DISCOVERY AND EXPLORATION
"The first explorers of the region now forming the State of Colorado were probably Spaniards. Claims have been made that Coronado's expedition of 1540 led through this country", but it is now well established that he did not touch upon the Colorado territory, although he did penetrate the present boundaries of Kansas, as well as of northern New Mexico and Arizona.
According to Alfred B. Thomas, Spaniards of the eighteenth century were well acquainted with large portions of the region now comprised in Colorado. It became an outpost of New Mexico, and "Santa Fe was the base for Colorado as San Augustin was for Georgia. Three interests especially spurred the New Mexicans to make long journeys northward to the Platte River, to the upper Arkansas in Central Colorado, and to the Dolores, Uncomphagre, Gunnison, and Grand Rivers on the western borders. These interests were Indians, French intruders, and rumored mines. After 1673 reports of French men in the Pawnee country constantly worried officials at Santa Fe. Frequently tales of gold and silver were wafted southward to sensitive Spanish ears at the New Mexico capital. But in the main it was Indians who furnished the immediate motive for long expeditions to the north." These various Indian tribes in the Colorado area were the Jicarilla and other Apache bands to the south: the Quartelejo Apaches (possibly the Arapahos of a later date) to the east; the Pawnees on the Platte to the northeast; the Commanches to the north and the southwest; and the Utes to the west. (Thomas, in "Colorado Magazine", November 1924.)
The expedition which marked "the first definitely known penetration of the Colorado region by Europeans" was that led by Juan de Archuleta about the middle of the seventeenth century. The Archuleta expedition went to a spot afterwards known as El Quartelejo in eastern Colorado in order to bring back some Taos Indians who had fled to this place.
About half a century later, the Indians of the pueblo of Picuries fled, like those of Taos, to El Quartelejo. In 1706, Juan de Uribarri was sent, with some 40 Spaniards and 100 Indian allies, to recover them. "Their route was apparently northeast through Chuchara Pass, west of Spanish Peaks, then along the eastern foothills of the Greenhorn Mountains. They seemed to have touched on the Arkansas in the vicinity of the present site of Pueblo.
"From there, after a short rest, they proceeded east for some five days, traveling sixty or sixty-five miles to El Quartelejo". (Thomas, 1924, 292-3).
No further penetration of Colorado territory was made until 1719, when Governor Valverde of New Mexico made an expedition to the Arkansas to punish the Utes and Commanches who had been making raids upon the Apaches. This party struck the Arkansas, "apparently above Pueblo".
Rumors of French advance toward the northeastern New Mexico frontier led to an expedition to the Platte River and the Pawnee Indian country in 1720 under the leadership of Villasur. "The command left Santa Fe in June (the 15th) but their movements until the middle of August are almost unknown. In view of the fact, however, that there were with Villasur, men who had accompanied both Uribani and Valverde, we may assume that the Spaniards went, in all probability, over the usual route: first to Taos, then over the mountains east, and finally northeast to the Purgatoire River. Their next stop was at El Quartelejo where they began their long march to the Platte." (Thomas, 1924, 295) They came to the South Platte River in August. Thirty-four, including Villasur, were massacred by Pawnees (under French influence) on the North Fork of the Platte near the present town of North Platte. "Eleven men escaped and fled back to Santa Fe to tell the news". After this disaster, no further journeys into the Colorado region were made until some time before 1750, when Bustamente y Tegle made a punitive expedition down the Arkansas.
Later, Spanish explorations were made in southern and southwestern Colorado: The Rivera expedition of 1765; an expedition to the Gunnison River in 1775; the Dominguez-Escalente expedition of 1776 through southwest Colorado to the Great Basins; Juan Bautista de Anza's expedition to the San Luis Valley, 1779.
"The expeditions (into present Colorado) are part of the great story of Spanish expansion, and furnish the background of the region which was later cut off to become the state of Colorado". (Thomas, 1924, 300).
Whether or not any of the Spanish expeditions into the Colorado region of the 17th and 18th centuries saw the Front Range of North Central Colorado has not been definitely determined. It seems that none of the Spaniards who crossed eastern Colorado approached the Front Range close enough to see Long's Peak, but it is definitely established that they did see the mountain now known as Pike's Peak to the south.
