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

The Comanche defeat of 1779 led to increasingly friendly relations between these natives and their Spanish victors. In the best missionary tradition, Governor Juan Bautista de Anza selected a site along the Arkansas River (near future Pueblo) for the purpose of founding a settlement that would convert the Comanche into sedentary Christians. [1] This place, called San Carlos, was operating by 1787. However, after a hard first year, the Comanche preferred to roam the plains, and this site was abandoned. Outside of El Cuartelejo (location in question), this was the first Spanish settlement in the present state of Colorado. [2] The late 1700's also saw a steady increase of trappers and traders into the interior. St. Louis, at this time a French city, was jumping off point for these men. Manuel Lisa, perhaps the most famous early name in the fur trade, opened the Missouri River country in the 1790's. This Spanish trader brought back beaver fur, and soon St. Louis was the most important trading center in the midwest. Lisa's exploits were legendary and created new opportunities for an emerging American nation.

The American revolution changed an already tense international situation in western North America. Because the British lost the Revolutionary War, a new element was introduced to the scene. Not only did Spain face French incursions from the Mississippi River Valley, but the British, in the form of Hudson's Bay Company, moved south from Canada into rich fur regions of the Upper Missouri River. Additionally, Russia was settling northern California, while American traders, eager for quick profits, entered an already crowded field. [3] Spain, even with recently reformed trade laws, still refused to allow free trade with other nations. New Mexico was in a position of wanting French and English goods, but could not obtain them overland. However, 1803 changed the picture greatly, for in that year Napoleon Bonaparte of France sold what was called "Louisiana" to the United States for $15 million dollars. [4] Instantly, the United States doubled in size and became Spain's neighbor. The land was totally unknown except that the boundaries ran from New Orleans up the Mississippi to its headwaters, west to the Pacific, and along the Red River to the Rockies. The description was hardly precise, and President Thomas Jefferson wanted to know what he had purchased. [5] In 1804 Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore up the Missouri River, across the Rockies, and on to the Pacific Coast. This task was accomplished in 1806, and Louisiana became a better known place. However, only the northern third was explored. Jefferson still wanted to know what else was out west.

To further southern exploration, Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike was sent to the central Rockies in 1806. The Pike expedition left St. Louis in July 1806 with fifteen men. They moved up the Arkansas River and entered southeastern Colorado on November 1, 1806. On November 23, the group reached the future site of Pueblo, where a crude shelter of logs was built while Pike and three others explored Fountain Creek adjacent to the peak that now bears his name. [6] On November 27, they tried to climb Pike's Peak but failed. The expedition continued up the Arkansas to the mouth of the Royal Gorge and crossed into South Park along Oil (Four Mile) Creek. Upon crossing this valley, they followed the South Platte westward back to the Arkansas, near future Buena Vista. Pike wrongly assumed that these were the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. [7] Pike then marched downstream and ended up back at their old campsite near Royal Gorge, having gone in a circle. At the site of present-day Canon City, the party build a small blockhouse and Pike left two men and the party's horses. The expedition turned south, struggled up Grape Creek and into the Wet Mountain Valley. They crossed over the Sangre de Cristo range, by way of Sand Creek Pass (Music Pass), down Sand Creek and into the San Luis Valley. This passage was brutal for, while in the Wet Mountain Valley, winter struck with vengeance and these men suffered from cold and lack of food. Upon reaching the Rio Grande, near future Alamosa, Pike's little group built a sturdy stockade in January 1807. [8] Pike claimed he thought he was at the head of the Red River, the supposed international boundary. However, Spanish officials in New Mexico were less sure. A member of the party, Dr. Robinson, was sent on to Santa Fe, which caused the Spanish to send out an armed force to find the Americans. Pike's expedition was arrested and hauled into the New Mexican capital for questioning. Eventually, Pike and his men were returned to the United States where his journal was published, revealing for the first time the extent of Louisiana. This also was the first written record of southeastern Colorado and proved invaluable for later explorations. [9]

