Rocky Mountain National Park
A History
NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter 2:

"We stood on the mountain looking down at the headwaters of Little Thompson Creek, where the Park spread out before us. No words can describe our surprise, wonder and joy at beholding such an unexpected sight."
Milton Estes on the discovery of Estes Park, October 15, 1859

IT IS hard for historians who dwell on the heroic to admit that almost none of the famous explorers of the West ever set foot in the land that would become Rocky Mountain National Park. Other hidden spots and easier routes caught their attention. In the past, attempts have been made to link such famous individuals as Kit Carson and John Charles Fremont to this stretch of mountains. Sadly, those claims are quite unreliable. For even though explorers and travelers appeared in the general region during some two hundred and fifty years, it was not until 1859 that someone would approach these mountains close enough to claim discovery. More isolated peaks, lakes, and valleys lingered in obscurity even longer. The same mountains that draw visitors today acted to deter people of an earlier era because of the rigorous barriers they posed to travel.

The earliest European explorations into Colorado's mountains and plains approached from the south. Between 1540 and 1600, Spanish expeditions marched out of Mexico, probing the Great Plains and examining much of today's American Southwest. Around 1600, the Spanish began colonization efforts near Taos and Santa Fe. By mid-century, an expedition under Juan de Archuleta penetrated Colorado, becoming the first recorded adventurers to do so. Archuleta, with a troop of soldiers, moved northward after some rebellious pueblo Indians. Fifty years later, in 1706, Juan de Ulibarri marched into Colorado with forty soldiers and one hundred Indian allies, once again hunting Indians who had fled their benevolent dictatorship. Both of these Spanish units probably confined their visits to a military purpose and to the Arkansas River Valley.

While entering sections of today's Colorado, the Spanish discovered that other Europeans had been visiting the Great Plains. Indians told of French traders coming from the East, and they produced firearms as evidence of growing commerce. In 1719, another military force marched northward hoping to chastise the Utes and Comanches for their New Mexican raids. In 1720, an expedition proceeded all the way to the Platte River in today's Nebraska to determine the extent of French influence. Under the leadership of Don Pedro de Villasur, this force of one hundred men traveled along the South Platte River, which they called the Rio Jesus Maria, and probably spotted Colorado's famous Front Range. An attack by unfriendly Pawnees left eighty-eight Spaniards dead and twelve remaining troopers dashing for the safety of Santa Fe. Needless to say, Spanish interest in their northern frontier dwindled.

Official Spanish expeditions seemed to center on military necessity. How many private citizens ventured northward into Colorado's mountains, searching for treasures of silver and gold, is unknown. One intriguing hint about those adventurous souls came in 1859 from a prospector named Samuel Stone. Exploring a region "near the headwaters of Big Thompson Creek, close to the base of Long's Peak," Stone reportedly came upon "what appeared to be the site of an old mining camp." Aside from shafts, excavations, and cabins, Stone reported finding that much of the timber in the area had been cut and even "a portable outfit for distilling" including "a kettle-like copper vessel and a small copper 'worm' of several coils." Denver's frontier editor William N. Byers suggested that this was a "Spanish digging" and inquired about mining activity among some old-timers in Santa Fe. There he discovered a local tradition about some "Portugese adventurers" who passed through that town on a mining expedition to the north. In Santa Fe folklore, however, the Portuguese simply disappeared, presumably meeting their doom among the Indians. [2]

If the record of Spaniards spotting these mountains seems sketchy, it is probably because the major interests in their lives centered closer to Santa Fe. They believed that Colorado's mountains offered far less potential for wealth than the mines of Mexico or the genteel encomiendas of New Mexico. Even their French competitors of the eighteenth century failed to develop any serious interest in exploring the heart of the Rockies. That failure is most surprising because the French voyageurs penetrated so many other isolated regions. As early as 1720, according to some reports, the French in Illinois "heard rumors of Spanish mining in what would seem to have been the mountain-parts of Colorado." [3] Apparently, French gold seekers never investigated those rumors. But French traders, active even after France lost its North American claims in 1763, did explore the river systems of the Great Plains. Those unnamed fur seekers gave familiar sights some memorable names. Longs Peak and its lofty companion Mount Meeker, for example, became known as "Les deux Oreilles" (The Two Ears) among the early French trappers who eyed those landmarks from out on the plains. [4]

Artist Frederick Remington portrayed a dauntless mountain man. (Author's Collection)

Obscure Frenchmen had far less to do with national claims or domination than did European leaders. By 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte had cleverly regained French ownership over the vast Louisiana region. Spanish holdings once again faded southward. But Napoleon quickly became disenchanted with his dream for a giant North American empire and sold this stretch of ill-defined real estate to the United States for $15 million. The miffed Spanish now looked northward to face a restless new neighbor, an ambitious nation intending to assert its claims clear to the crest of the Continental Divide—and beyond.