In 1793 all of Louisiana west of the Mississippi River became Spanish territory. By the late 18th century Spaniards had become active in the fur trade of the Mississippi Valley and men of Spanish descent took part in trapping activities under American rule in the 19th century. A notable example in north central Colorado was Louis Velasquez who was active in the late '30's and in the '40's. With Andrew Sublette, he established one of the trading posts on the South Platte in late '30's. He trapped the streams that have their rise in Rocky Mountain National Park. Velasquez Creek was named after him.
(Mexican grants and settlements in Southern Colorado do not concern us in this paper)
The disaster to the Villazur expedition on the Platte River in 1720 taught the Spanish that the French were advancing toward their northeastern border. This continued advance of the French southwestward from Canada was to bring them into trade relations with the Indians living at the base of the Rockies in Colorado. By the middle of the century French expeditions had crossed what is now eastern Colorado on their way to New Mexico. French voyageurs and traders had begun to look "with covetous eyes" toward New Mexico since early in the 18th century. New Mexico offered to the adventurer "gold and silver and a path to the South Sea. To the merchant it offered rich profits in trade." (Bolton, 1917, 389). The French were prevented from gaining immediate access to New Mexico, however, both because of the exclusive policy of Spain and because of "the Indian tribes which stood in the way". On the Red River highway were the Apaches, and blocking the Arkansas and Missouri highways were the Commanches. In 1718-19, La Harpe was attempting to ascend the Red River, and Du Tisne, the Arkansas. In 1723 Bourgment made advances on the Missouri frontier pacifying the Indian tribes and securing permission for Frenchmen to pass through the Comanche country to the Spaniards. Soon afterwards, however, Indian hostilities again arose, between the various tribes, bringing a check to further French advance for some years.
"The next well known attempt to reach New Mexico was made in 1739. In that year the Mallet party of eight or nine men left the Missouri River at the Arikara villages, went south to the Platte River, ascended that stream, and made their way through the Comanche country to Taos and to Santa Fe". (Bolton, 1917, 390) On their return several months later four of the party descended the Canadian and the Arkansas rivers, the others going northeast to Illinois. Mallet was probably the first Frenchman to cross what is now Colorado territory. He did not approach close enough to the Front Range to be able to see Longs Peak, but he did begin trade relations with Indians who lived in north central Colorado.
Encouraged by the success of the Mallet expedition, French activity continued. In 1741 Governor 'Rienville sent Fabry de la Bruyere to explore the Far West, but he failed to reach New Mexico. In 1746 or 1747 "the Arkansas route was made safe by effecting a much desired treaty between the Comanches and their eastern enemies". (Bolton, 1920, 286). Immediately new expeditions were made to the Spanish border. Peace having been attained between the Comanches and Pawnees, French traders again made expeditions to the southwest in 1751 and in 1752. The Spanish were by now alarmed and clapped the Frenchmen into jail. By 1763, Louisiana west of the Mississippi was acquired by Spain and the French menace was thereby destroyed.
However, French voyageurs and traders still carried on their trading activities with the Indians. They did so even after the country was acquired by the United States. Men with French names were common amongst the trappers in the west, and French geographical names arose from this fact. The Chouteau Company of St. Louis was an important firm managed by men of French origin. They were active in the Colorado region.
The United States purchased Louisiana from Napoleon in 1803. This gave rise to a border problem between Mexico and the United States. "The boundaries of Louisiana had never been determined: but of one thing the Spanish could be sure: the aggressive, young nation. . . had thrown its frontier too close to their northern provinces for comfort." Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike, who was sent to explore that part of the Louisiana Purchase around the headwaters of the Arkansas, left St. Louis in July 1806 and entered the limits of the state of Colorado November 11, of that year. Pike was the first official American explorer, but not the first citizen of the United States to enter Colorado. On November 23, the site of Pueblo was reached. An attempt to scale the present Pike's Peak on the 27th was unsuccessful. Pike does not mention any peak that we can identify as Long's Peak, and his party did not go into central or northern Colorado. They built a temporary fort at the site of Pueblo, Colorado. From there they followed up the Royal Gorge to South Park. Later, he and his men were arrested by the Spanish in New Mexico and after examination were released. Pike's expedition was important as a contribution to geographical knowledge and as a fore-runner of the American advance to the Rocky Mountains. (Colorado University, 1927, 48-52.)
