The History Behind the Fiction: James Michener’s "Centennial"

Cover of James Michener's CentennialOne of the great novelists of the twentieth century, James A. Michener, set one of his best-known novels right here in Colorado. Michener spent a great deal of time in Colorado researching Centennial, renting an apartment in Capitol Hill and also spending much time in the northern part of the state, where the novel is set. Published in 1974, Centennial was adapted as a television mini-series in 1979. Upon giving Colorado the national spotlight on prime-time TV, Centennial is considered to be one of the factors contributing to Colorado’s population boom in the 1970s.

There is a city in Colorado today called Centennial, but this is not the place the novel was based on; rather, the Arapahoe County locale was only incorporated in 2001. Michener placed his Centennial in northern Colorado, mostly based on Greeley. Many of the events depicted in the story, however, were inspired by true events in Colorado’s history.

The early portions of the novel look at the geological and natural formation of what would be Colorado. You can learn more about this topic by visiting the Colorado Geological Survey.

Much of the book concerns the Arapaho Indians and their struggles through Colorado history. The Arapaho and their allies the Cheyenne lived on Colorado’s eastern plains. The horrible Arapaho massacre and the character Col. Frank Skimmerhorn depicted in the novel are based on the true story of Col. John Chivington, the “fighting parson,” and the Sand Creek Massacre, which actually occurred 148 years ago today. You can read about Silas Soule, on whom the character Captain MacIntosh is based, in Western Voices, a Colorado Historical Society publication available from our library.

The novel is sprinkled with other characters based on our state’s history. The trader Levi Zendt is somewhat based on the real-life William Bent. Hans “Potato” Brumbaugh may have been inspired by Rufus “Potato” Clark, a major potato farmer south of Denver who carved out a road to the city to sell his potatoes. That road became known as Broadway. Like Brumbaugh, Clark started out as a prospector and later became a pioneer in irrigation. Other characters may not be so obviously based on specific historical persons, but all of the characters typify those who made the West what it was (and is) — Indians and Mexicans, trappers and traders, settlers, soldiers, ranchers and cowboys, farmers and laborers, lawmen and those who didn’t respect the law — as depicted in Michener’s classic.

The second half of the novel emphasizes Centennial’s (or, northeastern Colorado’s) heavy reliance on agricutlure. The Venneford Ranch is probably inspired by Monfort, a major cattle marketing and distributing company near Greeley until 1987. Another topic covered in Centennial is dryland farming. The eastern plains of Colorado experienced the effects of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, so memorably depicted by the character Alice Grebe in the story. The Grebes reflect many small farmers who struggled during the simultaneous Dust Bowl and Great Depression. For a first-hand look at what dry farming was like in the early years of the twentieth century, before the Dust Bowl hit, see the 1917 publication Dry Farming in Colorado, published and circulated by the Colorado State Board of Immigration — who sought to attract farmers to Colorado the same way Mervin Wendell did in Centennial. 

James Michener is no longer living, but his legacy continues at the Michener Library at the University of Northern Colorado, which houses many of his papers. For an interview and in-depth look at Michener and the writing of Centennial, see “Colorado’s People: Through the Pen of James A. Michener” in the 1982 Annual issue of Colorado Heritage Magazine, available from our library.

21 thoughts on “The History Behind the Fiction: James Michener’s "Centennial"

  1. I enjoyed Centennial immensely. First read it while in the US Navy in the mid 70's. I just finished reading it a second time! A great book about the most beautiful state in the lower 48, and the struggles of the people that helped to make it what it is today.

  2. Centennial has had a wonderful affect on my life. First, I read the book. There is NO better writing that that of Michener. His attention to detail is unmatched. I then saw the mini series on TV, and purchased a VHS copy when it became available. After that, I purchased the DVD version. My husband and I love to travel Colorado and stay off interstate hwys whenever possible. What an amazingly beautiful state! I could visit again and again and again. I have spent hours looking at maps to see where things from the book might have happened and would love the opportunity to travel to them all.

  3. Wonderful author. Wonderful story and representation of history. The book and copies of the television series hold prominent places in my media library. (I never tire of watching this spectacular series; with its many stars putting forth truly inspiring performances.) McKeag, Zendt, and Paul Garret – characters to be admired. Brumbaugh, Skimmerhorn, Poteet, Person and trail crew all did remarkable, honest days work to survive and expand. Charlotte and Lucinda, women any man would be proud to call a partner-in-life. Throughout my mid-20s, and then late 40s – early 50s, have made trips to Colorado and experienced feelings of awe and admiration; reflection and relaxation.

  4. I read Centennial in the mid-1970s and it changed my life. The metaphor of the old Indian 'staking him self out' at the next battle had been my 'motto' since then. I got into business for self and 'staked myself out' refusing to quit even though very tough times befell. Thank you, Mr. Michener, for that! I also started to give 'females' more credit after reading that it is the dominant female bison which 'leads the herd.

  5. I've loved Centennial from the beginning, reading the book twice, and watching the series many times. When I taught 5th grade Social Studies and English, I delighted my students by showing the mini series at the end of the school year. What a great way to teach American history! It was always a much anticipated end of the school week treat. Many students were inspired to read the book. History and literature covered in one unforgettable story.

