A visionary futurist, extravagant land speculator, courageous warrior and inveterate booster, William Gilpin left a distinctive imprint upon the history of the American West.
Born near Wilmington, Delaware, into an immensely wealthy Quaker family, Gilpin was educated by private tutors, studied in England for several years, and then attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1833.
Although he dropped out of West Point after only eight months, Gilpin was appointed a second lieutenant during the United States' war with the Seminole Indians, and served primarily as a recruiter stationed in Missouri. It was here that he first became impressed by the opportunities for settlement and development along the frontier, and when he left the army in 1838, Gilpin moved to St. Louis.
In Missouri, Gilpin became an independent newspaper editor, opened a law practice, and soon developed the enthusiasm for westward expansion that was to mark the rest of his career. After several years in St. Louis he moved west to Independence, Missouri, where he had extensive contact with settlers headed west to Oregon. In 1843 he headed west himself, as a member of Captain John Fremont's expedition, and decided to remain in Oregon while Fremont went on to California.
Here Gilpin helped the Willamette Valley settlers organize a government and draft a petition requesting congressional support, a petition which Gilpin himself carried back east. Once in Missouri, he began to publicize the opportunities awaiting settlers in the Northwest, helping to stir up "Oregon fever." And when he finally delivered the Willamette petition to Congress in 1845, he produced a report on his travels that emphasized the rich potential for trade with Asia that American settlements along the Pacific would provide.
Gilpin served with distinction during the Mexican-American war as a member of the force that bloodlessly conquered New Mexico. After the war, he returned to his law practice in Missouri, met disappointment in politics, and began work on a visionary history called The Central Gold Region, published in 1859, in which he argued that the Mississippi River valley was destined to be the center of world civilization and commerce, with Denver, then a two-year-old outpost, as its capital. In this book and elsewhere, Gilpin justified American expansion in virtually religious terms:
In later years Gilpin developed his vision of manifest destiny into an elaborate plan to use a network of railroads to unite the world into one economic and cultural whole, under the control of the United States.
Gilpin joined the Republican party in the wake of the Kansas crisis, and although this was not a popular affiliation in Missouri, it helped him win appointment as the first territorial governor of Colorado. Here he helped raise troops for the Union during the Civil War, including the First Colorado Volunteers who won a critical Union victory at Glorietta Pass in 1862. To finance these troops, however, Gilpin issued drafts on the federal treasury, and when questions were raised about the propriety of his actions, he was removed from office.
Unfazed, Gilpin devoted the latter half of his life to land speculation, using his firsthand knowledge of the West to locate and secure enormous land grants in the Southwest that had been inherited from the time of Spanish rule. He eventually bought over one million acres of New Mexico land supposedly guaranteed to its Hispanic residents by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, and became very wealthy upon its sale. He died in 1894 in a carriage accident.
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