Huerfano County, Colorado

Contributed by: Louise Adams
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Honor Pioneers of Huerfano County - by Nancy Christofferson - Huerfano World - July 28, 2005

Once again, Francisco Fort Museum will honor the pioneers of Huerfano County at the annual celebration to be held this Saturday, July 30, in La Veta.

This year's special honorees will be the descendents of what is called the Georgia Colony, or those settlers who traveled west from the Old South following the Civil War.

The first Georgians to come to the future state of Colorado were members of a gold prospecting party. Notable among this party were William Greeneberry "Green" Russell (1820-1877) and Joseph Decatur "Kate" Patterson (1836-1910).

Russell had trekked through the Pikes Peak country in 1849 to join the California gold rush. Along the route, he noted potential ore-bearing formations in the Rocky Mountains. He returned to the South in 1852 with the intention of going back to the mountains to search for gold.

In 1858-1859 Patterson joined Russell for a prospecting trip to Colorado. Accompanying them were a group of about 30 Cherokees.

Another companion, Russell's cousin James H. Pierce, actually found gold by panning a dry creek near Denver. However, the area became known as Russell Gulch.

With the beginning of winter and enduring copious snowfalls, the miners decided to retire to the eastern plains for the season. They established a camp on the South Platte River and called it Auraria after their hometown in Georgia. The name was eventually corrupted to Aurora.

President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for volunteers for the Union Army in 1861. The Georgians had heard rumors of an impending Civil War and even encountered some prejudice from abolutionists. While many miners were returning to their homes in the Midwest and Eastern states, the Southerners quietly made plans to return to support their home state.

The Georgia men started south, intending to head for Texas as fast as possible, and from there go due east. Their only foes, they reckoned, would be Indians along the route, especially in eastern New Mexico and western Texas.

Their path brought them through Pueblo to the old Hicklin ranch on the Greenhorn. Zan Hicklin was an old friend of Patterson and Russell, and made the party welcome.

The Georgians noted Hicklin's fine fields of crops, his orchards and scenery. The ranch was not that far from the old Santa Fe Trail and the party followed this to Fort Union, New Mexico.

Slipping by federal troops at the fort, the party continued east despite rumors of depredations being carried out by the Comanches upon travelers.

The party was armed well, had plenty of munitions, food and other supplies, and many wagons and livestock. However, a silent enemy struck -smallpox.

One of the victims was Joshua Potts, a widower with six children. Green's brother Dr. Levi J. Russell fought the disease as best he could in the prairie wilderness, and mortalities were few.

But the disease and caring for the patients necessarily slowed travel for the caravan, and federal troops appeared. The Southerners were arrested and, when all were able to travel, marched back to Fort Union. Russell and Patterson and their party were held at the fort until the spring of 1863 when they were paroled. Far from being the humiliation they felt it was, the "imprisonment" at Fort Union may have saved them from the marauding Comanches, who murdered scores of whites during the early 1860s.

Some of the Georgians returned to Colorado, while others, worried about the safety and condition of their families at home, returned east.

When the Georgians arrived back at their homes in northern Georgia and southern North Carolina, they found their slaves gone, their families hungry and often homeless, many of their fathers and brothers buried on the battlefields of the Old South. They pitched in to repair and restore the properties, but the condition of the postwar South were very hard on those who lost the war - even though these Georgians been far away and noncombatants.

The men must have spent many long and sleepless nights considering their plights and planning for a better future. Always, they remembered the clear air and gold-laden streams of Colorado.

And so a caravan, led by Russell, left the South in the spring of 1870, headed west. One of this party was Parson Asbury H. Quillian and family who became long-time Huerfano County residents.

The party traveled with oxen and mules, tar-pole wagons, whatever they could find to carry the choicest of their worldly possessions. How wrenching it must have been for the women to choose which of grandmother's quilts to take, which of their featherbeds, dishes and other family heirlooms.

By winter, they reached the banks of Apache Creek, where Russell settled on some fertile land. Others of the party settled nearby, along the Huerfano at Huerfano Butte and west into the Huerfano Valley.

Patterson had stayed in Colorado and married Martha Potts, the eldest daughter of the man who died of smallpox on the plains, and her brothers and sisters lived with them. For a time, they lived in a large plaza near the settlement of St. Mary on the Huerfano, near the now Kimbrel ranch: Perry Kimbrel was a member of the Colony.

In 1865, Patterson began receiving letters of inquiry from his family in the South, who wondered if they, could find better conditions on the frontier. Colorado had become a territory in 1861 and many of the early settlers, especially around Canon City, had hailed from the South.

Convinced the long trip was preferable to staying in Georgia and North Carolina, a party led by Samuel Patterson Sr., Green's father, and James L. Patterson, Green's cousin, left their homes in 1869 and; about six months later arrived along the Huerfano. These families sought out farm sites and settled along the Huerfano River from the Butte to west of Gardner, and along the Cucharas above and below La Veta.

Among these settlers were the Andersons, Bakers, Bruces, Barnards, Browns, Chastains, Dodgions, Erwins, Esteses, Garrens, Gribbles, Harrises, Kimseys, Kincaids, Kirbys, Kitchens, Ownbeys, Phillipses, Praters and Willburns, many familiar names even 135 years later.

Some of these names are those of present Huerfanos, while some are place-names. The Bakers, for instance, settled on Baker Creek for which the original Panadero Ski Resort was named.

Bob Bruce of La Veta, of Bruce and Kimsey ancestry, may well be the only third generation Georgian left in the county. He is 93 years old.

Rather oddly, one Marshall Willburn was a member of the Colony; now we have Marshal Harold Willburn in La Veta.

Dodgeton Creek in Cuchara was named for the man who settled on that waterway, Jackson "Jack" Dodgion. The name has been corrupted. Most of the Dodgions moved on during the 1880s but some have returned to visit during the ensuing years.

While the others of the Georgia Colony were content with farming and raising livestock on their new places, Russell still had the gold bug in him. He wandered across old La Veta Pass to some ancient Spanish diggings along Grayback Creek where officers and enlisted men from Fort Garland were placer mining. Although he called his haul "poor man's diggin's," Russell continued to pan gold from the stream for many years. In response, early residents of the little gold mining town named it Russell. Later it became known as Placer but the sign on Highway 160 still Bays Russell. Of course it is just a wide spot in the road now, with a few old cabins and a highway department dome barn.

Other relatives and inlaws of the first Georgians continued to make their way west through the next two decades, with the last waves of immigrants arriving in the mid-1890s. Some of these families were the Alexanders, Egglestons, Smiths, Kirlees, Parkses, Martins, Hayeses and many others. Some families stayed but one winter and finding it too harsh for their Southern veins, continued west to California.

In fact, most families ended up on Colorado's Western Slope or on the West Coast eventually, many dying there after trekking clear across America. For many years a La Veta Day was celebrated in California where many scores of expatriots gathered to swap stories about their families' adventures along the route from Georgia and in Colorado.

Every year there are fewer descendents of the Georgia Colony left in this area, but every year Francisco Fort hosts visitors coming to photograph tombstones, see photographs and experience the flavor of Huerfano County left engrained in them by stories told by grandparents and great-grandparents.

Thank you, Georgia Colony, both visitors and Huerfanos, for your legacy.

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