Pike's intrusion onto Spanish soil heralded the beginning of an American invasion into New Mexico. James Purcell had met Pike in New Mexico during 1807 and was trading with plains natives as early as 1805. He had been in South Park and found some gold flakes there. [10] Ezekial Williams was, however, the first man to trap the streams of South Park, working for two years in that area for Manual Lisa's Missouri Fur Company. Williams, in 1811, with a small group of men, worked the Upper Arkansas River, camping along that stream during the winter. By June 1813, the party moved into South Park, trapping high in the Mosquito Range. They then separated and found their way back to St. Louis. [11] Purcell and Williams opened the door for trapping in the central Rockies. Through their efforts, beaver fur trade flourished on a limited scale. Trappers sold their goods at the annual Taos fair or traded with natives using American goods acquired at St. Louis. [12] These first incursions caused Spanish officials to worry about American traders who could cause unrest among the New Mexican population. Expeditions were sent out from Santa Fe to find intruders. For instance, Pike's party was tracked by a Lieutenant Malgares (?) in 1806. [13] Individual trappers were left pretty much alone, for they did not bring commercial goods and did not generally get to Santa Fe. Taos, the center of fairs since the late 1700's, provided an outlet for native goods, American trappers' furs, and local New Mexican merchants. Comanche, Ute, Apache, New Mexicans, and others had gathered at Taos for years to exchange goods, buy things and enjoy famous "Taos Lightning," a potent liquor. Perhaps this was the first "rendezvous." The fair served an important role in bringing trade to poverty-stricken New Mexico. Here is where Americans learned of the profits to be made in this trade. Equally, this is where Spanish officials came to fear American intrusion, knowing that cheap trade goods could not be stopped once introduced. Further evidence of Spain's concern for "intruders" could be seen in 1819, when a small fortress was built along South Oak Creek to guard Sangre de Cristo Pass. The place was soon abandoned and turned over to the Comanche who roamed this region. [14] That Spanish fear was real is seen by the fact that in 1812 Robert McKnight was arrested and thrown into jail at Santa Fe for illegal trading. In 1815, August Chouteau and Jules de Mun came up the Arkansas River, then the Huerfano, across Sangre de Cristo Pass and into Taos with trade goods. Here they were arrested and their goods were confiscated by Spanish officials. [15]

All this changed in August 1821, when Spain was overthrown by Mexican revolutionaries led by Augustin de Iturbide. New Spain declared her independence and in January 1822 became the Republic of Mexico. New Mexican Governor Facundo Melgares promptly announced that the province would be opened to all traders. William Becknell of Missouri was already there and in business. [16] By fall 1822, trade into New Mexico began. Hugh Glenn and Jacob Fowler came to Taos that same fall, having followed the Huerfano River route over the Sangre de Cristos, down South Oak Creek and past the old Spanish fort. [17] From the days of the Taos fair to 1822, New Mexico saw a mixture of trappers, traders and natives all trying to break into her trade cycle. It took independence to accomplish the feat; and by 1822 not only was New Mexico booming, but so was the fur business to the north. Generally, fur trappers sought beaver pelts. These animals were demanded by Europe and Russia where they were made into fur hats. Due to upheaval caused by the Napoleonic Wars, Siberia's fur trade was interrupted and there was a fur shortage. The British, in Canada, were able to sell all they could trap. Naturally, American interest in the west was high. Pike's expedition sparked concern, and older trappers familiar with the Taos trade brought news to St. Louis that there were "unlimited" resources in the Rockies. As noted, first American fur trade was on the Upper Missouri River and was linked to St. Louis. However, by the 1820's this region was depleted and new areas were needed. Just as the Santa Fe trade began, an advertisement appeared in a St. Louis newspaper seeking: "Enterprising young men . . . to ascend the Missouri to its source there to be employed for one, two, or three years." [18] The advertiser, General William H. Ashley, formed a fur company that included all the "big" names in the business. William Sublette, Jim Bridger, Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick, Jim Beckwourth, Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson, and others were part of the first Ashley expedition. These men explored the upper Missouri, then followed the Green River into Colorado and Utah. By doing so they established a fur trade in western Colorado. [19] For the first few years, most major fur activity was concentrated on Colorado's western slope. However, by the mid-1820's, better areas were "trapped out" and trappers began a serious invasion of the central Rockies and San Luis Valley.

