Past Episodes

E7: HUMBUG! The Betrayals, Conflicts, and Struggles of Establishing Denver, Colorado

If you have spent time in Denver, Colorado, you may have heard the names Larimer, Wynkoop, and Stout, but you probably do not know why the surnames are honored.

Today, Denver is a thriving metropolitan city, the newest destination of tech companies, California transplants, and a place of noticeable wealth. But in the 1850s, it was a grassland, occupied only by Native Americans and virtually unknown to citizens of the United States.

Gold, rather the hopes for gold, changed all of that, bringing in tens of thousands of prospectors, land speculators, and those seeking to escape law and order. From that complicated stew, a city emerged at the base of the Rocky Mountains.


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HUMBUG! The Betrayals, Conflicts, and Strugglines in Establishing Denver, ColoradoSteve Chapman
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The Betrayals, Conflicts, and Stuggles of Establishing Denver, Colorado

If you have spent time in Denver, Colorado, you may have heard the names Larimer, Wynkoop, and Stout, but you probably do not know why the surnames are honored.

Today, Denver is a thriving metropolitan city, the newest destination of tech companies, California transplants, and a place of noticeable wealth. But in the 1850s, it was a grassland, occupied only by Native Americans and virtually unknown to citizens of the United States.

Gold, rather the hopes for gold, changed all of that, bringing in tens of thousands of prospectors, land speculators, and those seeking to escape law and order. From that complicated stew, a city emerged at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

Sit back, turn up the volume, and let’s explore the betrayals, conflicts, and struggles involved in creating the city of Denver.

Welcome to History Does Rhyme. I’m your host, Steve Chapman. You can find every episode right here and for free on and Please contact me on Facebook at History Does Rhyme. Each week, we’re going to chat about the past, diving deep into stories you only thought you knew and exploring a few tales you’ve never heard.

In the 1850s, maps refer to the area between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains as ‘the great American desert.’ The vast landmass is also called the Pikes Peak Region.


Other than random fur trappers and the occasional prospector, white people are virtually unknown in the area before 1850. On June 22, 1850, a man named Lewis Ralston stops for water at a creek while on his way to California. Panning in the river, Ralston discovers a $5 gold nugget but continues his journey westward.

Ralson tells no one of his gold find and later returns to prospect the area more thoroughly while returning to his home state of Georgia. His search turns up nothing of value.


As a side note, Ralston Creek and the place searched by Lewis is located in the city of Arvada, Colorado. There’s even a park commemorating his find.


On August 25, 1855, the Kansas Territory, of which modern-day Colorado is part, establishes Arapahoe County. The county includes huge swaths of eastern Colorado all the way to the Continental Divide.


Adventurous men, especially those who do not enjoy life in the civilized world, venture into the new territory. Some want riches from gold or furs. Others want land where they can be left alone. The ‘mountain man’ era will last only three more decades, but these tough pioneers carve a huge mark into American history.


William Green Russell is one of these men.


Russell is born into a mining family, his father being part of the Georgia gold rush in 1828. He grows up in a mining community, but by the time he is old enough to make his own way, Georgia is commercialized and civilized, and opportunities for miners are pretty much played out.


At the age of 27, Russell marries a woman who is 1/8th Cherokee Indian. Through her Indian family, Russell learns about an 1849 discovery of gold at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, a place later known as the South Platte River.


Along with his two brothers and six friends, Russell leaves Georgia for the South Platte River in February 1858. They meet up with members of the Cherokee tribe in present-day Oklahoma and continue west along the Santa Fe Trail, collecting additional gold seekers along the way. By the time he reaches Bent’s Fort in what is today southeastern Colorado, his party numbers 107 men.


The group turns northwest, reaching the junction of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River on May 23, 1858. Today, that spot is known as Confluence Park in Denver.


Russell’s crew prospect the riverbeds of Cherry Creek and Ralston Creek but find nothing. After three weeks, most of Russell’s’ group decides the trip is a bust and returns home, leaving the Russell brothers with only ten other men. They are alone in a wild, unsettled country.


But Russell believes the information shared by his Cherokee connections and continues searching for gold, and finally finds some where Dry Creek empties into the South Platte River. Today, this place is known as Englewood, Colorado. Russell names the area Placer Camp.