American ownership was advanced by both official explorers and frontier traders. In 1806, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike made a foray for the U.S. Army into southeastern Colorado and South Park, only to be arrested and sent home by the Spanish. Americans were still regarded as trespassers. But at the same time, free trappers such as James Pursley began exploring Colorado, testing its potential in beaver. His keen eyes also spotted flakes of gold as early as 1805. Groups of Missouri traders, led by such men as A. P. Chouteau and Julius De Munn, followed in hopes of commercial ventures. They found Indians willing to parley, and plenty of valuable beaver. They worked along the Colorado Front Range between 1811 and 1817, only to have the protective Spanish authorities confiscate their wealth of collected pelts. Other trappers such as Ezekial Williams would follow in their wake, sometimes able to elude both the Spanish military patrols and hostile Indians while extracting a few precious beaver pelts from the Rockies. Dangers aside, the growing profits from the fur trade insured a continuing march toward the Rocky Mountains over the next three decades.

But fur traders and trappers were not known for their literary talents. Little about their explorations is known; accounts of their journeys are typically vague. Although many of them probably penetrated today's Rocky Mountain National Park, their tracks and tales have long since vanished.

A timid rodent, the beaver was among the first of the West's resources to be exploited. Trappers and traders roamed a wide area for two generations seeking beaver pelts in the early nineteenth century. (RMNPHC)

Official explorers, on the other hand, were expected to provide long and detailed reports. It is through their eyes that we catch early glimpses of the region. Following American victory in the War of 1812, Congress decided to promote trade and commerce in the West. A major thrust was intended toward the upper Missouri River. The so-called Yellowstone Expedition of 1819 planned to establish forts, make treaties with Indians, collect data on the area, and generally assert American ownership, while also evicting British traders. One of the leaders of this highly organized effort was Major Stephen Harriman Long. He had joined the topographical engineers in 1817 and now was designated as leader of the scientific phase of this highly touted effort. But the Yellowstone Expedition proved to be a fiasco. It spent far too much money and proceeded up river so slowly that it had made its way only as far as Council Bluffs by the end of the 1819 season. While members built a winter camp and leisurely studied the Omaha Indians, Congress voted to withhold further financial support. Partly to make a final stab at some accomplishment, two minor expeditions were organized. One group headed toward Minnesota while Major Long took a contingent westward toward the mountains.

He headed a party of twenty-two men as they followed the course of the Platte River, a stream that Frenchmen earlier had named for its flat appearance. Long's task was to make observations of the animal life, the geological and biological features, and perhaps study some Indians as well. By late June of 1820 they approached the mouth of the South Fork of the Platte, moved up along that stream, and entered the present state of Colorado.

On Friday, June 30th, the official expedition journalist, Captain John R. Bell, noted that at eight in the morning "we discovered a blue strip, close in with the horizon to the west—which was by some pronounced to be no more than a cloud—by others, to be the Rocky Mountains." Not since the Pike expedition fourteen years earlier had anyone "official" laid eyes on this range. Bell continued his euphoric description, stating that the day was slightly hazy but that eventually their view sharpened, "and we had a distant view of the summit of a range of mountains—which to our great satisfaction and heart felt joy, was declared by the commanding officer to be the range of the Rocky Mountains. . . ." He added that "a high Peake was plainly to be distinguished towering above all the others as far as the sight extended." Later it would be that mountain to which Major Long's name would be attached. Then, like so many travelers who came after, Captain Bell noted the contrast of their tedious prairie journey with the scene that now lay before them. "The whole range had a beautiful and sublime appearance to us," he observed, "after having been so long confined to the dull and uninteresting monotony of prairie country. . . ." [5]

Major Stephen H. Long led the 1820 expedition that crossed the Great Plains and scouted the base of the Rockies. (Colorado Historical Society)

According to Dr. Edwin James, the expedition's botanist and geologist, three French guides helped direct Long's party toward the base of the Rockies. These men were listed as Bijeau, Le Doux, and Julien. Joseph Bijeau was singled out by Dr. James as being particularly helpful because "he had formerly been resident in these regions, in capacity of hunter and trapper, during the greater part of six years." It was from Bijeau that the Long Expedition learned about the Rocky Mountain interior. "The mountains are usually abrupt," Dr. James related, "often towering into inaccessible peaks, covered with perpetual snows." Bijeau told of Colorado's large western slope parks, allowing James to report that "the vallies within the Rocky Mountains are many of them extensive, being from ten to twenty or thirty miles in width, and are traversed by many large and beautiful streams." Whether Bijeau or his fellow trappers ever visited Middle or Estes parks remains unknown, but it appears likely. "His pursuits," Dr. James concluded, "often led him within the Rocky Mountains, where the beaver are particularly abundant." [6]

