Land of Contrast: A History of Southeast Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 17)
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Chapter I

Southeastern Colorado consists of at least three unique geographic areas, ranging from high plains to rugged mountains. Regional extremes are striking. From semiarid plains, to towering mountains, along with large "parks," that is, valleys, the land exhibits a diversity of climate and flora that are quite unusual. Perhaps the southeast corner of Colorado is a perfect example of transition from prairie to mountain in the American West. Within this area are three distinct components. First, there are plains that are relatively featureless highlands upon which sparse vegetation exists with only 14 inches of annual moisture. The plains rise into foothills to the west where rivers cut through these hills. The main water course, the Arkansas River, exits near Canon City; the Purgatoire River, rising in the Spanish Peaks, meets the flatlands at Trinidad; the Apishapa, also a product of Spanish Peaks, comes out at Aguilar while the Huerfano emerges near Walsenburg, Colorado. These waterways are fed by dozens of tributary streams throughout the foothills and plains. Water, nevertheless, remains scarce and must be allocated with care. Beyond the foothills, rise the Rocky Mountains. The Continental Divide provides a 14,000-foot barrier between the plains and Colorado's western valleys. The largest east slope valley is the San Luis, extending from Poncha Pass into New Mexico, and representing the single biggest mountain "park" in the world. The San Luis is about 100 miles long and 70 miles across. It is intersected by the Rio Grande, New Mexico's primary river, which rises in the San Juans near Rio Grande reservoir. This stream is a major drainage for the Valley and tends southeasterly from Del Norte, leaving the north end of the San Luis Valley rather dry. One unique feature of what natives call "the Valley" is the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that rise 14,000 feet to the east. On the west lie the San Juans, equally high, trapping potential moisture while the Sangre de Cristos stop upslope rainfall on the eastern side. Because of these peaks, annual rainfall is limited to 6.9 inches. Nestled against the west side of the Sangre de Cristos lie the famous Sand Dunes, a natural phenomenon rarely found in this region. [1]

The other major "park" in the area is South Park, or as it was first called, Bayou Salado. South Park was used early and frequently by both Native Americans and Europeans. It was the best known area in Colorado prior to 1830. The park lies at an altitude of some 9,000 feet and is 40 miles long by 15 miles wide. The South Platte River intersects the entire valley on a northeasterly trend and provides a regular water source. To the west rises the Mosquito Range that shields the upper Arkansas Valley. Beyond, westward, lie the Rocky Mountains. To the east, the Tarryall Mountains provide another barrier. Moisture falls in the form of snow and thundershowers and averages 20 inches per year. [2] South Park also contains portions of Colorado's famous "Mineral Belt" where gold, silver, and non-precious minerals are found. Equally, the upper Arkansas Valley is the home of the fabulous silver veins of Leadville. The upper Arkansas River region consists of a narrow valley running from Leadville to Salida with the Collegiate Range on the west and the Mosquito Range to the east. As the Arkansas flows south, it cuts through the granite canyons of Fremont County, carves the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas (the Royal Gorge), a chasm some 1,200 feet deep, and then exits near Canon City. From here, the river flows past Pueblo and out to the eastern plains. In its higher locations the Arkansas is fed by numerous streams that originate in mountain valleys. [3]

The Purgatoire River Valley, east of Trinidad, Colorado, is typical of the deeply eroded land found in southeastern Colorado's foothills. (Photo by A.J. Senti)

Another geographic feature of this region is a small basin south of Canon City called the Wet Mountain Valley. Here the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the west, and the Wet Mountains to the east, create an inter-montane "park" that is high, dry, and mineralized. The valley contains silver-bearing veins and was the scene of a major silver boom in the 1880's. Today it is dedicated to cattle ranching. [4] South of the Wet Mountain Valley lies what is commonly called Raton Basin. This land consists of broken terrain intersected by numerous watercourses, including the Huerfano and Apishapa Rivers. Westward lie the twin Spanish Peaks, and the basin descends slowly to meet the plains at Walsenburg, Aguilar, and Trinidad. South, the Purgatoire River very nearly approximates the New Mexico-Colorado border. The Raton Basin is characterized by vast coal deposits that belie its presently arid climate. This area was once a swamp that lay at the edge of a shallow sea extending from the Gulf of Mexico across Texas and into southeastern Colorado. Valleys created by modern streams are quite narrow and marginally useful for agriculture. East of Trinidad the land is broken by waterways and deeply cut by erosion. Here a series of high mesas run east about 50 miles, the largest being Mesa de Maya. The southern part runs west to the Raton Mountains of New Mexico where Raton Pass, the major entry into northern New Mexico, is located. Traditionally, this pass was used to enter Trinidad from Taos.

