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Uncovering The Shrouded History Of The Ku Klux Klan In Southwestern Colorado

Courtesy of the Center of Southwest Studies
Fort Lewis College
A historic postcard shows a burning cross, visible in the top center of the photo, on Smelter Mountain above Durango sometime between 1915 and 1930. The Ku Klux Klan burned crosses throughout the town to show its presence and intimidate its opponents.

The account is brief but clear: in 1917, according to The Mancos Times-Tribune, the Ku Klux Klan celebrated Halloween with Mancos students. 

“Saturday night the high school students and the school faculty enjoyed the thrills of a Halloween party given by the Klu [sic] Klux Klan,” the article reads. “The members of the K.K.K. were dressed to represent members of the old K.K.K. in the South. They were mounted on horses robed as the occasion called for,” it continues. “Much secrecy was practiced and even at a very close distance the members were unrecognizable.”

The rest of the article, accessed through the Colorado State Library’s digitized Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection, reports other happenings in the school, like dances, sports, and student orations. Though it’s one of the only local mentions of a movement that had state- and nationwide prominence, southwestern Colorado wasn’t exempt from the klan’s influence.

The Ku Klux Klan emerged in the South in the wake of the Civil War. After a period of dormancy following crackdowns on its violence in the 1860s and 1870s, the organization revived itself after 1915. In the 1920s, the general influence of the KKK in Colorado is well-documented. According to a 2017 “Colorado Experience” documentary produced by Rocky Mountain PBS, Colorado had the second-highest per capita klan membership in the United States in the 1920s. Denver mayor Benjamin Stapleton, who served two separate terms in the 1920s and early 1930s, was a member of the klan, and Clarence Morley, who served as Colorado’s governor between 1925 and 1927, was also a KKK member. Its influence throughout the state was widespread, with active klan chapters in all 64 of the state’s counties.

Aside from the Times-Tribune article, however, written records of KKK activities in Montezuma County are sparse. There is no mention of the group in the archives of the Montezuma County Historical Society, and when asked about the newspaper story, Linda Simmons of the Mancos Valley Historical Society said she had never heard the klan discussed in the many years she had lived in the area.

“It doesn’t surprise me, though, because I am aware that it was active in other small communities,” she said.

The only other online, digitized newspaper account of the klan’s influence in Montezuma County is a September 1917 Mancos Times-Tribune article advertising a local screening of the 1915 white supremacist film “The Birth of a Nation.” That film is widely recognized to have influenced the nationwide rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. The article praised the film, calling it “stirring,” and saying that it “gives the spectator a different view of the Ku Klux Klan from that popularly held.”

“While there may be room for debate on this point,” the author conceded, “there can be no question as to the strength of the picture. It bristles with thrills.”

According to Andrew Gulliford, professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College, finding details about local KKK activities is difficult.

“You are looking for a hidden history,” he said. “It’s nothing people want to remember.”

However, he said he wasn’t surprised to learn of the klan’s activity in Mancos in 1917, although he said it was earlier than most mentions.

“It’s totally possible, because there were Confederate sympathizers and Confederate folks who moved to Montezuma County. It’s possible that they brought klan sympathies with them sooner than the klan’s major growth in the state a few years later,” he said, explaining that many of the migrants from the South were fleeing the economic impacts of the Civil War.

“There were a percentage of the ranchers and cowboys who had fought for the gray instead of the blue,” he said. “They did well in the cattle and ranching business in Montezuma County.”

Cortez-based historian Fred Blackburn corroborated the history of Confederate sympathizers in the region, estimating the percentage of Union and Confederate graves in the Mancos cemetery to be about equal.

A prominent local family, the Wetherhills, hosted a dinner for the KKK in the late 1890s at their ranch outside of Mancos, Blackburn said. However, he said the decision to do so was likely made due to the size of the venue rather than the ideology of the participants, since the Wetherhills generally did not support the klan’s philosophies.

In fact, he said the prevalence of klan-related ideology in the town may have been one of the reasons most of the Wetherhill family decided not to stay in the region.

“I think that was one of the reasons they left the valley, they couldn’t handle that stuff,” Blackburn said.

He also said many Confederates came from the South and settled in the Disappointment Valley to the north of Montezuma County.

“They were either outlaws or fleeing the economic impacts of the war … it’s a fleeing of some really bad people into an isolated area,” he said.

Throughout Colorado in the 1920s, the klan generally operated like many of the social clubs and secret societies or fraternal organizations of the time. It had local chapters, held regular meetings, and earned revenue by selling membership paraphernalia like robes and masks. Much of its literature was distributed nationally, and the organization also included women’s auxiliaries. Much of the klan’s Colorado membership was made up of clerks, low-level administrators, and other wage workers in the mining industry, according to Gulliford.