While in New Mexico in 1807, Pike met another American, James Pursley or Purcell by name, who related how, as early "as 1805 he had traded with the Indians on the South Platte, had gone with them into South Park," and had found flakes of gold. It is also known that the firm, Chouteau-De Munn of St. Louis, was engaged in trade with the Indians on the Platte and Arkansas Rivers (1815-1817). In 1817 they were visited by Spanish soldiers and ordered into Santa Fe where all their furs were confiscated. (Colorado University, 1927, 58.)
A. P. Chouteau and Julius De Munn had the way opened for them in 1811 by Ezekial Williams, who led 19 men to the upper Arkansas. In 1812-13 Williams was a captive of the Arapahoes. In the spring he managed to escape, cache his furs and make his way back to Missouri. In 1814, he joined a party of 21 westward bound trappers under Joseph Philibert, hoping to recover his furs and rescue the two companions still held by the Indians. In 1815, Philibert was accompanied by A. P. Chouteau and Julius De Munn, who purchased the outfit and the services of the men which Philibert had left in the mountains. For the next two years Chouteau and De Munn conducted successful trapping business in Colorado, maintaining about 50 trappers in the field. This firm not only did trapping but also traded with the Indians for peltries. One large trading council was held on the South Platte River a few miles south of present Denver. In 1817 they were arrested by the Spanish authorities and their furs confiscated. This discouraged further trapping in Colorado until Mexico achieved her independence from Spain. (Hafen, 1933, 76-80).
In November 1821 Jacob Fowler and Hugh Glenn at the head of a company of men came up the Arkansas. They trapped in Mexican territory to the south. "The first habitable and inhabited dwelling constructed by private citizens within the limits" of Colorado was at what is now Pueblo (1821-1822), by the Glenn-Fowler party as a protection against Indians. The Santa Fe trade was developing and it had become safer for American trappers to approach the frontiers of New Mexico. Yankee traders were welcomed in New Mexico after 1821, when Mexico achieved her independence and as a "result the Santa Fe trail was opened. It crossed the south eastern part of Colorado."
During the next few years Taos, in New Mexico, became a fur trading center for trappers working in southern and western Colorado. James Ohio Pattie was one of these, as was William Becknell, "father of the Santa Fe Trail", William Huddart, and Antoine Robidoux. These of the south and southwest need not concern us further. At the same time as fur trading operations were being developed to the south, other trapping parties were entering Colorado from the north and northeast.
In the late twenties and the thirties the most important group of trappers operating in Colorado was the one associated with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, established in 1822 by General William H. Ashley and Andrew Henry of St. Louis. Their purpose was to engage in fur trade on the upper Missouri River. By 1825 they were chiefly engaged in a new region to the south. (See "Ashley's Long Winter Trail 1825" for Ashley's opening up of an overland route via the South Platte).
"In 1826 the business was transferred to Jedediah Smith, David E. Jackson and William Sublette, the ablest and most experienced of Ashley's lieutenants: They in turn sold out in 1830 to Thomas Fitzpatrick, Milton G. Sublette, Henry Fraeb, Jean Baptisto Gervais and James Bridger." A detailed description of all the wanderings of these trappers even in Colorado is impossible in this brief sketch. "Suffice it to say that they followed the rivers to their sources and explored the mountain parks; they, more than any other group of men, were the real pathfinders of the West." (Colorado University, 1927, 60). Chittenden says (Chittenden 1902, I, 306-7), "the impress which they have left upon the geography of the West is surprisingly great".
Beginning with 1828 the Bent and St. Vrain Company began their activities on the Arkansas River. From 1828 to 1832 they erected Bent's Fort on the north bank of the river about ten or twelve miles above the mouth of the Purgatoire. It was the most important trading post in Colorado and one of the most famous in the West. There were five Bent brothers. "For thirty years their name was almost synonymous with the fur trade of Colorado."
Among the many other trading posts erected from time to time in Colorado and having a more or less fleeting existence, the present paper is chiefly interested with the four established on the South Platte at the base of the Front Range and in view of Long's Peak. These will be considered at some length in their chronological order after treating of the Long, the Dodge, and the Ashley expeditions up the South Platte River.
