Frontier in Transition: A History of Southwestern Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 10)
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The Great Reconnaissance and the Rediscovery of the Southwest

The decline of the fur trade in the Rocky Mountain region ushered in an era of transition. For two decades trappers and traders had used the trails and passes until most of the region had been seen, although little of it had been mapped and nothing resembling settlement had taken place. [1] With much of the basic discovery work accomplished by 1840, exploration in southwestern Colorado entered a new phase. The economic motives implicit in the fur trading period now became explicit national and political objectives as relations between the United States and Mexico became strained. [2] American aims turned toward expansion. The government, always a partner in discovery, began to assume a major responsibility in launching expeditions into the Far West designed to aid its citizens in the settlement and development of the region. It was to facilitate this aim that the government reorganized the United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1838 and created a separate branch of the military whose primary duties were the exploration and development of an underdeveloped continent. [3]

The Mexican War (1846-1848) presented new opportunities for exploration in the southwest, and the Army explorers who went out as a result of the conflict returned with new data and new points of view concerning the west that shaped national policy for years to come. [4] From the conclusion of the Mexican War, in 1848, to 1850, present-day Colorado was jointly a part of the unorganized territory of the United States and the State of Texas. With the Compromise of 1850, the territory of Utah was created, bounded on the west by the State of California, on the north by the Oregon Territory, on the east by the summit of the Rocky Mountains, and on the south by the 37th parallel of north latitude. [5] From 1850 until the demarcation between New Mexico and the new Territory of Colorado was set in 1861, southwestern Colorado was part of the Utah Territory. With the continental boundaries set, a new series of tasks came to the fore.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 provided renewed interest in the establishment of a transportation link with the Pacific. What with California gold, Oregon's agriculture, and Mormon migrations to Utah, millions of Americans suddenly discovered the west. These people besieged Congress with demands for wagon roads, railroads, forts, telegraph lines, and anything else which might ease their path to a variety of promised lands. [6] The "Great Reconnaissance" was basically an inventory of the area that had been opened to settlement through the acquisition of new lands, and the Army explorers who carried out such tasks played a significant role in the opening of America's western frontier.

In the decade immediately preceding the Civil War, Army explorers traversed much of the west, their objective was to dramatize the region, and to provide a vast range of scientific knowledge and economic information about the west that would underscore its value and encourage overland migration. [7] The chief task, however, was the necessity of locating vital transportation routes, and particularly a practical path for the transcontinental railroad. To achieve this aim several expeditions, between the period 1848 and 1859, came to southwestern Colorado.

Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, long interested in the financial potential of the west, befriended Taos trapper Antoine Leroux in hopes of discovering the best way from Missouri to California. Leroux's response to the Senator's inquiries was to "start as the people do now, going to New Mexico from the frontier of the State of Kansas or Independence, and for summer travelling go through the prairies up towards Bent's Fort, and up to the Huerfano to the pass El Sangre de Cristo; then out by the Coo-che-to-pa Passing, [sic] following a trail to the Great Spanish Trail". [8] Benton realized the city that seized the initiative, and made a dramatic effort on its own toward building the railway route would ultimately secure necessary federal support. In the summer of 1848, he convinced several St. Louis businessmen to finance an exploration of a central, or 38th parallel route that would run west from St. Louis to San Francisco. The expedition would be led by his son-in-law, John Charles Fremont. [9]

