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

Zebulon Pike's journey into Colorado during 1806, was the prelude to numerous other expeditions that were to map, record, describe, and condemn this region. While the Pike expedition was supposedly for "science," it turned decidedly military when the group was captured by the Spanish. [1] Perhaps this experience soured the government on further efforts, because it was not until 1820 that the next American explorers found their way into southeastern Colorado.

The year 1819 proved important to western exploration, because the United States and Spain concluded a treaty that set, for the first time, definite boundaries for Louisiana. The Adams-Onis (or Transcontinental) Treaty provided that Florida's boundary would be set at about where it is today (Florida was Spanish) and that the southernmost boundary of Louisiana would be the Red River. This approximates the Texas-Oklahoma border of today. The northern boundaries were not established, since Louisiana and Canada were contiguous, and the western boundary continued to be the Continental Divide. [2] Congress intended, in 1819, to explore the Upper Missouri in order to supplement existing information. The so-called Yellowstone Expedition left St. Louis using a steamboat. However, the party got no farther than Council Bluffs, and, while in winter quarters, the men contracted scurvy. This incident ended the expedition, and Congress, irritated by mismanagement, withdrew its support. [3] The U.S. Army, sponsor of the Yellowstone Expedition, tried to salvage the situation by commissioning Lieutenant Stephen H. Long to lead a "quick" exploration to the Rockies to seek the source of the Platte River. The military overtones of the expedition were written off, and the Army sent Long to the west on a "scientific" mission. [4] Long assembled a party of nineteen men, including topographers; a cartographer; a zoologist; a physician, who also acted as botanist and geologist; a naturalist; and a painter. The party was horse mounted and made rapid progress. By June 1820, the group viewed the Rockies for the first time. Working along the South Platte River, they spotted what was modestly named Long's Peak after the group's leader. [5] As the expedition approached and passed the sites of future Greeley and Denver, they found the area in use by plains natives encamped along the rivers. There were Arapaho camps along Cherry Creek, and Long noted that the smoke rising from the valley obscured the mountains. This was the first recorded case of Denver's famous air pollution. [6] Long's party followed Monument Creek over Monument (Palmer) Divide and to the site of Colorado Springs. Here Edwin James, the party's physician, with six other expedition members, decided to climb what they called Grand Peak. The little group broke up, and four remained at the base, while James ascended the peak with a barometer to make altitude measurements. He calculated the peak at 3,000 feet, but forgot to include the fact that he was well above sea level. The altitude is actually 14,110 feet. [7] To honor this feat, and the fact that these men were the first Europeans to have climbed the peak, this mountain was named James Peak. However, the name was later changed to Pike's Peak, and Dr. James was relegated to a mountain near Rollinsville, Colorado. [8]

After conquering Pike's Peak, the Long party moved to the Arkansas River Valley and followed that stream westward toward the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas (later called the "Royal Gorge"), using the same path that Pike had blazed fourteen years earlier. The expedition then turned and moved east down river where Long split his team into two parties. One group was to find its way back to Ft. Smith, Arkansas, under the leadership of Captain John R. Bell. Major Long and the rest of the party went south in search of the elusive Red River. [9] Long's men crossed the Purgatoire River and then the Cimarron River, finally coming to a large watercourse they assumed was the Red. They traced the stream east and found that it emptied into the Arkansas. They were following the Canadian, not the Red. [10] The Long group then followed the Arkansas back to Fort Smith where, in September, the party was reunited having failed to find the Red River, the headwaters of the Platte, or the source of the Arkansas. The mission was not a total failure, because, for the first time, reasonable accurate maps were drawn, and descriptions of the flora and fauna, with details such as altitude measurements, were made. [11] Long's scientific contributions were modest, but the greatest revelation was that Long considered the plains and mountains of the west a "Great American Desert." This phrase, more than any other, caused the west to be "written off" for many years. Long described the region thus: ". . . I do not hesitate in giving the opinion, that it is almost wholly unfit for cultivation and, of course, uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence . . ." [12] The condemnation of the plains by Long had long-lasting consequences. Prospective settlers by-passed this "barren land" in search of more fertile places like Oregon or California. Long's remarks confirmed what Pike had thought about the region, and for the next twenty years it was abandoned to natives, fur trappers, and buffalo hunters.