The climate in southeast Colorado is as varied as its landforms. From the snow-covered Continental Divide to barren plains, water was, and is, the most important consideration for the use of this land. Winter snows that blanket high mountains serve as runoff for streams and rivers of the region. [6] The eastern plains are scenes, in the summer, of violent thunderstorms that create downpours, often causing flash flooding and considerable erosion. Tornados are common as well. Agriculture in this violence is a risky business. Summer showers develop in the mountains and provide daily rain that enhances the previous spring's runoff. In this way, the larger rivers are usually with water, even though most smaller streams run dry during the summer months. The key to successful vegetation on the plains is moisture retention in the soil. Winter and spring snows saturate the land, and until about July moisture is adequate. After that time, irrigation is needed, if available, to sustain crops. Summer rains provide some moisture where there is no surface water. Vegetation in southeastern Colorado is varied and plentiful. The prairies contain usual grasses and bushes associated with this sort of land feature, along with a few trees. Along river banks, cottonwoods abound, including willows and other riparian species. As the land rises, vegetation patterns change to represent not only montane grasses but shrubs like pinon juniper and other low-growing trees. As altitude increases, oak brush, Gamble's oak, and aspen are found in scattered patches. In the highest regions, ponderosa pine, some Douglas fir and other evergreen species are common. The forests are similar to those in the rest of Colorado's mountainous lands. [7]

Geologically, southeastern Colorado represents volcanic activity that created the mineral deposits found throughout mountainous areas, while shallow seabeds covered the plains and then uplifted into today's topography. The uplifting process began some 60,000,000 years ago during what is called the Laramide Revolution. Intense mountain building occurred, lifting the beds of an ancient ocean to altitudes of 6,000 feet. That the sea existed is seen in fossil beds at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, and in Garden Park where bones have been continuously removed since 1876. Erosion has long since worn down uplifted sedimentary rocks while very ancient granite, billions of years old, was cut through by water and wind. The Royal Gorge is a classic example of such erosion. Wind carving can be seen in soft Morrison formation rocks at Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs. Geology, of course, is of considerable importance to southeastern Colorado for it determined to what use man would put the land. Topography caused certain areas to develop early and others to be overlooked until a time when it was economically or socially feasible to use them. Always, geology influenced development and use of not only modern man, but also his prehistoric counterpart. [8]

Southeastern Colorado's cultural history began some 12,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence in the form of artifactual materials, indicates that at least four culture traditions are represented in this region. The most ancient is Folsom whose crude points represent earliest evidences of man in the area. These people were hunters of large herd animals like bison, and evidence is found not only on the plains, but in South Park as well. The Plano culture continued a big game hunting tradition from about 9000 B.C. to 6000 B.C., by which time most large Pleistocene animals were extinct. As the bison and mastadon disappeared, new species including antelope, modern bison, and deer appeared. Both Plano and Archaic traditions hunted, but as the climate changed, these peoples were forced to modify their habits. Archaic campsites contain unique projectile points, a variety of scrapers, bone ornaments, metates, and crude stone tools. This culture seems to be transitional, moving from "pure" hunters to nomads, who roamed the plains and foothills in search of game and seasonal resources. [9] Between 1 A.D. and 1000 A.D. the Woodland Cultural complex used the eastern plains of Colorado. These people hunted and gathered, as indicated by their physical remains. They represent a further transition from classic hunters to nomadic-gathering peoples. This state of development led to what is referred to as the Proto-historic period, or the time just before European-Native contact. [10] Out of Woodland Culture came the nomadic plains tribes that are familiar today. The Utes dominated the foothills, the San Luis Valley, South Park, and the mountains west of the Continental Divide. These people survived by hunting buffalo, elk, deer, and antelope. They also gathered berries and seed plants such as pinon nuts. The Utes moved in family groups, on foot, and often used dogs to drag "travois," or primitive sledges. [11] In addition to Utes, various other plain tribes arrived on the scene by the Seventeenth century. The most notorious of the plains natives were the Comanche, who, moving northwest from Texas became the scourge of this region. The Comanche were superior horsemen, and, when in the Eighteenth century they obtained guns, they terrorized not only the Spanish in New Mexico, but also the Utes and other local tribes. The Utes retreated to the San Luis Valley, South Park, and higher into the foothills. Meanwhile, other regional tribes like the Arapaho were pushed into Front Range valleys. The Arapaho, who maintained much the same lifestyle as Utes, tended to remain north of the Colorado Springs area. They did roam all over the plains in lean times. The Pawnee, another northern tribe, on occasion, would find themselves in the southern plains of Colorado in search of food. However, they were not permanent "Colorado" residents and were more identified with the Platte River Valley. [12] The Comanche may have been the "raiders of the Plains," but there were other tribes who also frequented this region. For instance, Jicarilla Apache, residents of northern New Mexico hunted on horseback, as far as the Arkansas River on a regular basis. The Apache were like the Comanche. They were a horse-based society that lived by raiding others. Ute culture suffered their depredations just like Spanish New Mexican society. The Apache, however, eventually became allied to the Spanish in order to fend off Comanches. These two tribes were the most powerful groups on Colorado's southeastern plains well into the nineteenth century. It is questionable as to whether either the Jicarilla Apache or the Comanche actually dominated southeastern Colorado. After 1778, Comanche terror was broken, and the Ute again moved freely along the foothills. Nevertheless, for all tribes the arrival of the Europeans was of incalculable importance. When the Spanish arrived on the plains during the late Sixteenth century, they brought with them two major technological wonders: horses and guns. [13]

