Topics in History: The Lake County War

(Photo from leadville.com)

The Lake County War, as it has become known, was not actually a war at all in the traditional sense.  Instead, it is the term used to describe the time period in what was once Lake County (now Chaffee County) from 1874-1881, during which law and order broke down and vigilante “justice” reigned. For nearly a century, details of the events of this time were based on scattered and varying accounts, questionable witness testimony, and even local legend. In recent decades, however, historians have gathered information from local news sources, court records, and family histories in order to piece together the events of this tumultuous time in Colorado’s Arkansas River Valley.

In the early morning hours of June 17, 1874, Lake County homesteader, George Harrington raced from his home to a nearby outbuilding that was engulfed in flames. As Harrington and his wife attempted to extinguish the fire, which had been started deliberately, shots rang out and he was struck in the back and killed on the spot. Friends of Harrington were convinced that he was murdered by a fellow Lake Countian named Elijah Gibbs, with whom Harrington had recently quarreled over rights to an irrigation ditch. When Gibbs was acquitted of the murder in a Denver court, the late Harrington’s friends and supporters took matters into their own hands.

On the night of January 22, 1875, a posse of approximately 15 men surrounded Gibbs’s cabin and demanded he come out to be lynched. When Gibbs refused, the group threatened to set fire to the home with Gibbs’s family inside. As the group prepared to storm the cabin, Gibbs opened fire, hitting two of the men and causing one to accidentally fire on his own group, leaving all three dead. The posse left and Gibbs and his family fled the area. However, Harrington’s supporters were determined to get justice. The posse reformed with greater numbers and called themselves “The Committee of Safety.”

Over the following months, The Committee of Safety rounded up many of Gibbs’s alleged supporters, sympathizers, and fellow cattle rustlers. Many were tortured, while others were lynched. The committee’s tactics for “trying” a defendant included questioning the accused with a noose around their neck and tightening it with each answer the committee disliked. The group is even believed to have been responsible for the shooting death of Judge Elias Dyer, son of the famed circuit-rider Father John Dyer, after he issued warrants of arrest for 28 members of the Committee of Safety. The violence continued to a point that the Governor of Colorado sent a special detective to the area to investigate the conflict and report back.  However, the agent never uncovered anything of substance and the violence continued for the next several years, causing many families to flee the area in fear for their safety.

As time went on, the fervor of the committee members waned and the violence eventually subsided. The last of the Lake County War deaths is believed to have taken place in 1881, but estimates of the total death toll range anywhere from 10 to 100 over the course of the conflict. Among those lives allegedly claimed by the Lake County War were two brothers from the Boone family, distant relatives of the same Boone family that explored the Missouri Territory. Though many details of the Lake County War have been lost to time, a renewed effort by historians has uncovered new information regarding the motives and power dynamics of its key players.  One thing that remains certain though, is that the Lake County War was evidence of a Colorado that was still very much the Wild West.

 

Historic Newspaper Articles About The Lake County War

Madison Basch

Former Consultant Support Specialist at Colorado State Library
For questions about her posts, contact Regan Harper, harper_r@cde.state.co.us
Madison Basch