The Amazing Untold Story of John C. Moore- First Mayor of Denver, Colorado

Posted: December 17, 2015 in Cemeteries and Graves

Please Note: This is not a commentary for or against any view point, this is the factual history of a man and the events surrounding his life that have been largely covered up and/or forgotten by time. It is not my intent to start a debate on the controversial subject of the Civil War, but to merely describe the circumstances of a man’s life during this troubled period in United States history.

“History is written by the victors.” – Walter Benjamin 1892-1940

As Americans, we have been raised to believe in the power of good over evil. That our way is the right way. In the 20th Century we Americans cheered our Army on as they played vital roles in defeating our enemies around the globe,  our patriotic fervor and unity reaching a crescendo 1945 as our tanks and infantry marched into the heart of Nazi Germany, and our Marines on the beaches and our bombers in the sky dealt a death blow to Japanese fanaticism in the Pacific.  Often, our version leads us to believe that the United States conquered evil singlehandedly. Seldom are our allies mentioned, and never do we read an enemy account of things. We tend not think twice about our enemies.

We read our version of the events of World War I and World War II in our history books. We grew up watching our version of the great battles of our time reenacted on the movie screen or on the TV by celebrities we all loved. We were the victor and the history was ours to write. We are a united country- The United States of America, and damn the German or Japanese (or Iraqi for that matter) version of events.

But let’s look back eighty years prior to our triumphant victory parades of VE and VJ Day in 1945. Let’s look back 140 years before our Abrams tanks rolled into Baghdad and statues of Saddam were toppled. Let’s look back to a time when there was no “we” “us” or “our” Let’s look back to the brutal, bloody, Civil War which divided “us” into two separate Nations between the years of 1861 and 1865. A time when we were either “Yankees” or “Rebs”-  A unique era in our  history when two different Americans- Abraham Lincoln, and Jefferson Davis were called “Mr. President”  and both could rightfully claim that title. A troubling time  when a war was fought by Americans, against Americans, in America- A war that left 750,000 of us dead on our soil.

In the case of the Civil War, how did we effectively and accurately write the history of a war we fought against ourselves?  What do we say of our enemies when they are us? Simply put, we say nothing. It is perhaps the greatest spoil of war that the victor writes the history- omitting, hiding, changing, glorifying and altering in general the events of a particular conflict to fit their ideal and their agenda. Below is the story of one of the men who fought in our war against ourselves. This man was on the losing side, and, subsequently, much of his life story has been erased by the victor. His name was John C. Moore.

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John C. Moore, Mayor, Denver City, Kansas Territory 1860

On August 18, 1832 a man named John C. Moore was born in Pulaski, Tennessee. This man would pass away 83 years later in Excelsior Springs, Missouri on October 27, 1915. He was a politician, and the first official mayor of Denver City, Kansas Territory (you read that right- Kansas.) This is about the only information you will find regarding John C. Moore on the internet today. It seems a rather lackluster and dull description of a man who was elected the first mayor of a wild, then-frontier town that was the gateway to the Rocky Mountains and the great Colorado Gold Rush. Certainly there must be more to John C. Moore’s life than the few lines you find about him in most sources.

John C. Moore was more than an obscure politician in a dusty frontier town. John C. Moore was a respected and intelligent newspaper man who had come to the region to be a part of the excitement following the big news of the Russell Party finding gold in Cherry Creek. Thousands of prospectors, fortune seekers, businessman, prostitutes, gamblers, desperadoes, and any kind of camp follower, thrill seeker, adventurer and drifter you can imagine poured into what was then Kansas Territory in 1859 following news of the gold strike. Among those who came to the region was Moore, a newspaper man and aspiring politician from Missouri. He had found success in Kansas City in the 1850’s as one of the founders, and as chief editor of the “Kansas City Times” newspaper.

When Moore arrived Denver did not exist, rather two separate settlements a short distance apart on Cherry Creek, one called (obviously enough) “Cherry Creek” and the other “Auraria.” As these two small communities grew, they soon became one large community, and the civic leaders of each settlement, John C. Moore among them, convened, and decided to hold a vote on merging the two towns into one. With the successful vote, the two communities became one and adopted the new moniker of “Denver City.” It was also decided that any good city should have a proper mayor, and the fledgling city council voted that John C. Moore was the right man for the job.

