October 6 is German-American Day which celebrates German American heritage. The holiday was celebrated as early as 1883 in Philadelphia and similar celebrations developed in other areas of the country over time. The custom died out during World War I due to anti-German sentiment but was revived in 1983. Ronald Reagan proclaimed October 6 as German-American Day and called upon the people to celebrate the day with appropriate ceremonies and activities. So, why bring this up?
Well, did you know we had a German colony just south of Westcliffe? It was organized as the German Colonization Society in Chicago in 1869 with Carl Wulsten as president. Wulsten’s proposal was “formed only to enable men of small means and poor men to take advantage of the homestead law, and become happy settlers on a beautiful country.” The only jobs many immigrants could obtain in Chicago were of dangerous factory work in cramped buildings with poor ventilation. Wulsten’s hope was that moving to the unoccupied lands in the Wet Mountain Valley would lead to better opportunities. Men who wished to join had to be of good moral character, between the ages of 21 to 45, in sound physical and mental health, and provide a payment of $250. In February of 1870, the men and their families who decided to move to Colorado from Chicago departed on their journey. On the side of the train was a placard that read:
Westward the Star of Empire takes its course – German Colonization Society of Colfax, Fremont County, Colorado Territory – organized at Chicago, August 24, 1869 – Carl Wulsten, President; Albert Phillip, Secretary; T. Merten, Treasurer – under the auspices of the National Land Company!
The colony was known as Colfax Colony after Schuyler Colfax, who was vice president of the United States at the time. The group arrived on the chosen site in March of 1870 and set to work building their settlement. Unfortunately for the colonists, the area that Wulsten had chosen sat at an elevation of 7,000 feet meaning that the growing season was shorter and frosts came early to kill crops. Many of the colonists did not have farming experience and their leaders were fairly inexperienced. The colony was disbanded by the end of 1870 and only a few families remained in the area to try to make a living off the land. While the colony itself was a failure, some of the families that moved out did in fact succeed, some opening their own businesses.
Many of the families moved to areas such as Cañon City and Pueblo while others moved to the present site of Westcliffe. Businesses were started and the area continued to grow as more people moved out. Custer County was created in 1877 out of the southern half of Fremont County which included the original site of the Colfax Colony and Westcliffe. Carl Wulsten died in 1913 and is buried in Rosita. While the colony was not the success that Wulsten envisioned, it did play an important role in the early settlement and history of the Wet Mountain Valley.
The information presented in this article is compiled using research conducted by the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.