By 1848, Fremont had already undertaken three explorations of the west. In 1842, 1843, and 1845 he had traversed, explored, mapped and described the Oregon Trail and the wagon routes to California. [10] In his fourth western expedition, Fremont planned to follow the 38th parallel as closely as possible and locate a new pass over the Continental Divide in the vicinity of the Cochetopa Pass, which led out from the San Luis Valley, and would open a route over the San Juan Mountains into the valley of the Green River. He and Benton both seemed to believe that there was indeed an easy passage in this vicinity, and on the other side of which the mountain was an accessible route to California. In this assumption, they were ignoring a great deal of Colorado geography, as Fremont was to discover. The party left Westport, Missouri on October 20, 1848, followed the Kansas River, and pushed across the prairie until they reached the Arkansas River. Following the south bank of that river past Bent's Fort they came to El Pueblo, where the experienced mountain men warned them of an unusually hard winter to come. While at El Pueblo, Fremont engaged "Old Bill" Williams as guide, and then moved on, past Hardscrabble Post, over the Sangre de Cristos' at Mosca Pass, and down into the upper Rio Grande region in the San Luis Valley. It was December, and the party had already encountered heavy snows while crossing Mosca Pass, but Fremont persisted in his search for a central railroad route. Accordingly, "Old Bill" led the party north up Alder Creek, and into the San Juan Mountains, an impassable wintry waste where the snow was more than ten feet deep and the temperature fell to twenty degrees below zero. Somewhere in the snow Bill Williams lost his way, and the party turned north fifteen miles too soon. By the middle of December they were 12,327 feet above sea level, on Pool Table Mesa near Wanamaker's Creek, and caught in a blinding snowstorm. [11]

In all, ten perished in a month-long ordeal before rescue, which is recorded as one of the greatest disasters in the history of American exploration. Surprisingly, Fremont's and Benton's enthusiasm for the 38th Parallel route had not diminished. Five years passed before another such expedition attempted to penetrate the rugged mountain barrier of the San Juans. It would be under a different command however, that the route was explored.

By an act approved March 3, 1853, Congress authorized the Secretary of War, under the leadership of President Franklin Pierce, to employ four engineering survey parties to find a practicable route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. In the instructions issued to Captain John Williams Gunnison, defining the purpose of the expedition, he was told to "explore and survey the pass through the Rocky Mountains in the vicinity of the headwaters of the Rio Del Norte, by way of the Huerfano River and Coo-che-to-pa [sic], or some eligible pass, into the region of the Grand and Green Rivers, and westwardly to the Vegas de Santa Clara and Nicollet River of the Great Basin; and thence northwardly to the vicinity of Lake Utah on a return route, to explore the most available passes and canyons of the Wasatch Range and South Pass to Fort Laramie". [12]

Gunnison launched his 38th parallel expedition from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas on June 23, 1853. The crucial phase of the expedition was the survey of Cochetopa Pass in southwestern Colorado, and the location of a railroad route westward out of the San Luis Valley. Near the end of August, after obtaining the aid of Antoine Leroux, Gunnison's party made a reconnaissance of the Robidoux Pass area in order to determine its feasibility as a more direct route from the Huerfano River. An initial survey of the pass concluded it to be impractical for a railroad and little better for a wagon route. [13] The exploration party moved westward through the San Luis Valley to Cochetopa Pass where several thorough reconnaissances were made. Lieutenant Edward G. Beckwith noted in his journal that "no mountain pass ever opened more favorably for a railroad than this". [14] The descent on the western slope of Cochetopa was made by way of Pass Creek and Cochetopa Creek, to the Gunnison River. Following the Gunnison River toward the Uncompahgre River, the party encountered numerous difficulties. Continually harassed by hostile bands of Ute Indians, and menaced by engineering obstacles presented by the Black Canyon, Blue Mesa, Fitzpatrick Mesa and the tough sagebrush hills west of the Lake Fork, Captain Gunnison became convinced that a transcontinental railroad through that region would be impractical as well as prohibitively expensive. Continuing west by southwest, Gunnison's party crossed Cimarron Creek, climbed over Cerro Summit, and reached the Uncompahgre River Valley. The expedition passed present-day Montrose, Olathe, and Delta, and then paralleled the Gunnison River to present-day Grand Junction.

