Breckenridge was named for the 1860 Vice President, as the legend goes. When John C. Breckinridge flipped to the Confederacy during the Civil War, residents were so incensed that they changed the spelling of the town. Is that true? How did Breckenridge get its name?
Long-ago locals knew the provenance of our town’s name, but the story was forgotten over time. As Breckenridge declined to near ghost-town status in the 1950s, few with a memory long enough were still around to set the record straight. When Breckenridge renewed itself in the 1960s as a ski town, our origin story had to be reinvented yet again.
The Chamber of Commerce version of Breckenridge’s history was this: The town was founded with the first gold strikes in 1859 and named for the then-Vice President to curry favor in order to get a post office. The trick worked and Breckenridge was the first official town with a post office on the Western Slope, receiving that honor in January 1860. But the vice president spelled his name with an “in,” not an “en” as we do today. How did the town’s spelling change? There was a certain charm to bucking the Confederates and siding with the Union, so the story stuck.
All along, the kernels of the truth were there. A sixth-grade girl, writing in 1900, told of Breckenridge’s history, remarking that the first prospectors came in June 1859. Among the party “was a man by the name of Thomas Breckenridge, who built the first log cabin and from whom the town derives its name.”
That girl was Ella Foote, later Ella Theobald, grandmother of Robin Theobald, who is the head of a multi-generational Breckenridge family. Miss Foote must have interviewed an elderly resident for her report, as she speaks of his appearance and how youthful he looked for his advanced age of 76 years. She wrote: “Of the many that came here in ’59, only one remains to tell the story of the early days. Mr. Charles Runyon came here June 16, 1859.”
Miss Foote’s report provides enough information to refute the legend that Breckenridge was named for the then-Vice President. But further research was needed. It wasn’t until the 21st Century that sufficient clues were unearthed to change the story. Researcher and historian Bill Fountain traced every available piece of evidence to bring us much closer to understanding our town’s true origin story.
Charles Runyon was a member of John C. Fremont’s topographical expedition in 1844, the first Europeans to chronicle the area we know today as Central Colorado. Fremont was known as The Pathfinder, and gained fame for his route-finding and map-making skills. Also in Fremont’s corps was Thomas Breckenridge. After crossing the Continental Divide near today’s Hoosier Pass, Thomas Breckenridge lost one of his pack mules. Thinking it would be a few hours to find the missing animal and its valuable supplies, Fremont pitched camp.
After two days, Breckenridge did not return, and scout Kit Carson was sent in search of the lost man and the lost mule. When Carson, Breckenridge and mule returned to camp unscathed, the careless corpsman faced harsh criticism from Fremont. Henceforth, Fremont named the area where Breckenridge lost his mule “Breckenridge Pass.” Today, we call it Boreas Pass.
Enchanted with the West that they helped open up, many of Fremont’s men were part of the 1849 California Gold Rush and the 1859 Colorado Gold Rush. They knew the lay of the land and most likely called certain landmarks based on names given by The Pathfinder himself. Breckenridge Pass was already known to them and the name persisted through their gold prospecting explorations.
Numerous early accounts of the new mining camp of “Breckenridge” spelled the town with “en.” From the first newspapers in 1859 to diaries to letters home, the town’s name is spelled with “en.”
How did “Breckinridge” enter the story? There were many ways to mine the miners in the early prospecting days -- bringing in supplies and goods, and providing services like saloons, prostitution, hotels and lawyering. One of the ways to mine the miners was to plat a town, sell lots, and make a fortune in real estate speculation. George Spencer heard of the gold finds on the Blue Fork of the Grand River (the early name for the Colorado River) and, with the support of Denver capitalists, laid out the town of Breckenridge, as he called it.
But Spencer knew that the success of his town depended on getting a post office. It was a simple matter to change the spelling of the name of the town on the postal application to that of the then-Vice President, John C. Breckinridge. Just two months after founding “Breckenridge,” he mailed the application with the town named “Breckinridge.” By January 1860, with help of a Washington, D.C., insider, the application was granted. Today, George Spencer is remembered by one of Breckenridge’s longest running restaurants, Spencer’s in Beaver Run Resort.
John C. Breckinridge -- John C. Fremont -- George E. Spencer
According to Bill Fountain’s research, there were just a few years when the name of the town was spelled “Breckinridge” relatively consistently, from the January 1860 granting of the Post Office to early 1863.
It is true that the people of the town changed the spelling back to “Breckenridge” when Breckinridge joined the Confederacy in 1863.
John Breckinridge may have got our town a post office, but it was Thomas Breckenridge who gets the credit for the naming of our town, thanks to his lost mule. However, a mystery continues until additional information is discovered. No evidence exists for Thomas Breckenridge’s presence in his namesake town after 1844 when he passed through with Fremont. We still don’t know if the town was named for him directly, as Miss Ella Foote claims, or indirectly, from the pass that no longer carries his name.
To learn more about the founding of Breckenridge, read Mary Ellen Gilliland’s Breckenridge: 150 Years of Golden History and Chasing the Bad Guys by Bill Fountain and Dr. Sandra Mather. You can also take an historical walking tour or visit one of the many museums offered by the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.
written by Leigh Girvin with assistance from Bill Fountain