THE NATURAL BACKDROP AND SPANISH EXPLORATION
West-central Colorado is a majestic, often awe-inspiring, land of 14,000 foot peaks, fertile valleys, and desolate plateaus. The region extends from the Continental Divide, near Leadville, Colorado, westward to the Utah state line. The northernmost edge of the territory borders the Flattop Mountains, the Piceance Basin, the Book Cliffs and the Roan Plateau. The Maroon Bells, Grand Mesa and the Uncompahgre Plateau dominate the southern reaches of west-central Colorado. Within these confines flow many rivers and streams that form the broad productive valleys of the area.  These geographic features give the land a natural isolation and greatly influences its uses by humans.
The indigenous environment forms the stage on which the drama of history is performed. The topography, geology, and climate have encouraged certain social and economic developments and constrained others. The geographic features were the reason for the great variety of ways land was utilized and the distinctive character of different segments of the area. For example, farmers were attracted to the valleys while miners looked to the mountains for wealth.  Over time, people have emphasized different elements of these surroundings thereby changing their uses of the land.
Over the billions of years of the earth's existence, the area has had a long and eventful geologic history. The first epoch came four billion years ago. This was the Pre-Cambrian era of volcanic activity when the first formations were created. These granite masses were then transformed by heat and pressure into metamorphic layers and provided the basis of the Rocky Mountains. 
The Cretaceous period, sixty to one hundred and twenty-five million years ago, was the first era of mountain making when pressures within the earth forced huge sections of the crust upward. At this time Colorado was covered by dense forests of ferns and other plants. The decayed remains of this vegetation, compressed by layers of mud and sediment became the coal and fossil fuel deposits that underlie much of west-central Colorado. Also, many of the rugged sandstone formations of the area were created.  The Cretacous period gave way to the Cenozoic Era; that was marked by renewed volcanic activity and mountain making through folding and faulting. At this time Grand Mesa, the world's largest flat-topped mountain, and the coal-rich Grand Hogback, which bisects the region from northwest to southeast, were formed. 
During a new epoch, the Mesozoic Era, a great shallow sea covered much of what is today's Utah. The extreme eastern edges of this ocean touched west-central Colorado. Dinosaurs and other large creatures lived in the coastal marshes. As the earth cooled these behemoths became extinct and great sheets of ice crept across the land.  Glaciers gouged and shaped the terrain creating new features and then receded. In their wake a young river system developed.  The huge flow in these watercourses, along with winds, combined to perform the last major topographic modifications through erosion. 
The Gunnison and Grand (later Colorado) rivers were the primary agents of these changes.  The Colorado, which created the Grand Valley, largest in western Colorado, has its origins at Grand Lake. From the lake it flows across Middle Park, cuts through the rugged Gore Range and then creates a broad floodplain in the sandstones of the Middle Valley. Near the eastern mouth of Glenwood Canyon, the Eagle and Colorado rivers meet and the mighty Colorado cuts through the Flattop Mountains, creating the spectacular Glenwood Canyon from which it emerges into a wide valley that extends westward to DeBeque Canyon and then widens into a valley again that continues into Utah.
This, the Grand Valley, is a product of sandstone erosion and volcanic ash.  That process created rich medium to moderately coarse soils capable of producing crops under irrigation. Just west of Rifle, Colorado, the bluffs of the Piceance Basin rise several thousand feet above the valley floor and level off into a plateau that becomes the southern edge of the Green River formation. This is one of the world's largest sources of oil shale.  Farther west, the Colorado River winds its way through the narrow sandstone walls of DeBeque into the area where the Gunnison and Colorado rivers meet. The river (Colorado) then makes its way into Utah and eventually empties into the Gulf of California thereby forming the second largest river system in the United States. 
Numerous rivers and streams drain the Colorado River basin. To the east, the Eagle River emerges from the heart of the Rockies near Leadville, Colorado, and cuts a spectacular gorge near Redcliffe, Colorado, then flows through the Eagle Valley where a broad floodplain is created. At Dotsero, Colorado, the Eagle and Colorado rivers meet. To the west, the Colorado is fed by the Roaring Fork River. Beginning near Aspen, Colorado, the Roaring Fork flows down a broad valley and emerges at Glenwood Springs. The entire area is sprinkled with over 100 hot springs. The Roaring Fork is in turn fed by the Crystal River to the west and the Frying Pan River to the East. Cutting through granites and sandstones these rivers created narrow valleys in which there is limited agriculture. Both the Frying Pan and Crystal intersect mineral belts; the Frying Pan originates in the Leadville mineral belt with rich deposits of gold and silver found along its banks,  while the Crystal provides passage into layers of coal and marble.