  6. I read Centennial in the mid 70's while going to college in Iowa and working long nights in a gas station/carwash. To this day I'm glad that the drive was empty of cars when I read about the demise of Elly Zendt. When I think of Centennial I think of that one paragraph foremost. Life can be like that…

  7. I'm at this time watching the mini-series on tv. It's a most wonderful story, what saddens me is the wrongful treatment of the Native American, but what I find great is the many strong will settlers enduring what they did to start a great country America has become. I've came to understand that all great country's have bad people in its history, but it's the great ones we remember and honor and this story does just that. The chapters are fiction but the story is true. Our children should watch this one and and understand what our forfathers lived through to make America what it is

  8. My husband and I are also watching the mini-series. Although we saw it years ago, we couldn't resist doing so again. My 1st Michener novel was Hawaii, which had me hooked. I've read as many of his works as I could lay my hands on & have to say Centennial is 1 of my favorites. The young woman who used it in her classroom is to be commended. My thought (& wish) is that each of his novels be made into a mini-series, as they are ALL fiction based on history – the history of America! Am waiting for this evening to watch the next segment.

  9. We've recorded the series and are watching one episode a night. We are doing it this way to spread out the powerful story. We've seen it before and I've read the book but never tire of the message……

  10. I grew up in Colorado, so of course I read the book and then saw the miniseries. Another friend of mine also did the same (we've known each other since third grade) and we both came to the same conclusion that "Charlotte Lloyd" (Redgrave) came to when explaining Colorado to her grandson, "Paul Garrett" (David Jansen): there are the 'takers' she told little Paul, and "there are the caretakers." That battle between the "Wendells' and the 'Garetts" continues to this day. The Front Range I saw as a child is not the same and is extremely over-crowded; water resources are scare; the land over-used and exploited. Colorado still is one of the most beautiful states in the country, but it appears to my weary eyes that the "Wendells"–those land developers–"the takers"– won. The battle still rages, but the de-regulators, developers, and the land-grabbers forget the message of Centennial: we are to "replenish" the Earth and well as subdue it.

  11. The characters are as real to me as some of my own friends and acquaintances. I can see so much of whom I've known, places I have been and things that have happened in that story. There is a Blue valley, Levi made the best souse ever and only the rocks live forever.

  12. I read the novel Centennial before the series came out. The makers of the series did such an excellent job of bringing some of my favorite characters from the book to life in the tv series. Colorado has been my home since 1959 and I loved the comment from an earlier writer that to see Colorado is to stay off of the interstate. We have visited the Sand Creek site twice in recent years. An amazingly spiritual place. The western story from the trappers to farms and ranches to now is so much fun to explore and imagine how we would have lived and how difficult it would have been to survive. We are currently watching DVD's of Centennial. Enjoying the series as much as the first time.

  13. Everytime I watch Centennial, I become part of it. My whole world goes away and I am there. Wish I had the money and time to explore Colorado and the places in the story. The west is so beautiful and awesome, but there is SO much of it.

  14. I am watching Centennial for the umteenth time! I have read the book twice!
    I grew up in Colorado and my Father was born in 1911 in a tent mining camp west of Walsenburg called Toltec!
    His Father my Grandfather was an Irish Immigrant and a Coal Miner!

    My father wirked in the Coal mines of Silverton Colorado i 1925-26 before joining the Army for WWII.

    I have loved Colorado wjhen I have left I have Ached to Return and in 2008 I did and its my wish to die here my beloved Centennial State!

    Frank Jenkins son of Frank(Irons)Jenkins adopted at 4yrs Old!

  15. My husband and I just finished watching Centennial and I'm sad that it came to an end. I feel that it was so well cast and the makeup artists did such a wonderful job of aging these characters that they really seemed real. Of course we will watch it again. It was so well done with superior actors, gorgeous scenery and historically fairly accurate. Heretofore the series Lonesome Dove was my favorite miniseries. Centennial has stolen my heart. I yearn to go out there and see that place and someday will.

  16. Those of you who like Centennial as much as me might watch the five year series "Babylon 5", it's very similar in many ways but was a more in depth look at us and history, although not as specific.

  17. I watch centennial every year.but the greatest thing about it is from the first time I seen it I had a strange feeling I was connected I looked through the family tree my dad had and Pascal the trapper (Robert Conrad) was my great great uncle cause his name was pascal pensoneau.he left Canada to live with the Indians and he worked for american fur company. I enjoy the story every time I watch it..

  18. After I read Centennial in 2016,I liked it so much I read it two more times within a year and a half.It started with watching the mini-series on youtube.It's without a doubt the best novel I've ever read.I liked all the characters,though had my favorites,especially Alexander McKeag,Pasquinel,Levi Zendt,and RJ Poteet.I've been across Wyoming and Colorado,seeing the great plains and the Rocky Mountains,so I was able to picture much of the scenery.Seeing the prarie dog,pronghorn antelope,elk,and moose was a treat to me loving nature.Being that my wife is part Lakota on her mother's side,I've grown to appreciate the Native Americans for what they are today,and the perils they suffered,so reading the novel gave meaning.

  19. I am reading Centennial now. It is wonderful. I have read many of Michener's books and have loved all of them.
    Lakshmi Bhat

  20. I'm finishing my reading of Centennial for the third time,my favorite novel of all times.I've also watched the mini series countless times,which is how I found out about the novel.

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