The next travelers in the area were visitors on their way elsewhere. Dr. F.A. Wislizenus visited the Arkansas Valley in 1839, where he refers to "Fort Puebla," a small trading post five miles [sic] west of Bent's (Old) Fort. The Wislizenus journey went from the Arkansas, over the Rockies, across Brown's Park, and on into California. [13] Other travelers included Thomas Jefferson Farnham, who also described "El Puebla" on his journey west to Oregon. In 1846, Francis Parkman was in the region, and he noted that several of the local fur establishments, particularly Fort St. Vrain and Fort Lupton, were falling into ruin. [14]

The next officially sponsored expedition into southeastern Colorado came in the form of John C. Fremont's 1844 search for a new California passage. Fremont was one of the west's more colorful characters. He was the son-in-law of Thomas Hart Benton, Senator from Missouri. Benton was an expansionist, who believed the West should be settled and developed. He further thought that the region must be in the hands of the United States, not Mexico. Benton personified the concept of Manifest Destiny. That is, it was America's "destiny" to rule from sea to sea and those who opposed such expansion would be crushed. [15] From 1842 to 1848, Fremont appeared five times in what became Colorado. The 1842 expedition employed Kit Carson as its guide, and he traveled up the Platte River to Fort St. Vrain with the Fremont party. From here they traveled to Fort Laramie and then to South Pass, Wyoming. The effort, having yielded little new, was renewed in the spring of 1843 when Fremont, guided by Carson and Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick, searched the Front Range for a passage through the Rockies. [16] The 1843 party explored the Cache la Poudre River canyon, marched across the Medicine Bow Mountains, and hit the Oregon Trail in Wyoming. From here Fremont went west to the Great Salt Lake and then northwest into the Columbia River basin, ending up at Fort Vancouver. He then went south into California for the winter. When the Sierra Nevada had cleared of snow, Fremont returned east, traversing the central Rockies by way of Brown's, North, Middle and South Parks, and then down the Arkansas River to Bent's Fort. [17] Fremont's explorations added to the body of knowledge about the west and proved that the central Rockies did not appear to provide an easy passage westward. Increased American interest in California kept the U.S. Army's Corps of Topographic Engineers busy. With James Polk's election to the Presidency in 1844, Fremont had no problem getting permission for another expedition. Polk, after all, had been elected on an avowed platform of expansion and Manifest Destiny. [18] The next Fremont excursion took him down the Santa Fe Trail, again guided by Kit Carson, along the Arkansas River, and then over the Rockies at today's Fremont Pass, near modern Leadville, Colorado. From here he followed the White River into Utah and then traveled on to California across the Great Basin and the Sierras. [19] At the same time Fremont was crossing the Continental Divide, Stephen Watts Kearny commanded a military reconaissance mission from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, then to South Pass, back to Fort Laramie, and finally south to Bent's Fort on the Arkansas. From here, Kearny marched back to Leavenworth. The military purposes of the party were to seek paths into New Mexico in case war should erupt between Mexico and the United States. Other than that, the expedition provided no new knowledge of the region and indicated that southeastern Colorado was just a place to pass through on the way to other locations. [20]

The next explorers came in 1846 when forty-three Mormons learned that they were well ahead of the main body of emigrants on their way to the Great Salt Lake. Since the rest of the group was to winter at Council Bluffs, Iowa, this little party was sent to the Arkansas River Valley near Fort Pueblo, to spend the winter. Here they were joined by the so-called "Mormon Battalion," a party of soldiers who had enlisted in the Army during the Mexican War and were injured or sick. They were shipped from New Mexico to the El Pueblo area to recover. In the spring of 1847, the various Mormons continued west and went on to Salt Lake. [21]

