If you’ve noticed a spike in developments named “Ralston” in Arvada, you’re not alone.
Ralston Commons, Ralston Creek Townhomes, Ralston Gardens and the Shops at Ralston Creek are becoming part of the city’s landscape as part of the Arvada Urban Renewal Authority’s Ralston Fields tract, which is 19 years into its 25-year timeline.
The newcomers join local mainstays including Ralston Valley High School, Ralston Creek, Ralston’s Crossing Event Center, Ralston Discount Liquors and Ralston Road, all of which have borne the appellation for so long that it’s become part of the local lexicon — but how did that become the case?
AURA Executive Director Maureen Phair said that the “Ralston Fields” name was chosen by a member of AURA’s board of directors because it’s a “Name that is present in the area.”
The namesake for these sites is Lewis Ralston, a prospector from Georgia who is largely credited with the first documented discovery of gold in Colorado. Ralston’s discovery took place in 1850 in the tributary of Clear Creek, now known as Ralston Creek.
While fellow local pioneers Benjamin Wadsworth and George Swadley spent large portions of their lives in the area, Ralston spent — at most — 8-10 days of his life in what is now Arvada. He departed Arvada shortly after his discovery and returned for another brief stay less than ten years afterwards.
To discern why Ralston’s name has become so deeply tied to Arvada, one needs to explore the events of his life.
Lewis Ralston was born in 1804 in on a farm near what would eventually become Pendleton, South Carolina. Little is known about Ralston’s childhood.
In 1825, Ralston moved to a Auraria, Georgia, a small town in Lumpkin County which is now uninhabited. Then, the area was known as Cherokee country.
That year, Ralston met Benjamin Parks, Jr. and the two became business partners supplying horses and cows. Ralston moved to his own plot of land and married a woman of Cherokee decent named Elizabeth Kell in 1826.
In 1828, Parks found a shimmering rock while walking along a deer path, a discovery that some historians credit with ushering in the Georgia Gold Rush. Ralston began mining for gold on his land and had some success in the venture but would lose all of his property in short order.
Ralston found himself squarely in the middle of the Trail of Tears.
With the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands began. In Georgia, this meant the removal of Cherokee people, largely in response to the budding gold rush in the region.
Because Ralston had married a woman with Cherokee lineage, he was included in the Cherokee rolls and therefore was in danger of having his property and belongings confiscated by the state.
In 1830, Ralston signed an Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America in an effort to keep his land and property. In 1832, his land was awarded to Henry Slaughter in a lottery, requiring Ralston and Kell to vacate the property. The couple, along with their slaves and children — they had 15 children between 1825 and 1857 — moved to another plot of land in Auraria.
First trip to Colorado
In January 1848, a crew building a sawmill for John Sutter discovered gold in California. A woman named Elizabeth Jane “Jenny” Cloud had found employment with Sutter, and wrote home to her family in Auraria, Georgia, notifying them of the discovery.
As news travels in small towns, word got back to Lewis Ralston, who joined an expedition of Cherokee waggoners headed to California in 1850, following the Cherokee Trail, blazed the year before.
During the trip, the group camped near a tributary of Clear Creek. On June 22, 1850, the waggoners had a lay by after crossing the Platte. While everyone fixed their wagons, Lewis Ralston went down to the creek bed with his gold pan to search for gold.
Ralston’s sojourn proved to be fruitful, as he returned to camp with a small amount of gold in his pan — “about $5 in value then worth several days of labor,” according to Lindstrom. Ralston tried to convince the wagon train to stay in Colorado and search for gold, but their sights were set on California.
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He spent few days, three perhaps, looking for gold in the creek which would eventually bear his name, according to local legend. Ralston had little success in California and returned to Dahlonega, a town in Lumpkin County Georgia in about 1851.
“Green” Russell Party
In 1857, William Greeneberry “Green” Russell had heard about Ralston’s gold from Samuel Ralston, a relative of Lewis’. In the fall of that year, Russell began corresponding with John Beck, who was the leader of the 1850 expedition when Ralston found gold.
Russell and Beck agree that Russell will form a party of folks from Georgia, while Beck will for a party of folks from Oklahoma, and the two would meet in 1858. In May 1858, Russell’s party, including Lewis Ralston, met up with Beck’s in Great Bend, Kansas.
By June 16, the combined Beck-Russell party arrived at Bents Fort in southeastern Colorado and headed north for Ralston Creek. The party arrived on June 24.
Panning in Ralston Creek and the nearby tributaries proved to be a futile endeavor for the group. By June 28, Beck’s party announced they are going to depart. The next day, 42 people from that party and five from Russell’s party departed, leaving about a dozen men at Cherry Creek, including Ralston.
Ralston, on his way home, arrived in Wyandotte County, Kansas, with two associates and was interviewed by the local newspaper on Sept. 18.
The group didn’t have much luck at Cherry Creek or Ralston Creek, but in July 1858, Russell and Sam Bates found a small placer deposit which contained gold near the mouth of Little Dry Creek, located in what is now Englewood.
Russell set up a camp at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the Platte River, later naming it after his hometown in Georgia: Auraria. The Colorado Gold Rush would follow the next year, in 1859, spurred in large part by the Russell Party.
In 1863, Ralston became a private in the Confederate Army at age 59. After the war, Ralston and Kell moved to Dalton, Georgia, a small town in Whitfield County, where the family was enumerated in the 1870 census. His death likely occurred later that year, but details on his date of death and burial are scarce.
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Ralston did not become a widely known figure until long after his passing. Lois Lindstrom, the first president of the Arvada Historical Society, is responsible for much of the cataloging of Ralston’s life, and for lobbying for a historical designation for Gold Strike Park.
In 1995, Lindstrom’s work was endorsed by History Colorado, which verified that Ralston made the first documented gold find in Colorado at what is now Gold Strike Park. There are now at least four parks in Arvada that bear Ralston’s name, as well as a slew of other establishments.
Editor’s note: All historical information reported in this article is courtesy of Lois Lindstrom’s book “Ralston’s Gold” and local historian Nancy Young.