Within the past year or two, a couple of readers of this column –– both avid hikers –– asked me what I knew about the disappearance and death of a man named Aquilla Cook. A marker in the mountains shows where he died, but what were the circumstances surrounding his death?
On April 30, 1868, the editor of the Boulder County News received a similar request. The reader asked, “Have you learned of the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Cook who lived on the upper St. Vrain near the mouth of the (South St. Vrain) cañon?”
Cook, it was learned, had left his home on an April morning, without his coat. He told his family that he was going deer hunting and would be back by evening, but he never returned. The newspaper reader added that the man’s fortune or fate was “still a mystery.”
The editor then reported that family and friends had concluded among themselves that Cook had wandered off in pursuit of a deer herd, and he likely camped in the woods to return the following day.
The next morning, however, he still was not home. Nearly 30 men set out to track him and were said to be “minutely examining the mountains.” However, they were unable to provide any specific news.
Searchers, though, thought they saw him. One said he was in a “hot chase” after a herd in Estes Park. Another “sighted him” on the tracks of the Boulder & Central railroad. A third man thought he was near the Big Thompson Creek.
A month later, the Denver Tribune reported, “Nothing has yet been heard of the lost man, Mr. Cook, of St. Vrain.” There also was some speculation, at the time, that Cook was not dead, but he had, for reasons unknown, left the country.
Months turned into years. Then, on April 18, 1871, the Rocky Mountain News related, “Three years ago, Mr. Aquila Cook, who lived on St. Vrain Creek, just within the cañon, was supposed to be lost while hunting. The whole surrounding county turned out en mass to find him and hunted in vain for several days.”
The News continued, “His fate was shrouded in mystery until last week, when the remains of a man were found on the north branch of the creek about 10 miles from his home near what is known as the ‘brush shanty.’”
With the remains were Cook’s gun, a powder horn, a knife and portions of his clothing. Cook’s wife, Esther, and sons, Caleb and Freeman, buried him in the Hygiene Cemetery with an impressive gravestone. Along with his name and dates and some leafy engravings is the explanation, “Died when hunting in the mountains.”
As it turns out, my readers were hiking on the eastern slope of (appropriately named) Cook Mountain, within the Button Rock Preserve that is part of the city of Longmont’s watershed –– west of Lyons, in Boulder County. There, they found a sandstone marker with an inscription that reads, “Aquilla Cook died here Apr. 20, 1868, Age 35 yrs. Over 3 yrs. before found.”
Was Cook attacked by a wild animal, or did he starve to death? Could he have committed suicide or was he murdered? Unfortunately, all relevant information has been lost to time.
Silvia Pettem and Carol Taylor alternate the In Retrospect column. Pettem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.