John C. Fremont appeared once again in 1848. This time Fremont was a private citizen, having left the Army at the end of the Mexican War. This trip was for the purpose of finding a railway route for the proposed transcontinental railroad that his father-in-law, Thomas Hart Benton, was pushing. The concept of a railroad to span the continent developed during the early 1840's as California and Oregon were settled. The Atlantic and Pacific Coasts were separated by a vast land with few roads and no manner in which to move quickly. After the Mexican War, with the nation at peace, interest in a railroad again surfaced. Fremont, in 1848, was privately commissioned to explore for a practical route to the Pacific Coast. Businessmen from St. Louis, greatly interested in this project, financed an expedition from that city to California. With thirty-three men, the "Pathfinder" followed the Arkansas River to Bent's Fort (and El Pueblo) where he hoped to engage his favorite guide, Kit Carson. Finding that Carson was in New Mexico, Fremont hired "Old" Bill Williams, a long-time fur trapper. [22] Despite Williams' warning of an early winter, Fremont chose to press on. His party marched up Hardscrabble Creek, over the Sangre de Cristos at Mosca Pass, in the middle of winter, without any difficulties. They passed into the San Luis Valley and then headed toward the San Juans, by way of the Rio Grande valley. As the party reached the 12,000-foot level, the snows deepened, and, before they reached the divide, Williams took a wrong turn. Trapped and starving, Fremont sent four men south to New Mexico for help. [23] After sixteen days waiting, Fremont proceeded down river, taking with him four men and leaving the rest to fend for themselves. On the way down, he found three of the four he had sent out earlier still alive. Fremont and his little group made it into Taos on borrowed horses (their animals had long since died) where they formed a relief party back to the San Juans. In the end eleven men died, all the expedition's animals were lost, and all equipment was destroyed. The 1848 Fremont Expedition represented the single greatest disaster in the exploration of the Rockies. No group ever suffered from such a defeat, and no other expedition lost as many men at one time.

The search for a transcontinental railroad route continued into the 1850's. National politics were such that a railroad was now feasible. The Compromise of 1850 had partly defused a vicious fight over slavery in the new states. That battle was brought on by the huge land acquisitions of the Mexican War. The South wanted these new lands open to slavery, while the North opposed the spread of "the Peculiar Institution." Crisis was averted in 1850, when New Mexico Territory was created and permitted slavery. California became a "free" state, and Utah Territory was also "free" and very Mormon. New Mexico Territory extended to the Arkansas River on the north and to the modern-day California border on the west. The eastern boundary was today's Texas-New Mexico state line, and the southern edge approximated today's Mexican border. Hence, both southeastern Colorado and the San Luis Valley were in New Mexico Territory.

Since the slavery matter was quiet, Congress decided, in 1853, to commission a series of surveys for possible transcontinental railway routes. The primary question was not only which route was the "easiest," but where it would be located. Southern interests demanded New Orleans to Los Angeles, while northern businessmen wanted from St. Paul to Seattle. St. Louis merchants needed a route from their city to San Francisco by way of the Central Rockies. [24]

In 1853, surveys by the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers began. The northern route was surveyed and approximates today's Northern Pacific. A north-central line was mapped across Wyoming and subsequently became the Transcontinental Railroad (Union Pacific). A southernmost line was traced from New Orleans and later became the Southern Pacific. North of the New Orleans route another survey occurred, and it ran from Atchison, Kansas, to Los Angeles by way of Albuquerque and the future Phoenix. This became the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe in the 1880s. [25] A central Rockies route was surveyed by Captain John Williams Gunnison in 1853. This expedition was to follow the thirty-ninth parallel from St. Louis to the West Coast. A team of thirty scientific men, with an escort of thirty dragoons, along with eighteen wagons, an instrument wagon, and an ambulance, made their way along the Arkansas River to Bent's Fort. From here the party crossed the Sangre de Cristos at La Veta Pass and proceeded through the San Luis Valley, westward to Cochetopa Pass, which turned out to be a far easier passage than the one attempted by Fremont in 1848. [26] Once into the Gunnison River Valley, the surveyors went west through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, up to the Grand (Colorado) River and emerged at the future site of Grand Junction, Colorado. Gunnison's party then proceeded down the Grand into Utah where, at Sevier Lake, on October 26, 1853, the men were attacked by Paiute natives. Seven of the expedition were killed, including Captain Gunnison. [27] Lieutenant E.J. Beckwith assumed command and led the group into Salt Lake City. From here the expedition returned east the next year. While the Gunnison expedition ended in disaster, it proved that a railway through the Rockies was feasible, but also extremely expensive. Gunnison's work noted and mapped, for the first time, the San Luis Valley, Cochetopa Pass, and the interior of western Colorado. The survey was proved useful in the 1880's when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built its first narrow gauge line from Denver to Salt Lake City nearly along the route determined by Gunnison. [28]

