Horace Greeley told them to “Go West” and so they did!

Time Before Now, July 1865 –   Andrew Johnson, an unpopular vice president had moved in to the White House to become an even more unpopular president following Abraham Lincoln’ assassination.  Fr. Gregor Mendol founded the science of genetics and self-described polymath, Francis Galton, founded the fake science of eugenics.  Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, published one of the most enduring children’s classics, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

July 13, 1865

On this day Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, famously told America’s young men to “go west.”

Perhaps the second most oft repeated editorial quote after Frank Church’s 1897 “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” the phrase didn’t actually originate with Greeley.  Attributed first to journalist John B. L. Soule (right) in 1851, Greeley gave credit to Soule but the Tribune editor’s powerful position gave it added potency.

Greeley’s advice came at the tail end perhaps the bleakest period in the nation’s history.  Four years of a civil war had produced more than 800,000 casualties, dead in battle or from disease and had claimed the lives of more than 100,000 civilians, both free and enslaved.  President Lincoln’s assassination shocked the country and the coconspirators in his murder had been hanged just six days earlier in the capitol’s Fort Lesley J. McNair.    

“Washington is not a place to live in,” Greeley wrote. “The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable.  Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”

As the founder and editor of the nation’s most influential newspaper, Greeley (left) had the capacity to  make things happen.  After holding a somewhat positive view of a state’s right to secede, by the summer of 1861 the Tribune was extremely hostile to the Confederacy.  The paper’s “onward to Richmond” slogan was partially blamed for the Union’s catastrophic loss at the Battle of Manassas.

In 1866 Greeley was soundly defeated for a seat in Congress and again for the U.S. Senate in 1867, but setbacks had plagued Greeley all his life.  Born in an impoverished household, his father, Zaccheus, fled young Greeley’s birthplace in New Hampshire to avoid being imprisoned for debt.  Horace himself, ran away at 15 to become an apprentice printer.  

His first attempts at publishing in New York were unsuccessful compounded by an unhappy marriage.  At 25, the budding journalist wed Mary Young Cheney, (right) a schoolteacher, suffragist and spiritualist he’d met at his boarding house. 

Horace took no interest in domestic affairs and Mary was believed to have suffered from depression and some form of compulsive disorder.  Together, the couple had seven children, five dying at young ages and at least one and possibly two of them from neglect. 

What Greeley did take an interest in was promoting the working class.   A fierce opponent of monopolies and land grants to the Western railroads, he advocated for vegetarianism, abstinence from liquor and liberal policies on the frontier.  His attempts at often much-needed social reforms were hindered by his numerous eccentricities. 

With Greeley’s backing, the Tribune’s  former war correspondent, agricultural editor and aspiring homesteader, Nathanial  Meeker, (right) founded Colorado’s Union Colony.  Planned as a utopian cooperative stock venture, he advertised for people wishing to relocate to the territory’s Platte River Basin.  From the more than 3,000 applicants, Meeker selected 700 who were allowed to buy shares.  With the proceeds from the stock sale, he purchased 2,000 acres.

Union Colony’s Meeker Street, 1870s, now Greeley, Colorado

Having lost both House and Senate bids, in 1872 Greeley tried for the brass ring as the Republican nominee for president against Civil War hero, General Ulysses S. Grant.  But in late October Greeley’s wife returned from Europe mortally ill.  Despite their fraught marital history the candidate ceased campaigning to remain by her side, falling into a deep depression when Mary died October 29, just days before the election.

Losing nearly every state to Grant (left) and still grieving Mary’s death, Greeley returned to the Tribune only to discover a move was afoot to replace him with his former second-in-command, Whitelaw Reid.  His mental state deteriorated precipitously until doctors urged that he be sent to Choate House, a private sanitarium upstate.  He died there weeks later at 61, even before the Electoral Collage votes had been tallied.

Meeker, along with much of America, mourned the loss of the frontier’s most ardent fan.  Greeley had visited Union Colony just once but as a final tribute Meeker renamed it “Greeley” in his honor   An even more unfortunate fate awaited Meeker, however.  Appointed the federal agent at the White River Ute Indian Reservation in 1878, his attempts to install an agrarian utopia on the reservation resulted in tragedy.  He and eight male agency employees were killed by Ute warriors a year later, the event remembered as the “Meeker Massacre.”

Newspaper’s depiction of the Meeker Massacre

Greeley’s suggestion to ‘go West,” however, didn’t go unheeded.  Thousands of Americans and new immigrants did indeed head West.  The population of Colorado alone more than tripled between 1870 and 1900. Present day. the city of Greeley is a thriving community expected to top 100,000 in the next census.  Historians credit other factors, including the 1862 Homestead Act with the promise of free land and the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion in 1869.   The frontier, if perhaps not a Utopia, had at least become much more accessible.

Greeley’s last reported quote, while not as famous as his advice to “go West”  was a bit more colorful.  Spotting Whitelaw Reid (right) on a New York street he reportedly shouted, “You Son of a B****, you stole my newspaper.”

Greeley History Museum, 714 8th Street, Greeley Colorado features Greeley and Weld County history, it’s main exhibit, “Utopia: Adaptation on the Plains.”  Additional galleries include updated exhibits several times a year.   Since 2005, the museum has occupied the original 1929 Greeley Tribune building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Handicap accessible, there is free two-hour parking. Regular hours are 10 to 4 Wednesday through Saturday and noon to 4 Sunday.  Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for and seniors over 60 and children and teens, 3 to 17, as well as $15 family rate for two adults and 4 children.

Meeker Home Museum and Greeley History Museum

Just three minutes away  at 1324 9th Avenue, the Meeker Home Museum. The two-story adobe houses artifacts, original furnishings and interpretive information on the Union Colony, the Meeker family and Horace Greeley.   Built in 1870 by Nathanial Meeker and his wife, Arvilla, it is on the National Register of Historic Places, as well. Guided tours are provided weekdays by appointment. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for and seniors over 60 and children and teens, 3 to 17, as well as $15 family rate for two adults and 4 children.  Call (970) 350-9220 at least 48 hours in advance to schedule a tour.  For more information go to greeleymuseums.com, call  (970) 350-9220 or write Greeley History Museum, 714 8th Street, Greeley, CO 80631.

Visitors should go to the website listed above for the most current information on Colorado’s “Safer at Home” schedule.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.