Finding gold on the Fourth of July

Along with marking Independence Day in the United States, the Fourth of July takes on another layer of significance in Colorado. The holiday marks the day in 1891 that Winfield Scott Stratton, a prospector from Colorado Springs, struck gold in his mining claim near Pikes Peak.

A man stands in a river surrounded by boulders and shrubs and fills a pan with silt from the river bottom.
Panning for gold in Castlewood Canyon State Park. Photo from Colorado Parks & Wildlife.

Winfield Scott Stratton

Stratton moved to the Colorado Territory in 1872 to study geology at Colorado College and metallurgy at the Colorado School of Mines, eventually hoping to find mineral riches in the Rocky Mountains. After a few years of unsuccessful prospecting in the San Juan Mountains, he investigated rumors that gold could be found around Pikes Peak. Many people had already filed claims in this area, but Stratton explored an unclaimed section on the southwest flank of Pikes Peak and realized that the geology of the area looked perfect for gold deposits. Stratton’s entry in the Colorado Day-by-Day book tells the story of his find:

“Stratton made several claims on July 4, most auspiciously a patch of earth that churned out valuable ore for years and anchored the lucrative Cripple Creek district. He named that site Independence Mine in honor of the holiday.”

After developing his claims into large-scale mines, Stratton became one of the richest men in Colorado. The History Colorado podcast episode, “The man who regretted his millions,” does a great job explaining Stratton’s complicated relationship with his sudden wealth. Until his death in 1902, Stratton lived humbly and donated much of his money to philanthropic causes in Colorado.

Cripple Creek Mining District

Shortly after Stratton struck gold, Cripple Creek Mining District grew quickly around the Gold King, Independence, Portland, and Victor Mines. At its peak around 1901, the district in Teller County had a population of more than 30,000 people and touted 500 active mines. Since then, the miners working in Cripple Creek have produced more than 23 million ounces of gold.

Stratton’s story is the epitome of the myth of the American West – an individual prospector traipsing through the rugged mountains alone until he finds a fortune. However, these stories often ignore the thousands of miners who worked underground after the initial strike in order to build a productive mine. At the time, the disparity of the proportion of mining wealth that went to the mine owners over the miners led to arguments between ownership and the miners’ union, the Western Federation of Miners. The tension led to a fifteen-month strike starting in 1903. Governor James Peabody supported the mine owners over the workers and sent the Colorado National Guard in to quell the strike, initiating one of the most violent labor conflicts in state history. The strike ended with a ban on organized labor in the Cripple Creek mines.

Panning for gold

If you’re interested in finding your own gold this Fourth of July, the State Publications Library and Colorado Parks & Wildlife have several resources that can help increase the odds of a lucky strike:

  • The Gold Panning webpage from Colorado Parks & Wildlife provides an introductory overview of how to pan for gold in Colorado’s creeks and rivers.
  • Gold! Gold! Gold!, a RockTalk issue from the Colorado Geological Survey, contains information about the unique geological structures in Colorado that form gold deposits in our mountains, as well as the importance of gold in Colorado’s history.
  • Gold panning and placering in Colorado: how and where, published by the Colorado Geological Survey, is an in-depth guide for finding gold through panning and placer mining.
Miranda Doran-Myers
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