Members of the Long Expedition viewed Colorado's Front Range as they traveled along the South Platte River. Their exploration of the mountains was confined to a climb of Pikes Peak. (RMNPHC)

Major Long and his men traveled southward along the foothills of the Front Range. They paused briefly to allow members to climb "the Peake" later named for Zebulon Pike, and then they returned eastward. Only the names of Major Long, Dr. James, and Joseph Bijeau remained behind, staying attached to mountains and creeks as a memory of their brief tour. Within a year or two, when their reports and observations were published, their conclusions about the future of this region were pessimistic. Traveling here was "extremely disagreeable;" the Great Plains were too dry and desolate to ever support a population, Major Long argued: "it is almost wholly unfit for cultivation;" it was a fine place for "savage" Indians, who lived within "the shades of barbarism." [7] Only a few itinerant hunters could be attracted to this realm of wilderness.

So during the three decades following Major Long's brief tour, only the mountain men and a few bands of Indians ruled the Rockies. The era of the fur trade brought a handful of crusty characters, hardened by life in the wilderness, searching mostly for beaver. Rarely did these hunters build shelters; they tended to wander and they usually wintered with the Indians. Their personal equipment consisted mainly of those items essential for survival in the wilderness, called their "possibles" or "fixens." Historian Hiram Chittenden noted that a mountain man's baggage was spare, consisting of a rifle and its accessories, his traps, some knives, hatchets, and a few culinary utensils, some tobacco, coffee, sugar, and salt, some bedding made of a buffalo robe, and a horse and pack stock to haul his furs.

These "lonely hermits of the mountains" fell into a "habit of seclusion," preferring the company of wilderness and solitude to that of civilization. Chittenden portrayed the mountain man as "ordinarily gaunt and spare, browned with exposure, his hair long and unkempt, while his general make up, with the queer dress which he wore, made it often difficult to distinguish him from an Indian." His personality was described as "taciturn and gloomy" since he had become "accustomed to scenes of violence and death and the problem of self-preservation." [8] His language was an illiterate mixture of English, Spanish, French, and Indian words, sprinkled with expressions only used on the frontier. George Ruxton, a western traveler in the 1840s, reported numerous campfire conversations. In one statement, a trapper responded to a question about the presence of hostile Indians: "Enfant de Garce, me see bout honderd, when I pass Squirrel Creek, one dam war-party, parce-que, they no hosses, and have de lariats for steal des animaux. May be de Yutes in Bayou Salade." [9] What he said was that skulking Indians ready to steal horses put the trappers on guard, regardless if those Arapaho were heading into South Park to attack the Utes.

Trappers led a solitary and hazardous life. Little evidence exists to prove that mountain men trapped beaver in the streams of Rocky Mountain National Park. (RMNPHC)

In 1846, historian Francis Parkman toured the West and sat at a campfire one evening with several "uncouth figures," among whom were "two or three of the half savage men who spend their reckless lives in trapping among the Rocky Mountains. . . ." Parkman found very little in their demeanor or appearance worthy of praise. "They were all of Canadian extraction," he wrote, "their hard, weather-beaten faces and bushy moustaches looked out from beneath the hoods of their white capotes with a bad and brutish expression, as if their owners might be the willing agents of any villainy. And such in fact is the character of many of these men." [10]

Exactly how many beaver pelts may have been extracted from the streams of Rocky Mountain National Park during this fur trading era is not known. Yet signs of a lucrative trade dotted the nearby region, allowing us to assume that trappers worked every likely drainage. By the 1830s, small trading posts began to appear along the South Platte River just to the east of today's Park. About 1835, Fort Vasquez was established near the mouth of Clear Creek and by 1838 reestablished near the present town of Platteville. In 1837 or 1838, Ceran St. Vrain and his partners William and Charles Bent (well known as prominent Santa Fe traders and founders of Bent's Fort on the southern prairie) established Fort St. Vrain about a mile and a half below the mouth of St. Vrain Creek. Also by 1836, Lieutenant Lancaster P. Lupton built a trading post called Fort Lancaster, located about a mile north of today's Fort Lupton. A year later competitors Peter Sarpy and Henry Fraeb built Fort Jackson about ten miles south of Fort St. Vrain. All these posts vied for trade with the Indians, sought buffalo hides as well as beaver pelts, and served as depots for the trappers. But just as these posts were built, men's fashions in hats changed. Beaver felt gave way to silk, demands for beaver pelts declined, and within a decade all four forts were deserted. Traveler Francis Parkman noted on his 1846 journey that Fort St. Vrain "was now abandoned and fast falling into ruin. The walls of unbaked bricks were cracked from top to bottom." He added that "our horses recoiled in terror from the neglected entrance where the heavy gates were torn from their hinges and flung down." "The area within," Parkman concluded, "was overgrown with weeds, and the long ranges of apartments once occupied by the motley concourse of traders, Canadians, and squaws, were now miserably dilapidated." [11]