Not to be outdone, John C. Fremont, of the famous 1848 expedition, put together a trip to find a railway route to the West Coast that would outrival those of the Topographic Corps of Engineers. This was Fremont's fifth, and last, excursion to the West. Fremont traced Gunnison's steps almost exactly, adding absolutely no new knowledge. However, he did prove that a route was feasible during the winter because that was when he chose to survey. The Central Rockies, at least, could be penetrated in snow season. [29]

By 1854, the crisis over slavery arose once again. Sectional differences destroyed the Compromise of 1850 when the territory of Nebraska was carved out of old Louisiana. Again, the Union faced the decision of whether to permit slavery or not. Introduced in January 1854, by Stephen A. Douglas, the Nebraska Territorial Bill caused a storm. Southern interests, naturally, assumed that this new land would be "slave," while northerners thought that it would not. To resolve this crisis, the two territories of Kansas and Nebraska were created in order to provide a "free" territory (Nebraska) and a "slave" territory (Kansas). Unfortunately, Kansas was given the choice of free or slave, and the split among the population caused an internal civil war. [30] With the nation's attention turned on Nebraska, the thought of a Transcontinental Railroad evaporated. There was no possibility of such a monumental enterprise being attempted at this time. By 1861, the nation was plunged into Civil War, with brother fighting brother, family against family. The west would have to await the outcome.


1. William H. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 1803-1863 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), pp. 36-39.

2. John A. Garraty, The American Nation (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 205.

3. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit., p. 27.

4. Goetzmann, op. cit., p. 43, and also: Edwin James, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, Performed in the Years 1819 and '20 . . . (Ed), R.G. Thwaites, in Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, Vol. 14, (Cleveland: n.p. 1904-1907.)

5. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, ibid., p. 28.

6. James, op. cit., as related in Goetzmann, op. cit., p. 42.

7. Ibid., pp. 47-48.

8. Steven F. Mehls, The New Empire of the Rockies: A History of Northeast Colorado (Denver: Bureau of Land Management, 1984).

9. Goetzmann, ibid., p. 43, and James, op. cit., p. 14.

10. James, ibid., pp. 15-16.

11. Goetzmann, ibid., p. 43.

12. James, ibid., pp. 147-148, as related in Goetzmann, p. 43.

13. Goodykoontz, op. cit., p. 62, and see also: F.A. Wislizenus, A Journey to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1839 (St. Louis: n.p., 1912), p. 141.

14. Goodykoontz, ibid., p. 63, see also: Leroy R. Hafen, "Early Fur Trade Posts on the South Platte," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 12, pp. 334-341.

15. Garraty, ibid., pp. 322-326.

16. Goetzmann, ibid., p. 78, Goodykoontz, p. 65, and Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, p.45.

17. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, ibid., pp. 454-6, and Goetzmann, ibid., pp. 100-101.

18. Goetzmann, ibid., p. 103. See also: Donald Jackson and Mary Lee Spence, The Expeditions of John Charles Fremont (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.)

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

20. Goetzmann, op. cit., pp. 112-116.

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

22. Goodykoontz, op. cit., p. 65, Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, p. 51, and Goetzmann, op. cit., p. 297.

23. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit., p. 46, and LeRoy R. and Ann Hafen, Fremont's Fourth Expedition (Glendale, California: A.H. Clark, 1960), pp. 17-18.

24. Ibid., pp. 45-46.

25. Goetzmann, op. cit., p. 276.

26. Ibid., p. 285, and Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit., p. 53.

27. See: Nolie Mumey, "John Williams Gunnison: Centenary of His Survey and Tragic Death," Colorado Magazine, 31, 1954, pp. 19-32.

28. Goodykoontz, op. cit., p. 66.

29. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit., p. 53.

30. Garraty, op. cit., pp. 382-385.

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008