I first drove Colorado Highway 160 in March 1973, on a spring break trip from Boulder to Taos, New Mexico, in a 1963 Toyota Land Cruiser, powered by a war-surplus Chevy six that worked hard to reach fifty miles per hour. Four high school classmates and I planned to camp at a dilapidated guest ranch in the foothills above San Cristobal, New Mexico, courtesy of family friends Jenny and Craig Vincent. Jenny, a Vassar alum and classical musician–turned radical Left folksinger and her husband, Craig, the target of House Un-American Activities Commission investigations and smears, had once dreamed of hosting progressive political gatherings and intercultural youth programs at the ranch. We felt quite adult, hosted by a couple who had (purportedly) spied on the Los Alamos Nuclear Labs on behalf of the Communists . . . the Cold War world visiting our little corner of the West.1
Descending from the 9,380-foot La Veta Pass, we were some five miles down 160, near the junction of the Sangre de Cristo and Placer Creeks, when the canyon opened out into a slender valley of dried winter grasses and bright red willows. To our right, we passed a ghost town; three tumbledown houses, one hip-roofed ranch complex with sagging barn, and a schoolhouse, whose roof gaped where once the belfry stood.
Forty-four years later, the much-decayed remains of that settlement would become surprisingly meaningful to me and help to inspire this special issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era. Hoping to update unpublished research fieldwork I’d undertaken in the late 1980s, I’d been visiting public historical sites in Las Animas, Huerfano, and Costilla Counties during the summer of 2017. At Francisco’s Fort, an adobe-walled trading post established by Virginian John M. Francisco in 1862 in today’s La Veta, Colorado, my partner and I chatted with the docent, who asked our origins. Mine, Colorado, lay unremarked, but Julia’s, Georgia, drew a query. “You here for the Georgia Colony?” [End Page 3]
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Well, it’s three years on, and I’m still sorting out the preludes and postludes to the story that question unleashed. A short version, however, involves the mass migration, across the winter and spring of 1869 and 1870, of some sixty-five families in 150 wagons from the Etowah River valley in north Georgia to Huerfano County, Colorado. Led by William Greenberry “Green” Russell and his partner, James “Cate” Paterson, the white exodus was triggered by the passage of the Georgia Reconstruction Act of December 1869. Many of the emigrants took up homestead claims, presumably swearing pro-Union sympathies, and loyalty oaths, on lands first awarded in the Mexican-era (1843) 4 million–acre Vigil and St. Vrain Grant. Their descendants remain today, proudly defining themselves as members of the colony. Some are known to have flown the Stars and Bars from their ATVs during the town’s Fourth of July parades.2
Historians of Colorado and mining will recognize Green Russell as the prospector who discovered and claimed the Russell Gulch gold placers in June 1859, triggering the Colorado Gold Rush. By 1860, he enjoyed the “richest man in Colorado” title. In 1862, however, he found himself imprisoned at Fort Union, New Mexico Territory, after attempting to assist the secessionist war effort by smuggling $20,000 in gold dust [End Page 4] back to the Confederacy. The year 1863, however, saw him back on his Big Savannah Plantation in Dawson County, Georgia, where he formed “Captain Russell’s Company, Georgia Cavalry,” to track down deserters and terrorize Union sympathizers. His role as empresario for whites fleeing the Reconstruction South for southern Colorado bore few rewards, however—his own homestead, on the headwaters of Apache Creek below Greenhorn Mountain, returned well for several years, but the panic of 1873 and a brutal winter in 1876 took his credit, his haystack, his cattle, and finally, his land. He scrabbled by, panning for gold in the gravels beneath the flows of Sangre de Cristo and Placer Creeks. He soon set...