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Field Division of Education
Historical Background for the Rocky Mountain National Park
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I. Farnham's Overland Journey to Oregon, 1839.

Thomas Jefferson Farnham crossed the Rockies through the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River in July, 1839. He was a young Vermont lawyer recently settled in Illinois, "who now sought on the western prairies recuperation of his wasting health through outdoor exploits and change of scene. He also avowed a patriotic purpose to take possession of the fair territory of Oregon for the American flag, and to aid in resisting the British fur-trade monopoly." Farnham became the leader of 19 adventurers who left Independence, Missouri, in May, 1839. None of them knew anything about travelling in the wilderness to the west.

According to Thwaites, the Farnham party made a serious mistake in following the advice of certain traders to take the Santa Fe Trail, "for the route across the mountains from the Upper Arkansas to Snake River Valley was infinitely more difficult and dangerous than the ordinary Oregon Trail by way of the North Platte, Sweetwater, and South Pass; it was also less frequented by experienced mountain men, who could offer advice and assistance to the amateur travellers." (Thwaites, 1906, vol. 28, pp.10-11).

When Farnham left Bent's Fort in the middle of July, 1839, a only four of his followers remained with him, some having deserted at the Lower Crossing of the Arkansas and the rest at the fort. The latter group crossed over the foothills to Fort St. Vrain, above Denver, striking out from there for the regular Oregon Trail to the north. Farnham, himself, "having seemed a competent guide, with undiminished energy pushed on across the ranges of the Colorado Mountains, through the mazes of its parks and passes, and halted a while at Brown's Hole. This was the most difficult part of the journey. With graphic touches of our author", Thwaites continues, "makes us feel the hardships, hungers, and thirst, the Indian alarms, and the surprise and joy of meeting mountain men; while at the same time he is not ablivious to the rugged grandeur of the scenery, or the delicate tints of sunrise and sunset, and the majesty of the starlit nights among the hills." (Thwaites, 1906, vol. 28, pp. 11-12).

II. Dr. Wislizenus' Tour to The Rocky Mountains, 1839.

In 1839 Dr. F. A. Wislizenus, a St. Louis physician of German birth, made an overland excursion along the Oregon Trail to Fort Hall. On the return trip, the doctor and his party did not continue down the North Platte, past Fort Laramie, but crossed over the mountains to the South Platte, taking much the same route followed by Ashley in 1825. The two pages of the doctor's diary that cover this part of his journey give information regarding the three fur trading posts located near the bend of the South Platte in the late '30's and the early '40's. Wislizenus did not mention Long's Peak as did Ashley, but gave some description of the country to the north and east of the peak.

"On the evening of August 25th," writes Wislizenus in his journal, "we reached again the left shore of the Worth Fork of the Platte ...... We crossed it with ease ..... We left it immediately to go in a southeastern direction to the South Fork. We reached it in about eight days ..... On the seventh day we reached Powder Cache Creek ..... and on the ninth day the South Fork itself. The country between the North Fork and the South Fork is mainly a broad plateau with sandy soil, sparse grass, and a few birch groves like oases in the midst of the prairie. Buffalo abounded, and we lived in plenty.... We also encountered several bears....

"On September 3rd we came quite unexpectedly to the left bank of the South Fork and crossed the river. On the right there are here only some miles apart: Penn's (Bent's) and St. Vrain's Fort, Vasquez and Sublette's, and Lobdon's Fort (Lupton's fort or Fort Lancaster). The outer walls are of half-baked brick. There is much rivalry and enmity between the three forts. In the first fort we found part of the scattered Columbia party from Peoria. (These were some of the men who had deserted Farnham at Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River in July 1839). In the second I met the well-known Fitzpatrick,.... We remained in the neighborhood of the forts for about three days. ..... Among the news which we heard in the forts ..... (was that) of a recent battle between the Pawnees and Sioux .... The victorious Sioux were still roving about the South Fork, and were very much embittered against all whites, because the man they lost was thought to have been killed by a white man who was with the Pawnees. We were therefore advised to abandon our plan of further following the South Fork and to strike out for the Arkansas. The evening before our departure, several owners of the forts arrived, bringing a new cargo of goods from the United States. Goods are usually transported to this place in great ox teams, and the same road is taken which we are about to follow to the boundary of Missouri." (Wislizenus, 1912, 136-138). On the 7th of September the forts were left behind. The mountains to the west are described as high and covered with snow, "forming a beautiful background for the Platte with its fringed cottonwood, and for the wide plain that stretched along its right bank". The route followed to the Arkansas was practically the same as that of the Long Expedition in 1820.