Fur trappers and traders were few in number and the American West was vast, helping explain why a small section of the Rockies might be ignored. (RMNPHC)

One of the few individuals who visited this region during its fur trading heyday—and bothered to write about it—was Rufus B. Sage. A native of Upper Middletown, Connecticut, Sage traveled throughout the West between 1841 and 1844. He journeyed to Fort Hall, Idaho via the famed immigrant trail; he met and hunted with mountaineers; he helped transport furs down the Platte and Missouri rivers; he spent weeks at Fort Lancaster observing life there. "The business transacted at this post is chiefly with the Cheyennes," he later recalled, "but the Arapahos, Mexicans, and Sioux also come in for a share and contribute to render it one of the most profitable trading establishments in the country." [12]

He joined a futile attack by a company of Texans upon New Mexico in the spring of 1843 and returned to Fort Lancaster nearly destitute. It was in September of 1843 that he acquired a horse and some gear and proceeded westward into the mountains on a hunting excursion "where, unattended by anyone, I had a further opportunity of testing the varied sweets of solitude." [13]

His account for September 30th told of heading "for ten or twelve miles, through a broad opening between two mountain ridges, bearing a northwesterly direction, to a large valley skirting a tributary of Thompson's creek, where, finding an abundance of deer, I passed the interval till my return to the Fort." [14] Historian Leroy Hafen credits Sage as having entered Estes Park. And if Sage's account can be accepted, he became the first man to report about the wonders of this region.

"The locality of my encampment presented numerous and varied attractions," Sage wrote, sounding a bit like an advertising man. "It seemed, indeed, like a concentration of beautiful lateral valleys, intersected by meandering watercourses, ridged by lofty ledges of precipitous rock, and hemmed in upon the west by vast piles of mountains climbing beyond the clouds, and upon the north, south, and east, by sharp lines of hills that skirted the prairie. . ." Few modern writers have duplicated his vision of these "far-spreading domains of silence and loneliness." Hunting brought Sage into the mountains and in Estes Park he found wildlife abundant. "It also affords every variety of game, while the lake is completely crowded with geese, brants, ducks, and gulls, to an extent seldom witnessed." Thoughts of successful hunting waned in his mind, however, as he waxed philosophic about the beauties of nature. "What a charming retreat for someone of the world-hating literati! He might here hold daily converse with himself, Nature, and his God, far removed from the annoyance of man." [15]

Here he hunted for a month. "I was quite successful with my rifle," he noted, "and, by degrees, became much attached to the versatile life of lordly independence consociate with the loneliness of my situation." [16] On October 29th he left Estes Park, traveled down St. Vrain Creek (which he called Soublet's creek), and arrived at Fort Lancaster on October 30th. Soon he returned to the East, married, settled down, wrote and published a book about his travels, and spent the rest of his life farming near his home town. His Rocky Mountain Life; or, Startling Scenes and Perilous Adventures in the Far West during an Expedition of Three Years appeared in August of 1846. In some ways, his observations marked the end of the fur trading era. The old trappers and traders were being replaced by a new breed of frontiersman.

A native of Connecticut, Rufus B. Sage explored the Front Range in the Autumn 1843, offering the first documented glimpse of the Estes Park region. (Colorado Historical Society)

But neither Sage's visit nor his book stimulated a real rush to the Rockies. The 1840s and 1850s did see a number of men like him, however, "exploring parties" crossing the Great Plains, heading for California, investigating the unsettled wilderness. Between 1842 and 1848, for example, the "Pathfinder of the West" John Charles Fremont made five government-sponsored expeditions westward. Returning from California in June of 1844, his expedition passed through Middle Park. There they met 200 Arapaho and Sioux encamped and hunting. He and his men did not tarry, but moved rapidly toward South Park and then to the plains. Fremont could have chosen a more direct route toward the plains leading through Rocky Mountain National Park, but he did not. However, he was aware that trails along the Continental Divide were well known before his 1844 arrival. The "mountain coves, called Parks" and the "heads of the rivers, the practicability of the mountains passes, and the locality of the Three Parks were all objects of interest," Fremont noted as he began finding paths in Colorado, "and although well known to the hunters and trappers, were unknown to science and history." [17]

