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'Dear Sir:' Letters Reveal Mindset Of Early Colorado Settlers

Greeley historians are thrilled to welcome a rare collection of historic letters that shed light on the city’s founding.

The Greeley History Museum will officially purchase the collection Friday, Jan. 24, after successfully raising more than $20,000 in donations.

The letters were written to Greeley founder Nathan Meeker, who, after visiting Colorado Territory in 1869, returned to his New York home with visions of founding a utopian temperance and agricultural community.

Meeker wrote an editorial for the paper he worked for, seeking like-minded people who were interesting in joining this experiment known as Union Colony.

The editorial quickly sparked thousands of responses from people ready to jump on a train and "Go West, young man" -- a saying often attributed (perhaps incorrectly) to Meeker’s boss, Horace Greeley.

"For the New York Tribune, a newspaper – which was considered one of the most significant newspapers of its day – to have such a far-reaching effect that you would get a thousand letters responding to an article... in just a couple of weeks, is absolutely remarkable, in my mind," says Peggy Ford Waldo, Development Curator and Historian with the City of Greeley museums.

Many of the letters read like resumes, highlighting the writers’ abilities that would have helped them get accepted. Although the desire to farm or homestead was important, it was also important to bring skills to the table.

Credit Greeley History Museum
Letter written in 1869 to Nathan Meeker from DL Freeman, asking to be considered for acceptance to the Union Colony.

"What we find in these letters are two things, primarily," says Greeley Museums Manager Dan Perry. "People are trying to sell to Nathan Meeker the skills they have. For instance, one of the letter writers touted the fact that they were a shovel maker – which in today’s society doesn’t mean a lot, but in 1869 it would have been very important in a farming community."

The other item mentioned in every letter is money. "How much cash they [could] bring to this experiment in the West," says Perry.

That was critical, says Peggy Ford Waldo, because Meeker had been involved in an earlier attempt at a utopian community that failed in large part because of a lack of capital.

"These were things that Meeker learned from hard experience," says Ford-Waldo. "If you are going to get a group of people together, they have to be on the same page you are. They have to have the same commitment, the same vision, and they have to have money to establish a community where one doesn’t exist."

The letters are in remarkably good condition, Perry says, especially considering they were rescued from the trash in 1935 by a teenager interested in salvaging the stamps. He says an acquisition like this collection is tremendously exciting for historians.

"I liken it to -- if you had the original letters of the Pilgrims that applied to sail on the Mayflower to Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s… it’s a very similar situation," Perry says. "These people were applying to Nathan Meeker, who obviously had the power to ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ their application."

The collection includes 320 letters, all written in 1869, and a small Bible given to Nathan Meeker's wife by her son in 1864. A portion will be displayed for a few weeks, before the letters undergo restoration and preservation.

A permanent display is expected later in 2014.

Love Colorado history? Grab a cup of coffee and settle in to hear more about one of the Union Colony's early members...

Historian Peggy Ford Waldo shares some details about the life of one of Greeley's earliest settlers, Evan Rea.

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.
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