, away from Boulder Proper on land donated by people whose names are on campus buildings. Good thing they didn’t stop growth back then.

Holly kept his end of the deal. He introduced House Bill 150 that called for creating a Territorial university and worked hard to get it passed with an amendment naming Boulder as the university’s site. The amendment passed on Oct. 31, 1861. The bill also created a Board of Trustees for the putative university.

A week later it was signed by the Territorial governor, William Gilpin (Gilpin County is named after him). They worked fast in those days.

CU doesn’t list Culver and Holly among its founders, but that’s how it began. You have to admire their can-do spirit.

And there things stood for the next nine years.

At the time the Colorado Territory was organized in 1861, it was widely assumed that statehood would quickly follow. It didn’t. A bill granting statehood to Colorado wasn’t passed by Congress until 1865. Then President Andrew Johnson vetoed it.

No state, no state university. But Boulder never gave up on getting CU, and when Colorado got serious about pursuing statehood in the 1870s, Boulder citizens were ready to step up again.

A lot of CU’s history resides in the names of its buildings, and a good place to start looking for the Boulder connection is in the Kittredge dorm complex.

All the dorms there — Andrews, Arnett, Smith, Buckingham and Kittredge — are named for those who had a hand in CU’s creation. All but Kittredge were Boulderites.

The Board of Trustees created in 1861 had stayed in existence, and toward the end of the 1860s it began looking for land in Boulder for a campus. And in early 1872, Smith, Andrews and Arnett gave it what it was looking for.

On Jan. 8, 1872, George Andrews, Marinus Smith, and Anthony and Mary Arnett donated the first parcels of land for the CU campus — 21.98, 25.49 and 3.83 acres respectively. The tracts had a combined value of $1,026.

Old Main, and eventually Hale, Woodbury, Macky and the original core of Hellems were built on the Smith tract. Norlin Library and the UMC are on the Andrews tract.

The Arnetts also donated 80 acres two miles north of Boulder — valued at four horses and a wagon, it turned out. (More about that later.)

Charles Buckingham didn’t give land, but after CU was founded, he gave books. His $2,000 gift paid for the books that formed the core of CU’s first library.

Colonel Charles Kittredge, the only non-Boulderite among the five, was a state legislator from Colorado Springs. He sponsored the 1877 bill authorizing the operation of CU as the state’s university and giving it an operating revenue stream, a 1/5-mill state property tax.

What motivated these guys?

Boulder’s struggle to land CU was driven in no small part by what today is genteelly called “economic development.” But to focus excessively on that misses a deeper motivation: CU’s founders had a near-theological belief in the transformative role of education in the lives of individuals, communities and nations.

The attitude was exemplified by the impassioned speech Col. Kittredge gave in support of his CU bill. He saw “popular education” as liberating mankind from millennia of ignorance, superstition and serfdom; as allowing “three millions of educated free men” to win the American Revolution; and as leaving the country “an inheritance … of liberty, of freedom and self-government.”

And that was just the first two paragraphs.

CU’s founders saw synergism, not conflict, between idealism and economics. They had a point there. Idealism without a business plan will get you only so far.

The 1872 land donation created a remarkable situation: Boulder had the land for a campus, but it no longer had the designation for the university. That was because the act passed by the First Territorial Legislature placing the university in Boulder was repealed in 1870.

The matter of where CU was to reside and how to pay for its construction was finally settled in 1874, but not without a lot of drama.

There are two Boulderites who played pivotal roles in the founding of CU who do not have dormitories named after them.

Their stories are perhaps the most intriguing, and fraught, of all.

Their names are David Nichols and Clinton M. Tyler. What they did was recounted by J. P. Maxwell in a 1927 interview with the Rocky Mountain News. In 1874, Maxwell was a Boulder representative in the Territorial Legislature. So was Nichols.

Wikimedia Commons
David Nichols was key in creating a university in Boulder — and in murdering Native Americans at the Sand Creek Massacre.

Nichols not only represented Boulder in the Territorial Assembly, the Legislatures’s lower house, he was also Speaker of the body, and like Smith, Andrews, Arnett and Buckingham, he was a ferocious advocate of locating CU in Boulder.

Around midnight on a cold night in January 1874, Clinton Tyler was roused out of his bed by an incessant pounding on his door.

It was Nichols. Nichols had just ridden seven hours through a storm from Denver to Boulder on an urgent mission. The Assembly was about to consider a bill that would locate the state’s university in Boulder and grant $15,000 for its construction — provided Boulder matched the state appropriation with $15,000 of its own.

But the bill had encountered opposition, much of it centered in the mountain counties, whose representatives questioned the need for a university. Passage hinged on Nichols obtaining promises from prominent Boulder citizens that the community was good for the matching funds.

The first door Nichols knocked on when he got to Boulder was Tyler’s. Tyler, who was an old army buddy of his, was also a strong supporter of locating CU in Boulder. Tyler immediately promised that he would take personal responsibility for raising subscriptions for the full amount. Nichols then extracted similar promises from other prominent Boulder citizens, got a fresh horse and rode back to Denver. He was in the speaker’s chair when the assembly reconvened at 10 a.m. to take up the bill, at which time he announced that he had been to Boulder and had been assured that the $15,000 would be raised.

The leading opponent of the bill was a representative from Gilpin County. He demanded to know what evidence Nichols had that Boulder would raise the money.