Some writers have argued that one of Fremont's guides, Kit Carson, fully explored and trapped all the territory around Longs Peak and even built a cabin near its base. William F. Drannan, only seventeen years old in 1849, claimed to have traveled widely with Carson. He told of crossing the Rockies from the Plains to North Park via the upper Cache la Poudre on one of those trips. Recalling his visit, he remembered considerable Indian activity on the trails. "It was the custom of the Utes," Drannan noted, "to cross over the mountains in small squads every spring and kill all the trappers they could find and take their traps and furs." [18] It is possible that Kit Carson and his sidekicks did explore all the hidden valleys of Rocky Mountain National Park, but those claims might also be wishful thinking on the part of those who hoped to forge a link with a legend.

The late 1840s saw people moving West in increasing numbers. American victory in the Mexican War assured national expansion; the gold rush to California attracted thousands. Persecuted Mormons joined land-hungry immigrants on a western surge of settlement. And the flotsam of those migratory movements began scattering into every nook of vacant territory.

Even tourists began to roam the West. Francis Parkman made his journey along the Oregon Trail in 1846 and George Ruxton took his tour the following year. Many would follow, but few visitors ever duplicated the famous hunting excursion of Sir St. George Gore, an Irish Baronet. His hunting expedition, which lasted from 1854 to 1857, centered in Wyoming but brought him briefly into Middle Park. Not one to travel light, Gore's "grand hunting party" included forty men, two valets and a dog handler, more than one hundred horses, twenty yoke of oxen, fifty hunting hounds, twenty-eight vehicles, and famous mountain men Jim Bridger and Henry Chatillon acting as guides. Lord Gore's stay in Middle Park lasted only from July through September of 1854. Whether he hunted around Grand Lake is unknown, but his party did find plenty of buffalo, deer, and elk. By October Lord Gore and his hunters trouped back to Fort Laramie. He would spend the remainder of his American jaunt on escapades into the northern Great Plains. His impact upon Middle Park was negligible. But he does represent a developing awareness, even in Europe, that the American West could be considered a place of adventure. Again, the area of Rocky Mountain National Park could not boast of entertaining this eccentric nobleman, but in time it would receive its share.

The discovery of gold changed everything. Decades of hunting, trapping, and trading in Colorado seemed almost lackadaisical when compared to the onslaught of prospectors who thundered onto the scene after 1858. Traces of gold had been discovered earlier, in 1805, 1835, 1843, 1849, and in 1854, but none of those "strikes" produced a "rush." In June of 1858, a company of one hundred Georgians, Missourians, and Cherokee Indians led by William Green Russell traveled up the Arkansas Valley to prospect in the drainage of the South Platte River. All but thirteen of this party deserted after a month due to poor panning and constant Indian scares. But by the end of July, Russell and his diehards managed to extract small amounts of gold dust amounting to $800 from the gravels of the South Platte and its adjacent streams. News traveled fast. Newspapers in Kansas and Missouri started publishing wildly optimistic reports about these finds, probably hoping to stimulate local economies by outfitting men rushing west. On July 24th, the Weekly Kansas Herald stated: "On the headwaters of the South Fork of the Platte, near Longs Peak, gold mines have been discovered and 500 persons are now working there." [19] Hyperbole helped to produce excitement. By October 29th, the Lawrence (Kansas) Republican announced that parties were forming and departing from Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, and even from as far away as Michigan.

Following the 1848 discovery of gold in California, prospectors roamed the West. Colorado's boom began in 1858, bringing a rush of people to the Rockies. (Author's Collection)

But many who rushed to Colorado soon believed they had been conned. Some gold could be panned from the creeks all right, but amounts remained very small. A. A. Brookfield, writing from St. Vrain's Creek on January 26, 1859, attempted to set the record straight: "We have found the best quantity of gold that has been discovered, and cannot make one dollar per day." "My impression of the mines," Brookfield concluded, "is that they are a d--d humbug." [20]

