on-line book icon

table of contents

Field Division of Education
Historical Background for the Rocky Mountain National Park
NPS logo


Many who came to mine remained to establish homesteads, and among this group was Joel Estes, the first settler of Estes Park in 1860. William N. Byers of Denver, an early visitor, found the Estes family established in the park and named it after its first settler.

"Joel Estes, like Boone, enjoyed being far from neighbors, and wandered into Colorado from Arkansas. One autumn day in 1859, while hunting, he ascended. Park Hill and from this vantage point had a wonderful view down into Estes Park. Early in 1860 Mr. and Mrs. Estes and their son, Milton, moved into the park, with their effects upon two pack horses." (Mills, 1924, 6).

"A log cabin was built on Willow Creek, about one block north of the present ranch house near the junction of the Lyons and Loveland roads.... In 1861 they brought in a two wheeled cart." Milton Estes married Mary L. Flemming at Fort Lupton in the Spring of 1861. Their son Charles, born in the Park February 19, 1865, was the first white child born there.

It was three years after the settlement of the Estes family before the first visitors came into Estes Park. Among the visitors of 1865 were the Reverend and Mrs. Richardson. Mr. Richardson, a Methodist, preached in the Estes cabin one August day of 1865.

After a long cold winter of deep snow the Estes family longed for a warmer climate and sold out to Michael Hollenbeck. A few months later a man named Jacobs gave $250 for the claim, and soon thereafter, "a regular Robinson Crusoe of a character called 'Buck skin'" acquired the land.

"In 1867 the Estes claim came under the control of Griff Evans, and in due course lost its identity by becoming the property of the Earl of Dunraven. Evans remained at the ranch house for twenty years." (For details see Enos Mills, "The Rocky Mountain National Park", Garden City, N. Y., 1924).


Enos Mills says that "in the autumn and early winter of 1869, and again in 1872, Earl Dunraven, with his guests, Sir William Cummings and Earl F. Fitzpatrick; shot big game" in Estes Park. "Dunraven was so delighted with the abundance of game and the beauty and grandeur of the scenes that he determined to have Estes Park as a game preserve. His agents at once set to work to secure the land. Men were hired to file on claims, and ultimately about 15,000 acres were supposed to have been secured from the government." (Mills, 1924, 20).

All was net smooth going with Dunraven. His land claims were contested. Twenty-one original claims were contested by R. Q. McGregor and others accusing the Earl's agents of having secured much of the land through loose or fraudulent methods. 15,000 acres, however, were under control of Dunraven's agent for many years.

Finally, Lord Dunraven decided to give up his land-preserve idea. Cattle were pastured on the lands for about 25 years, and in 1907 F. O. Stanley and B. D. Sanborn bought up the interests of Dunraven.

The Earl of Dunraven spent some of his time hunting in the Yellowstone region and wrote a book on it. He wrote magazine articles on the Colorado Parks and mountains and Estes Park in particular. (Dunraven, 1880, 445-457).

Lord Dunraven helped in other ways aside from his writings, in spreading knowledge of the Estes Park region. Frequently he had distinguished guests visiting him. Among these was the celebrated artist, Albert Bierstadt, after whom Lake Bierstadt was named. He came as Dunraven's guest in 1874. He was so delighted with Estes Park that he came again and made sketches and secured materials for some of his famous pictures. His painting of Long's Peak hung in the rotunda of the Capitol at Washington for many years.

In 1874 Bierstadt helped select the sites of Dunraven's cottage and the Estes Park Hotel.


One of the first books to emphasize tho wonders of Estes Park and perhaps the first to devote the greater part of its contents to the region, was "A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains", written by Miss Isabella Bird, an English author of a number of travel books.

Miss Bird first visited Estes Park in 1873, arriving late in September and leaving early in December. She boarded at Griff Evan's cabin, being perhaps the first boarder in the Park. (An announcement appeared in the Chicago Tribune of August 13, 1871, that Evans was planning to put up a cheap hotel for the accommodation of tourists.)

Miss Bird's book came out first in October, 1879. A second edition appeared in November and a third in January, 1880. In all there were seven editions. It deserved its popularity, for it is full of human interest, and the descriptions of the mountains, the canyons and the parks are fresh and vigorous. "The wild life was abundant, the trees uncut, and the wild flowers at their best." Miss Bird's experience of climbing Long's Peak with the gallant helpfulness of "Mountain Jim" was a most interesting one to her.

Some of the other authors of an earlier day who wrote of the Long's Peak region were Helen Hunt Jackson, Anna Dickinson, Bayard Taylor, Grace Greenwood, and Frederick Hastings Chapin. Chapin gave two or three chapters to the region, in his book published in 1889.


"The star character among those who played a part in the early history of Estes Park was James Nugent, "Rocky Mountain Jim". He came to the Park about 1868,"... and built a cabin in Muggins Gulch on the road from Estes Park to Lyons. His cabin stood at the mouth of the first gulch on the right as one descends Muggins Gulch. Jim's associates, his uncertain and irregular past, his braggadocio, bravery, chivalry, liking of poetry, and writing of doggerel, his debauches, moods, kind acts, his big white mule, his picturesque dress, his romantic association with Miss Isabella Bird, the cowardly manner in which he was shot, and his dramatic death-" all made of James Nugent a character indeed.

"Meddling parents, and a lovely maiden in the background, may have started him on his reckless way". He may have been of distinguished birth, but whether from the South, from Canada or elsewhere is not known. "He seems to have served with both the Hudson's and American Fur Companies, and to have bushwhacked in the Kansas 'border warfare'".

"Jim hunted, trapped, kept a few cattle and made frequent trips to Denver and Boulder. ..... Generally he was jovial and generous", and settlers along the way were "always glad to see him and his while mule coming."

"On July 6, 1869, he lost an eye and very nearly his life in a fight with a bear in Middle Park", near Grand Lake. (Mills, 1924, 10-12).

In her book "A Lady's Life in the Rockies", Miss Isabella Bird has left an interesting description of James Nugent and his helpfulness in the ascent of Long's Peak. (See Mills, 1924, 13; and Bird, 1881, 80-93, 99-118. Chapter VII of Bird describes the ascent up Long's Peak).

James Nugent was opposed to Lord Dunraven's hunting preserve idea, while Griff Evans, the settler nearer to Long's Peak," was associated with those who were scheming to secure the whole of Estes Park for the "English Lord". Jim "opposed it with threatening armed presence and his pen". The upshot of the quarrel was that Evans shot and killed Nugent. "Naturally the old-timers were with Jim, and felt that Evans was hired to get rid of the old mountaineer. Whiskey was an ally, for Evans was drunk at the time of the shooting.

"This was the most serious Estes Park tragedy". (Mills, 1924, 15-17).

Miss Isabella Bird, a young English woman, who was in Estes Park in 1873, in her book expressed admiration for James Nugent's good qualities. Some said she was in love with him, but according to Mills, "Jim was a picturesque and interesting fellow and might easily delight a young lady author without her falling in love with him." She was deeply interested in him and a correspondence was carried on between her and Nugent after she left the Park.

Previous Next

top of page

History  |   Links to the Past  |   National Park Service  |   Search  |   Contact

Last Modified: Sat, Dec 11 2004 10:00:00 am PDT

ParkNet Home