“[The klan] is a blue-collar movement, people who are afraid of the future, more interested in the past,” he said, explaining that the organization’s secrecy, rituals, and exclusive membership brought a sense of belonging and meaning to people experiencing dislocation in the midst of the economic, political, and social upheavals of the 1920s.

In a 2015 thesis researching klan activities in southwestern Colorado, Fort Lewis College history graduate Jessica Thulson described some of the klan’s influence in small agricultural communities throughout southwestern Colorado.

“The Klan gained support in this region because they were considered a ‘savior come to solve a host of anxieties and fears that bedeviled Bayfield and its surrounding agricultural neighbors,’” Thulson argued, citing a 2005 article in Colorado Heritage Magazine by retired professor Duane Smith.

Smith’s article confirms the Klan was active in Montezuma County. In Mancos, it referred to itself as the “Mt. Lookout and Kolorado Klan” and “Women of the Ku Klux Klan, Kolorado Kolumbine Klub, Mancos No. 6.” The klan also had members in Cortez, according to Smith, though the article did not include further details.

Thulson’s research primarily focused on klan activities in La Plata County, specifically Bayfield and Durango, where written historical records are more extensive.

“The [southwestern Colorado] Klan was similar to the Klan throughout the nation with its basic belief in true Americanism, which encompassed white supremacy, the purity of women, and the enforcement of just laws throughout the nation,” Thulson wrote. The group sponsored public demonstrations, parades, and “Klan Days” at county fairs, and “Americanism” and “fierce patriotism” were the main tenets of the klan in rural communities, she argued.

“There are three main themes of Americanism that can be seen within [the Bayfield] Klavern: their desire to stop local Catholic influences in the region, protecting American people from criminals, and maintaining Protestant, white values,” she wrote.

Credit Courtesy of the Center of Southwest Studies / Fort Lewis College
Fort Lewis College
Advertisements and order forms for Ku Klux Klan memorabilia were found along with other KKK-related documents in Bayfield in the 1980s. The national klan gained the majority of its revenue through sales of membership paraphernalia to its local chapters.

In Durango, the klan hosted parades and publicly burned crosses, symbols the group used to demonstrate its presence and intimidate people who spoke out against its influence. A klan-sponsored newspaper, the Durango Klansman, was printed anonymously in the summer of 1925, copies of which are also archived digitally. The Center of Southwest Studies also contains archived KKK materials from Bayfield, which were found during a building remodel and donated to the collection. The records contain registration lists of klan members throughout Bayfield, Ignacio, and Arboles, as well as order forms for capes, gowns, and literature extolling the virtues of white supremacy, moral purity, and patriotism. (The Center of Southwest Studies, which is associated with Fort Lewis College, denies any association with or endorsement of the klan’s ideology.) Quoting Smith, Thulson argued that “Bayfield’s Klan might just have been the largest single organization in the town in the mid-nineteen twenties.” The Klan was also active in school politics. She cited articles critical of Catholic influence in the school system and casting doubt on the legitimacy of votes in a Durango school election, in which immigrants and Catholics had been allowed to participate.

The klan’s presence in southwestern Colorado was not without controversy, however. Newspapers like the Durango Democrat published articles critical of the klan throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and members of the public spoke out against the organization in editorials. Thulson cited one author who stated, “No 100 percent American ever had to cloak himself up in a sheet and pillow-case to demonstrate his loyalty to the Stars and Stripes or Christianity.”

Cortez resident Karen Mischke, a descendent of Catholic immigrants who lived in Durango in the 1920s, says stories from both her mother’s and father’s sides of the family describe impacts from the klan.

Mischke remembers her aunt’s descriptions of burning crosses above Durango. Her mother’s side of the family were immigrants from Italy, and members of the Catholic church. 

“As the sun would set and it became darker, she would see the crosses up on Smelter Mountain,” Mischke said. “It was so intimidating to her. She was probably only about 9 years old, and she just remembers being frightened almost all the time.”

Mischke’s maternal grandmother was also targeted by the klan. The family operated a boarding house in Durango, where her grandmother was a cook, and like many Italians at the time, also made wine, Mischke said.

According to family oral history, “All these people would come to her restaurant. They loved her cooking, they loved her wine. But they were the same people, who, in a klan raid, arrested her … and she was actually sent to the penitentiary.”

Though Mischke said further details of the raid involving her mother were sparse, she described other raids that occurred at night, often when most townspeople were at an event. They often targeted immigrants, and accused them of violating Prohibition-era anti-liquor laws. Though the raids weren’t strictly legal, many members of the klan likely had connections to local police, she said.

