Lafayette, Colorado, was founded in 1888 by Mary E. Miller (1843-1921), who named the platted 37-acre town after her late husband. In a nutshell, the town is named after De Lafayette “Lafe” Miller (1840-1878), not the Marquis de Lafayette.
But wait. There’s more.
The generic names “Fayette” and “Lafayette” are derived from a Revolutionary War general whose full name was Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de la Fayette (Lafayette). General Lafayette was a French aristocrat who helped George Washington defeat the British. Lafayette commanded Continental Army troops at the 1781 Battle of Yorktown.
“Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), was a young, handsome, rich and brave French aristocrat who defied his own king to enter the Revolutionary War in America to support the cause of freedom in the New World. After his success as a military leader, he became a renowned statesman whose support for individual rights made him a beloved and respected figure on two continents. As an ardent supporter of emancipation and a member of anti-slavery societies in France and America, Lafayette lobbied for the restoration of civil rights to French Protestants and he was instrumental in ensuring that religious freedom be granted to Protestants, Jews, and other non-Catholics. He was known as a friend to Native Americans and he endorsed the views of leading women writers and reformers of his day.”
— Lafayette College, Easton Pennsylvania
Cities and counties in the U.S. named after the Marqius de Lafayette include Fayette County, Indiana; Fayette County, Pennsylvania; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Lafayette, California; Lafayette, Louisiana; Lafayette, Indiana and Lafayette, Arkansas. Interestingly, the state of Colorado was nearly named “Lafayette” when it was declared a territory in 1861.
“When the question of territorial organization came up in the United States Senate the name “Jefferson” was promptly turned down. The list of proposed names included “Tampa,” “Idaho,” which was the name first accepted, “Nemara,” “San Juan,” “Lula,” “Arapahoe,” “Weappollao,” “Tahosa,” “Lafayette,” “Columbus,” “Franklin” and “Colona.” When the bill was about to pass, the name “Colorado” was ordered substituted for that of “Idaho.” On February 28, 1861, President Buchanan signed the bill creating the Territory of Colorado.”
— From “History of Larimer County, Colorado,” by Ansel Watrous, 1911 and “History of Colorado,” by Wilbur Fisk Stone, 1918.
A boy named De Lafayette Miller
De Lafayette Miller was born to Dr. John and Mary “Charlotte” (Able) Miller in 1840 inside a circa 1835 cabin built on a tree-covered Illinois hilltop known as “Miller’s Point.” A few months later, on July 28, 1841, John Miller conveyed 50 acres of his farm to found the town of Toulon (pronounced too-lahn), the county seat of Stark County. A street in that town bears his name. In 1853, John Miller was elected Justice of the Peace for Toulon, and served for several years as a judge in Stark County courts.
Toulon is located in north central Illinois. Five miles to the east of Toulon is the town of La Fayette, Illinois, founded in 1836 as “Lafayette.” At some point in the town’s history, the name was split into its current two-word form (La and Fayette). There’s no historical record of La Fayette, Illinois being named for Marqius de Lafayette, but the correlation is fairly strong.
In late 1853, John Miller relocated his family to Independence, Buchanan County, Iowa. Lafayette Miller was a rural neighbor of Mary Foote and the two attended the same Congregational Church. Lafayette and Mary married in 1862 and ventured to Colorado in 1863.
Lafayette Miller, who preferred the nickname “Lafe,” was active in early Boulder, Colorado politics. He lost the 1878 mayoral election by 4 votes, and was elected town trustee a month later. Lafayette and his brother-in-law James B. Foote (Mary Miller’s brother) owned butcher shops in Erie and Boulder, and a liquor distributorship in Boulder. Lafayette died in 1878 in Boulder at age 38. Cause of death was described in his obituary as “derangement of the liver,” likely the result of overconsumption of alcohol.
Marquis de Lafayette in Illinois
From August 1824 to September 1825, Marquis de Lafayette returned to the United States and visited all 24 states of the Union. In 1825 Marquis de Lafayette accepted an invitation of Illinois Assembly and visited Kaskaskia, Illinois in February. Kaskaskia, a former French settlement that no longer exists, was located on the banks of the Mississippi River in southwestern Illinois.
Since the Marquis de Lafayette visited Illinois via a Mississippi river boat, there’s no record or mention of him heading more than a few miles inland. Because of this there was very little chance that the Millers or anyone residing in or near Lafayette or Toulon, Illinois came anywhere near the Marquis de Lafayette.
As tribute to Marquis de Lafayette, the name “Lafayette” would have been top-of-mind in the mid-1800s when naming a town, county or baby boy.
• Leeson, M. A. “Documents and biography pertaining to the settlement and progress of Stark County, Illinois: containing an authentic summary of records, documents, historical works and newspapers relating to Indian history, original settlement, organization and politics, courts and bar, citizen soldiers, military societies, marriages, churches, schools, secret, benevolent and literary societies, etc.: together with biography of representative men of the past and present.” Chicago: M.A. Leeson & Co., 1887.
• “Stark County, Illinois and its people : a record of settlement, organization, progress and achievement.” Chicago: Pioneer Pub. Co., 1916.
• Shallenberger, E. H. “Stark County and Its Pioneers.” Cambridge, Ill.: B.W. Seaton, Prairie Chief Office, 1989.