Tuesday, July 24, 2012

John Wesley Iliff, the Cattle King of the West

The history of Colorado and the Front Range is full of wild tales of personal success. Prospectors, merchants, miners, and more came to the area beginning in the mid-1850s. With the California Gold Rush beginning to taper off, many began to look towards the Rocky Mountains and the possible wealth that lay hidden there. Miners and prospectors receive the most attention because of the sense of freedom and adventure that surrounded their lives and the "get rich quick" nature of their profession. However, almost 9 out of 10 miners either failed to strike it rich or lost everything in the hurly burly of their profession and it was the people who followed after the prospectors, merchants, saloon owners, barbers, and cattlemen, could be said to have made out better in the end.

John Wesley Iliff was a native Ohioan. After completing his studies at Wesleyan University, he headed west to pursue his fortune. Initially settling in the Kansas Territory, he eventually ended up in the Auraria township with a wagon load of goods and opened the area's first general store. The store was a success, but Iliff sold it off in 1861 in order to buy a herd of cattle that had been weakened by the long trek across the western plains. Taking time to nurture and fatten the cattle, Iliff realized a huge profit when he sold the cattle to mining towns that were desperate for supplies. Denver did not have a railroad connection until 1870, and essential supplies, like cattle and other foodstuffs, were expensive and often in short supply. Iliff's business savvy turned this initial investment in livestock into an empire that would dominate the Colorado livestock trade and establish Iliff himself as the city's first millionaire. A mere seven years after purchasing his first cattle, Iliff owned nearly 25,000 head of livestock, and roughly 8,000 acres of land. By the 1870s, Iliff was one of the key suppliers of beef to Union Pacific and other railroad construction crews, as well as nearby Native American reservations. By the end of his life his property would encompass almost 15,000 square acres of prime grazing land, much of it attached to essential water sources and tying up incredibly valuable water rights, and he would graze his cattle over nearly 650,000 acres of public domain land that fell within the boundaries of the Colorado Territory.

After a wildly successful professional life, one that mimics the similar success of James Lick in California, John Wesley Iliff passed away at the relatively early age of 47. His wife, Elizabeth, was quick to sell off Iliff's cattle and property and invested the money safely. In 1892 she donated $100,000 to found the Iliff School of Theology, an institution which still stands on Iliff St. in the University Park neighborhood of Denver. Iliff was buried beneath a 65-ton granite monument in Denver's Riverside Cemetery, but in 1920 his daughter, Louise, had both the monument and his remains moved to the newer and more fashionable Fairmount Cemetery.

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