The New Empire of the Rockies: A History of Northeast Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 16)
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The Natural Setting

As over the centuries, northeastern Colorado today is still a land of contrasts. This region is bounded, on the east, by the Colorado-Kansas/Nebraska line, to the south twenty miles north of Pueblo, to the west the Continental Divide, and to the north by the Wyoming/Nebraska border. The area contains most of Colorado's major cities, but in other parts it is possible to travel for miles without seeing another soul. The northeastern corner of Colorado encompasses extremes of climate, geology and geography. From arid Great Plains to snow capped peaks of the Continental Divide, the land rises from 3,458 feet above sea level to well over 14,000 feet at Pike's Peak. Over the years travellers have described the region in terms from the "Great American Desert" to a scenic paradise in the Rockies. [1] The physical environment determined human use and occupation patterns in the region for thousands of years especially during the last century of intense use by Euro-Americans. Ranching and dryland farming dominated the plains. Along the front range, more intensive agricultural use and settlement took place, while the mountains provided a basis for Colorado's gold rush. Today, the Rockies are still highly prized for recreational purposes. [2]

If any one factor affected settlement and land use patterns in northeastern Colorado, it was, and still is, availability of water. Rivers and creeks that flow eastward from the mountains provide most of the area's water supply. The region's primary river is the South Platte. This stream and its alluvial valley provides a route, and land, for settlement. It diagonally bisects northeastern Colorado. This corridor became one of the primary areas for development during Colorado's early period of Euro-American use. [3] The South Platte's headwaters are in the mountains above South Park. The river flows across that valley before turning north-northeast to exit via South Platte Canyon, a spectacular gorge cut from solid granite. Once free of the Rockies, the waterway proceeds north through the present-day Denver metropolitan area. It then heads for the extreme northeast corner of the state creating a broad and fertile floodplain. The river can vary from a nearly dry stream bed to a raging torrent; often making this transition in less than a day. [4] Along its course the South Platte is joined by many tributaries. The major streams are: Cherry, Clear, Boulder Creeks the St. Vrain, Big Thompson and Cache la Poudre Rivers, Bijou Creek, Spring Creek and Cedar Creek. The South Platte ends in Nebraska where it joins the North Platte to form the Platte, which in turn flows into the Missouri River. A few of the South Platte's tributaries like Cedar and Bijou Creeks originate from springs and groundwater on the plains. [5]

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Not all northeastern Colorado's watercourses flow into the South Platte. Between modern Denver and Colorado Springs there is a natural division of the drainages known as Monument Divide, or more popularly, Monument Hill. South of this feature, streams run to the Arkansas River. Foremost among these drainages are Fountain and Big Sandy Creeks. [6] The other major river system in northeastern Colorado is the Republican River. This waterway in Colorado has two major branches, the North Fork and South Fork. The Arikaree River is a major Colorado tributary of the Republican River that flows east from the state into Kansas and Nebraska. All of these streams rise from springs on the plains. As with the South Platte, most of these creeks vary from swift moving floods to dry beds, depending on season and rainfall. None of the watercourses of northeastern Colorado can be used for commercial transportation. [7] In addition to these problems, the plains rivers present other hazards to both man and animal. Many of the stream beds contain pockets of quicksand that are fatal. Also, during wet periods, river banks become quagmires of mud that are totally impassable. Even with these drawbacks, the rivers of northeastern Colorado are the land's lifeblood. Where surface water is not available, Anglo-Americans have gone to great lengths to secure this resource by other means such as drilling wells hundreds of feet deep to tap aquifiers. [8]

If rivers were the mainstay of northeastern Colorado, it was the mountains that first lured Europeans into the state. Some of North America's most famous ranges are located within the region. Pike's Peak and Long's Peak as well as Mount Evans are all within the area. Pike's and Long's Peaks served as landmarks along the front range for centuries before Euro-Americans arrived. Later, trappers, explorers and travellers during the nineteenth century viewed these pinnacles as beacons signalling the end of their journey. [9] Not all mountains in the area are as famous or as spectacular as Pike's Peak but they were important to the region because of the resources they held. Mountain valleys contained vast stretches of lush natural meadows for grazing or cultivation. Further, these areas were naturally well watered which encouraged dense riparian growth. The hillsides were covered with Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir, Lodgepole, Ponderosa and Yellow pine as well as aspen. [10] Additionally, the high country held vast storehouses of recoverable minerals. Gold and silver, two precious minerals found in abundance throughout Clear Creek, Gilpin, Jefferson and Boulder Counties, played a major role in Colorado's development. Gold occurred in both placer (loose) and lode deposits while silver was generally found in veins, combined with other minerals, or occassionally, in native form. Some of the other materials proved valuable. Uranium, tungsten, iron, lead, copper, molybdenum and zinc were all found in the high country, while the foothills held useable deposits of coal, limestone, gypsum, sandstone and refractory clays. [11] Besides minerals, Colorado's Rockies also provided resources for human consumption. The forests and meadows teemed with wildlife of all varieties. Deer, beaver, bighorn sheep and bear dominated mammalian species, while smaller animals, like skunks and field mice, were common. Eagles, hawks and other birds flew the mountain skies looking for food and shelter. Because of the climate, reptiles did not flourish in the mountains. [12]