Others agreed that Colorado's gold rush was a hoax and began returning to the East. Yet, in May of 1859, George A. Jackson made a strike on Chicago Creek at Idaho Springs and John H. Gregory found a deposit on the North Fork of Clear Creek between today's Black Hawk and Central City. Newspaperman William N. Byers reached Gregory's diggings on May 20th, 1859, and found twenty men working with two favorable quartz leads discovered. Two weeks later he estimated that three thousand men were combing the area; thirty leads had been prospected and several hundred claims had been made. Colorado's future was assured. Thousands trekked across the plains with golden visions filling their heads. Reviewing this excitement in 1867, Ovando Hollister noted: "As they came within sight of Long's Peak, lying like a smoky thunderhead in the far and indefinite horizon, a hundred miles distant, we can imagine their exaltation of feeling." [21]

Most of the details of Colorado's boom-time growth and development need not detain us here. It is enough to say that a dozen or more Front Range towns such as Denver, Boulder, and Golden, mushroomed overnight. Mixed with the prospectors came land speculators, town builders, merchants, ranchers, various elements of low life, and as wide an assortment of people as America could produce. Some estimate that a hundred thousand people flooded into Colorado as "Fifty-niners."

An artist's depiction of Joel Estes displays the face of a frontiersman. Estes came to Colorado during the gold rush, turning to cattle ranching almost immediately. (RMNPHC)

One fellow bitten by the "gold fever" bug was Joel Estes. A type of foot-loose man common to our westering, the Kentucky-born Estes started his life as a frontier farmer in Andrew County, Missouri. There he and his wife Patsy raised thirteen children while depending upon Black slaves for labor in carving out an estate. Along with thousands of others in 1849, Estes and his eldest son Hardin hit the trail to California. There they staked a valuable claim, eventually selling it for $30,000. During the next decade, wanderlust took Estes into other corners of the West. In 1854 or 1855, for example, he went to Oregon and back to California searching for a new spot to homestead. When news of Rocky Mountain gold reached his ears, Estes, then 53 years old, packed up his wife, six of his children, five Black slaves, a few friends, and a herd of cattle, and joined the stampede to the gold fields.

Above: After climbing through the foothills Joel Estes and his son Milton found Estes Park and soon became enchanted with the scene. (RMNPHC)

Arriving in Denver on June 15th, 1859, Estes scouted the region for a likely place to stake a claim or settle. He saw plenty of panning and placer mining activity, but he decided that the California Mother Lode had been much richer. He and his group camped for a few months near today's Golden, Colorado, helping to create that new settlement. In late September he decided to move, locating twenty-two miles north of Denver at a spot then known as Fort Lupton Bottom, near the South Platte River. He felt this new ranch site would insure adequate forage for his herd of cattle. There they built crude cabins, harvested some wild grass for hay, and prepared to spend the winter.

In mid-October, Estes, along with his twelve-year-old son Milton and perhaps some other friends, embarked upon a hunting or prospecting trip into the mountains. Traveling north and west across the ridges and along the creeks, Estes finally stood looking into a valley he assumed to be North Park. In fact, his eyes gazed upon today's Estes Park. "No words can describe our surprise, wonder and joy at beholding such an unexpected sight," Milton Estes would write some forty years later. "It was a grand sight and a great surprise." [22]

An abundance of elk, deer, and mountain sheep meant easy hunting for the Estes family, as well as for sportsmen and market hunters in the years to come. (RMNPHC)

After exploring this valley for a few days, Estes concluded that it was not North Park after all. They found "no signs that white men had ever been there before us." Even the Indians had left very little evidence of their visits. "There were signs that Indians had been there at some time," Milton Estes recalled, "for we found lodge poles in two different places. How long before, we could not determine." [23]

Many details about the Estes family claiming this valley for their ranch have been lost or are clouded by time and conflicting memories. Nevertheless, it is clear that Joel Estes decided that this newly found park would be ideally suited for a cattle range. So, sometime in 1860, Estes and his sons returned, built two log cabins at the eastern end of the park, and took possession using the frontier custom of merely squatting upon vacant land. "We were monarchs of all we surveyed," Milton Estes remembered, "mountains, valleys and streams. There was absolutely nothing to dispute our sway. We had a little world all to ourselves." [24] Later that year they drove a herd of about sixty cattle from their ranch near the Platte River up through the foothills into their newly found mountain pasture.

