History: How Breckenridge got its name

Rick Hague
Special to the Daily

An interesting sidelight of the early history of the American West is the derivation of many of the early place names. Where did Deadwood, Musselshel, Holy Moses, No Name, Fairplay or Quandary come from? The naming of Breckenridge involves an interesting mix of fact, fiction and urban mythology.

Until recently, two popular theories existed about the origin of the name Breckenridge: the George Spencer story and the old prospector story. Recent research by local historian, Bill Fountain, and an inspirational “ah-ha” by Robin Theobald demonstrate that, in fact, both stories are probably true despite their apparent contradictions.

It is now well established that many prospectors sought gold in the Summit County area in the late spring and summer of 1859. However, the first recorded gold discovery occurred on Aug. 10, 1859, when Ruben Spaulding found gold in, or near, what would become Breckenridge. Spaulding’s party, one of two early parties that came upon the Breckenridge scene that August included a man, the so-called old prospector, named Thomas Breckenridge (note the spelling). General George E. Spencer led the second party.

Perhaps the best known of the two stories involves Spencer, one of many in the gold rush intending to make his fortune by “mining the miners” rather than by getting his hands dirty mining. Like other land speculators who arrived during the gold rush, he planned to lay out a town and sell lots to successful miners. In those days, a person could stake a 320-acre town site claim much like staking a mining claim. It is not clear whether Spencer legitimately staked his claim or swindled another early land speculator named Felix Pozansky out of his own legal claim. In either case, Spencer ended up with a town site claim in the current location of Breckenridge.

It is now well established that many prospectors sought gold in the Summit County area in the late spring and summer of 1859. However, the first recorded gold discovery occurred on Aug. 10, 1859, when Ruben Spaulding found gold in, or near, what would become Breckenridge.

Two problems then presented themselves: what to name the town and the establishment of a post office. Throughout the development of the West, one of the most demanded of services was regular mail delivery. Any successful real estate development required a post office. Spencer solved both problems with the instinct of a true politician.

Through an intermediary, Spencer contacted John Cabell Breckinridge, vice president of the United States under President James Buchanan. Spencer offered Breckinridge (note the spelling with an “i”) the honor of having the town named after him in exchange for “pulling a few strings” and establishing a post office in the town. The flattered Breckinridge obliged, and, on Jan. 18, 1860, the post office opened and the town had a name: Breckinridge. At least one official map from this period has been discovered with the “i” spelling.

Now we turn to story number two, that of Thomas Breckenridge, one of the original members of the aforementioned Spaulding party. Recent research by Bill Fountain documented that Breckenridge had also been a member of an 1845 expedition led by Colonel John C. Fremont that explored the Blue River valley. In fact, Breckenridge continued on to California to serve under Fremont in the Mexican-American War.

In his diary, Breckenridge told the story of losing his mule on a pass near current-day Breckenridge during the 1845 expedition and spending several days looking for the animal. Upon his return to the Fremont party, Breckenridge encountered a somewhat irritated Fremont who stated that the pass would henceforth be named Breckenridge Pass in honor of the mule mishap. While this name no longer graces official maps, investigators found the pass, located southwest of Boreas Pass. A well-known toll road into Breckenridge crossed the pass in the 1860s. Today, the pass hosts a prominent set of towers and electric transmission lines.

Fast-forward to August of 1859 when Spaulding’s discovery attracted hundreds of prospectors to form a sizeable, wild, gold mining camp. Of course, the camp had to have a name. As Robin Theobald recently mused, it is pretty easy to visualize Tom Breckenridge and the rest of the Spaulding party sitting around a campfire, prior to Spencer’s arrival, with their bottle of whiskey, pondering the naming issue. Breckenridge certainly could have piped up and said, “Well, there’s a nearby pass named Breckenridge. Why not give our camp the same name?” Hence, the name, Breckenridge. Advance a few weeks later to Spencer’s arrival. Spencer’s promise to name the new town Breckinridge to gain his post office became easy, of course, because the settlement had already been named Breckenridge a few weeks earlier.

Unfortunately for Vice President Breckinridge, January of 1860 and the naming of the town after him might have been his political high point. After running for the presidency in 1860 and losing to Abraham Lincoln, he returned to the Senate representing Kentucky. Shortly thereafter, the Civil War broke out. Breckinridge was expelled from the Senate amid cries of traitor, because he supported the Confederacy and slavery. He became a general in the Confederate army and the Confederate secretary of war.

The story goes on to say that the Yankee citizens of Breckinridge, so incensed by Breckinridge’s betrayal, changed the spelling of the name back to its current, and original, Breckenridge. The former vice president eventually fled to Cuba, then to England, and finally to Canada after the war.

And there you go; two seemingly conflicting stories, with a dash of urban mythology, woven into a pretty believable explanation of the naming of Breckenridge.

An interesting footnote to this naming story, one that fits into the “it’s a small world” category, involves James Buchanan, the United States president under whom our own John Cabell Breckinridge served. It turns out that neither man knew the other until they became president and vice president. Once they came to know one another, they apparently did not get along very well. Before Buchanan was elected president, his opponent in vying for the presidency on the Republican ticket was a certain John C. Fremont, who led exploratory expeditions in the West, one of which was in 1845. In this 1845 party was none other than Thomas Breckenridge, after whom Fremont named Breckenridge Pass.

Too bad that Buchanan never visited our town of Breckenridge. Somehow it seems that a visit like that might have “closed the loop,” so to speak.

Rick Hague is a local mining historian and member of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance and Summit Historical Society boards. This article is part of a book written for the Summit Historical Society’s 50th anniversary, “Windows to the Past” by Hague and Sandie Mather. The books are available from Summit Historical Society in Dillon at the Dillon Schoolhouse, in Frisco at the Frisco Historic Park and Museum, and in Breckenridge through the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance at the Welcome Center, Edwin Carter Museum, Barney Ford House Museum and the Gaymon Cabin. It’s also available at the Next Page Books & Nosh in Frisco. Or purchase directly from Hague at (970) 409-7937.

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