Brief mention should be made of some of the more important individuals engaged as trappers in the Colorado region. James Ohio Pattie has left a thrilling account of the adventures of the parties which he accompanied. He crossed the continental divide in the winter 1826-7. He says in his "Personal Narrative" that the passage occupied six days and was negotiated with great difficulty through the snow drifts. In 1824 William Beckness, "Father of the Santa Fe Trail", and William Huddart were on the western slope, where they fall in with Antoine Robidoux and his trapping bend. Robidoux built Fort Robidoux. By 1831 "trappers were coming in such great numbers that the fur areas were depleted." (Hafen, 1933, 82). In that year a fur trading venture of seventy men led by Captains Gant and Blackwell met with ill success. "Although companies failed and many trappers changed occupation, the fur trade days were not ended. From beaver skins the fur men turned to buffalo robes and these latter became the chief article of commerce in Colorado during the late '30's and early '40's." (Hafen, 1933, 83.) The coming of wagons made possible the development of trade in buffalo robes. The forts on the South Platte were chiefly engaged in the buffalo robe trade.
Fitzpatrick and Beckwourth have been mentioned in connection with the fur trading activities initiated by General Ashley. Kit Carson has not as yet been mentioned. He was among the most famous trappers, but was seldom associated with any fur company. He was a "free trapper". He began trapping in 1826 at the age of 17. In 1830, while at Taos, New Mexico, he was engaged by Thomas Fitzpatrick for work with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. In going north through Colorado, Carson passed along the eastern side of the Front Range, trapping on the South Platte and its tributaries as he went. (Vestal, 1928, 58.) In 1831 he was associated with Gant, trapping in New Park, (the present North Park), on the Laramie Plains, and along the South Platte. Then he was hired as a hunter for Bent's Fort. Engaged thus for perhaps eight years he found much time for trapping for himself. He hunted and trapped on all the streams north from Bent's Fort and no doubt penetrated the region now within the boundaries of the Rocky Mountain National Park. Enos Mills says Carson camped in Estes Park in 1840. (Mills, 1924, 4.) The knowledge of geography gained by penetrating the canyons and parks of the Rockies made Carson, as well as Fitzpatrick and other trappers, invaluable to expeditions sent out by the United States government. Carson has become especially renowned because of his connection with the Fremont expeditions.
It is certain that early American trappers had seen Long's Peak before 1820, and it is possible that the Spanish explorers and the French seekers for trade had seen this peak, but no record of discovery of the peak was made until the Long expedition up the South Platte River. Major Stephen H. Long made the second official exploration by Americans in the state of Colorado in 1820, more than a decade after that of Pike. "The party of nineteen men traveled on horseback, using pack animals for the transportation of supplies. The season was favorable and the marches of twenty-five miles per day were made regularly with little difficulty.
"On June 27th they reached the eastern boundary of present Colorado. Large herds of buffalo were here encountered, their dusky bodies blackening the whole surface of the prairie. Bands of wild horses also were seen. It is interesting to note that although Americans were just entering Colorado the Spaniards had been in the Southwest for three centuries, and the horse, transplanted to the New World, had so thrived that he was now running wild upon the plains". (Hafen, 1933, 71-2).
The Rocky Mountains were sighted on June 30th. The party had left camp at the accustomed early hour and at 8 o'clock the men "were cheered by a distant view of the Rocky Mountains. . . Our first views of the mountains were indistinct," says James, chronicler of the expedition, "on account of some smokiness of the atmosphere, but from our encampment, at noon, we had a very distinct and satisfactory prospect of them...
"Towards evening the air became more clear, and our view was more satisfactory..... We soon remarked a particular part of the range divided into three conic summits each apparently of nearly equal altitude. This we concluded to be the point designated by Pike as the highest peak." (James, London Edition, 1823, II, 174 and 177).
Thwaites says, "The party mistook this 'highest peak' for Pike's Peak. This mountain called by French trappers, Les deux Oreilles (Two ears), is the one now known as Long's Peak, being named for Major S. H. Long Fremont found in 1842 that this name had been adopted by the traders, and had become familiar in the country." (Thwaites, 1905, XV, 271 footnote)
"The bend in the river (South Platte) passed July 3rd, is the point of nearest approach (of the Long expedition) to Long's Peak, still forty miles distant. Near the camp of that evening, at the mouth of St Vrains Creek, the important fur-trading firm of Bent and St. Vrain built St. Vrain's fort about twenty years later.