Without knowing it, Russell has started the Pikes Peak gold rush.


In the first week of July 1858, Russell and friends find a placer deposit that gives up 600 grams of gold. This is the first significant discovery in the Pikes Peak region.

Place Camp sits beneath a cottonwood stand along the banks of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. Russell’s company has become the first white residents of what will eventually be Denver, Colorado.


The men scatter in various directions throughout the region, climbing foothills and mountains with picks and shovels, digging into granite and quartz, and washing endless amounts of sand through their pans.


Some members of this first group realize land will be as valuable as gold, and they start platting new towns. The maps quickly fill up with names that are now common: Central City, Black Hawk, Idaho Springs, Golden, Boulder, Pueblo, and Canon City.


Winter sets in early in 1858. To pass the time during the cold days and nights, these first pioneers write letter after letter to friends in the east. Of course, the men do not write about the lack of comforts, the difficult struggles, or the harsh conditions. They mainly describe the beautiful scenery and richness of a land filled with gold in every direction. Gold they have only seen in their imaginations.


Russell and his brother move their camp to the mouth of Cherry Creek, thinking this will be a better place to wait out winter. The Russell brothers soon meet an old trader who suggests they work together. The trader is married to an Indian woman and is on friendly terms with the natives. The Russell brothers figure such relations can only be a good thing in case the Indians decide white men are no longer welcome in the area.


The trader and the Russell brothers build a double cabin near an Indian tepee and call the camp Tepee Row. This is the first structure in what becomes the city of Denver.


Before leaving the settlement to return to Georgia for better mining equipment and more men, Russell names the camp Auraria after his hometown in Georgia.


Hearing reports of a land filled with endless riches, Kansas Territorial Governor James Denver decides he should send some officials into the Pikes Peak area, and he chooses a group he trusts. He believes in them primarily because these men have formed a business arrangement with Governor Denver to share proceeds from land sales in the city they plan to start. 


Among this select group is Edward Wynkoop. Along with 21 others, Wynkoop leaves Leavenworth, Kansas, and heads west to the Pikes Peak region.


Unlike today, the Pikes Peak region encompasses a large area, including parts of the Nebraska, Utah, New Mexico, and Kansas territories. The plan of Wynkoop’s group is to form a town called Arapahoe in the Kansas section of this region. Wynkoop’s official title is Sherriff of Arapahoe County—a job without pay or laws to enforce as the county exists only on paper.


Wynkoop’s team wanders along the Santa Fe Trail. They have no knowledge of the land and no reliable maps. The trail fades out regularly, and they rely on their wits and a steady south-westward direction to travel 600 miles through untamed, uncharted land.


Nearing Bent’s Fort, Wynkoop and his team run into three riders, led by William Green Russell. The men are riding in the opposite direction, towards Georgia, where he intends to recruit men and secure mining equipment.


Russell is a sad sight, wearing tattered, dirty clothes, and his beard is platted into two braids. Russell has spent most of the last year digging for gold in various locations. Meeting Wynkoop’s group, Russell is friendly and encourages them to continue into the Pikes Peak area. He assures them riches are to be had for those willing to work and endure harsh conditions. William Russell is the only white person Wynkoop’s team has met since leaving Kansas.


Pushing farther up the trail, near present-day Pueblo, Wynkoop and company meet another crew, led by General William Larimer. Larimer’s team left Kansas only days after Wynkoop.


General William Larimer made his first fortune in Pittsburg’s railroad industry, but the economic depression of 1854 destroyed his holdings. The following year, Larimer moved and became a land speculator. He staked out a homestead in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he lived with his wife and nine children.


In 1858, Larimer’s two oldest sons read about the gold rush in the Pikes Peak region and want to chase gold in Cherry Creek.


On October 1, 1858, Larimer, his son, and four other men, called the Leavenworth Party, set out for the new frontier. They travel from Kansas along the Santa Fe Trail to Bent’s Fort, where they bump into the Wynkoop company.


The two companies agree to combine for safety and to present a larger force for claiming land.


Pushing hundreds of miles northwest, the combined unit arrives on the banks of Cherry Creek and see a bustling settlement  Over 300 men are building and staking out claims. Tents are everywhere, with men selling goods and liquor. Trappers have also arrived with their Arapaho wives and families.


