Denver History


Come learn the stories of the Mile High City. You will learn how our city was founded and the roles played by William Larimer, John Evans, and others. We will trace the development of this resilient city that has enjoyed tremendous booms and weathered debilitating busts. Bring your favorite Denver trivia to share!

Key Lecture Points

  • Denver was founded in 1858 by prospectors, who had just discovered gold at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. The mining boom and railroad boom that followed catapulted Denver to become the 2nd largest Western city by the late 1800s.
  • While prospectors were some of the first white faces to be seen in the Denver region, the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes had resided along the banks of the Platte and Cherry Creek for years previously. Denver’s early years were rife with conflict between Native Americans and settlers, culminating in the infamous 1864 “Sand Creek Massacre” of the Plains Indians.
  • The 1870 decision of Denver’s business leaders to link the city with the Transcontinental Railroad in Cheyenne was pivotal to making Denver the business and industrial center of the Rocky Mountain region that it is today.
  • Denver was, and still is, a city of newcomers and transplants. In the early years, Germans, Irish, Swedes, Italians and other nationalities all made the city their home. As the years passed, transplants from the East and West coasts came to Denver. Many of those migrating to Denver were “consumptives”, who came to Denver to be cured of tuberculosis. The legacy of this disease can still be seen in such city institutions as the National Jewish Hospital.
  • In the 1920s the Klu Klux Klan gained political control of Colorado, targeting its activities primarily at Italian immigrants. Despite its dominance of the state legislature, the Klan had little success in enacting its legislative agenda.
  • Denver’s story is one of ‘boom and bust. The mining boom collapsed under the weight of the 1893 national depression, but Denver was to be remade under the leadership of Mayor Robert Speer who wanted the city to be the “Paris of America.” Speer’s boom collapsed after the Great Depression. But, Denver, ever-resilient, was again remade after WWII, becoming a magnet for both the defense and oil industries. Since the 1980s, the city has again been remade as a Western hub for technology and tourism.
  • Denver underwent a population boom during the early 21st century. Denver’s recent history has been colored by a reckoning with its legacy of racism and by the Coronavirus pandemic that began in early 2020.

Exploration Questions

  • What do you think explains why Denver became and remains the business hub of the Rocky Mountain region of the US?
  • Denver has survived economic downturns in the past. How has it adapted? What is it doing to adapt to future economic challenges?

Reflective Questions

  • What is your favorite story from Denver’s history?
  • Tell about your first memory of the city of Denver.
  • How has Denver changed for the better in your lifetime? How has it changed for the worse?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Madigan, Michael. Historic Photos of Denver in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Turner, 2010. 206 pages. This book shows pictorially the changes in Denver after WWII.
    Click here to order
  • Wallace, Elizabeth Victoria. Hidden History of Denver. History Press, 2011. 128 pages. A concise history of the founding of Denver.
    Click here to order