Farther west numerous creeks flow into the Colorado. Canyon Creek, Elk Creek, Rifle Creek, Garfield Creek, East and West Divide Creeks, Mamm Creek, Parachute Creek, Roan Creek, and Plateau Creek are the main drainages to the north and south of the upper Grand Valley. These intersecting passages cause the land to have broken, difficult terrain. The creeks are not perennial in all cases; they may cause flooding during periods of heavy runoff.
The Grand Junction area is drained by Big Salt Wash, East and West Salt Washes, East Creek, Kannah Creek, Whitewater Creek, and the Dolores River. The land here is broken mesas with limited access, most of which occurs along the river drainages. 
West-central Colorado is a land of contrasts. From the high elevations of the Continental Divide to the lower elevations of the valleys a variety of flora and fauna exist. Species of evergreens, such as Engleman Spruce and Lodgepole Pine, are found in the higher elevations while Pinyon Pine and Cottonwoods thrive at the lower elevations. Aspens are the predominant herbaceous trees of the higher reaches of the region. Much of the plateaus and valleys are covered with Oakbrush, Salt Bush, and Sagebrush. 
Generally, vegetation is dependent upon climate and irrigation. The dry areas tend to be covered with sage and grasses while the mountain regions have large stands of timber intermingled with lush grassy meadows.  These areas were long used for lumbering and grazing.
The climate of west-central Colorado can be characterized as extreme. From the high country just west of the main range of the Rockies temperatures range from 50 degrees F below zero in the winter to the mid-70s during summer. The narrow, deep mountain valleys are usually very cold in the winter. The wider, more shallow valleys, such as the Grand Valley, tend to be warmer. Winter temperatures hover near 40 degrees while in the summer the mesas often see 110 degree F readings. The climate of the Grand Valley, moderated by the surrounding mountains, is warm enough to provide a long growing season. The mountain valleys such as the Eagle and the Roaring Fork experience greater temperature extremes and are unable to sustain lengthy growing periods. 
Moisture is limited in this region. Like the rest of Colorado, the climate is dry; snow and rain runoff is important. The availability of water for domestic, agricultural, and other uses has been one of the key factors shaping human occupation and use of the land.  The bulk of moisture falls in the form of snow on the high peaks during the winters. In the spring the melting snows provide the rivers with water that is diverted and used for agriculture and other purposes. Annual snowfall ranges from 10 or more feet in the high rockies to a few inches on the mesas to the far west. The average rainfall is 6 to 11 inches a year, making this a semi-arid region.
All these topographic and climatic features influenced settlement of the region. In particular, the blockade formed by the mountains, while protecting the valleys, also acted to isolate the land from other areas and led to unique use and occupation patterns for the territory. 
Prehistoric man dates from about 10,000 B.C. and evidence of this past is abundant. These earliest inhabitants were travellers migrating to new homelands further south. Not until about 4,000 B.C. did tribes make west-central Colorado their permanent home. The area offered them a reasonably steady food supply of mule deer, nuts and berries.  Growing none of their own food, these hunters and gatherers were members of the Desert Culture. This cultural group continued in the extreme western reaches of the area well into the years after the birth of Christ. 
Further to the south, in southwestern Colorado, a new culture was developing during the same periodthe Anasazi. This people became sedentary after learning to plant crops from other groups. They experienced four distinct phases of development and held sway on their land from 1 A.D. until 1300 A.D., when they were forced to migrate south, probably because of droughts. The Anasazi were adept basketmakers and potters, but possibly are best known for their construction abilities as seen in the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. At the height of Anasazi power, their lands stretched as far north as Glade Park and through trade networks, elements of their culture spread even further. 
The Fremonts were one tribe influenced by Anasazi cultural dissemination. These people occupied west-central Colorado generations before the Anasazi culture evolved, living as part of the Desert Culture. However, once trade was established, the Fremonts practiced selective adaptation. Fremonts started to grow corn, squash, and beans while maintaining their old skills as hunters and gatherers. They built pithouses and occasional surface dwellings such as the earliest Anasazi had, but never developed the larger surface structures such as Mesa Verde. However, in the hills around Grand Junction, the Fremonts did leave many petroglyphs as evidence of their existence.  The Fremonts may have been the predecessors of the Shoshonean tribes, one member of which became the primary occupants of the Colorado Rockiesthe Ute. 
