Colorado History: Independence Camp

In Hall's History of Colorado; Volume #4, Page 20 - Mr. Hall recounts a story William Parsons wrote about in his famous Pikes Peak Gold Rush guidebook; The New Gold Mines Of Western Kansas. On July 4, 1858 The famous Lawrence Party, a company of gold-seekers from Kansas with Julia Holmes the first American woman to climb Pikes Peak, celebrated Independence Day by naming a Cottonwood grove in Southern Colorado, Independence Camp. According to William Parsons, that Cottonwood grove was located 15 miles north of Old Pueblo alongside Fountain Creek (Fontaine qui Bouille).

Independence Camp was an important way station for travelers heading to Pikes Peak via the Cherokee Trail. But besides the brief mention of Independence Camp in Parsons' gold rush guidebook, and in Julia Holmes' surviving letters, very little is known about the site. When I discovered the U.S. Library of Congress actually had a drawing of that almost-mythical campground, that was sketched in 1859 by an prospector from Pawtucket, Rhode Island named Daniel Jenks, and that Jenks had written about his visit to Independence Camp in his Gold Rush journal, I wanted to know more.   


Drawing of Independence Camp in Southern Colorado attributed to Daniel Jenks from 1859

1859 drawing of Independence Camp in Southern Colorado,
attributed to Daniel Jenks of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. 

In his Gold Rush journal, Daniel Jenks wrote that his traveling companion, Loren Jenks, was so impressed with Independence Camp that he decided to stay there. The few records that have survived from that early period in Colorado's history confirm Daniel's story. Loren Jenks wrote that his farm 'Jenks Ranch' was on the east bank of Fountain Creek, on the Cherokee Trail. Now we know Jenks Ranch was at the junction of the Cherokee Trail and the Chico Creek Cutoff -- a prime location for a trading post. In 1865, Loren Jenks and his family suddenly left the farm they'd spent years building there. Whether their departure was precipitated by the calamitous Fountain Creek flood of 1864, has not been determined. 






Loren Jenks and his family lived at Independence Camp from 1859-1864. Over the years, 20-25 other families joined them there. It was one of the largest squatter encampments in Southern Colorado. In 1862 Loren petitioned the US Government to place a Post Office there; at Jenks Ranch. While the U.S. Postmaster approved Loren's application, the name he'd suggested, "Jenks Ranch Post Office", was denied.

On the Post Office application form (that's filed out of sequence in the archive, making it challenging to find) the Postmaster scratched out the name Jenks Ranch and wrote in the name Wood Valley. The Postmaster also wrote a note at the bottom of the form: "I suggest the name of "Wood Valley". The said Ranch having been known by that name heretofore."


Post Office Petition Submitted By Loren Jenks


Post Office records state the Wood Valley/Independence Camp/Jenks Ranch Post Office was located "14 miles north of Pueblo." Unfortunately, the site plan drawing that was supposed to accompany Loren's Post Office application isn't available online. According to U.S. Postal Service's archive the Wood Valley Post Office officially opened June 12, 1862, and Wood Valley's first Postmaster from 1862-1864...was Loren Jenks.   





Pueblo's Border Stopped At J.D. Jenks' Claim

The Jenks family played an important role in the early history of Southern Colorado. Yet, outside of the Jenks Journals and a few brief mentions in Hall's History of Colorado, little appears to have been written about them. Here's an example of how important the Jenks Clan was during the early history of the Pueblo area. The first official meeting of the Pueblo County Board of Commissioners took place on February 17, 1862. During that meeting the boundaries of Pueblo's County seat (Pueblo City) were defined as:

Beginning on the Arkansas river, "140 paces from the bridge owned by A.F. Bercaw", this being the southeast corner, then "running due north 200 rods, thence west one half mile, thence south to the Arkansas, thence down said river to J.D. Jenks' claim, thence east to the Arkansas, at or near the old Pueblo fort, thence down said river to place of beginning." 


Pueblo County's First Mothers - Elizabeth Jenks

From Hall's History of the State of Colorado:

“In the spring of 1859 an acequia was dug and water taken from the Fontaine for irrigating purposes, by Josiah Smith; land was plowed, seeded and a crop matured. Corn and vegetables were sold to passing gold hunters at fabulous prices. Mr. Kroenig brought some livestock from New Mexico and engaged in trade. Immigrants poured in, the greater part however, en route to the gold mines.

In April the venerable Matthew Steele arrived with his family; Stephen Smith, a brother of Josiah, came out from the States, also William H. Young and Loren Jenks, whose wives were, after Mrs. Middleton, the first American mothers of the county.” 


The Jenks Family Left Fountain Valley After The 1864 Colorado Flood

In 1864 severe flooding occurred all along the Colorado Front Range. According to Dick Wootton, a wall of water came thundering down Fountain Creek that was 18 feet high and nearly a mile-wide. The flooding in Denver was reported in the newspapers, but the first mention I've found about the Fountain Creek catastrophe was written over a decade later. The only first-hand account of the 1864 Fountain Valley Flood I've seen came from Dick Wootton, his ranch was on Fountain Creek, just a few miles south of Jenks Ranch. 

That 1864 Fountain Valley flood uprooted almost every ranch and squatter encampment in its path. After that epic flood, Loren Jenks and his family left Fountain Valley and moved south. In 1865 the Jenks Family were reported to be among the founders of Saguache, Colorado.