BOULDER’S FOURTH OF JULY BARBECUE 160 YEARS AGO … AT FORT CHAMBERS.

Grand Army Of The Republic Group Portrait Photo 1

This post was researched and written by Jim England, former member of the Museum of Boulder’s Board of Directors.

Be prepared for quotes that use racist and violent language.

Recently the City of Boulder has been in consultation with Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations about what should be done with the site east of the city where the infamous Fort Chambers was erected in 1864. Fort Chambers served as the jumping-off point for Boulder County’s volunteer militia before their participation in the Sand Creek Massacre.

Fc Fort Chambers Land Medium 1

Area near the site of Fort Chambers, taken by members of Right Relationship Boulder.

Despite its local notoriety, there has been remarkably limited clarity about the Fort’s early history. There has been so little clarity, in fact, that even the date of its construction remains uncertain.  Significant information has been provided by newly discovered newspaper articles from 1864, which appear to have been largely overlooked since their publication. However, a few intriguing questions still remain.

Local militia units had been authorized in 1862 by the Colorado Territorial Legislature (after Governor Evans had disingenuously claimed that “a strong arm of military protection” was “our best guaranty” of the continued “friendly disposition” of the surrounding “large tribes of Indians”). In response, two groups of militia were formed in Boulder County in June of 1863: the Boulder County Mounted Rifles in October, 1862, and the Evans Guards (in Burlington, south of current-day Longmont). The “Evans” group was captained by Andrew Jackson Pennock and the “Boulder” group was captained by Thomas Aikin (one of the original “Nebraska City Boys,” who were the first white “settlers” of Boulder), with George Chambers as his Second Lieutenant.

On June 15, 1864, Governor Evans issued a public “Order of Thanks” to the “patriotic citizen soldiers” of both militia companies “for their prompt response, that they were ready to march at a moments warning.” This was apparently in reference to the Governor having called them out three days prior to the Coal Creek area south of Boulder to respond to a report of “Indian depredations.” One militia company had returned and reported “a large body of hostile Indians within 25 miles of Denver.”

At this same time, at the urging of Governor Evans, the commander of the Militia for the entire Territory ordered all local militia companies “to fill their companies and perfect their drill” and to “act promptly on the defensive.” In response, two weeks later the two Boulder militia companies, “not content with organizing and drilling and holding themselves in readiness to march against the red-skins in a moment’s notice,” had begun building a Fort about four miles below Boulder City –

It is to be 100 x 250 feet, with a block house in the center. The Fort proper will give room for about two hundred fighting men, and the block house sufficient room for their families. A hundred men and teams [of horses] are hard at work, and it will be completed by [July 2]. Unless the militia are called away on urgent business, a grand Fourth of July celebration will be held there.

Rocky Mountain [Weekly] News, June 29, 1864 – 

Boulder County citizens were reported to be preparing for a “big time” on the Fourth and invited a Denver militia company, the “Governor’s Guards,” to be present. That company’s commander ordered his men to “prepare to mount” and “to turn out with horse” to join the Boulder companies for a Friday evening drill the night before.

Local newspapers also promoted the event. Black Hawk’s Daily Mining Journal predicted “a great celebration at the new block-house.” More details were provided by the Rocky Mountain News in an article which has survived only in a frustratingly incomplete version:

Our Boulder friends, who last year [eclipsed ?] the whole territory in [their] Fourth of July celebration, have [made] preparations for a still more grand [one ?] this year. There will be a grand barbecue and pic-nic at the new block house. The military companies will be [out] in full force, and an invitation has [been] received by the Governor’s Guards [to] participate, which they are preparing [to do]. The people of Boulder are unanimously sound on the main question, [and are ?] enthusiastically loyal. There [will be] a grand good time at their celebration. We only regret that we cannot be present to participate in its en-[_____]. Long may they prosper, despite [floods], Indians and the disasters [which] have been visiting us so thick and [____] this year.

The celebration did indeed take place, as the Rocky Mountain News reported a few days later. The citizens of Boulder County assembled at Butte Grove, on Boulder Creek, four miles below the town, at 10 o’clock. About six hundred ladies and gentlemen were present.

Rocky Mountain [Daily] News, June 30, 1864 –

The [dinner] table was two hundred feet long—in a semicircular form, and supplied with the substantials and delicacies of the country, in a manner commensurate with its dimensions, and highly creditable to the patriotic and liberal-hearted ladies of the Boulder, St. Vrain and Left Hand settlements, who all lent a helping hand in preparing the splendid repast.

Rocky Mountain [Daily] News, July 7, 1864 – “There followed a lengthy description of the songs, prayers, toasts and speeches that were presented, capped off by an ‘Independence’ dance … on the floor of the pavilion,” with a large party remaining to keep up the dance ‘until a late hour.’” 

Grand Army Of The Republic Group Portrait Photo 1

This photo was taken approximately 18 years after the Sand Creek Massacre. Shown are A. Jackson Pennock (front row, 2nd from right), Morse H. Coffin (second row, 2nd from right), David H. Nichols (2nd row, 4th from left), and Lewis H. Dickson (2nd row, 5th from left).

