Native Americans took part in Steamboat Springs’ first Fourth of July celebration in 1876 | SteamboatToday.com

Native Americans took part in Steamboat Springs’ first Fourth of July celebration in 1876

If not for an agile Ute Indian boy, Steamboat Springs’ first organized Independence Day celebration on July 4, 1876, would not have been as meaningful for its earliest Caucasian settlers.

James and Margaret Crawford, who brought their family here in 1875, flew Old Glory, with its 37 stars, from the corner of their one-room cabin in June 1876. (Colorado didn’t join the Union until August of that year.) As July 4 approached, James Crawford decided to do it up right. He didn’t have any means of producing a fireworks display, but he cut and peeled a tall pine tree and set it in place near the Iron Spring.

Crawford served as a Union officer in the Civil War, so the flying of the flag was especially signifcant for him. The fact that the Crawfords invited a group of Ute Indians to witness the raising of the stars and stripes is significant because of the peaceful relationship settlers and native peoples shared at the time.

According to an article that published in the Steamboat Pilot in 1981, Steamboat’s inaugural Fourth of July parade included the Crawford youngsters — Lulie, John and Logan — and the only other people of European heritage in the area, Mike Farley and Charles and Owen Harrison. According to reports, the Utes grew anxious when they saw the flag raised. The only other time they had seen it was waving from the flagpoles at forts and other government agencies that didn't put off good vibes for the natives. Crawford used hand signals and a handful of Ute words to reassure his guests.

Crawford had attached wooden pulleys to his flagpole, but the rope refused to work and kinked in the pulleys. As the story goes, Chief Yahmonite instructed his 15-year-old nephew, Pahwintah, to climb the pole and free the flag. The day was saved.

The first journalistic account of a July Fourth celebration was published in the Steamboat Pilot in 1886:

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“The citizens of Steamboat Springs devoted the entire day of July 3 (the Fourth fell on the Sabbath) to patriotism and pleasure. A new flagpole had been erected and as the morning dawned, the splendid 15-foot flag of the town company was seen ascending to its place.

“A shout of joy arose from all parts of town, and as the echoes came back from the mountainside and canyon, it seemed indeed there was an army of glad patriots encamped in every glen and mountain fastness around us.”

A casual luncheon on the grass followed the flag raising: “Everybody in the neighborhood was there. The ladies were making the disposition for the dinner — spreading the bright covers upon the greensward; the children played among the flowers and mosses on the banks of the sparkling mountain stream, men were engaged in erecting swings and various contrivances for athletic sports.

“The odor of roasting venison pervaded the camp and soon dinner was announced. And such a dinner! Every good thing obtainable or desirable was provided in great abundance.

“Iced lemonade, iced milk were lavishly supplied and were keenly enjoyed. Four o’clock brought the announcement that an ice cream supper would be served by Mrs. Crawford and daughter at their residence.

“The evening concluded with the singing of patriotic songs: ‘My Country ’tis of Thee’ and ‘My Father’s Sabre,’ accompanied by Mrs. Crawford’s organ.”

As you celebrate the Fourth of July with family and friends this week, you might take a few moments to reflect on how the first pioneers to settle in the Yampa Valley chose to exercise their independence by exploring a new frontier.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1