Biography of John W. Iliff of Denver, Colorado

Among the men who gained fortune in Colorado was one who was known all over the country as the “cattle king” of this state. When people by thousands were coming west during the Pike’s Peak excitement, John W. Iliff decided to join the tide of emigration that moved westward. He had the sound common sense to bring with him a wagon train of provisions, and these he sold in Denver at a large profit. With this money he bought a small herd of cattle, the nucleus of the immense cattle business he afterward conducted. Studying his chosen occupation with care and giving it his entire time, he was naturally rewarded with success. With the exception of about a year in the banking business with Hon. Amos Steck, in Wyoming, he engaged in no business but the raising and selling of stock, and as his means increased he increased his herds. Some cattlemen, attaining a fair degree of success, relaxed efforts and thus reduced their profits, but he seemed to grow more energetic with the passing years. He was the head and mainspring of all the work, accompanied the men on the roundups and worked side by side with them. His possessions extended over such a large tract of land that it is said he could travel for a week, yet always eat and sleep at one of his own ranches. He had twenty thousand acres of pasturage, watered by springs and creeks. From here he shipped cattle to eastern markets. At one time, during the early days, he supplied dressed beef to all the military posts along the line of the Union Pacific. He also had large government contracts and contracts with wholesale butchers. Over the plains from Julesburg on the east to Texas on the south ranged his cattle, numbering more than fifty thousand head, of which he marketed perhaps fifteen thousand per annum. He was a man of vast wealth, with a princely income; yet his life was unostentatious and to the last he retained the simplicity of habits that marked his earlier years.

For the facts given in regard to the origin and early history of the Ayloff, or Iliff, family, we are indebted to Morant’s history of Essex, England. In Austria, where one branch of the family resides, the name was Ayecliffe. From England some of the name emigrated to New England in a very early day and with the subsequent history of that part of our country later generations were intimately identified. From there they moved west to Ohio, where our subject’s father, Thomas Iliff, cultivated a farm near Zanesville. Thomas Iliff was born in Pennsylvania April 24, 1803, and died October to, 1874. By his first wife, who was Salome Reed, he had ten children, of whom four are deceased. His second wife was Harriet Halcomb, who survived him twenty-four years. He was one of the most successful and intelligent farmers of Ohio and accumulated a fair property. In the Methodist Episcopal Church, of which he was a member, he filled offices of trust. Politically he was a Republican and a man of influence in his locality. His name was a synonym for everything that was substantial and trustworthy and his life was worthy of emulation.

The shrewd judgment of Mr. Iliff is illustrated by an incident that happened in his youth. He was living near Zanesville, Ohio, on the farm where he was born in 1831, and was about to embark in the world for himself. His father, wishing him to remain near the old home, offered to invest $7,500 in a farm for him, but he asked him to give him $500 and permit him to go west. With that small capital he went to Kansas, where he remained for three years, until he settled in Colorado.

In January, 1854, Mr. Iliff married Miss Sarah E. Smith, a lineal descendant of John Smith, of Pocahontas fame and a native of Delaware, Ohio, but for some years a resident of Kansas, where she was educated. The only son born of this marriage is William S., of Denver. In March, 1870, Mr. Iliff married Miss Elizabeth S. Fraser, of whose family mention is made in the sketch of her brother, J. J. Fraser. She was born in Canada, but came to Colorado at an early age and afterward made her home with all aunt hear Pueblo. By her marriage to Mr. Iliff three children were born, one of whom died when young.

In spite of the fact that his journeyings around the country brought him into frequent contact with Indians, Mr. Iliff never carried weapons, but he did not molest the savages and they in turn did not molest him. Politically he was a Republican, and in religious belief adhered to the Methodist faith. He died February 9, 1878, and was buried in Riverside cemetery at Denver. Afterward his son erected the Iliff School of Theology at University Park as a memorial to him. His widow is now the wife of Bishop Warren, of University Park.


Source: Portrait and biographical record of Denver and vicinity, Colorado : containing portraits and biographies of many well known citizens of the past and present : together with biographies and portraits of all the presidents of the United States.. Chicago: Chapman Pub. Co., 1898.


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