Along the western bank is the community of Auraria, the one William Russell staked out.


Larimer and Wynkoop are unfazed by the large groups who arrived before them and spend a few days scouting the area. Four days after arriving, Larimer leads the combined team to the higher eastern side of the junction between the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. Larimer believes the Auraria site is prone to flooding.


While waiting for his wagons and supplies to cross the creek, Larimer makes a large square of four cottonwood poles. In the early days, tradition says a square of fallen trees indicates the land has been claimed for a townsite. Even today, this site is known as Larimer Square.

Already on Larimer’s site is an unimproved, abandoned camp named St. Charles by the men who staked it out.


Several businessmen from Kansas arrived in the area not long after Russell and marked off 640 acres. This group, led by Charles Nichols, intended to build the first major city in the new place and went so far as to write a constitution. But other than a partially constructed cabin, no structures were built because winter was approaching. The men decide to winter in Kansas and return in the Spring with supplies and more men. Before leaving, Nichols and company asked two mountain men to guard the site until their return.


The mountain men are not what you would call the loyal type. When Larimer and Wynkoop show up with their team, the mountain men do not resist the takeover. To be fair, the two are greatly outnumbered, and it is not uncommon for men with good intentions to return to the comfort of home and never come back to the frontier.


Larimer and Wynkoop, hoping to curry favor for future political appointments, name their town Denver City in honor of the Kansas Territorial Governor. Within weeks, scores of pioneer merchants arrive on their heels.


Larimer and Wynkoop are tremendous pitchmen, shouting the advantages of their city to the newly arrived. Among their main claim is their city being located on the riverbank less prone to flooding. Their aggressiveness annoys those living in Auraria, and a bitter rivalry quickly develops between the two towns. The competing groups spend much of the winter shouting harsh words at each other from across Cherry Creek.


For their part, citizens of Auraria boast that they were the first town in the area. They neglect to mention they were the first settlement by only three or four weeks.


Once the company is set up in camp, Wynkoop and another man ride 700 miles back to Kansas to get their charter introduced into the legislature to bolster their claims. The men run into many Indians and bandits on the trip and arrive in Kansas frostbitten, exhausted, and hurt, only to learn that the group led by Nichols has already introduced their charter. Wynkoop turns to Governor Denver, their silent partner, who adds the Wynkoop group name to the competing company charter.


For the rest of the winter, Wynkoop talks up the Pikes Peak region throughout Kansas. He even prints blank stock for the Denver town charter and charges $100 per person to join the return wagon trip. That’s around $3,000 today.


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While Wynkoop is working the legislature and promoting to the citizens of Leavenworth, Kansas, Charles Nichols has turned back from his return trip, apparently lacking confidence in the two men his company left behind.


When he returns to his townsite, he finds Larimer’s group laying out a town of their own. Larimer and Nichols argue, and Larimer holds up a rope, threatening to hang Nichols if he doesn’t back off. With a gun pointed at him and quite a bit of liquor consumed, Larimer and Nichols negotiate terms. But Nichols doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and, besides, he’s outnumbered and outgunned.


Larimer issues 41 shares in the original Denver City Company. The site covers 2,200 acres.


Larimer plans to sell the land to miners and other migrants. Many of those arriving lack money, so the tracts of land are often swapped for grubstakes or traded on gambling tables. Denver City becomes the seat of Arapahoe County, but Larimer wants more. He pushes for agricultural and mining development, and in the Spring of 1859, Larimer and another man lay out a graveyard on the site of what is now Cheesman Park. They named it Mount Prospect Cemetery.

Arriving in October of 1858 is a man named Daniel Oakes. He’s a prospector, but unlike many, he’s literate and, after spending time with other prospectors in the area, writes a book called History of the Gold Discoveries on the South Platte River.

The book encourages people to move west and explore Colorado and gives instructions for gold mining, and offers a list of supplies needed to live for six months.

Included in the “Provisions, Supplies” list are 1,000 pounds of flour, twenty-five pounds of gunpowder, fifty pounds of lead, and 2,000 gun caps. Other provisions include four gallons of pickles, four gallons of vinegar, six gallons of brandy, dry beans, fruit, dried beef, coffee, and cooking utensils. The total of the list comes to $517.25, nearly $15,000 today.