Potera Creek, the old name for St. Vrain's Creek, was from Potera, who had lost his way on it some three or four years before Long reached the locality. As early as 1816 trappers had met with Indians encamped on tributaries of the South Platte. (Thwaite, 1905, XV, 274-5 footnote). They may have been parties connected with the company headed by A. P. Chouteau and Julius De Munn of St. Louis. The Long party noticed evidences of Indian encampment and trading operations. (Idem., 282 and footnote). Long's French guide probably told him of the earlier history.
The movements of the Long party are difficult to follow from the mouth of Cache a la Poudre Creek south to the Arkansas River, "as the nomenclature of the region has in the interim changed almost entirely. Moreover, the itinerary is carelessly recorded and the map of the expedition is inaccurate." (Idem., 274 footnote). The peak now known as Long's Peak was designated as the Highest Peak and Pike's Peak as James' Peak because Dr. James, historian of the expedition, made its ascent with two companions. James succeeded where Pike had failed. The name, James' Peak, has how been transferred northward to the mountain now pierced by the Moffet Tunnel.
"Long's party continued southward to the Arkansas and after examining the Valley of the Royal Gorge turned eastward and journeyed back to civilization." (Hafen, 1933, 73).
"In his report, Major Long gave a disheartening picture to the country. On his map he labeled the plains region east of the Rocky Mountains 'The Great American Desert', and asserted that the whole region was 'uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence'. This opinion persisted in the public mind and appeared in the school books for more than a generation and was a factor in retarding the development of the West, Although we may now criticize Long's report, who could have foreseen what wonders the railroad, the irrigation ditch and scientific dry-farming would do in blotting forever from the map the 'Great American Desert'?" (Hafen, 1933, 73).
"It was many years before the government again attempted any extended scientific, expedition in the Rockies; but the public soon became familiar with the trans-Missouri country from the reports of trappers, traders, emigrants, rovers, and occasional government officials, who surmounted countless obstacles reared by savage man and untamed nature in threading the valleys or the eastern slopes of the mountains and tracing the more accessible of the gorges. (Thwaites, 1904, 217).
The first United States military expedition up the South Platte was made under the leadership of Colonel Henry Dodge in the summer of 1835, but Dodge traversed no new or unknown country. Both his expedition and that of Colonel Stephen Kearny in 1845, "were significant chiefly in connection with our relations to the Indians living on the Great Plains".
Colonel Dodge followed Long's route for the most part. His journal is interesting because of its descriptions of the Indians and of the vast herds of buffalo, wild horses, elk, deer, etc. On July 15, the party "discovered a beautiful bird's eye view of the Rocky Mountains. This sight was hailed with joy by the whole command. We saw the end of the march - the long wished for object of all our hopes," says Dodge. The mountains "at first resembled white conical clouds, lying along the edge of the horizon. The rays of a setting sun upon their snow-clad summits gave to them a beautiful and splendid appearance." (Dodge, 1836, 19). Thus did Dodge describe the appearance of the Front Range, but nothing was said of Long's Peak, its most prominent feature. Later, as they marched south along the base of the mountains to the Arkansas River, Dodge and his men observed many evidences of the work of trappers and of Indian encampments.
Between the years 1812 and 1820, William Henry Ashley and Andrew Henry were engaged in mining in Missouri. At the decline of fur hunting in 1812, Henry had withdrawn from the Missouri Fur Company with which he had been actively engaged for several years. He it was who, in 1808, had been the first American to trap on the western side of the Rocky Mountain divide. Henry's Fork of the Snake River was named after him.
Ashley and Henry had been much together in their mining activities, and with the decline of mining and the concurrent revival of the fur trade, it was natural that a partnership should be formed to engage in this business. By 1822 Ashley and Henry had followed hundreds of others to the upper waters of the Missouri River. However, they soon penetrated new territory and began to use new methods of procedure in the conduct of their business. Instead of depending on the savages for their furs they "determined to employ white men in the actual task of trapping, and for the regularly established post to substitute, in large measure, the annual rendezvous. The trapper was to supplant the trader". (Dale, 1918, 67).