Aside from a natural abundance in the Rockies, the mountains are also a major modifier of man's behavior throughout northeastern Colorado. The steep slopes and, especially the Continental Divide, act as an obstacle to travel. These geographic formations offer few natural passages to the Western Slope from the front range. Ute Pass, west of present-day Colorado Springs, and Kenosha Pass, at the head of South Platte Canyon, allowed access to the high country from southern reaches of the foothills. West of Denver, Clear Creek Canyon, Loveland and Berthoud Passes all permit travellers to cross the Divide. Rollins Pass, southwest of Boulder is another route west. Milner and Cameron Passes serve the same function west of Fort Collins. [13] The Continental Divide is not only an impediment to man but also to natural forces such as air movement and moisture flow. High peaks of the Divide are major climatic modifiers, not only for northeastern Colorado, but also much of the Great Plains. The mountains catch moisture laden air masses and as they rise they cool, causing precipitation in the form of rain of snow, most of which falls during winter and spring months. The mountainous areas of northeastern Colorado receive an annual average of thirty-five inches of precipitation. During the winter many of the mountainsides are covered with yards of snow. North America's long standing record snowfall of seventy-six inches in twenty-four hours occurred along the Divide at Silver Lake; headwaters of North Boulder Creek. Not only do the mountains control the amount of precipitation, they also give rise to climatic peculiarities such as Chinook winds and upslopes. The Chinook is a warm wind caused by air masses being forced down along the Continental Divide. As the air falls, it gains temperature and velocity so that when it reaches the plains it is warm and brisk, at times reaching in excess of one hundred miles an hour along the foothills. An upslope is the antithesis of a Chinook. This formation is a mass of moist air that drifts in from the south and then backs up against the mountains. As it rises and cools, these clouds release their moisture as rain or snow. With upslopes it is not unusual for conditions to be cloudy and raining at 5,000 feet while it is clear and dry in the mountains at 9,000 feet. [14]

The eastern plains are a flat, featureless area that Stephen Long called the "Great American Desert".

Indian Burial Rock, near Franceville, Colorado, 1908. Photo Courtesy, USGS.

The mountains and foothills have their own climatic patterns as do the eastern plains. Because the Continental Divide forces precipitation to fall in the former areas, few westerly storms reach the flatlands. This causes the plains to have a semi-arid climate with about ten inches of annual rainfall. Often, when storms do reach this part of northeastern Colorado, they come in the form of thunderstorms. These violent displays of nature's power sometimes leave destruction in their path. Tornadoes, hail and lightning make each storm potentially dangerous and costly. During winter months the clouds often unleash ice storms or blizzards, accompanied by high winds, that can paralyze activity for days at a time. Further, rainfall varies from year to year, with periodic dry spells when precipitation does not arrive at all. This leads to dust storms or sometimes the unusual phenomenon of a "snuster," when dust blows and mixes with falling snow, causing mud to fall from the skies. [15] As if the moisture extremes are not enough, temperatures also vary considerably throughout northeastern Colorado. On the plains, they range from well below zero° (F) to 120°(F). The mountains have a more temperate climate in that while winters may average cooler than the plains, summer highs rarely exceed 85° (F). [16]