III. Rufus B. Sage.

Rufus Sage of New England was in the Rocky Mountains between 1841 and 1844. He visited many parts of Colorado, 1842, 1844. He hunted and camped in the region of Long's Peak in the summer of 1843.

In 1841, Sage had travelled along the Oregon Trail to the Great Basin. Returning to Independence in 1842, he started for the West again, accompanied by two experienced mountaineers, this time following up the South Platte. Buffalo made the plains black as far as the eye could see. Above the mouth of Beaver Creek, "The snowy summit of Long's Peak" was first seen. The mountains "appeared like a pile of dark clouds just rising from the verge of the horizon". Many Indian encampments were passed, first the Pawnee and then the Arapaho. On September 2nd, 1842, they reached Fort Lancaster (Sage, 1857, 208). Sage describes the great rush to the West as follows: "Long's Peak with its eternal snow appears in distinct view to the westward, and imparts to the sunset scenery a beauty and grandeur rarely witnessed in any country. This peak is one of the highest of the mountain range, being upwards of 13,500 feet above the level of the Gulf of Mexico, and issues from its eastern side the waters of the Atlantic, and from its western the tributaries of the Pacific."

"The business transacted at this post (Fort Lancaster or Fort Lupton) is chiefly with the Cheyennes, but the Arapahos, Mexicans, and Sioux also come in for a share and contribute to render it one of the most profitable trading establishments in the country". (Sage, 1857, 212-3).

After making a trip to Taos and to the western slope of the Rookies, Sage returned to Fort Lancaster, wintering at a camp some six miles down the South Platte. Sage made a hunting trip early in 1843 to Vasquez Creek, an affluent of Grand River to the South of Long's Peak. (Perhaps it was Clear Creek, formerly named Vasquez Creek after Luis Vasquez, a trader). In the Spring of 1843, he joined a Texas Company that was attacking New Mexico. It ended by the Texas Company, after having some skirmishes with Mexicans, surrendering to United States Dragoons under Captain Cook, who were guarding the Santa Fe Trail. Meanwhile Sage and a few others made their way back to the headwaters of the South Platte.

Two months of the summer of 1843, Sage spent at Fort Lancaster, making a hunting trip to the mountains the last of September. He went alone. "My course," he says, "lay directly, West some eight miles to Soublets Creek (probably named after Andrew Sublette who was a partner in one of the forts on the South Platte. This stream has been generally known under the name of St. Vrain's Creek)... Sept. 30th in the afternoon I raised camp and proceeded for ten or twelve miles, through a broad opening between two mountain ridges, bearing a northwesterly direction, to a large valley skirting a tributary of Thompson's Creek." (probably named from a trapper by the name of Thompson).

(Query: Did Sage camp in Estes Park? If so the following is the first description of Estes Park in literature.)

"The locality of my encampment", quoting Sage, "presented numerous and varied attractions. It seemed, indeed, like a concentration of beautiful lateral valleys, intersected by meandering water-courses, ridged by lofty ledges of precipitous rock, and hemmed in upon the west by vast piles of mountains climbing beyond the clouds, and upon the north, south, and east, by sharp lines of hills that skirted the prairie; while occasional openings, like gateways, pointed to the far-spreading domains of silence and loneliness.

"Easterly a wall of red sandstone and slate extended for miles northward and southward, whose counterscarp spread to view a broad and gentle declivity, decked with pines and luxuriant herbage, at the foot of which a lake of several miles in circumference occupies the center of a basinlike valley, bounded m every direction by verdant hills, that smile upon the bright gem embosomed among them.

