A Steward of Land and of History: Henry Stratford Persse (1837-1918)

Three hundred million years ago the Rocky Mountains began to push their way up through the earth and created the spectacular red sandstone formations that exist along the front-range today.  At the end of the Nineteenth Century Henry Stratford Persse, originally from the Mohawk River Valley in New York, bought several hundred acres on land that was then known as Washington Park, fifteen miles from Littleton, Colorado.  He re-named the park, which is noted for the rolling foothills and dramatic red rock formations that mark the landscape, Roxborough Park after his family’s ancestral estate in the west of Ireland.

Henry Stratford Persse, who shared his name with his Irish grandfather, had made a name for himself in politics in upstate New York.  In his first political campaign he ran for Town Clerk in the heavily Republican Amsterdam, New York, as an anti-war Democrat.   Persse was declared the upset winner of the hotly contested election and the Republicans called for a recount of the vote.  It turned out that Persse had actually lost by eight votes.  When Persse conceded victory his opponent said “if a Republican can’t win an election in a Republican county by more than eight votes, he shouldn’t take the job”, and Persse became the Town Clerk.  In his political career Persse went onto associate with some of the great names in New York politics in that era, including Horace Greeley, Samuel Tilden and Gordon Emmett.

Persse eventually followed Horace Greeley’s famous words of advice and headed west.  He made the round-trip between New York to Denver at least twenty-six times, before finally settling with his wife and two daughters in Colorado in 1892.  Shortly after making Colorado his home he was elected Justice of the Peace of Douglass County, but he never tried a single case.

Henry Stratford Persse was a family historian and immensely proud of his heritage.  His home in Denver was full of heirlooms and old family portraits, and he owned a large collection of ancient family records.  He was descended from the Moyode Castle and Roxborough Persses who had come to Ireland in the 1500s.  The family traced their lineage back to the Percys of Northumberland, England, who had participated in every historic battle in England back to the time of William the Conqueror.  Perhaps the most famous Percy was Hotspur, the Henry Percy immortalized in Shakepeare’s Henry IV, Part 1.

Persse claimed that the family changed the spelling of their name from Percy to Persse to commemorate the service of the French in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.  The Irish (and Australian) branches of the family continued to pronounce the name “purSEE”, but the American branches would pronounce it “PURSE”.  Persse was also a cousin of James Smithson, son of the Earl of Northumberland, for whom the Smithsonian institute in Washington, D.C. was named.

In 1889 Persse acquired the land south of Denver known as Washington Park, named for a distinctive formation that resembled the first American president.  In 1902, after renaming the park for his family’s ancestral Irish estate, Persse and two partners established the Roxborough Land Company to develop the property into a premiere tourist destination.  One vision for development included “a first class 200 room hotel, golf links, a club house, a well stocked lake and comfortable cottages.”  Visitors would be able to travel to the park from Englewood aboard an electric train.

Although this grand vision was never realized, the simpler amenities that Persse did construct attracted members of Denver’s high society, who could take the South Park & Pacific Railroad from downtown Denver to Kassler, very close to Roxborough.  Many visitors were relieved that the full-scale development never took place.  One guest commented “A Park made by Nature’s hand alone – The Arts of Man could only mar it.”  Another wrote that the park “should be owned by the city for the free use of the people.”

Henry Stratford Persse died in August of 1918 when a tramway car struck him as he crossed the intersection of Milwaukee and Twelfth Avenue in Denver.  Almost sixty years later the Colorado State Division of Parks bought five hundred acres of the Persse family property, forming Roxborough State Park.  Since then the park has expanded to over 3,319 acres and has been designated a National Natural Landmark, a National Cultural Landmark and contains an Archaeological District.  The Persse family home still stands on the park grounds.

Adam Lowe Martin (son of ) – Allen Lowe Martin – Margaret Persse (daughter of) - Edwin Theophilus Persse – Dudley Persse – Theophilus Persse (father of) – Henry Stratford Persse