Summit County history: Two theories of how Breckenridge got its name |

Summit County history: Two theories of how Breckenridge got its name

by Rick Hague | breckenridge heritage alliance
Early Breckenridge, probably taken in the mid-1860s. The building with the roof sloping toward the street is the Silverthorn Hotel and is on the site of the current Downstairs at Eric's.
Courtesy of Bill Fountain |

For years, two seemingly contradictory theories have been used to explain the town name of “Breckenridge” — the well-known story of George Spencer naming it for U.S. Vice President John Cabell Breckinridge and that of a prospector by the name of Thomas Breckenridge (note the different spellings).

Recent research by local historian Bill Fountain, however, and an aha moment by fifth-generation Breckenridge resident and historian Robin Theobald suggests the possibility that both stories might, in fact, be true.

The George Spencer story

The George Spencer story is the better known of the two theories. A land speculator, Spencer was among two pioneer parties to enter the area. He secured a claim for a town site in Breck’s current location, though it is not clear whether he legitimately staked his own claim or swindled another early land speculator named Felix Pozansky out of his legal claim.

In either case, two problems presented themselves: what to name the town and the provision of a post office — since in the old West, any successful real estate development had to have a post office. Spencer solved both problems with the instinct of a true politician.

Through an intermediary, he contacted Breckinridge, vice president under James Buchanan. Spencer offered Breckinridge the honor of having the town named after him in exchange for “pulling a few strings” to have a post office built in the town. The flattered Breckinridge obliged, and on Jan. 18, 1860, a post office was in place and the town had a name — Breckinridge.

At least one official map from this period has been discovered with the “i” spelling.

The Thomas Breckenridge story

It is now well established that there were many prospectors seeking gold in the Summit County area in the late spring and summer of 1859, though Ruben Spaulding is credited with making the first recorded gold discovery at or near what would become the town of Breckenridge on Aug. 10, 1859. Among Spaulding’s party — or possibly the Spencer party — was a man named Thomas Breckenridge.

According to Fountain’s research, Thomas Breckenridge was also a member of an 1845 expedition led by Col. John C. Fremont to explore the region before both continued on to California to fight in the Mexican-American War.

In his diary, Breckenridge tells the story of losing a mule during the 1845 expedition while camping on a pass near current-day Breckenridge. He spent two days looking for the animal while Fremont’s main party moved on. Upon his return to the Fremont party, a somewhat irritated Fremont stated that the pass, henceforth, would be named “Breckenridge Pass” in honor of the mule mishap. While this name no longer graces official maps, the pass is located just southwest of Boreas Pass.

A convenient name?

As Theobald recently mused, it is easy to imagine Thomas Breckenridge and others sitting around a campfire with a bottle of whiskey, pondering what to call their gold diggings. Breckenridge certainly could have piped up and said, “Well, there’s a nearby pass named ‘Breckenridge.’ Why not name our camp the same?”

Advance a few weeks in time to Spencer’s challenge to find a name and a post office. Spencer’s promising to name the new town “Breckinridge” would have been made easy, of course, if the settlement had already been named “Breckenridge” weeks earlier. Hence, it is very easy to visualize the clever Spencer seizing the moment and realizing the opportunity that had presented itself.

Adding support to this “duel theory” of name origin are two early newspaper articles found by Bill Fountain. The first, written in 1880, states that the town was named after an early and popular miner, but the article does not provide a specific name. The second article, published in 1900, implies that the article, at least in part, was based on an interview with an individual who was in the Breck area in the summer and fall of 1859 and stated that the town was named after Thomas Breckenridge, who built the first cabin in the area.

Unfortunately for Vice President Breckinridge, January 1860 and the naming of a town in his honor may have been the high point of his political career. He ran for president that year, lost to Lincoln and was elected to the U.S. Senate from Kentucky. Shortly thereafter, the Civil War broke out. Breckinridge was expelled from the Senate as a traitor for his support of the Confederacy and slavery; he went on to become a Confederate general and the Confederate secretary of war.

As the story goes, the Yankee citizens of “Breckinridge” were so incensed by Breckinridge’s betrayal that they changed the spelling of the town name back to “Breckenridge.”

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