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Cherry Creek and Auraria soon to be “Denver City, Kansas Territory”

As John C. Moore took the inaugural reins of Denver City, Kansas Territory, opinions, posturing, and tempers boiled over “back in the States” as Unionists and Secessionists divided themselves between their respective camps based on political and moral ideology. As the rest of the world focused on the debate back in the States, few, other than fortune seekers were concerned with the far western frontier. Denver City was just a distant outpost and the events “way out there” had as little impact on the events in Washington D.C. as the events in Washington D.C. had on Denver.

John C. Moore’s main concern was not the politics back east, but the rampant disorder and violence in Denver City. In his time at the helm, Denver was notorious for its gambling halls, saloons, and bordellos. The majority of those in Denver at any given time were just passing through on their way to or from the mining camps in the foothills to the west. Denver City in 1860 was a place to buy supplies, rest for a day or two, get drunk, chase the parlor girls, and try your hand at cards. The volatile mixture of wanderers, booze, girls, guns and gambling led to the predictable results- Drunken brawls, hurt feelings, gunfights, and generally sloppiness and disorder.

Three or more gunfights a day in between fist fights and arguments was an average day in Denver back then, chronicled by many who passed through the town, and Moore was supposed to put an end to that. Unfortunately, Moore was bit too soft-spoken and complacent. Soon it was clear Moore was not the right man for the task. He was replaced after only five months as Mayor by Charles Cook.

After losing the title of Mayor, and, as the argument between the Unionists and Secessionists continued to rise meteorically towards it’s boiling point, Moore became one of Denver’s prominent voices in favor of secession. As a fledgling, and rebuked, politician Moore found a ready and willing audience among the streets of Denver. At the time, although outnumbered by pro-Unionists among the average citizens, the pro-Confederacy element in the region held the power- All of the major players at the time were from the south- The Russell Brothers who first found gold in Cherry Creek and later near Central City, John Gregory who founded Central City, George Jackson who found his fortune at present day Idaho Springs,  and A.B. Miller, one of, if not, Denver City’s most prominent businessman were just a few of the more famous secessionists living in the territory, and, since these men had the fortunes, these men held the power. Many of the other political and civic leaders in the territory had been appointed to their positions, or had their journeys to the territory funded by southern politicians and families, so their loyalties lay with the south as well. To add to the complex situation in the region, most of the high ranking military officers stationed in the area were of southern extraction, many would go on to become Generals in the Confederacy such as- Robert Ransom Jr. (Ft. Wise 1860-1861), George H. Steuart  (Ft. Wise 1860-1861),  JEB Stuart (Ft. Wise 1860-1861), John Forney (Ft. Garland 1859-1861), William Walker (Ft. Wise 1860-1861) In simple terms, in 1860-1861 the powerful elite and the military in the territory were largely secessionists and loyal to the south, while the “average Joe” was staunchly Unionist.

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General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart

It is thought that among the civilian population of the territory in late 1860 early 1861 loyalties north of the Arkansas River among the “Anglo” settlers was split 70/30 in favor of the Union, which translates to about 21,000 pro-Union citizens to 9,000 pro-Confederate. South of the Arkansas River the population was largely Mexican and scattered, but pro-Confederate as well largely due to feelings of resentment towards the Federal Government who they felt stole Mexican land from them in the wars  and following treaties of the 1840’s. These Hispanic secessionist were known as “Confederados.” Clearly, the major issue in the territory, from the Union view point, was the pro-Confederate faction had the money and that translated to “power and guns” and they had a potentially valuable ally south of the Arkansas River if war was to break out.

With Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, the subsequent secession of seven southern States which led to the formation of the Confederate States of America, and the skirmish at Ft. Sumter in April 1861 marking the beginning of armed hostilities, the military hierarchy across the United States and the territories fragmented along political and regional lines. The military men named above, and countless others of all ranks tendered their resignations and left the Forts of the region to return to the south and take up arms in Confederate gray. This was a blow to civilian secessionists such as John C. Moore who were preaching the Confederate cause in the streets of Denver.