There was no greater change in native lifestyles than at this time, for here is where the American native became a raiding machine. No longer was he dependent upon his feet for hunting and gathering. With horses, the range for game was greatly extended and lives of the various tribes were changed forever. Animals now became the basis of trade and life. Skins were used for shelter and clothing while newly gained surpluses were traded with other tribes or Europeans. Guns, of course, made killing game that much easier, and for the first time excesses in food supplies occurred. The late Sixteenth century saw the last time that American natives roamed the region alone. For, less than thirty years after the conquest of Mexico's Aztec Empire, Europeans found their way into the American southwest, lured by tales of gold, vast civilizations, and rich lands. [14]


1. For a physical description of the San Luis Valley see: Virginia McConnell Simmons, Land of the Six-Armed Cross (Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Press, 1980.)

2. South Park's physical description is contained in: Virginia McConnell, Bayou Salado: The Story of South Park (Denver, Colorado: Sage, 1966.)

3. A general description of the Arkansas Valley is contained in: Pachel D. Lewis, "Official Exploration and Improvement of the Arkansas River, 1806-1900" (M.A. Thesis: University of Colorado, 1937.)

4. See: Robert A. Murray, Las Animas, Huerfano and Custer: Three Colorado Counties on a Cultural Frontier, A History of the Raton Basin (Denver, Colorado: Bureau of Land Management, 1979.)

5. Ibid., p. 4.

6. For climatological information regarding this region, see: Colorado State Board of Immigration, Year Book of the State of Colorado, 1918 (Denver: Welch-Haffner, 1918), pp. 81, 111, 132, 162-163.

7. Ibid., p. 164, and see: Simmons, op. cit.; McConnell, op. cit.

8. The region's geology is discussed in: R.D. George, "Geology," in History of Colorado, Vol. I, James H. Baker and Leroy R. Hafen (eds.) (Denver: Linderman, 1927), pp. 93-98.

9. For a discussion of this part of Colorado's prehistory, see E.B. Renaud, (Comp.), The Archaeological Survey of Colorado: Fourth Report (Denver: University of Denver, 1935.)

10. This phase is described in Marcia J. Tate, "A Synopsis of Colorado Prehistory," in the Colorado Parks Archaeology Manual, (Comp.) Tate, Rippeteau and Stuart (Denver: Office of the State Archaeologist, Technical Publication Series 13, 1978.)

11. A detailed discussion of prehistory on the eastern plains of Colorado is contained in: James Gunnerson, "Class I Overview of the High Plains" (Manuscript located at U.S. Forest Service, Region II, Lakewood, Colorado, and Bureau of Land Management, Colorado State Office, Denver, Colorado, 1981.)

12. George E. Hyde, Indians of the High Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959), pp. 26-29.

13. See: J. Donald Hughes, American Indians in Colorado (Boulder: Pruett Press, 1977), pp. 29-34.

14. As related in: George P. Winship, The Journey of Coronado, 1540-1542 (New York: Greenwood, 1969.)

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008