Almost as striking as climatic differences are the soils found in northeastern Colorado. The majority of mountain lands are composed of eroded and decomposed granite, gneiss and schist. Alluvial floodplains along the mountains near creeks and rivers contain rich soils that are a mixture of weathered granite and brown to chestnut, fine grained soils. Away from mountain-fed waterways, composition is more sandy with certain areas being little more than sandhills. Under these lands lie considerable quantities of bituminous and lignite coal, oil, and natural gas. [17] The wide range of soil types led to a variety of vegetation on the plains. Buffalo and blue grama grasses grew on much of the plains region when Anglo-Americans first reached northeastern Colorado. These two forbs were highly nutritious for animals. Sagebrush, soapweed and greasewood took over many areas already not covered by grasses. For miles there were no native trees on the plains, however, cottonwoods and box elders grew along stream banks providing limited amounts of wood. While certain types of insects found this environment inhospitable, destructive grasshoppers flourished. Another natural phenomenon that could destroy vegetation by the hundreds of acres was prairie fire. During the summer, when grasses dried out and temperatures rose, lightning, spontaneous combustion or natives could start blazes that blackened the plains for miles. [18] This environment sustained a wide variety of animal life over the centuries. During prehistoric times dinosaurs, including pterodactyls, roamed the foothills. As these creatures became extinct they were replaced by newer species. Among these were mammoths, Giant Bison, ground sloths and North American camels. [19] Thousands of years ago these mammals were themselves replaced by newer animals. The American Bison (or buffalo) took the place of Giant Bison. At the same time antelope and deer appeared and, with the buffalo, dominated the plains wildlife system. Predators also came in the form of coyotes and grey wolves. In addition to feeding on larger animals, these carnivorous mammals ate rabbits, prairie dogs and prairie chickens, three of the smaller, yet most numerous species on the plains. [20] Because of the abundant food supply provided by small animals and the warm, barren environment, rattlesnakes and birds of prey like eagles and falcons, once abounded in northeastern Colorado. Additionally pheasants and quail fed these hungry feathered predators. Occasionally ducks and geese following the Rocky Mountain flyway became dietary supplements for the area's animal hunters. [21]

Among hunters on the plains was man. Humans have occupied northeastern Colorado for possibly as long as 15,000 years. The earliest inhabitants left evidences of their activities near present-day Fort Collins, Dent and Greeley. Using weapons fashioned from stone, these natives hunted the mammoth, Giant Bison and ground sloth. When not hunting, gathering edible plants took up much of their time. These people changed their hunting techniques and lifestyles as different breeds of game became available. [22] Once buffalo appeared in northeastern Colorado, its inhabitants took up hunting the creature. They would either stalk lone or small groups of buffalo or, if possible, drive an entire herd over a cliff. Cultural modification for hunting buffalo led to development of the Archaic Plains cultural tradition, based on buffalo hunting and gathering edible plants. The importance this animal played in plains culture can not be underestimated. It supplied food, clothing, shelter and it became the center of religious ceremonies for these people. [23] Once these cultural changes had taken place, prehistoric man slowly evolved into Native-Americans typically associated with the Great Plains. Bands and tribes began to form and competition between various groups for hunting territories occurred. Northeastern Colorado became the center of conflict that continued for hundreds of years with different tribes. [24]

By the 1500s two tribes dominated northeastern Colorado. The Pawnees, centered in what would become Nebraska, controlled, albeit in a loose manner, much of the South Platte Valley north of that river. These tribesmen soon gained a reputation as fierce warriors and able hunters. Once contact was made with French and British traders from Canada and the Mississippi Valley, the tribe became staunch friends of Europeans, an association that continued into the late nineteenth century, long after U.S. citizens had replaced the French and British. [25] Euro-American incursion onto the Great Plains from Spanish settlements in New Mexico, and French villages in Canada and the Mississippi Valley did more than any other event to revolutionize Native-American lifestyles.

The Jicarilla Apache, the other dominate tribe of northeastern Colorado from 1500 to 1750, held land between the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers. The Apache were the first natives of the region to come in contact with Europeans. At first this happened through intertribal trade with the Pueblo natives of New Mexico and later from direct meetings with Spaniards. While the Jicarilla were some of the first tribes to meet Spanish traders in Colorado, they were by no means the only northeastern Colorado tribe to benefit from European presence. The Europeans brought horses to the New World and these animals found their way into Native American hands by the closing decades of the seventeenth century. Once in possession of the horse, plainsmen enjoyed a mobility never before experienced. The natives could cover much larger areas on hunting and war expeditions, bringing tribes into greater conflict over territorial rights. Horses, because of their economic value, became a highly prized possession among Plains dwellers. Wars and raids often were conducted to capture horses. The introduction of the horse led to many changes for the plains tribes including reallocation of territory and the development of archetypical horsemen of the plains. At approximately the same time as the horses' arrival, firearms also became available to the inhabitants of northeastern Colorado. These new weapons came west from French trading posts in Canada (and the Mississippi Valley) during early years of the eighteenth century. Muzzle-loading rifles, while not as fast or reliable as bows and arrows, did increase the ability to kill both game and enemies. Warfare, previously a contest to secure honors, quickly became deadly business for the inhabitants of the region. [26]