Abraham Lincoln recognized the immediate danger and quickly named Colorado a new territory, and no longer a part of Kansas. This allowed Lincoln to appoint a “friendly” Territorial Governor in the form of William Gilpin who was rushed to Denver to establish law and order, weed out the secessionist elements, and secure Colorado Territory and it’s gold for the Union- If the Territory went Confederate, the enormous wealth of gold and silver in the region could tip the scales in favor of the South.

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Governor William Gilpin

During this transitional period in 1860-1861, following his removal from the office of Mayor, John C. Moore and  a fellow secessionist named James Coleman established a pro-Confederacy newspaper in Denver called “The Daily Mountaineer” which was published from August 25, 1860 to May 15, 1861 with it’s distinctly pro-southern flair.  Finding an audience, Moore and Coleman played on the heartstrings of their fellow southerners working the gold fields in the new Territory.

Ads were placed in “The Daily Mountaineer” and handbills distributed around town promised top-dollar paid for pistols, rifles, and other equipment to clandestinely outfit a regiment of Colorado Volunteers for the Confederate cause. Sympathetic businessmen, miners, ranchers and farmers in Colorado Territory sold and donated arms and other supplies to the Denver secessionist leaders.  The Union element in town relied on their overwhelming numbers to keep the rebels in check. Fights and skirmishes broke out between the two factions regularly, but no serious loss of life or property ever transpired.

Charley Harrison, another prominent Denver secessionist owned a saloon called the “Critereon” which had long been a hangout for secessionists, outlaws and other seedy elements of Denver’s early days. Soon, the Critereon became the secessionist stronghold and secret recruiting center of Colorado Territory. Although most people at the time knew Charley Harrison and his lot were Confederate sympathizers, few realized the Critereon was being used to funnel men and arms to the south. The arms and equipment raised by the newspaper ads and hand bills were stored at the Critereon. Volunteers for the Confederacy coming from all over Colorado Territory would meet at the saloon, be issued arms and provisions, and then would sneak out late at night under the cover of darkness to head south and join the regular Confederate Army. It is interesting to note that this was happening in early-to-mid 1861 before William Gilpin became governor in the summer of 1861 and raised the Colorado Cavalry Regiments for the Union. So, one can surmise, based on the early accounts, that the first Colorado troops sent to fight in the Civil War were Confederates.

As Governor Gilpin began to take control of the situation, he suspended habeas corpus, thus making it legal to imprison anyone in the territory for an indefinite period of time, without trial for any reason. This action gave Gilpin the ability to pursue “rebels” in the territory based on the weakest of evidence.

The Colorado secessionists would not be bullied, and on the night of August 21, 1861, roughly one month after William Gilpin was named Governor, a wild series of melees and scuffles erupted between Unionists and rebels on the streets of Denver. Shots were fired and several men on both sides were wounded, but no one was killed, probably due to the drunken nature of the brawls. The rebels, outnumbered by the recently emboldened Unionists, retreated en masse to the Critereon and hunkered down for a protracted battle. The effects of the booze eventually wore off, and both sides lost interest in killing one another. Neither side would abandon their positions though, and the stalemate finally ended when the Denver Town Marshall pushed his way through Unionist lines, knocked on the front door of the Critereon and arrested Charley Harrison

Harrison was tried in the Hall of Justice on charges of treason for his secessionist activities, but since Colorado was only a territory at the time, he was technically guilty of nothing other than holding an unpopular opinion. He was acquitted on the charge of treason, but found guilty on the charge of “Obstructing the Territorial Government.” As the guilty charges were read, the presiding justices were informed of a party of 100 well-armed Confederates were waiting outside for Charley’s return, and to protect his well-being. The justices retreated for a short time, perhaps feeling a bit nervous about the posse outside, and returned with the unexpected verdict that instead of the customary jail term for the offense, it had been determined that Charley Harrison should walk free if he paid a fine of $5,000 and promised to leave the Colorado Territory within two weeks, never to return. Harrison agreed to the fine and terms of exile, and left the Denver Hall of Justice a free man to his waiting supporters outside.