“I have the evidence of Captain Tyler,” Nichols replied.

“The hell you say!” the representative from Gilpin County exclaimed. “I know Tyler. He used to live in Blackhawk. He’s a square shooter. What Tyler says goes. I withdraw my objection.”

And the bill passed.

Tyler served as one of the leaders of the subsequent fund-raising drive. He personally gave $500, one of the larger amounts. But it was his promise to Nichols that night that tipped the balance in the bill’s favor and brought CU to life in Boulder.

A total of 104 Boulder Citizens contributed $16,806.66 to the university fund (more than $362,000 to $483,000 in today’s dollars depending on how you calculate inflation). The largest contribution came from Marinus Smith, who gave $1,000 in addition to the land he had also contributed. Andrews gave $250, the Arnetts gave $500, and Buckingham and his brother gave $500. Robert Culver, the man behind the first attempt to create a university in Boulder, gave $500.

A.J. Macky, who in 1860 had built one of the first frame houses in Boulder (on the corner of 14th and Pearl), gave $300. When he died in 1907, he bequeathed $300,000 to CU to build Macky Auditorium.

The smallest contribution, $15, came from Boulder Sheriff William A. Corson. Maybe he saw trouble coming.

A number of the contributors subsequently fell on hard times.

In 1902, Mary Rippon, CU’s first female professor (after whom the outdoor theater that’s home to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival is named), called on some of the original subscribers still living in Boulder. One family that gave $500, in the words of the wife, “couldn’t raise five cents now.” Two other subscribers were represented by widows who were supporting themselves by taking in washing. Many others told her they had had to borrow the money they contributed. Her general impression was that in many cases the money for bringing CU to Boulder was raised at great personal sacrifice.

Why hasn’t CU named a building after Nichols or Tyler?

In Tyler’s case, it was because of the horse trade.

Remember those 80 acres north of Boulder that the Arnetts had donated to CU in 1872?

In 1883, Joseph Sewell (CU’s first president; Sewell Hall bears his name) traded the tract to Tyler, who was a regent at the time, for a team of four horses and a wagon to haul coal to the campus.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Back in the 1960s, CU’s Henderson Museum had a big photograph of Old Main hanging in a hallway that had been taken from a hill in North Boulder a couple of years after CU opened. Old Main appeared as a small, lonely structure on a barren plain, dwarfed by the towering mountain backdrop and the Flatirons, an isolated outpost of civilization in a hard land. It could have been captioned “Tranquility Base 1883.”

In 1883, Old Main lacked central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity. The campus was separated from Boulder by a mile of treeless prairie. During the winter, drifts would cut off the campus from the town for days at a time. Without a way to get coal to the campus, CU couldn’t operate in the winter.

Thus the horse trade.

The Arnett tract is bounded by Jay Road on the south, Violet on the north, 26th Street on the east and 19th Street on the west.

The property is about two miles from the campus, and in 1883, there was nothing that CU could do with it except sell it, assuming it could have found a buyer.

Even in free-wheeling 1883, the land for horses deal drew, as we say today, “scrutiny.” Fourteen years of scrutiny by state officials.

The final settlement wasn’t made until 1897, when the land was transferred to Tyler’s estate. Tyler had died more than a decade earlier, in 1886 — the same year that his daughter, Ella Tyler-Whiteley, became the first woman to receive a degree from CU. His son had also attended CU and would have been a member of the university’s first graduating class in 1882 — but he had fallen ill and died a year earlier.

More than anything, the land-for-horses trade shows how hard life in the West was in 1883, and how hard it was to keep CU open and functioning — and warm.

The land for horses deal outraged a lot of people in 1883, but I think CU should get over it and hang Tyler’s name on a campus building.

Outrageous or not, CU owes Tyler more than it could ever repay with 80 acres of land. When the chips were down on a cold night in 1874, he had CU’s back.

As for Nichols, CU did have a dormitory named for him for several years. The dorm directly east of the Wardenburg Student Health Center was originally named Fleming Hall, after John Fleming, an early dean of the law school. But when CU built a new law school in 1958, the regents named it after Fleming and changed the dorm’s name to Nichols Hall in 1961.

But in the late 1960s, student activists began lobbying for dropping Nichols’ name, because in 1964 Nichols had commanded a detachment of cavalry that had participated in the Sand Creek massacre. Protests continued for nearly 20 years, and in 1987, Nichols’ name was removed from the dorm, which was re-named Cheyenne-Arapahoe Hall.

Since then, Nichols has pretty much been a non-person as far as CU is concerned.

I’ve always felt CU has done itself no favors by trying to run away from Nichols. There’s an important lesson to be drawn from his life. If it were up to me, CU would put up a statue of Nichols west of Norlin Library at the opposite end of the quad, with the following inscription:

Captain David Nichols, 1828 – 1900, through whose efforts the University of Colorado came into being on this site. Second in Command at Sand Creek. In every human being there is a capacity for great good and great evil. Choose carefully. Do not forget. And if you want to know what this statue is doing here, please consult the inscription on the building behind you at the other end of the quad.

The inscription cut in the stone above the columns of Norlin Library is: Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.

  • Charles Cambridge

    Paul… I wouldn’t support a statue of Nichols….. But, I would support a bronze plaque having a description of his historical reference to the university and Sand Creek.