These accounts prompt several observations and questions. First, there is the juxtaposition of the rampant and overwhelming anxiety about looming “Indian depredations” (that never came near Boulder) which had initially prompted the construction of the fort in the first place. Nevertheless, hundreds of civilians were still willing to travel many miles into relatively “unsettled” country to eat barbecue and dance. Another chilling irony is that Fort Chambers was constructed on land that had been ceded by treaty to Indigenous tribes in the prior decade. Only five years before this fateful Fourth of July celebration, the Cheyenne and Arapaho had become displaced from, and dispossessed of, the very land upon which Fort Chambers was built. And less than five months later, many of them would be murdered at Sand Creek, by none other than the local militiamen enjoying this Fourth of July feast. 

Finding the Fort

As to the fort itself, there is little information about its precise location. “Four miles below” Boulder City translates into four miles “downstream” (or downhill) from the then-village of Boulder, and corresponds roughly to the settlement of Valmont, which had not yet been named or organized in 1864. The reference to “Butte Grove,” which has not been seen in any other reports from the era, presumably correlates with present Valmont Butte, with the “Grove” indicating a wooded area nearby, likely along the Boulder Creek. Both Aikin and Chambers lived in the vicinity of this location, and although consistent with later accounts of the Fort being located on Chambers’ property, this was not reported at the time and there is no contemporaneous account yet discovered of it being dubbed “Fort Chambers” at that time.

Further questions have arisen as to the physical nature of the fort. Although later accounts describe it as being made of adobe, this was also not reported at the time. Furthermore, there are no reports of other buildings having been built of adobe anywhere in Boulder County in the 19th Century. Did someone in the two militia companies have experience, acquired elsewhere, of fashioning and constructing 250-foot walls made of adobe bricks? Given the thousands of adobe bricks that would have been required to build such a large fort (some 700 running feet of walls, presumably 8 to 10 feet high, along with an entire block-house structure), could they have possibly been fabricated out of Boulder Creek clay, that been allowed to dry and then been used to construct such walls – all in just the week or ten days that construction was reported to have occurred?

Addendum 7/3/24:

The questions raised about whether Fort Chambers could have in fact been constructed in a short period of time from adobe, prompted some additional research. Several references were discovered which described the Fort as having been constructed instead with “brick and sod” or just “sod,” with no convincing details to support such description.

And then an apparently first-hand account of its construction was found.

In early 1908, the Boulder Daily Camera ran a multi-part series titled “Reminiscenses [sic] of Pioneer Days.” Its author was listed only as “a Pioneer” but has been identified as Joseph Wolff, a Boulder resident since 1861 and a prominent local farmer and commercial fruit grower.

Part 7 of this series, published on March 11, 1908, was devoted to a decidedly pro-Chivington account of the “Sand Creek Fight,” and concluded with a discussion of forts constructed in the early 1860’s.

We had [a fort] at Valmont on the land now owned by the county as the poor farm. It was on low land covered with very tenacious sod. This sod was turned over by a very sharp plow. It was then cut into lengths about 18 inches. Of these sods walls were built three feet thick. At the corners were projections with port holes so that no Indian could safely approach. In this the terrified pioneers were safe from slaughter. And to this they came whenever word was sent out from Denver that the Indians were approaching. It was indeed a “City of Refuge” for us.

Although such sod construction solves a lot of the problems raised by the alternative adobe method, it raises others. 700 running feet of walls, three feet thick and presumably 10 feet or so high, would have still required enormous numbers of 18-inch sod lengths. Also required would have been the expertise to assemble that sod into stable walls.  On the other hand, sod construction, necessarily temporary in nature, would explain why the fort structure disintegrated over a short period of time with no traces left.

The previous description of the Fort mentioned that it was constructed on land which had been previously granted by treaty to the Arapaho and Cheyenne peoples. This new detail establishes that it was not just built on their land, but built of their land itself.

The 1908 Camera account provides an additional tantalizing detail that may not have been noticed previously. There was apparently a second fort built locally, and not just miles away from Boulder.

There was also [a fort] in the little village of Boulder. It was on the land now occupied by the Young Men’s Christian Association building, and should have an inscription somewhere telling this fact in stone. This fort was not built the same as the one at Valmont. The men went into the mountains and cut dry pine logs, 20 feet long and about 18 inches in diameter. These were nicely hewn on two opposite sides, set into a trench five feet deep, with the hewn sides fitting so neatly that no redskin could poke his gun through the crack and shoot us. This made a most satisfactory protection for the people who came into town and the surrounding claims. It was not needed often but when it was we needed it badly.

In 1908 Boulder’s three-story YMCA building (later the Albany Hotel until being razed in 1960) was located at 1231 Walnut Street, where there is now a parking lot on the north side of Walnut just east of Broadway. Was there ever in fact a stone monument attesting to the unnamed fort’s presence there? And was this fort (or Fort Chambers for that matter) ever in fact used as a place of supposed “refuge” for civilians, as Wolff claimed?

These questions continue to invite additional research.