"This valley is five or six miles in diameter and possesses a soil well adapted to cultivation. It also affords every variety of game, while the lake is completely crowded with geese, brants, ducks and gulls. ... What a charming retreat for someone of the world-hating literati! He might here hold daily converse with himself, Nature and his God, far removed from the annoyance of man." (Sage, 1857, 343-4).

On October 29th, 1843 Sage returned to Fort Lancaster, having spent a month encamped in the beautiful valley at the base of Long's Peak. On November 10th he and several companions went on another hunting excursion in the canyons at the base of Long's Peak. They camped on the right fork of what Sage called the "Soublet Creek", now the North Fork of the St. Vrain. They hunted badger, mountain sheep and deer. On January 1, 1844, they removed their camp to Vasquez Creek, thirty-five miles to the south. (This may have been present Clear Creek, formerly called Vasquez Creek).

Sage left Fort Lancaster for "the states" March 17, 1844, going by way of Bent's Fort and the Santa Fe Trail.

IV. Francis Parkman (1846); George F. Ruxton (1847).

"The historian, Francis Parkman, got much of the color for his valuable historical writings on a journey to the West in 1846. His "Oregon Trail", which tells of the journey, is not only an English classic, but an original source for Colorado history". "George F. Ruxton was an adventurous Englishman who in his "Wild Life in the Rocky Mountains" interestingly recounts his journey from Mexico into Colorado and his experiences in hunting and traveling there in 1847." (Hafen, 1933, 39).

In Chapter XX of his book entitled "The Lonely Journey", Parkman describes his trip from Fort Laramie to Bent's Fort. He followed the old north and south trappers' trail. He spent three days at Bisenette's Camp on Horse Creek and on the fifth day after leaving the latter place he reached the South Platte. He now saw Long's Peak for the first time. Parkman described his view of Long's Peak in the following words:

"The sky has been obscured since the morning by thin mists and vapors, but now vast piles of clouds were gathered together in the west. They rose to a great height above the horizon, and looking up toward them, I distinguished one mass darker than the rest, and of a peculiar conical form. I happened to look again, and still could see it as before. At some moments it was dimly seen, at others its outline was sharp and distinct, but while the clouds around it were shifting, changing and dissolving away it still towered aloft in the midst of them, fixed and unmovable. It must, thought I, be the summit of a mountain; and yet its height staggered me. My conclusion was right, however. It was Long's Peak,..... The thickening gloom soon hid it from view, and we never saw it again." (Parkman, 1349).

At noon of the sixth day, Parkman's party ... "rested under the walls of a large fort, built in these solitudes by M. St. Vrain. It was now abandoned and fast falling into ruin. The walls of unbaked bricks were cracked from top to bottom. Our horses recoiled in terror from the neglected entrance, where the heavy gates were torn from their hinges and flung down. The area within was overgrown with weeds, and the long ranges of apartments once occupied by the motley concourse of traders, Canadians and squaws, were now miserably dilapidated. Twelve miles farther on, near the spot where we encamped, were the remains of still another fort, standing in melancholy desertion and neglect." (Parkman, 1849, 350).

Early the next morning they passed a large, recently deserted Arapahoe encampment. About noon they reached Cherry Creek where an abundance of wild cherries, plume, currants and gooseberries were growing; and on the night of August 16th, 1846., they encamped among the hills in view of Pike's Peak. Bent's Fort was left on August 27th, and the long journey back to civilization through Indian dangers was begun.

V. John C. Fremont.

"The most famous of the later official explorers of Colorado was the romantic Captain John C. Fremont. Five times between 1342 and 1848 this 'Pathfinder of the West' appeared in Colorado. In 1842 and again in 1843 he visited a region east of the mountains that had been many times explored. In 1844..... Fremont entered Colorado at Brown's Hole on the Green River and crossed the limits of the state from west to east, passing successively through North, Middle, and South Parks; he left by way of the Arkansas River." In 1845 his route was up the Arkansas River. "In 1848, Fremont, now a private citizen, appeared in the role of a railway engineer". (Colorado University, 1927, 65).