Economic and power shifts that occurred concurrently with cultural changes led to new tribes asserting their influence in the area, usually at the expense of another group. Among these were the Comanche, who between 1719 and 1749 continuously raided and eventually invaded Jicarilla lands. The Jicarilla were driven south and finally out of Colorado. [27] The next fifty years witnessed the arrival of two new tribes in northeastern Colorado, the Kiowa and Arapaho. They filled a vacuum left by Jicarilla departure and became friends of the Comanche. The Comanche did not do much to stop this migration because northeastern Colorado was on the extreme edge of their sphere of influence. [28]

During the eighteenth century Utes, native to Colorado's western mountains, began using the front range for hunting. They too acquired horses in the late 1600s and the Utes ventured far onto the plains in search of buffalo. They also bathed in the medicinal waters of Manitou Springs. However, these natives were not alone in their invasion of other tribe's traditional hunting grounds. Arapaho, and later the Cheyenne, went into the mountains at times crossing the Continental Divide seeking game in both Middle and North Parks. [29] The early nineteenth century was a time of flux and conflict for northeastern Colorado's native population. During the early 1800s the Cheyenne, displaced from homelands in Minnesota, drifted into the South Platte Valley. They soon became allies of the Arapaho due to a common linguistic heritage. Once relocated, the ex-Minnesotans quickly adapted to plains culture and became proficient horsemen and buffalo hunters. [30] While the Arapaho welcomed their Cheyenne neighbors, other tribes found a much cooler reception in the region. The Sioux, who by 1850 were a dominate force on the northern Great Plains, intensified their use of northeastern Colorado's hunting grounds. At various times the Sioux warred with, and then allied with, both Cheyenne and Arapaho. Nevertheless, Sioux presence tended to decrease the area's political stability.

Throughout the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth centuries Pawnee raiding parties frequented the northern Colorado plains. When they arrived it was as enemies of the Arapaho and, later, Cheyenne. The Pawnee did more than other tribes to make northeastern Colorado the scene of nearly constant warfare from 1750 to 1850. Supplied by Europeans, the Pawnee raided Cheyenne and Arapaho villages stealing horses and taking captives as slaves. Because of warfare and a need for sanctuary, the land between the North and South Platte Rivers became a neutral ground open to various tribes during the early nineteenth century. [31] The front range and foothills also developed into a war zone during those years. Ute bowmen continued their buffalo hunting and raiding to capture horses on the plains. Each time they were detected, Cheyenne and Arapaho war parties chased them back into the mountains. Occasionally these plainsmen made revenge raids and stealing trips on Ute mountain camps. Neither side was able to stop the other and this conflict continued into the 1860s. [32] At the same time thousands of Anglo-Americans arrived in northeastern Colorado's foothills to take advantage of nature's bounty. These people came looking for precious minerals locked in the mountains. Some were successful, most were not. Either way many stayed to settle the region. However, miners were not the first Europeans to come into northeastern Colorado, for the South Platte Valley already had a two hundred year history of exploration and limited Euro-American use.

Chapter I: Notes

1Emma Burke Conklin, A Brief History of Logan County, Colorado, (Denver: Welch-Haffner Printing Co., 1928), pp. 52-53., hereafter cited: Conklin, Logan, and Amanda May Ellis, The Colorado Springs Story, (Colorado Springs: House of San Juan, 1975), p. 45, hereafter cited: Ellis, Springs, William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire; The Explorer and Scientist in the Winning of the American West, (New York: Knopf, 1966). p. 51, hereafter cited: Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire, and David Allen Henderson, "The Beef Cattle Industry of Colorado." (M.A. Thesis, University of Colorado, 1951), p. 133, hereafter cited: Henderson, "Beef."

2F.J. Bancroft, "Luring the Healthseeker" in: A Colorado Reader, edited by Carl Ubbelohde, (Boulder: Pruett Publishing Co., 1962), pp. 168-169, hereafter cited: Bancroft, "Luring", and Henderson, "Beef", p. 1.

3Nell Brown Propst, Forgotten People, A History of the South Platte Trail, (Boulder: Pruett Publishing Co., 1979), pp. 2-3, hereafter cited: Propst, Forgotten, and Conklin, Logan, p. 53.