Oakes books are distributed by the thousands in Missouri and are an instant hit. WAGONS AND HORSE SOUNDS Within weeks, 80,000 people head out for Colorado in one of US history’s greatest migrations. This is the real beginning of Colorado’s Wild West.

Oakes’s books are candid, describing the barren, desert conditions, the harshness of prospecting, the lack of resources, and the extreme difficulty finding gold. But people only read the word ‘gold’ and push forward, traveling hundreds of miles through a land lacking railroads, stagecoaches, or even well-marked trails. They travel in Ox-drawn wagons, handcarts, or walk. Many of the wagons have signs reading Pikes Peak or Bust.

These dreamers imagine easy riches and envision gold lying in the stream, ready for grabbing. Many even bring empty flour sacks to carry their treasure.

When they arrive at the South Platte River and Cherry Creek’s junction, they find rocks and sand and a collection of filthy, violent men, dirty tents, and scrawny animals. It’s a desperate situation for all but the toughest, and most of the travelers quickly return home, angry and hoping to take revenge on Daniel Oakes, who they brand a liar and a villain.

Among those who arrive, and stay, is E.P. Stout. He rides into Auraria with a small party in late October. Stout becomes a founding member of Denver and even has a street still named for him.

Also arriving in 1858 is Thomas L. Golden. He settles along Clear Creek near the present-day Colorado School of Mines football field. He’s a miner from Georgia and the namesake of the modern town of Golden, Colorado.


A sure sign that a settlement is becoming civilized is the arrival of a newspaper.

William Byers is an accomplished engineer and government prospector from Nebraska who believes his riches will come by launching the new territory’s first newspaper. The trip west is brutal, and Byers group fights wet, cold conditions the entire trip. Snow is still on the ground, and where the snow has melted, the team slog through mud and soft ground.

Among the most disheartening parts of the trip, says Byers, is struggling with heavy wagons all day only to bed down for the night in sight of the previous night’s camp.

Another difficulty in the journey is the great number of thieves and rough men traveling in the same direction. The new territory has become a magnet not only for those seeking wealth but those hoping to take advantage of the lack of law. Byers fears white men more than any Indian.

In his wagon, Byers carries presses from a defunct paper. Byers begins writing the first edition of his newspaper at night, determined to publish the first edition as quickly as possible after arriving in Denver City. How did he write about a place he’d never visited? He made it up using his imagination.

Arriving in the so-called town of Denver City, Byers meets the Russell party and is shocked by what he sees. The settlement is nothing but sorry tents, broken wagons, skinny animals, filthy men, mud, despair, broken dreams, and violence. It’s a sad place lacking anything indicating prosperity or riches.

When William Byers arrives in Denver City to establish the newspaper of record, he learns that another man has arrived days earlier with the same intention. The race is on to be the first to publish. Wasting no time, Byers rents an upstairs space in a clapboard building. Downstairs is a rowdy saloon.

While working feverishly on his first edition, Byers is continually distracted by loud shouts, fights, and gunshots from down below. Many times, Byers and his partner must dodge bullets that fly up through the floorboards. Exasperated, he lays down extra boards and mattresses to stop the bullets. The situation above is no better. The roof leaks as the snow melts and Byers is forced to put up a tarp to deflect the water away from his press.

Facing the harsh conditions pays off. On April 23, 1859, twenty minutes ahead of his competitor, William Byers published the first edition of his newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News. His competitor lacks Byer’s determined spirit and quickly sells his equipment to Byers and heads for the mountains to search for gold.

But the future success of the new settlement is not guaranteed, which means Byer’s dreams of riches are far from certain. So far, only the pursuit of gold exists. No major claim has been found in the region. Still, thousands of men pour in weekly, all expecting fast, easy riches.

When quick money isn’t found, tempers flare, and depression sets in with many of the newcomers. Murders are common. In one bloody fight, a gambler gouges out the eye of a rival with a knife. That man, in turns, guts the gambler with his knife. One starving and desperate newcomer blows his brains out by putting his rifle in his mouth and pulling the trigger with a toe. It’s a desperate situation for all.