In his expedition of 1842 Fremont divided his forces at the Forks of the Platte, the main body of men following the North Platte, and he himself, with three of his party, going up the South Platte to St. Vrain's Fort where he hoped to obtain mules. He arrived there July 11th, 1842. He made a bad estimate of the distance of Long's Peak from the fort, stating it was only seventeen miles west. On the 12th the party started north to Fort Laramie crossing both Cache la Poudre and Crow Creeks.

"Early in 1843, Fremont began to prepare for his second expedition, the first in which he made extensive explorations of parts of Colorado's territory. (Smiley, 1913, I, 11?). By July 4, 1843, Fremont was again at Fort St. Vrain, where he and his companions received a hearty welcome. He made inquiries as to passes over the mountains and learned that the high mountains to the west were crossed very seldom. After a trip up the South Platte to Colorado Springs Fremont determined on crossing the mountains via the Cache la Poudre River while Fitzpatrick should lead the main party directly north to Fort Laramie. On July 26th the parties started. He followed up Big Thompson Creek several miles and then crossed over to the Cache la Poudre. Fremont went up the latter creek, using much the same route followed by General Ashley in 1825.

On the return trip in 1844, Fremont entered Colorado at Brown's Hole, in June. From there the party crossed to the North Platte in Wyoming but instead of following down that river they went upstream to its source in North Park. He states in his report that he followed this course in order not to pass over ground already examined. "Southwardly there were objects worthy to be explored, to-wit: The approximation of the headwaters of three different rivers - the Platte, the Arkansas, and the Grand River, Fork of the Rio Colorado...; the passes at the heads of these rivers; and the three remarkable mountain coves, called parks, in which they take their rise." Three crossings of the divide had to be made. "But, no matter." All of these geographical features were of interest; "and, although well known to hunters and trappers, were unknown to science and to history".

On the evening of June 15, 1844, Fremont camped on the North Platte a few miles southwest of the present hamlet of Pinkhampton in Laramie County. On the 16th Fremont's party passed through New or North Park and on the 17th they crossed the divide into "Old Park", the present Middle Park. By the 21st they were at the headwaters of the South Fork of the South Platte River in the South Park. Passing down this fork on the 22nd they came in sight of Pikes Peak in the afternoon. Fremont returned to "the states" via the Arkansas route. (Smiley, 1913, I, 121).

On his third expedition, John Charles Fremont, now a Brevet-Captain by Presidential appointment, came to Bent's Fort by way of the Santa Fe Trail, arriving there August 2, 1845. A division of forces was made at the fort. One party under lieutenants Abert and Peck, with Thomas Fitzpatrick as guides explored the region south of the Arkansas, then in Mexican territory. Captain Fremont left the fort August 16th with 60 men, following the old trail up the Arkansas River. They did not attempt passing through the Royal Gorge but made a detour to the north. From the Arkansas source they went across Tennessee Pass, and down the White River to the Green. Continuing westward through the Great Basin, Fremont reached California in December, 1845. (University of Colorado, 1927, 65).

In 1846, now a private citizen, Fremont made a fourth trip to Colorado in the interests of a railroad. He did not go north of the Arkansas River this time. He made the attempt to cross the divide in winter against the warnings of trappers and mountaineers. One third of his men and all of his animals were lost. The survivors went down the Rio Grande to New Mexico. From there Fremont continued his journey to California.

Pacific Railroad surveys conducted by Captain John W. Gunnison and Lieutenant E. G. Beckwith under the auspices of the War Department, will be passed over in the present paper. Suffice it to say that the railroads of the present day follow routes over the mountains roughly corresponding to those surveyed in the early '50's. The engineers of the thirty-ninth parallel made it "apparent that physical obstacles were not insurmountable." (University of Colorado, 1927, 66).

During the late '40's and during the '50's small bodies of United States troops passed along the base of the Front Range, going between Fort Laramie and Santa Fe for the most part. Kearny's reconnaissance in 1846 for the purpose of overcoming the Indians has already been referred to. Perhaps the most notable of the other military expeditions in Colorado was that of General Marcy in 1857 who wrote a book on his experiences in the West, entitled "Thirty Years of A Life on the Border".

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