4Conklin, Logan, p. 53, and Charles E. Peterson Interview, Civil Works Administration Interviews us, Vol. 353, Colorado State Historical Society, hereafter cited: CWA, CSHS.

5Oliver Knight, "Correcting Nature's Error: The Colorado-Big Thompson Project." In A Colorado Reader, edited by Carl Ubbelohde, (Boulder: Pruett Publishing Co., 1962), p. 324.

6Margaret Long, The Smokey Hill Trail, (Denver: W.H. Kistler Stationery Co., 1943), p. 126.

7Ralph B. Graham interview, vol. 351, CWA, CSHS, and John Hearal interview MS, vol. 352, CWA, CSHS.

8Hans Christensen interview, vol 352, CWA, CSHS, and George A. Colbert interview MS, vol. 343, CWA, CSHS.

9Richard M. Pearl, America's Mountain; Pike's Peak and the Pike's Peak Region, (Denver: Sage Books, 1964), pp. 5-9; Frank A. Root, "Early Days in Weld County," The Trail 6 (December 1913): 7, and Ellis, Springs, p. 4.

10Morris Cafky, Colorado Midland (Denver: Rocky Mountain Railroad Club, 1965), p. 6, hereafter cited: Cafky, CM, and Volker Herbert Kreibich, "A Precipitation Climatology of the Front Range of Colorado," (M.A. Thesis, N.L., 1966), p. 1, hereafter cited: Kreibich, "Climatology."

11See: Charles W. Henderson, Mining in Colorado, A History of Discovery, Development and Production, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1926).

12The Lindstroms interview MS, vol 355, CWA, CSHS, and C.C. Skinner interview MS, vol. 353, CWA, CSHS.

13Cafky, CM, p. 6, and Nore V. Winter, James S. Kane, Ellen Beasley, Kathy London and Liston P. Leyendecker, "Level I Historic Cultural Resource Survey of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland," (Lakewood, Co.: United States Forest Service, n.d.)

14See: Kreibich, "Climatology."

15Ibid., J.A. Dawson interview, MS, vol. 351, CWA, CSHS, V.V. Hargrove interview, vol. 351, CWA, CSHS, and Paul Bonnifield, The Dust Bowl, Men Dirt Depression, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979), p. 17.

16J.F. Arbuckle interview, MS, vol. 351, CWA, CSHS, and J.A. Dawson, CWA, CSHS.

17Robert G. Athearn, The Coloradans, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976), p. 256., Henderson, "Beef," p. 68, Carl Amos interview, MS, vol. 352, CWA, CSHS, and Mr. Knox interview, ms, vol. 353, CWA, CSHS.

18Henderson, "Beef," p. 163, V.V. Hargrove, CWA, CSHS, Elbridge Gerry Chronology, Vol. 343, CWA, CSHS, and Old Burlington interview, MS, vol. 353, CWA, CSHS.

19J. Donald Hughes, American Indians in Colorado, (Boulder: Pruett Press, 1977), pp. 10-11, hereafter cited: Hughes, American Indian, Guy Peterson, Fort Collins: The Post, The Town, (Ft. Collins: Old Army Press, 1972), p. 7, hereafter cited: Peterson, Ft. Collins, and Charles Pike interview, MS, vol. 354, CWA, CSHS.

20K.S. McElroy interview, MS, vol. 343, CWA, CSHS, and Henderson, "Beef," p. 163.

21McElroy, CWA, CSHS, and Henderson, "Beef," p. 163, and Joseph P. Dillon interview, MS, vol. 341, CWA, CSHS.

22Hughes, American Indian, pp. 10-11, and Peterson, Ft. Collins, pp. 7-8.

23Hughes, American Indian, pp. 12-13 and 22-25.

24Ibid., pp. 20-21, and Propst, Forgotten, pp. 1-2 and 11.

25Hughes, American Indian, pp. 37-39, and Propst, Forgotten, p. 10.

26Hughes, American Indian, pp. 22-23 and 43-45, and Propst, Forgotten, p. 2.

27Propst, Forgotten, p. 3.

28Ibid., p. 3, and Hughes, American Indian, p. 35.

29Hughes, American Indian, pp. 22-27, and Cafky, CM, p. 6, and C.C. Skinner, CWA, CSHS.

30Hughes, American Indian, pp. 35-37, and Propst, Forgotten, pp. 10-12.

31Propst, Forgotten, pp. 10-12, and Hughes, American Indian, pp. 38-39.

32Hughes, American Indian, pp. 25-27, and W.L. Hays interview, MS, vol. 341, CWA, CSHS.

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008