"The abandonment of the older territory and the penetration of the transmontane country under changed business conditions led naturally to a new line of approach, and, consequently, to a new method of transportation. The traditional means of reaching the fur country had been by boat up the Missouri River. Those who had followed Lewis and Clark had used the keel-boat." Under Ashley and Henry, horses were definitely decided upon for transportation, and "the reasons for following the customary routes naturally vanished. A less dangerous and, above all, a more direct approach to the mountains was available." (Dale, 1918,114). The central Platte route had remained unused because of its unnavigability, and the area which it drained and the region beyond was not penetrated. The substitution of horses for boats "made the Platte available for communication with the interior."
"In general", says Dale, "this was the route which Ashley determined to follow in the year 1824. Thomas Fitzpatrick had returned by the North Platte (from the Green River rendezvous) in the summer and had reported the way feasible. Still Ashley's undertaking was a bold experiment, for it was not till the third of November that he left Fort Atkinson.... He followed Fitzpatrick's course only a portion of the distance. At the forks of the Platte, he selected the south branch instead of the north, in the hope of finding a greater supply of grass in a lower latitude. He was the first white man to travel this route in the dead of winter and the first to use that variation of the South Pass, called by the name of one of his own employees, James Bridger. He was the first white man to investigate the mountains of Northern Colorado." (Dale, 1918, 115-116).
John G. Neihardt, in his "The Splendid Wayfaring", calls this important expedition "Ashley's Long Winter Trail". He describes the journey, following Ashley's own narrative. Quite closely and supplementing it with Beckwourth's account as given in Bonner, "The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth."
Ashley's party consisted of twenty-six men, nine of whom are remembered by name. General Ashley, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Robert Campbell, James P. Beckwourth, Moses or "Black" Harris, Baptiste La Jennesse, LeBrache, Dorway, and Clement (or Claymore). They left Fort Atkinson November 3, 1824, and followed the same Indian trace from the Missouri River to the Pawnee villages that Long's expedition had followed in the Spring of 1820. It was now deeply covered, with snow. Provisions began to run low and the men were in desperate circumstances until they reached the Forks of the Platte on December 12th, where they bought supplies of the Pawnees encamped there.
Leaving the forks on December 23, the South Platte was followed instead of the North Fork, because more feed for the horses and more wood for their fires were expected along this route. They met with countless buffalo. The first view of the mountains was obtained about January 20th, 1825, near the mouth of Beaver Creek not far from the present town of Fort Morgan.
The mouth of the Cache la Paudre Creek was reached on January 22nd. Ashley ascended this creek, making a winter camp on its banks on February 4th, "in a thick grove of cottonwood and willows", among the foothills of the Front Range. "Long's Peak loomed large to the southward, seeming to Ashley no more than six or eight miles a away, though the distance must have been at least thirty-five miles." (Neihardt, 1920, 181).
On February 25th Ashley's men resumed their way, although the foothills were still "enveloped in one mass of snow and ice...., Our passage across the first range of mountains, which, was exceedingly difficult and dangerous," so runs the General's narrative, "employed us three days, after which the country presented a different aspect. Instead of finding the mountains more rugged as I advanced towards their summit and everything in their bosom frozen and terpid. . . . they assumed quite a different character." The ascent became more gradual and "the south sides of the hills were but partially covered with snow." The valleys "were filled with numerous herds of buffalo, deer and antelope." (Quoted by Neihardt, 1920, 181-2). They reached the Laramie River by March 10th, and by the 23rd, after a hard struggle with snow, they had crossed the Medicine Bow Mountains. The first recorded crossing of the mountains via the Cache la Poudre route had been accomplished. The creek itself did not receive its name until the next decade when a party of French trappers on their way to the mountains buried their supply of powder in a sandbank close to the stream. A plain granite monument commemorates the spot where the powder was buried eight miles northwest of Fort Collins. (Parsons, 1911, 197).
This trail opened up by Ashley was also used by Fremont in his expedition of 1843. It later became known as the Cherokee Trail after a band of white and Cherokees who used this route in 1849 on their way from Georgia to California. Greeley mentions it in his book.