November 17, 1858: Denver, Colorado, The Mile High City, is Founded

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A Brief History

On November 17, 1858, Denver, Colorado, the town that bills itself as “The Mile High City” because of its elevation of 5280 feet above sea level, exactly 1 US mile, was founded.  Denver became the capital of the State of Colorado when Colorado was admitted to the Union as the 38th State in 1876, and today the Denver metropolitan area has fully one half of all of Colorado’s population.  A “Big League City” today, Denver boasts the Major League (National League) Rockies of baseball, the Broncos of the National Football League, the Nuggets of the National Basketball League and the Avalanche of the National Hockey League.

Digging Deeper

Denver started out as a small frontier town with a population of only 4749 as of the 1860 census.  By 1870, the population had only grown to 4759, an increase of only 10 people in 10 years.  By 1880 the city had grown to a population of over 35,000 and ever since Denver has had pretty steady growth, with a lull around 1980-1990 when the population actually dropped slightly.  Today, Denver boasts over 700,000 inhabitants in the city proper, with a metropolitan population of over 2.8 million people out of Colorado’s total population of 5.6 million, making the Greater Denver area the 21st most populous U.S. metropolitan statistical area.  (Depending on which measure is used, the Denver area can contain as many as 3.2 million people.)

Location of Denver in Denver County, Colorado.

Denver is a vigorous, vibrant city that ranked #1 in 2017 and again in 2018 for Best Places to Live, according to U.S. News & World Report.  Denver demographics show a White population of about 69%, though if only non-Hispanic Whites are counted the number decreases to 52.2%.  The city has a considerable Hispanic flavor, with about 32% of the population claiming Hispanic origin, of those about 25% of Denver’s people are of Mexican descent.  African Americans make up a tad over 10% of Denver’s population, while Asians and others account for the rest.  Despite accounting for 100% of Colorado’s population in the pre-Columbian Era, Native Americans today make up only 1.4% of the population of Denver.  About 23.5% of Denver’s citizens speak Spanish as the primary language at home.

Denver’s location at the Eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains and the fact that it is the largest city within a 500 mile radius makes the city an important hub for transportation and commerce.  Denver is about halfway between the large Midwestern and Eastern cities and those on the West Coast, enhancing its strategic location.  In 2005, Molson Coors Brewing moved its headquarters to Denver, making Denver one of the most important cities in the US (according to beer drinkers such as this author).  Denver International Airport is also a major US airline hub that in 2017 ranked 2nd in the US for best airport ratings (by Skytrax), and Denver is an important jumping off point for vacations in the Rocky Mountains.  Denver is also an important crossroads, with I-70, I-76, and I-25 passing through (along with their associated auxiliary interstate routes) as well as several US Routes.

Inside the main terminal of Denver International Airport

What you may or may not know about Denver, is that the town and then city was originally located in Kansas Territory!  Yep, the huge area of unincorporated land out West was once divided between Nebraska Territory and Kansas Territory, until Colorado Territory was formed in 1861 when Kansas became a state.  Colorado remained a territory until being admitted to the Union as a state in 1876.

Perched on the Rocky Mountains gives Denver a certain rustic allure that attracted singer-songwriter John Denver to take the name of the city as his own.  (He was born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr.)  Denver’s hit song, “Rocky Mountain High” became one of 2 Colorado state songs.  Other famous Denverites include Thomas Bopp, the astronomer that discovered the Hale-Bopp Comet, entertainers Tim Allen, Roseanne Barr, Don Cheadle, Douglas Fairbanks, pam Grier, Hattie McDaniel, and Jan-Michael Vincent.  Denver has spawned many singers, writers and business people, as well as lawmen Bat Masterson and “Dog” the Bounty Hunter Chapman.  American military heroes have called Denver their hometown, including generals and admirals, Medal of Honor winners, as well as Tuskegee Airmen john Mosely and Fitzroy Newsum.  The first female United States Secretary of State, Madeline Albright (born Marie Jana Korbelová) hailed from Denver, and Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State for George W. Bush, lived in Denver for high school and undergraduate college at University of Denver where she earned her BA and then later her PhD.   Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of Israel (1969-1974) lived in Denver for a year.  Neil Gorsuch, appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President Trump was born in Denver.  Political guru Karl Rove was also born in Denver.  (Obviously, with the pro-sports teams many great athletes have played in Denver, and many other sports figures have hailed from the Mile High City.  Apologies to the many prominent residents and former residents of Denver we neglected to mention because of space limitations.)

Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch; photograph by Franz Jantzen, 2017.

As a state capital and something of the “Capital of the Rocky Mountains” (I just made up the title specifically for this article), Denver is truly a “Big League City” and one of the most important and interesting cities in the United States.  I have had the pleasure of visiting the city several times and can vouch for its value as a place to visit or live.  See you there!

Questions for Students (and others):   Have you ever been to Denver?  If not, have you been anywhere else in Colorado?  (If so for either, tell us how you liked the place.)  Did you know Denver was once in Kansas Territory?  Do you know anyone from Denver?  Do you prefer Coors over Budweiser?  (Please say yes!)

This image is a logo for Coors Field, a baseball park located in downtown Denver.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Fodor’s Travel Guides. Fodor’s Colorado (Travel Guide). Fodor’s Travel, 2016.

Fodor’s Colorado (Travel Guide) (Paperback)

List Price: $19.99 USD
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Sink, Mindy. Walking Denver: 32 Tours of the Mile High City’s Best Urban Trails, Historic Architecture, and Cultural Highlights. Wilderness Press, 2018.

Walking Denver: 32 Tours of the Mile High City’s Best Urban Trails, Historic Architecture, and Cultural Highlights (Paperback)

List Price: $16.95 USD
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Wallace, Elizabeth. Hidden History of Denver. The History Press, 2011.

Hidden History of Denver (Paperback)

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The featured image in this article, a painting of Denver in 1859, is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b49610.  This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. See this page for further explanation.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.