How Did We Get the Name Colorado?

Nobody’s ever seriously accused me of being a dictionary junkie. But, I do confess that once in a while I enjoy reading a good dictionary.

The Oxford Universal Dictionary has this to say about our state:

“Colorado. One of the states of the American Union, named after its great river [Sp. Rio Colorado ‘colored river’]”

Webster’s New World Dictionary implies the same, though translating Rio Colorado as “Red River.”

Much as I like dictionaries, the assertion that the state of Colorado was named after the Colorado River does not hold water. At the time the Colorado Territory was established, our “great river” in Colorado was not named the Colorado River. It was named the Grand River. Even after Colorado became a state, maps from Hayden’s Survey show the entire river in Colorado as the Grand River. It wasn’t until some years later that Colorado had a Colorado River. (The name was first applied only to the river downstream from its junction with the Gunnison River, then later to the entire river.)

Dorothy Aldridge’s book “Historic Colorado City” offers a more accurate explanation of our state’s name: Colorado Territory got its name from Colorado City.

Several other names for the new territory had been proposed including Jefferson, Pike’s Peak, and Montana. But, the town of Colorado City sent two representatives to Washington to lobby for the name Colorado because they thought having the territory named Colorado would help promote their town. The lobbyists were successful; and in 1861, Congress proposed a bill creating the Territory of Colorado.

In the new territory, Colorado City was second only to Denver in population; and Colorado City became the capitol of Colorado Territory … until July 7, 1862 when the legislature voted to reconvene in Denver.

During the decade after Colorado City was founded, the name “Colorado Springs” began to be used to refer to the area around Colorado City which included the mineral springs west of town. General Palmer’s publicist, William Pabor, then adopted the name “Colorado Springs” in his prospectus for Palmer’s new town site. And, the name was entered in the El Paso County record books even though Palmer, himself, disliked it at first.

So, both Colorado Springs and the state of Colorado got their names from Colorado City. But, how did Colorado City get its name? Aldridge quotes the reminiscences of Anthony Bott, who helped found Colorado City in 1859: “I think the name Colorado City was suggested by its proximity to the red rocks, as the word ‘Colorado’ in Spanish means ‘red’. ”

The bottom line, then, seems to be that both the state of Colorado and the city of Colorado Springs derive their names from our local red rocks, Red Rock Canyon and the Garden of the Gods.

-Don Ellis