CSU history professor Jared Orsi named Colorado’s new State Historian

Jared Orsi

Adapted from a news release by History Colorado.

On Colorado Day, Aug. 1, Jared Orsi, professor of history at Colorado State University, will begin his one-year position as the state historian and leader of History Colorado’s State Historian’s Council, succeeding noted historian and professor Nicki Gonzales. The five-person council rotates this leadership role every year on Colorado’s birthday, to achieve greater reach and representation for the state, to amplify different perspectives and to reinforce the collaborative foundation of history and storytelling.

“It is humbling to follow in the footsteps of Nicki Gonzales and the many distinguished state historians who preceded her,” Orsi said. “I look forward to working with the amazing History Colorado staff and State Historian’s Council members to tell the rich stories of our state. Colorado is a great state, but not equally for everybody. As state historian, I would like to contribute to the stories of all Coloradans being told and valued.”

Orsi has been a member of the State Historian’s Council since its inception in 2018. He has taught at CSU for more than 20 years; his courses include U.S. Mexico Borderlands and U.S. Environmental History. Orsi is also the director of CSU’s Public Lands History Center, which seeks to integrate research, education and outreach that informs and elevates resource management of public lands. His book, Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike, was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award for history. Orsi’s favorite class is a summer field course in which he and students spend a week following Zebulon Pike’s 1806-07 route across Colorado.

“Dr. Orsi brings to the state historian’s role a powerful perspective founded upon decades of research, teaching, writing and working in the field,” said Jason Hanson, History Colorado’s chief creative officer and director of interpretation and research, and who facilitates the State Historian’s Council. “His expertise in borderlands and environmental history, reckoning with both the colonial legacy and democratic potential of our public lands, exemplifies his powerful approach to Colorado’s history. His scholarship is rooted in a commitment to illuminating the histories of all who have called Colorado home as well as a compelling hope that our shared history can light the way to a brighter future. His ability to bring historical insight to pressing environmental issues in the present could not be more timely. We look forward to Dr. Orsi’s leadership in the coming year.”

A Q&A with Jared Orsi

Orsi views the State Historian position as an opportunity for illuminating and exploring issues affecting Colorado, while placing them in historical context. He shares the following vision and goals for this new role, while answering the following questions:

What does being named Colorado’s State Historian mean to you?

It’s an honor I could not have predicted I would have back at the beginning of my career. I came to CSU 22 years ago not knowing much about the state’s past. At the time, the department had several outstanding Colorado historians. But one by one they retired, and soon Colorado History was not being taught. I thought that the state land-grant university really ought to teach Colorado history, so I took it on, and here I am, years later, as the State Historian.

What do you consider to be a significant moment in Colorado history and why?

The year 1893. The labor conflict was ramping up at Cripple Creek and would turn violent the next year. Colorado became the first state to approve women’s suffrage by referendum and the following year welcomed the first female legislators to the legislature. A national economic crisis began to strangle the state’s economy, especially mining. Katharine Lee Bates came to Colorado as a visiting professor, she climbed Pikes Peak, and, inspired by the view, wrote the lyrics that eventually became “America the Beautiful.” It was a year of transformation, crisis and hope that revealed Colorado’s tight connection to the rest of the nation.

During your term as State Historian how do you plan to impact historical inquiry practices?

I would like to spotlight the history of public lands, through which Coloradans can learn about their common history—its brightest as well as most tragic elements. I would especially like to amplify indigenous histories and Colorado histories beyond the front range.

What do you see as the value of history to society and what would you like to see change with regards to how history is covered?

Learning history takes us back into alternative worlds different from our own. It shows how choices, made by people of the past, built the world we inhabit. And, by implication, the choices made today can build a different, and better, world tomorrow. I would like history covered in a way that empowers people to think about the future they would like and to go out and make it happen.

What does the history of public lands tell us about the treatment of Indigenous people?

Most public lands became public through a process of dispossessing the Indigenous people who already lived there and erasing evidence of their presence. So public lands are deeply embedded in the nation’s colonial legacy. Still, Frederick Law Olmsted, an early commissioner of Yosemite, said that enjoyment of the outdoors was a fundamental right of all people, and he meant that broadly. That means that public lands are also rooted in the most equitable aspects of the American democratic traditions. They have both deeply problematic histories and the potential to advance equity and inclusiveness. Indigenous peoples and public land stewards can work to improve access to public lands, collaboratively manage them, and ensure that public lands tell important Native stories. But that requires more work.

About The State Historian’s Council

History Colorado’s State Historian’s Council reaches across the state to aid in interpretation of the history of Colorado and the West, providing opportunities to expand the understanding of the historical perspectives, cultures and places of Colorado. Council members work with History Colorado to produce and share knowledge about Colorado and connect with more residents throughout the state. In keeping with the influential, forward-leaning practices of History Colorado, which is home to the nation’s largest state historical fund for preservation and operates 10 museums and historic sites statewide, the council embraces a collaborative and inclusive approach to leadership.

The Council includes five historians from five different institutions around the state, who each experience a five-year term with annual rotations for the State Historian role. From Aug. 1, 2022, through July 31, 2023, Orsi will lead the following council members in his role as State Historian: Claire Oberson Garcia (Colorado College), Nicki Gonzales (Regis University), Susan Schulten (University of Denver) and William Wei (University of Colorado).

About History Colorado

History Colorado is a division of the Colorado Department of Higher Education and a 501(c)3 non-profit that has served more than 75,000 students and 500,000 people in Colorado each year. It is a 143-year-old institution that operates eleven museums and historic sites, a free public research center, the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, and the History Colorado State Historical Fund, which is the nation’s largest preservation program of its kind. More than 70% of SHF grants are allocated in rural areas of the state.

History Colorado’s mission is to create a better future for Colorado by inspiring wonder in our past. We serve as the state’s memory, preserving and sharing the places, stories, and material culture of Colorado through educational programs, historic preservation grants, collecting, outreach to Colorado communities, the History Colorado Center and Stephen H. Hart Research Center in Denver, and ten other museums and historic attractions statewide. History Colorado is one of only six Smithsonian Affiliates in Colorado. Visit HistoryColorado.org for more information.