Estes apparently hired several men to assist in herding and in guarding his cattle during the following winter and during the winter of 1861-1862 as well. Years later, one of those helpers, Dunham Wright, referred to that experience as "two of the happiest winters of my long life . . . feasting and fattening on mountain sheep and elk." [25]

Joel Estes, like other frontiersmen, was a resourceful man. He knew how to exploit the wealth of nature to insure both survival and personal profit. And Estes Park provided an abundance of wildlife that attracted his attention. Cattle took time to graze and fatten; elk and deer could be harvested immediately and easily sold in Denver. Prospectors with gold on their minds were too busy digging or panning to take time to hunt for their supper. So Joel Estes took advantage of easy hunting and that nearby demand for meat. His son Milton noted: "One fall and winter the Writer killed one hundred head of elk, besides other game, such as mountain sheep, deer and antelope." [26] They butchered the animals, using some of the meat themselves, and "dressed many skins for clothing which we made and wore." Not surprisingly, the Estes family used this region much like the Indians and the trappers who preceded them. But a bit more exploitively, they also marketed the game animals. Milton Estes reported: "By this time (1863) we had made a trail to Denver, where we sold many dressed skins and many hindquarters of deer, elk and sheep. Much of the gold was not made into coins, so they sometimes weighed out gold dust to us in exchange." [27]

The Civil War interfered with Joel Estes's plans for his newly found park. In 1861 Estes made one of several trips back to Missouri, where, as a slave owner, he encountered hostility. So, seeking a favorable political climate, he decided to move to Texas. A brief attempt at cattle ranching did not prove successful there and he soon returned to Missouri, freed his slaves, and in 1863 decided that Colorado offered the brightest future. Between 1863 and 1866, Joel Estes and his family attempted to make their new homestead in the mountains into a profitable venture. But life there was not easy.

They discovered that the winters could be "very hard and cold." They found it was necessary to store up hay for their cattle and that meant cutting native grasses by hand using a scythe. When their hay supply became exhausted, it was necessary to drive the cattle down toward the foothills or to dig through snow drifts, enabling the herd to forage. Hunting continued to earn the family its extra income, and they took a four-day trip to Denver once every two months in order to market their quarry. In the city they picked up their mail and other news from the outside world. Life for the Estes women was equally lonely and harsh. Milton Estes recalled how primitive conditions were confronted by these pioneer women: "The women of our families, my mother, sister and wife, cheerfully shared with us the rugged life of the pioneer. With dutch ovens, iron kettles hanging over open fire places, they cooked food that could not be surpassed. No modern methods could equal the splendid meals of wild game, hot biscuits, berries, cream, etc., that they prepared." [28]

It is difficult to tell to what extent the Estes family roamed across today's Rocky Mountain National Park. It seems certain that hunting ventures took them almost everywhere, from the slopes of Longs Peak itself into every major drainage nearby. Tales of fabulous hunting filled Milton Estes's memory. He told of killing "a whole band of thirteen deer, at one time, with a muzzle loading rifle;" he recalled the excitement of shooting an intruding bear "as big as an ox" one thrilling night; he remembered how easy it was to bag bighorn sheep on a particular rocky outcrop where the Estes hunters used "a trained dog that we set on them, and they would strike straight for the Sheep Rock, and then we would get the whole flock." [29] Hunting filled their time and their stomachs and insured their survival.

Although credited as the region's discoverers, Joel Estes and his family were not totally alone. Across the range, near Grand Lake, for example, another Missourian named Philip Crawshaw built a log cabin sometime around 1857 or 1858. He ran a trap line along the North Fork of the Colorado and other trappers occasionally joined him in his enterprise. He stayed in the region until 1861, when he felt he had his fortune made after trading furs for gold dust in Denver. While returning home to Missouri, the unfortunate Mr. Crawshaw was attacked by William Quantrill's infamous Confederate raiders and robbed of all his earnings. Another resident in these mountains, Alonzo Allen, was an adventurous prospector searching for gold throughout much of the Rocky Mountain Front Range. In 1864 he built a cabin southeast of Longs Peak, about two miles east of today's Allenspark. Details about men like Crawshaw or Allen are slim. And other trappers or prospectors, remaining nameless upon the pages of history, certainly haunted these mountains during the early 1860s.

One professional wanderer, editor William N. Byers of the Rocky Mountain News, made a visit to this portion of the Rockies in August of 1864. His excursion shows that people interested in "adventure and amusement" were also attracted to the mountains soon after the Colorado gold rush began. Starting from Denver with three companions, a wagon, horses, and camping gear, Byers proceeded toward Longs Peak following the rugged cattle trail etched by the Estes family. Their route (which roughly followed today's Highway 36 from Lyons to Estes Park) was primitive, "so difficult was it to get along that we left the wagon in disgust; packed a few necessary articles on our horses, cached the balance, and pushed ahead with more rapidity." Soon they spotted Estes Park, "a very gem of beauty." Byers was impressed: "The landscape struck us at first sight as one of the most lovely we ever beheld, and three or four days familiarity with it only increased that admiration." [30]

An 1873 photograph of Grand Lake displays a solitary log cabin, probably not unlike the structure built by Philip Crawshaw in the late 1850s. (RMNPHC)