With Harrison’s exile imposed, the majority of the Denver secessionists quickly followed suit and fled south to join the regular ranks of the Confederate Army. Among those who left following Charley Harrison’s trial were A.B. Miller (the prominent businessmen mentioned previously) and Denver’s first Mayor John C. Moore. Also leaving Colorado and their fortunes behind were William and Joseph Russell who returned to Georgia and raised their own cavalry unit known as “Captain Russell’s Company of the Georgia Cavalry”, and George Jackson left his riches in Idaho Springs to join the Arizona Brigade of the Confederate States Army.

A.B. Miller’s band of Confederates were surrounded by Union troops while trying to cross south across Kansas to friendly lines in Missouri. Instead of surrendering, Miller and his men, estimated at one hundred in number, simply abandoned their wagons, livestock, and supplies, and disappeared with their guns under the cover of darkness. They changed their route, and headed for Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) which was home to the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations who were allies of the Confederate States. The next day Union forces were shocked to find twenty wagons and over four hundred cattle had been left behind, but not a single rebel.

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In October of 1861 Union troops learned of a large rebel encampment southwest of Pueblo in a remote valley known as “Mace’s Hole” near present day Beulah, Colorado. Union forces launched a surprise attack and around forty Colorado confederates were arrested, with around one hundred fifty escaping south and linking up with General Sibley’s Confederate Army of New Mexico. Among those captured at Mace’s Hole were Jim and John Reynolds, two of the founding fathers of Fairplay, Colorado. The Mace’s Hole rebels would escape from the Denver City jail with the assistance of Jackson Robinson- A Denver police officer who was a clandestine operator for the southern cause. Robinson, and the Reynolds brothers would reappear in 1863 at Ft. Belknap, Texas where they enlisted in General Douglas H. Cooper’s Third Texas Cavalry Regiment. In the summer of 1864 the Reynolds brothers and around fifty other Confederate cavalry, including Jackson Robinson, marched from Ft. Belknap on orders from General Cooper to disrupt the Union supply trains in Colorado Territory. The return of these Colorado rebels became known as the “The Reynolds Gang Terror” of 1864, and many grossly exaggerated stories and legends were written about the unit.

Rebels Captured at Mace's Hole

Rebels Captured at Mace’s Hole

Denver’s first Mayor, John C. Moore, fled south, and safely crossed into Confederate territory. He joined ranks with General Joseph Shelby, a famous Confederate Cavalry General in the Army of the Trans-Mississippi. Moore went on to serve as quartermaster for the unit, holding the rank of Colonel, then earning the rank of  Adjutant General in the closing days of the Civil War.

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General Joseph Shelby

At the end of the war in 1865 as the Confederate armies across the south and west laid down their arms, General Joseph Shelby and roughly one thousand of his soldiers took a defiant stand and refused to surrender. Remaining in formation, in full uniform, General Shelby and his cavalry crossed the Rio Grande River into Mexico, Union troops in pursuit, pausing briefly to throw their battle flags into the water, proclaiming “It is better to drown our colors than surrender them.”  Among the men in the group was Denver’s first Mayor, John C. Moore. These men became legendary at the time among both Union and Confederate veterans of the war as “The Undefeated”- The unit that never surrendered. (The 1969 John Wayne-Rock Hudson film “The Undefeated” is based on Shelby’s cavalry.)

Once safe in Mexico, General Shelby’s cavalry offered their services to Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, who, politely declined, but as a token of gratitude for their offer presented the men with a land grant near Veracruz where he allowed them to built a colony for Americans.  Two years later the land grant was revoked and many of the men of Shelby’s cavalry quietly returned to the United States, among them John C. Moore.

John C. Moore returned to Colorado. He settled in Pueblo, and returned to the newspaper business as the founder and editor of “The Pueblo Press.” Denver’s first Mayor died with little if any recognition for his accomplishments in life. He was a man born and made of a tumultuous time, like many of his generation. He picked the losing side in a brutal and divisive war that still haunts us today, and the winner wrote the history of that war. John C. Moore’s remarkable life certainly deserves more than the few lines allowed him in most sources, he was, after all, one of us- an American.

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Inscription on the Memorial to the Confederate Dead, Canon City, Colorado – Erected in 1899 by Union Veterans

 

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Comments
  1. Barry says:

    Love this story! Good research and great work on putting it all together.

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