James Paul Downer was born February 7, 1818 in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. He was educated at Madison College in Uniontown, a college operated by the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was then an apprentice in saddle and harness making. At the beginning of the Mexican American War in 1846, he enlisted as a 4th Corporal in Company H of the 2nd Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, known also as the Fayette County Volunteers. As such, he was one of 16 volunteers from Company H to scale the walls of Chapultepec, making it possible for the assault of Mexico City to take place. After Mexico City was taken, Company H was shipped out to New Orleans from Vera Cruz and then went by ship to Pittsburg. After receiving heroes welcomes, the unit was discharged at Uniontown on June 14, 1848. During his period of service in the Mexican-American War, he was promoted to 3rd Corporal, then to Sergeant. Downer was then elected to two terms in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, beginning in 1849. He was enumerated in Uniontown as a saddler in the 1850 census. In 1856, Downer went to Leavenworth, Kansas, to work for Russell, Weddel, and Majors in their growing freighting business. Downer was then appointed the Receiver for the U.S. Land Office in Ogden, Kansas in March 1857, a position he held until May 1859. In February 1859, he was one of the organizers of the town of Junction City, Kansas. He was involved in the laying out of the Smoky Hill Trail to Colorado, used by miners headed to the Pike’s Peak gold fields and for commerce to Denver. He then became one of the incorporators of the Smoky Hill Bridge Company, which intended to build bridges to improve the route, but actually did no construction. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Downer was involved in gathering volunteers from the Junction City area in May and June 1861. They were organized at Lawrence, Kansas, on June 11, and mustered into the army in Kansas City for a 3-month period as the 2nd Regiment of Kansas Volunteers on June 15, 1861 with Downer commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. The unit fought at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, on August 10, 1861, which was the first battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River. Downer was promoted to 1st Lieutenant on September 1, 1861, and the unit was mustered out on October 31, 1861. He then enlisted as a private in Company C of the 2nd Kansas Cavalry on December 3, 1861. He was wounded in the leg at the Battle of Cane Hill, Arkansas, on November 28, 1862 and was fortunate not to lose his leg to infection. He remained with the unit and was mustered out on January 10, 1865 in Leavenworth, Kansas. Following the war, he went back into the freighting business, working for the Butterfield Overland Stage Company on the Smoky Hill Trail. Downer’s Station on the trail was named for him; this was later fortified as Fort Downer for protection against Indian attacks on the trail in 1867 and 1868. Downer moved to Colorado in 1868 and settled on a ranch that included the eastern portion of Saguache. He obtained a Cash Entry Patent for 160 acres on April 20, 1874 and a homestead Entry Patent for another 160 acres on March 15, 1882. During this time, Downer served as the mail carrier to and from the Los Pinos Indian Agency in 1873 and 1874, to which Saguache was the nearest town. With conditions unsettled as a result of the Meeker Massacre at the White River Agency in 1879, Downer established a local militia known as Downer’s Guard. Downer died in Saguache on November 5, 1893. Contrary to local belief, he is not buried in the Saguache cemetery where a marker has been erected in his honor. Rather, his body was transported to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where he was interred.
1913 A History of Uniontown: The County Seat of Fayette County, Pennsylvania.
James P. Hadden, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. pp. 541-542, 547.
1895 History of the State of Colorado. Vol. IV.
The Blakely Printing Company, Chicago. p. 422.
Saguache Crescent, April 11, 1996.
Information provided by Jon Horn