In approximately 1200 A.D., the Fremonts abandoned their fields and disappeared as a discernible cultural group. Many explanations for this shift, such as the abundance of food and therefore the lack of need to grow crops, have been put forward by archaeologists and anthropologists.  Whatever the reason, the Utes did emerge and remained the dominant tribe in western Colorado until the nineteenth century.
The Utes were hunters and gatherers of the Great Basin anthropological grouping and Shoshonean language family. There were seven major sub-groups of Ute: the Uintahs, Yampas, Parianucs, Uncompaghres, Weeminuches, Capotes, and Mouaches. The Parinucs and Uintahs were the primary inhabitants of west-central Colorado.  They were band and lineage organized and because of their dependence on natural food supplies, Utes seldom formed groups of more than 100. Armed with bows and arrows, these people were able hunters and feared warriors.  The Grand Valley was a favorite Ute spot because of the mild winters, abundant game on Grand Mesa and in the Piceance Basin, and the readily available pinon nut supply.  Glenwood Springs was highly prized by the Native Americans because of the medicinal and "magical" qualities of the hot springs. The area was elevated to sacred status by the Ute before 1800. The tribe also used the lands around McCoy as a burial ground for centuries before the Europeans arrived in Colorado. 
The Ute remained pedestrian and limited in their travels until after the first Europeans arrived in North America. However, Spanish intrusion into New Mexico led to a socio-economic revolution for the Ute. The newcomers brought with them the horse and once seen, it became a highly prized possession by all Western Native Americans, Ute included. Introduced to Colorado by 1700, the horse allowed the Ute to increase their effectiveness as hunters. New sources of food such as the buffalo were hunted and Ute territory expanded. Also, with the greater ability to secure food, the size of their bands grew. At approximately the same time guns appeared on the Colorado scene. Native American possession of firearms did not lead to great power shifts but it did increase the chance for success in wars and hunts. 
Equestrian Utes expanded their trade and hunting territories and in so doing, came into contact and subsequent conflict with other tribes. The Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe were traditional Ute enemies because those three tribes invaded Middle Park and other Ute mountain territories. The horse, in turn, allowed the Ute to assault the plains of their enemies on revenge raids and buffalo hunts.  The mobility of the horse permitted the Colorado natives to solidify their trade relations with the Pueblo tribes to the south and their new allies, the Comanche. This alliance lasted until about 1750, when the Utes broke relations with the Commanche and allied with the Jicarilla Apache and Spanish to war on their former confederates.  To their north and west the Ute maintained cordial, yet at times hostile relations, with other Shoshonean peoples of the area. Ute war with these tribes was primarily for territorial defense. 
The Ute reached the height of their power and influence by 1750. In 1800, reports indicated that these mountain people had a population of approximately 1,000.  This increased population and power coincided in time with the first direct Ute contacts with Europeans, in this case the Spanish from New Mexico. The natural isolation of west central Colorado, the barrier that had protected the early inhabitants, was finally breached by New Mexicans during the second half of the eighteenth century.
The first known European visitors to Colorado were the Spanish who moved north from their bases in New Mexico. Three factors motivated these early explorers. Many searched for precious minerals hoping to repeat the Spanish experience in Aztec Mexico or Inca Peru. Others saw the natives in their "heathen" state and sought to convert them to Catholicism. Expansion of the Spanish empire was the third reason for Conquistadores to go forth into the wilds of the American Southwest.  This final factor became increasingly important after French and British trappers and explorers entered the Rockies in the middle eighteenth century. 
In 1540, the first Spaniard who traveled through Colorado was Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. He was in search of Cibola, the fabled seven cities of gold, but he found no riches.  Popular legend maintains that members of this expedition, probably priests, were the first Europeans to see and name the Mount of the Holy Cross, located near Pando, Colorado.  Records of Coronado's trip do not mention the event, however the rumor persists. The Conquistadore's failure to find riches and ensuing disappointment on the part of the Spanish government led to a 40 year suspension of exploration in the Southwest. 
Stories gleaned from natives captured in northern Mexico during 1579, led to a resumption of Spanish exploration in New Mexico the next year. The locals told of cities to the north where the inhabitants were well fed, lived in great stone houses and were dressed in fine cotton clothes. These descriptions of the Pueblos in New Mexico were enough to pique Spanish curiosity.  Fray Augustin Rodriguez led an expedition north along the Rio Grande in 1581 and 1582, to contact these peoples. The Padre succeeded and his reports led to further exploration and eventual settlement of New Mexico. 
From 1580 to 1680, Europeans moved into the new province and continued to explore the periphery of their domain. They established trade with the Ute and heard many tales of the land that would become Colorado.  The Spanish dream for a strong, prosperous New Mexico was interrupted temporarily in 1680, when Pueblo Indian uprisings rocked the province.