The phrase ‘the great Pikes Peak hoax’ starts floating through the settlement and these rumors make their way to eastern newspapers. Published stories are exaggerated, as is typical of the times, with many articles claiming the town founders have been lynched or angry men burned the entire town.

Making matters worse, these eastern papers print contradictory articles. Byers is honest in his reports, stating that the average miner is pulling in $2.50 a day, around $75 today. But the eastern newspapers add a zero to the amount, and migrants expect to earn $750 a day.

Realizing that his new business’s success and the entire community rely on a major gold strike, Byers starts visiting all the mining camps and interviews prospectors, hoping for truthful, positive news he can share with the world. There are numerous small gold finds, and Byers writes about these, but the eastern newspapers discount his stories and start calling Byers paper The Rocky Mountain Liar. They assume Byers is writing fiction to boost sales of his newspaper.

This all changes in Mary of 1859 when Byers meets a miner name John Gregory, a man Byers describes as ‘white trash.’ He does not present well, but as Byers gets to know the filthy man, he learns that Gregory is hiding a secret—he has stumbled onto a tremendous gold strike.

Last winter, Gregory found a place on Clear Creek that showed prospects of gold. When the snow melted, Gregory returned and found $4 in flakes the first day, $40 a day later. That is around $1200 today. By the end of the week, Gregory had pulled out $25,000 in modern worth.

Thanks in part to The Rocky Mountain News, word of Gregory’s strike spreads fast. Before the news gets out, less than two dozen prospectors are on the creek. Within weeks after the gold strike becomes public, 30,000 men are wading through Clear Creek. For his part, Gregory finds at least three large chunks of gold, each worth $15,000 today.

Knowing the newspaper industry is prone to exaggeration, the eastern papers don’t believe Byers reports, so they send a few influential journalists to visit Denver, including famed editor Horace Greeley. You may recall Greeley as the editor who wrote the phrase, “Go west, young man!”

By the time Greeley arrives, Denver is a legitimate town, if filthy and violent, filled with miners, gamblers, brothels, saloons, and livestock trading. The locals donate 53 lots to an express company to secure the area’s first overland wagon route, which offers daily service for passengers and freight. The stagecoach route trims the total time for the trip from 26 days to six. Seeing the region’s legitimacy, Greeley writes reports that encourage even more settlers to rush into the Colorado territory.

The smaller settlements soon consolidate into one entity, Denver City.

William Larimer has been working the political channels in addition to carving out a real estate business. He expects to be named the first governor of the new territory, but President Lincoln gives the honor to William Gilpin of Missouri. It is primarily a political decision. Missouri is a slave state, and Lincoln hopes this appointment will help keep the state in the Union, as rumblings of secession are beginning. Additionally, Gilpin has experience in territorial government.

The Colorado Territory is created on February 28, 1861, and Arapahoe County is officially formed on November 1, 1861. Denver City is incorporated six days later and serves as the Arapahoe County seat until the county splits and creates a new entity, Denver County, in 1902.

In 1863, Western Union arrives and chooses Denver City as their regional hub, further legitimizing the new town.

For years later, Denver City becomes the territorial capital, and the name is shortened to just Denver.

In 1876, Colorado is admitted to the Union as an official State.

I leave you with a few final notes on the men who created Denver, Colorado.

An influx of Union men began to outnumber southerners in the Colorado territory, and William Russell becomes afraid for his safety and that of his son. He tries to return to his home state of Georgia but is intercepted in the Texas panhandle by the Union army. Russell and his son have $110,000 in gold in their wagon, around $3 million today. It’s unclear how, but Russell convinces the soldiers to allow he and his son to continue their journey with the gold.

Russell returns to Colorado after the Civil War but never rekindles his earlier successes. When his son dies in a mining accident in 1874, Russell and his Cherokee wife settle in the Indian territory where he dies in 1877.

Two towns in Colorado are named after Russell, both in places where he found gold. Russellville is in unincorporated Douglas County, and Russell Gulch, an old mining town, is in Gilpin County.

Edward Wynkoop stakes a placer mining claim on Clear Creek but sells his interest at the start of the Civil War. Wynkoop serves as an officer in the First Colorado Volunteer Cavalry, attaining the rank of major.