James Ohio Pattie trapped in South Park by 1827, while Beckwourth was reportedly in the same area with a band of Crow Indians. [20] Equally, trappers from Taos moved into the San Luis Valley, over the Sangre de Cristo range, and onto the rivers of the Front Range like the Purgatoire, Huerfano, and Arkansas. One of the larger parties to work the region was the Robert Bean and Alexander Sinclair expedition of 1830. This group left Fort Smith, Arkansas, and marched along the Arkansas to Fountain Creek. Here they moved north past Pike's Peak, up the North Fork of the Platte River, and into South Park via Kenosha Pass. They trapped extensively and then went west to the Green River at Brown's Hole. After a season's trapping, the majority of this party went on to Taos via the upper Arkansas and through the San Luis Valley. [21] There were also other trappers in South Park. In 1830, Kit Carson joined Thomas Fitzpatrick at Taos from whence their group went into South Park where they trapped along the South Platte. Here they heard that a party led by John Gantt was in the area. Carson and four others joined the Gantt party and operated in both South and North Parks. Fur trappers worked South Park and the Arkansas Valley well into the late 1830's. Joseph Meek, Bill Sublette, "Old" Bill Williams, and Richens L. "Uncle Dick" Wootton all trapped Bayou Salado from 1835 to 1840. [22] By the early thirties, fur values were dropping. In 1833, the price of a pelt was only $3.50 compared to $6.00 just the year before. In addition to falling prices, it became more difficult to find fur in the west. Even worse, fashions in Europe changed. Silk hats were now the rage and beaver fur was no longer needed. [23] The demise of fur trapping led old timers to new fields. For example, in 1832, near the mouth of the Purgatoire River, John Gantt built several log houses enclosed by a stockade where a trade in buffalo robes began. He also sold liquor to the natives, thus beginning a whiskey trade on the Arkansas. [24] Gantt's enterprise was so successful that other trappers began similar operations. Ceran St. Vrain and William Bent built a "picket post" stockade on the north side of the Arkansas River about nine miles below the mouth of Fountain Creek in December 1832. The next year saw the beginning of a long and profitable trade with the Cheyenne. Faced with competition, Gantt imported New Mexican bricklayers from Taos and built an adobe fort. [25]

Bent's Old Fort, as reconstructed by the National Park Service, was a haven for travelers along the Santa Fe Trail. (Photo by F.J. Athearn)

The Bent-St. Vrain combine wiped out Gantt commercially, and he finally abandoned his adobe building in 1835. With that threat gone, the Bent Brothers moved seventy miles down the Arkansas to near the future Las Animas and built a famous adobe post, Bent's (Old) Fort. [26] Bent's Fort may have been the single most important factor in the development of Colorado's plains trade. Displaced trappers moved onto the prairies to hunt buffalo. There were millions of these animals along the Arkansas, and the demand for buffalo robes was rising both in the eastern United States and in Europe. Buffalo hunters and skinners used various posts and forts to buy goods, to trade with the natives, and to drop off robes. [27] Bent's Fort encouraged other settlements, too. Maurice Le Duc and William LeBlanc, at the behest of the Bent brothers, built an adobe trading post near Hardscrabble Creek called "Crow's Nest" or "Buzzard's Roost." New Mexicans called the place El Cuervo. Le Duc and his partners traded with Utes headed into the Wet Mountain Valley and dispensed potent "Taos Lightening." The post struggled along for years, but was hardly a major site. [28] More important was the establishment of a post along the Arkansas River, thirty miles east of Fountain Creek in 1843. El Pueblo, as the settlement was named, provided trade goods, locally grown vegetables and goat's milk. Hence it was also known as "Milk Fort." [29] The life of this "fort" ended on December 25, 1854, when Utes massacred its inhabitants. [30] As competition for the buffalo trade heated up, forts were built farther north along the South Platte River. Places like Lancaster Lupton's Fort Lupton, Louis Vasquez's establishment, Fort Vasquez, and other locations served the plains trade into the 1840's. However, the thrust of trade and commerce was on the Arkansas. Bent's Fort was the major settlement between Santa Fe and St. Louis, and it provided provisions, trade goods, liquor, a place to stay, and it was certainly a welcome sight for weary travelers from throughout the eastern plains.