There they visited the "home of Mr. Estes, the pioneer and sole occupant of this sylvan paradise." Earlier they met Joel Estes and one of his sons along the trail, heading for Denver. At the homestead Byers met Patsy Estes, "a pleasant old lady of forty-five or fifty years," as well as Milton Estes and his sister. Byers found that "we were the first visitors they had seen this year and they seemed overjoyed to look upon a human face more than their own." He added that "they are getting tired of the solitude and we suspect would like a change." Editorially he noted, "The picturesque will do for a time but like everything else it grows monotonous." [31]

Patsy Estes joined in pioneering with her husband, willing to face isolation and some brutal weather. The Spring of 1866 saw the Estes family move toward better ranching country on the Great Plains. (RMNPHC)

Byers and his three companions came not to "discover" but to climb Longs Peak. Apparently others had preceded them in that attempt. Byers referred to "all who had started up it had gone from this point . . . and they had invariably returned unsuccessful, pronouncing the highest summit impossible." On August 19th, Byers's party set out to scale Longs Peak regardless of past failures. Yet that same day they were disappointingly unable to locate a useable route to the summit. However, on the morning of August 20th, they stood atop Mount Meeker, "as high as anyone has ever gone" and "added our names to the five registered before. . . ." Just then, a climb of Longs Peak seemed impossible. "We are quite sure that no living creature, unless it had wings to fly, was ever upon its summit," Byers wistfully noted, "and we believe we run no risk in predicting that no man ever will be, though it is barely possible that the ascent can be made." [32]

So they descended to the Estes ranch and then journeyed homeward. Although a conquest of Longs Peak eluded them, Byers wrote glowingly about the region. "Eventually this park will become a favorite pleasure resort," he prophesied. [33] Encouraging others to visit the area, he added that "The trip to Longs Peak and back can be made in five days, but it is better to take six, seven, or eight days for it. Our's occupied six and a half altogether." [34] The promotion of tourism had begun.

The winter of 1864-65 proved to be particularly severe in Estes Park. Soon after, the Estes family decided to move. "We needed a milder climate and a wider range for the cattle," Milton Estes explained, "for we wanted to engage in stockraising on a larger scale." [35] So Joel Estes sold the mountain valley he had tried to homestead, now named for him by William Byers. Two men were ready to purchase Estes's rights to the land, a Michael Hollenbeck and a fellow named "Buck." Supposedly, the valley exchanged ownership for a yoke of oxen. On April 15, 1866, Joel Estes and his family left their mountain homestead, moving to southern Colorado to start another ranch. In 1875, Joel Estes died at the age of sixty-nine in Farmington, New Mexico. As happened among other pioneer families, the Estes children scattered across several states, from New Mexico to Iowa. But none remained in Estes Park. Like some who came later, Joel Estes had found it difficult to wring success out of the "sylvan paradise." Scenery and good hunting were no match for rough winters and loneliness.

Within a few short years, between 1859 and 1866, Estes Park and Longs Peak started to gain wide recognition. Men seeking gold used Longs Peak as a landmark; many maps included its name; the growing population of Denver gazed upon its slopes as they went about their chores; the range of Rockies between Estes Park and Grand Lake drew hunters, prospectors, and subsistence ranchers such as Joel Estes; and, among others, William Byers simply came to take a closer look. From as far away as France, the famous novelist Jules Verne granted Longs Peak its discovery in the world of literature. In 1865, Verne wrote a science fiction tale entitled From the Earth to the Moon. The popular writer told a tale of sending a projectile with three men and two dogs to the moon. A huge astronomical observatory on earth was necessary for this great fictional enterprise, so Verne chose the isolated Longs Peak "in the territory of Missouri" upon which to place his 280-foot-long telescope, with a "magnifying power of 48,000 times." [A HREF="notes.htm#36">36] From its position as merely one of a thousand peaks in the Rocky Mountains only a few decades earlier, Long Peak emerged as the fictional center of world astronomy. From those few, nameless French trappers calling Longs Peak and Mount Meeker Les deux Oreilles to a French novelist predicting the heart of the Rockies as a future scientific center, these mountains began to match men's minds. Through the efforts of Spaniards, Frenchmen, and Americans, who acted as government officials, trappers, and traders, prospectors, hunters, and writers, Longs Peak and its mountainous surroundings were gradually discovered.

Located on the southern horizon of Estes Park, Longs Peak beckoned climbers from the 1860s on. (RMNPHC)


Rocky Mountain National Park: A History
©1997, University Press of Colorado All rights reserved.
This text may not be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the University Press of Colorado.