The story of the raid had always been difficult for the family, she said. She only learned of it after the death of her mother.

“It was always a shameful kind of thing. My mother never talked about it. They lived lives of shame about their heritage,” she said.

Thulson’s research cited other accounts of Durango residents who experienced intimidation from the klan, including cross-burnings in yards and neighborhoods. Targeted communities included Hispanics, Mexicans, and other immigrants, as well as Catholics and Jews. However, the klan was generally less violent in southwestern Colorado than it was in other parts of the U.S., according to Thulson.

“The violence that people knew of that happened in the South and nationally did not seem to be present in Bayfield,” she wrote.

According to Mischke’s family’s oral histories, her Irish-Catholic paternal grandfather was said to have been part of a group that helped drive the klan out of Durango in the mid-1920s. She described how one night, before the klan was scheduled to hold a parade downtown, her grandfather and some of his friends waited on Main Street for the KKK to arrive. Many of the group members were affiliated with the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization.

“When the klan started marching down, they just went out and beat them up, and said, ‘you are no longer welcome here. This will stop. This is our town,’” she said. “[I was told] that did disperse the klan from Durango. So in our history, it’s a great story.”

After the KKK’s Grand Wizard was convicted of rape and murder in 1925, the organization’s national standing declined rapidly. According to Smith, the Bayfield and Ignacio klan held meetings until 1927, and held its last public event in 1928.

“The Bayfield Klan passed into history unmourned, and quickly forgotten,” according to Smith. Most of its members regretted their participation with the group, but “the fears and factors in people’s minds that KKK’s emergence … did not disappear,” he wrote.

Another wave of klan activities occurred after the 1950s, mainly in the South. There is little trace of the KKK in southwestern Colorado after 1930, though the klan persisted in other parts of Colorado, such as Colorado Springs, into the 1970s.

In general, Gulliford, Blackburn, and Mischke all agreed that racism and xenophobia are still present in America. Blackburn and Gulliford drew parallels between modern-day far-right movements and the KKK in the 1920s. Gulliford said economic dislocation, changes in technology and a sense of loss of power among white Protestants in the 1920s contributed to a rise in racist, discriminatory, and xenophobic ideologies not too different from today. The anonymity of the klan was also similar to the anonymity that many extremists can find on the Internet today, he said.

“With social media, you can hide behind a name, you can hide behind a group or an organization; you don’t need a meeting place, you don’t need a clubhouse, and so people apparently feel free to say things they never say in public, but they say it on the Internet,” he said.

“We have a very definite problem with an increase in racism [today] but there’s still the cowardice that existed with the KKK. You know, they were hiding behind sheets,” he said.

Blackburn put it more directly.

“I really believe it goes right back to the Civil War,” he said. “It’s ingrained in our culture. That’s what I think. These guys just have an excuse, now, to be a**holes again,” he said, referring to members of nationalist and far-right movements today.

Though both historians found it difficult to directly connect the activities of the KKK to local events today, Mischke said she saw parallels between the klan’s activities 100 years ago and modern-day displays of nationalism, such as weekly freedom rides organized by the Montezuma County Patriots in Cortez this year.

“Although people driving up and down Main with the flags deny that they’re racist, [and] they’re even kind of offended that you would think they were racist … some of them do actually voice discriminating statements, prejudicial statements,” she said. “And they sure look scary. They act scary. And that’s intimidating.” “It’s scary when people start packing their guns around and gathering in groups, engaging in maybe mild, but nevertheless intimidating, posturing,” she continued, referring to a Cortez rally supporting the Second Amendment that had been scheduled for Saturday, but was later postponed. “[Also] saying things like ‘you don’t belong here,’ or ‘you bring hate,’” Mischke said.

She stressed the importance of responding to racism, hate, and bigotry with nonviolent resistance and through focusing on what unites, rather than divides. She connected that philosophy to her grandfather’s story, and described how he was later a conscientious objector to the war and a proponent of nonviolence.

“I think they did what they had to do then, and I think in some ways, people have to make a statement. And it seemed to work … but when it gets to killing and this kind of thing, I don’t think they need to go there,” she said.

“They were proud of what they had done, and acted accordingly. They wanted to continue an attitude of respect and acceptance for our fellow citizens, human beings.”

Austin Cope is a former Morning Edition host for KSJD and now produces work on a freelance basis for the station. He grew up in Cortez and hosted a show on KSJD when he was 10 years old. After graduating from Montezuma-Cortez High School in 2010, he lived in Belgium, Ohio, Spain, northern Wyoming, and Himachal Pradesh, India before returning to the Cortez area. He has a degree in Politics from Oberlin College in Ohio.