In 1866, Wynkoop becomes an Indian agent for the Southern Cheyenne’s and Arapaho but resigns two years later in protest of an Indian village destroyed during the Battle of Washita River.

He later serves as warden of the New Mexico penitentiary and dies in Santa Fe in 1891.

Governor James Denver finally visits Denver, Colorado in 1875 but complains that his visits receive little affection from the residents. 

General William Larimer becomes a United States commissioner and a probate judge for Colorado’s First Judicial District.

He serves as a colonel of the Third Regiment of Colorado Volunteers during the Civil War and returns to Kansas after the war.

Larimer stays active in city and territorial governments, but the war, mining slowdowns, and conflicts with local Indians severely hurt the Colorado economy, greatly shrinking his real estate holdings.

After returning with his sons to Kansas, Larimer serves as a Kansas state senator from 1867 until 1870 before retiring to his farm, where he dies in 1875.

Larimer has a street named after him in Denver as well as a community, Larimer Square. He is also commemorated by Larimer County, Colorado, and by a neighborhood, Larimer, in Pittsburgh.

William Byers becomes a great spokesman for Denver and helps to organize the Chamber of Commerce. He promotes Denver as the “Queen City of the Rockies.”


The Rocky Mountain News is the first newspaper printed in Colorado, and it continues publication until 2009.


William Byers sells the Rocky Mountain News in 1878 but remains prominent within the Denver society, helping to establish the Colorado Historical Society.


Finally, we come to Daniel Oakes, the man whose publications started the migration of over 100,000 people to the barren prairie that would become Denver.

Not long after the publication of his book, Oakes leaves the Colorado territory for supplies and equipment. Returning to the land he wrote of, Oakes encounters a counterwave of angry migrants leaving the promised land.

Near the present-day town of Julesburg, Oakes discovers his own grave. He has been buried in effigy by those who think his publication was nothing but lies.

Eventually, his group arrives above the town of Boulder, where he opens the first sawmill in Colorado and provides lumber for Denver’s construction.

Anger toward Oakes dies down when Horace Greeley writes of the riches in the Rocky Mountains.

Daniel Oakes holds a position in the first legislature and city council in Denver and is the first postmaster of Douglas County.

Months after returning to Colorado, a letter arrives informing Oakes that his daughter has died of illness. In his return letter, expressing grief at the unexpected loss, Oakes shares with his wife the emotional toil the return trip has taken. Those he met called him a liar and a promotor of humbug.  Seeing the success of the booming town of Denver, Oakes writes this line to his wife: “Come through I would and come through I did. Humbug or no Humbug.”

That wraps up this episode of History Does Rhyme. Thank you for listening. Next week, I’ll be

back with another story from our fascinating past.


If you liked this podcast, please share it with others. To stay in touch, connect with History Does Rhyme on Facebook. If you enjoyed this episode, you’d probably like the ‘Salida Sam’ historical book series. Each book covers two years in Salida history, and there are now four volumes on local bookshelves. You can purchase the books online by visiting and clicking Shop on the menu.


Until next week, remember the words attributed to famed writer Mark Twain, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”


History Does Rhyme is a copyright production of Salida Walking Tours, LLC. No part of this podcast can be copied, shared, or transmitted without the owner’s expressed written consent. History Does Rhyme is written and produced by me, Steve Chapman, Caleb Burgraff is co-producer and technical advisor, Alex Johnstone performed the original music. The entire episode was recorded and mixed at the studios of Heart of the Rockies Radio in Salida, Colorado.



History Does Rhyme is a weekly podcast exploring the fascinating past of Colorado. 

Together, we'll do a deep dive into the stories you only thought you knew, uncovering the amazing true tales of the men, women, and battles that shaped the Centennial State.

I'm your host, Steve Chapman, historian/founder for Salida Walking Tours and Buena Vista Walking Tours. I also write the best-selling 'Salida Sam' historical book series and write/produce the award-winning A Salida Moment in History radio program and A Buena Vista History Flashback.

So, yeah, I'm a history nerd--with a passion for engaging storytelling.  Join me every week and learn why famed writer Mark Twain is attributed with this quote: "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." 

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