Boggsville, founded in 1866 was the home of Kit Carson and J.W. Prowers, both famous pioneers in southeastern Colorado. (Photo by F.J. Athearn)

Bent's Fort was a success not only because of the buffalo robe trade. New Mexico's commercial ventures, beginning in 1822, blossomed into a serious trade system by the 1840's. To serve New Mexican traders, the Santa Fe Trail became the "road west." Leading from Missouri to Santa Fe, this route carried thousands of tons of goods, horses, and other items to be sold for Mexican silver at Santa Fe. The Santa Fe trail ran along the Arkansas River which provided water and forage for the lumbering oxen that dragged heavy wagonloads of goods. Near the mouth of the Purgatoire River, it then cut south, went over Raton Pass, and on to Santa Fe. Modern Interstate-25 roughly parallels the "Mountain Branch" of the Santa Fe Trail from Raton to Las Vegas, New Mexico. As time progressed and technology allowed larger wagons with longer ranges, a cutoff was blazed from near Fort Mann, Kansas, southwestward across the Cimarron River, and into the northeastern plains of New Mexico. The "Cimarron Cutoff" was shorter but more dangerous. There was no water across the barren prairies; Comanche and Apache natives created an ever-present threat; and, while the route took less time, losses were greater. [30] Nevertheless, traders were willing to take risks for New Mexico's commerce. By the mid-1840's, there was so much trade that the Arkansas River Valley could hardly be called "unsettled." Traders, trappers, and natives all congregated along the river, and before much longer permanent European settlement was going to occur. The end of the Santa Fe Trail came, coincidentally, at the same time the buffalo trade faded. Relations between Mexico and the United States soured over the Texas question, and by 1844 war seemed inevitable. The problem dated to 1836, when American colonists in Texas declared their settlements independent of Mexican rule and established the Republic of Texas. Mexico's government, under the rule of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, refused to recognize the new Republic and to allow trade with Texans. Texas, with greedy eyes cast upon New Mexico, considered invading Santa Fe in order to capture the Missouri trade. An expedition was attempted in 1843, but it was poorly managed and turned into rout when Mexican soldiers from Santa Fe broke it up. [31] The Santa Fe Trail trade was curtailed in 1846 when war occurred. The United States, having annexed Texas in 1844, went to war when Mexico allegedly "invaded" the new state. New Mexico was captured in 1846 by Steven Watts Kearny's 500-man military expedition. Charles Bent was named governor, and Kit Carson became Lieutenant Governor. In 1847, a revolt occurred at Taos, and Bent was killed. However, the rebellion was put down and New Mexico was firmly in American hands. In 1848, Mexico surrendered and a peace was negotiated. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo provided that all lands west of Louisiana, including California, would be annexed to the United States. In one stroke, the nation grew to its present size. New Mexico became part of this change and the Santa Fe trade was no longer profitable because silver specie from Mexico was cut off. The mines of Chihuahua provided hard currency until 1848, and with this source gone, New Mexico was thrust back into poverty. [32]

Missouri merchants stopped sending goods to Santa Fe, and the Santa Fe Trail was abandoned. Only a few immigrants wandered into the Arkansas River Valley, most notably the so-called "Mormon Battalion" of 1847. [33] Perhaps a most telling sign of the end was the destruction of Bent's Fort in 1852. William Bent tried to sell the fort to the United States government. When negotiations dragged, Bent, in a fit of anger, loaded the place with black powder and blew it to pieces. Bent then moved down river and built a new fort near today's Lamar, Colorado. This be came known as Bent's New Fort. [34] The Santa Fe Trail continued to be used, of course, but traffic was light. During the 1850's, immigrants seeking land used this route, and some traders found their way into the region. A few new settlements did spring up during this time. Charles Autobees established a plaza at the mouth of the Huerfano River in 1853, and Maurice Le Duc maintained a store at Hardscrabble; El Pueblo functioned until 1854. [35]

These places represented European settlement on the eastern plains. Yet, there was also the stirring of development in the San Luis Valley. By the early 1840's, Mexico's government provided land grants totalling millions of acres, and some small settlements arose along the Rio Grande. These plazas were the first agricultural towns in the future state of Colorado, and became important a few years later when gold was discovered in the Rockies. After the fur and buffalo trade died, there was a period filled by another type of development. Instead of men exploiting the region's natural resources, they explored it to discover what else was available.


1. Colin B. Goodykoontz, "The Exploration and Settlement of Colorado," in Colorado Short Studies of its Past and Present (Boulder, Colorado: University of Colorado, 1927), p. 48, and Carl Ubbelohde, Maxine Benson and Duane Smith, A Colorado History (Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Press, 1976), p. 18.

2. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, ibid, pp. 18-19. Also: Leroy R. Hafen, "Coming of the White Men: Exploration and Acquisition," in History of Colorado (Denver: Linderman, 1927), pp. 298-300.

