James Denver 18171892

Whitehurst Studio (active 184960)
Salted-paper print, c. 1856

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; gift of Charles Isaacs and Carol Nigro

On the day in 1857 that President James Buchanan appointed James Denver the governor of Kansas Territory, Kansas citizens voted to accept the Lecompton Constitution, which permitted slavery in the territory.

A former captain under Winfield Scott during the Mexican War and a one-term congressman from California, Denver was immediately thrown into what became a protracted struggle over the question of slavery in the western territories. Violent skirmishes between settlers broke out throughout the region, and Denver—a staunch Unionist—was forced to acknowledge that all his powers would be required to “prevent them from cutting each other’s throats.”

He was ultimately successful in squelching the turmoil, and in 1861 Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state. In 1858, a gold-hunting party that Denver sent into western Kansas Territory named the town that would later become the capital of Colorado in his honor.