Unwilling to surrender its lands to the natives, the Spanish government sent Don Diego De Vargas to New Mexico to reconquer the territory. Successful at his assigned task, Vargas decided to do some exploring into the lands to the north and, in 1695, he visited the San Luis Valley. Colorado was of small interest to the Spanish for it showed little agricultural promise, and no precious minerals were found. 
The Ute were affected by the European presence in New Mexico in a variety of ways long before the Spanish actually entered Colorado. The first cultural contacts came in the form of trade after Europeans opened commerce with traditional Ute trading partners, particularly the Pueblos.  During the seventeenth century, a flourishing trade developed between Spaniards and Utes who captured Digger Indians in Utah and transported them to Taos and other New Mexico business centers. Part of this commerce, no doubt, was routed via the Grand Valley and Gunnison River to reach Spanish settlements. The Utes exchanged slaves for horses, mules, and firearms. Also, they traded buckskins, hides, and dried meats for a variety of iron products and salt. 
This trade continued into the second decade of the eighteenth century when Ute raiders attacked Taos and relations between the two groups cooled for a time.  This was not the first such episode and often the Spanish replied by sending punitive expeditions into Ute lands. However, these incursions usually accomplished little and by 1750, the Native Americans and Europeans entered into a formal alliance. The treaty guaranteed Spaniards safe passage through Ute lands and led to a new series of expeditions into Colorado. 
The first formal post-treaty exploration (from 1761 to 1765) was led by Juan de Rivera, a veteran explorer and frontiersman. During those years he made three trips into southwestern Colorado, traveling as far north as the present site of Delta, Colorado, along the Gunnison River. Finding nothing of great value, he returned home and reported that the area was of little worth. However, in the years following Rivera's trips some of his men established a brisk trade with the natives along the Gunnison River in Colorado.  In 1775, Pedro Mora, Gregorio Sandoval, and Andres Muniz, three Gunnison River traders, followed that river north in search of new customers. They reached the junction of the Gunnison and Grand (Colorado) Rivers, the present site of Grand Junction, Colorado, before turning back to New Mexico.  They became the first known Europeans to see the Grand River.
During the next year Spanish officials launched their greatest effort to date to penetrate west-central Colorado. During 1776 the government in New Mexico decided that a new route to California was needed for imperial security. The Spanish, in particular the Catholic Church, were interested in a communication line to the Pacific coast. They looked for a northern route because the Hopi (Moqui) Indians blocked the most direct route across Arizona.  Two Franciscan explorers, Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Fray Francisco Atensio Dominguez, led the effort. They decided to follow the traders' trail into Colorado as the first leg of their route to California. The Padres felt this could be done without a large party and at minimum cost. 
The proposal interested New Mexico's governor at Santa Fe and he volunteered to help arrange the trek. After providing material assistance, Governor Fermin de Medinueta saw the expedition off on July 29, 1776. The party of ten left Santa Fe and worked its way north into Colorado by August, 1776. They passed the future site of Dulce, New Mexico, and then moved to the San Juan River then on to the Dolores River. 
Upon reaching the Dolores, the expedition became lost. With help from friendly "Yuta" (Ute) Amerindians, the party was guided across Grand Mesa and down into the Grand Valley. Here they became the first recorded Europeans to have seen the Upper Grand Valley. In September the group crossed the Mesa into the Plateau Creek drainage. From here they moved downstream to Jerry Creek where they found water.  At this point they turned east and set up camp one-and-a-quarter miles downstream from the present Una bridge.  The expedition then moved westward along the Grand River to Roan Creek and from there they marched over Douglas Pass to Douglas Creek.  Along the way they saw the Canon Pintado (Painted Canyon) and what they felt to be veins of gold along the canyon walls. However, no attempts were made at mining. From the Douglas Canyon area the band headed west into Utah along the White River Valley. On September 14, 1776, they camped at the future site of Jensen, Utah. From there the expedition proceeded southwest across the state and into Arizona; they return to Santa Fe on January 2, 1977, without finding a route to California. 
The knowledge gained from the Dominguez-Escalante explorations was not widely distributed and many of the areas that had been explored for the first time remained "undiscovered". The expedition was of some value for later travellers for the map they produced and that the resources of the Great Basin area were explored.  However, outside of a few traders who widened their trading areas by 1800, the Spanish were not interested in taking advantage of these discoveries, and it was not for another 40 years that the Mexicans and Anglo-Americans would again venture into west-central Colorado.
Last Updated: 31-Oct-2008