3. Ubbelohde, Colorado, op. cit., p. 34, and Goodykoontz, op. cit., p. 58. See also: Ray A. Billington, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (New York: MacMillan, 1974), p. 379.

4. Billington, ibid., p. 380, and see: F. Wilson Lyon, The Man Who Sold Louisiana (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974.)

5. Billington, ibid., p. 381.

6. Goodykoontz, op. cit., pp. 51-52, and Hiram Chittenden, American Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. II (New York: n.p. 1902) p. 495.

7. Goodykoontz, ibid., p. 52, and Zebulon M. Pike, Sources of the Mississippi and the Western Louisiana Territory (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms, 1966), pp. 107-110.

8. Goodykoontz, op. cit., p. 52, Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit., pp. 2-23, and Robert A. Murray, A History of the Raton Basin (Denver: Bureau of Land Management, 1978), p. 16.

9. W. Eugene Hollon, The Lost Pathfinder: Zebulon Montgomery Pike (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949), and Donald Jackson (ed.), The Journals and Letters of Zebulon Montgomery Pike, with Letters and Related Documents (2 Vols.), (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.)

10. William Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire (New York: Knopf, 1966), p. 27, also: Leroy R. Hafen, The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West (10 Vols.), (Glendale, California: Arthur A. Clark, 1965-72.)

11. Hafen, Fur Trade, ibid., IV.

12. David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers: The Fur Trade in the Far Southwest, 1540-1846 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.)

13. Goodykoontz, op. cit., p. 50.

14. Ibid., p. 48, see also: Marshall Sprague, The Great Gates (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1964.)

15. Goodykoontz, op. cit., p. 58, and related in: Chittenden, op. cit.

16. Ibid., p. 59, and Frederic J. Athearn, "Augustin de Iturbide and the Plan de Iguala" (M.A. Thesis, St. Louis University, 1969.)

17. As described in: Elliot Coues (ed.), The Journal of Jacob Fowler, Narrating An Adventure from Arkansas Through the Indians Territory, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico to the Sources of the Rio Grande del Norte, 1821-22 (New York: n.p.. 1898.)

18. In: Dale L. Morgan, The West of William H. Ashley (Denver, Old West, 1965), p. 171.

19. Ibid., pp. 172-175.

20. Leroy R. Hafen, "Colorado Mountain Men," Colorado Magazine, 30, (1953), pp. 14-28, and Norma Flynn, "South Park: Seventy-five Years of Its History" (M.A. Thesis, University of Denver, 1947), pp. 13-14, and McConnell, op. cit., p. 55.

21. Hafen, Fur Trade, op. cit., III, p. 340.

22. McConnell, op. cit., pp. 56-58.

23. David Lavender, Bent's Fort (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972), p. 149.

24. Janet Lecompte, Pueblo, Hardscrabble, Greenhorn: The Upper Arkansas, 1832-1856 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978), p. 10.

25. Ibid., p. 11.

26. Goodykoontz, op. cit., p. 61, and related in Lavender, op. cit.

27. In: Janet Lecompte, "Gantt's Fort and Bent's Picket Post," Colorado Magazine, 41, (1964.)

28. Janet Lecompte, "Maurice Le Duc," in LeRoy R. Hafen (ed.), The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West (Glendale, California: A.H. Clark, 1966), VI, pp. 227-240.

29. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit., p. 46.

30. The Santa Fe Trail is discussed in: Jack D. Rittenhouse, The Santa Fe Trail: A Historical Bibliography (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971), and Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, Max L. Moorehead (ed.) (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.)

31. Lavender, op. cit., pp. 213-216.

32. Ibid., pp. 290-301.

33. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit., p. 47.

34. Lavender, op. cit., pp. 338-339.

35. As related in: Janet Lecompte, "Charles Autobees," in: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, op. cit., IV, pp. 21-37; Janet Lecompte, "Maurice Le Duc," in: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, VI, pp. 227-240; Janet Lecompte, "Mathew Kinkead," in: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, II, pp. 188-199; Harvey L. Carter, "Dick Wootten," in: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, III, pp. 407-411; Samuel P. Arnold, "William W. Bent," in: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, IV, pp. 61-84, and Leroy R. Hafen, "The Fort Pueblo Massacre and the Punitive Expedition Against the Utes," Colorado Magazine, 4, (1927), pp. 49-58.

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008