(Denver Post, July 5) In lieu of fireworks, a cannon boomed at sunrise and sunset over Lewis and Clark’s campsite on a Missouri River tributary in present-day Kansas on July 4, 1804. They drank a toast and named the place Independence Creek. It was the first-ever Fourth of July celebration west of the Mississippi, writes Stephen Ambrose in Undaunted Courage. This weekend, 233 years after the Declaration of Independence claimed for Americans our “separate and equal station… among the powers of the earth,” the Colorado map abounds with reminders of the nation’s heroes and heritage. We overlook them amid the daily routine. Let’s note a few examples and think about why they matter. Colorado was at first part of Kansas Territory. We were later called Jefferson Territory, commemorating the man who authored the Declaration, bought the vast West from France, and dispatched Lewis and Clark to explore it. Jefferson County is all that’s left of that, though a town in South Park also bears his name.
Independence was a mining camp between Leadville and Aspen. It’s gone, but mighty Independence Pass remains, great for summer snowball fights when we were kids. Independence Street traverses Jefferson County, a hundred blocks west of Washington, Adams, and Madison streets. Other Denver streets honor Franklin and Jay, Jackson and Lincoln, Grant and Sherman. Up the Platte there’s also a Mt. Sherman and a town of Grant.
But as for the community where I live, “there was no Centennial,” James Michener assures us in his 1974 novel by that title. No, in pioneer days there wasn’t, but since 2000 there has been. Life imitates art. Colorado’s moniker as the Centennial State, of course, came with our statehood year of 1876, a century after the original Glorious Fourth. Town names logically followed, first fictional, then real.
Lest this historical ramble seem too lofty, we can also recall the old Centennial Racetrack near Littleton, where, if nothing politically profound occurred, at least liberty and the pursuit of happiness flourished. And for the Michener fans, we’ll note that a road in Douglas County bears the name of his imaginary Venneford Ranch. An Aurora restaurant even enshrined his trapper Pasquinel.
All quite diverting, but proving little, you say. What’s in a name anyway? Cinderella City once sat astride Jefferson Avenue in Englewood, after all. What is history, you’ll scoff with Napoleon (he of the astute Louisiana land sale, three cents an acre), but “a set of lies agreed upon.” Or blunter still, you’ll say with Henry Ford that history is bunk. But as an American and an heir of Western civilization, I’ll say it’s not.
Listen to the land. Get past the nondescript stuff, tune out the schlock, and you’ll hear Colorado place names echoing with inspiration from something new and special for human freedom that began in 1776 and hasn’t stopped yet. It has continued through 1787, 1815, 1863, 1876, 1917, 1941, 1964, 1989, 2001, and right to our own day when Navy Seal Danny Dietz was memorialized with a statue and a president was nominated at Mile High.
To look lovingly at the map of our state is to know Faulkner’s wisdom that “the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” Our past is present and our past is good. It elevates and nourishes us. Barack Obama talks about remaking America, transforming America, laying a new foundation. He’s welcome to try, but a lot of us will resist fiercely for the reasons indicated here.
Make her better, yes; but honor her, celebrate her, cherish and guard her above all. The heart’s blood of generations mapped her. The truer our sense of place, of history, of destiny – the sweeter our Independence Day.