From the Grand (Colorado) River, Gunnison marched across the Green River Valley, and over the Wasatch Mountains into the valley of the Sevier River. At this point Gunnison assumed that the major task of the expedition had been completed, and the danger from Indian attack was over, but early on the morning of October 26, a party of hostile Paiutes struck the camp. Only four men survived the raid, and Gunnison was included among the fallen. The massacre of Captain Gunnison and his command was the worst disaster suffered by the Army in the west up to that time, and the publicity it received was a severe blow to advocates of a central railroad route. [15]

Command of the expedition fell to Lieutenant E. G. Beckwith, and in completing a slightly altered version of the original route through Utah, he provided the link between the Topographical Corps' 1849 and 1850 reconnaissances of California and Wyoming made by Lieutenant William H. Warner and Captain Howard Stansbury respectively. In so doing, Beckwith anticipated the actual route taken by the first transcontinental railroad through Utah and Nevada. [16]

United States Government Expeditions into Colorado. (click on image for a PDF version)

Senator Benton and John Fremont were not idly watching the progress of the 1853 railroad surveys. As soon as the Senator failed to have Fremont appointed head of the 38th parallel survey party, he again arranged and financed a private expedition. Fremont was sent out into the field nearly on the heels of the Gunnison party, but he was again to meet grief in the San Juan Mountains. Before he reached civilization on the other side of the mountains, the "Pathfinder" saw his expedition disintegrate, and, on the verge of rescue one of his men perished, frozen in the snow. [17]

Although Fremont's fifth exploration of the west and his second in hopes of discovering a central railroad route had failed, Benton had a second ace in his hand. Backed by a substantial appropriation and the appointment of Edward Beale as the Indian Commissioner of California, Benton made yet another attempt to publicize the central route to the Pacific Coast. Beale accepted his appointment and planned to take with him his cousin, the journalist Gwinn Harris Heap, who was to keep a day-by-day account of their three month journey. As a result of the trip, following basically Gunnison's 38th parallel route, and which was in itself relatively uneventful, Heap produced a privately printed report which made the Cochetopa Pass route seem almost incredible in its economic possibilities. [18]

Despite the severe hardships encountered by the Fremont and Gunnison expeditions, much publicity was given to the central route to the Pacific. During the early 1850's, roads were established across the mountains, and periodically, emigrants to California traversed the basic route followed earlier by Gunnison and Beale. Taking advantage of the trail being blazed by the Gunnison expedition were two parties of California-bound immigrants, following about ten days behind. One was known as the Hildreth party, and the other was under the command of a Colonel Burwell. It is possible however, that these were two divisions of the same group. It has been suggested that the Hildreth party, implicated in the death of an old Parvain (Paiute) chief, was responsible for the attack on the Gunnison expedition. [19] In 1858, the first major wagon train followed much of the Colorado portion of the Gunnison route heading east. The train was made up of a military detachment under the command of Colonel William Loring, and included fifty wagons and about three hundred men. [20]

As a result of the Mormon War in 1857, a series of exploration parties were sent out with orders to locate trails which converged on the Mormon kingdom from all sides, and over which supplies might be sent to General Sidney Johnson's troops in southwestern Wyoming. Desperately in need of livestock and supplies, Johnson sent out Captain Randolph B. Marcy and 64 men south to pick up the provisions from Fort Union, New Mexico. With famed scout Jim Baker leading the way, the party camped near present-day Delta, Colorado in early December, 1857. The expedition soon ran into serious trouble as it moved east, paralleling the Gunnison River, on the way to Cochetopa Pass. Drifting snow deepened, 66 mules died, twelve men froze their feet, and near the top of the pass the desperate men ran into powder snow so light that the three or four men in the lead were forced to lie down and crawl so that the snow would pack. Stranded in the winter mountains of southwestern Colorado, and living on the meat of frozen mules, the Marcy rescue expedition was itself finally rescued in mid-January. At Taos, Marcy engaged the services of Antoine Leroux to guide the return mission back to Johnson's army. Avoiding the San Juans altogether, Leroux led Marcy's men down the San Luis Valley, over La Veta Pass, up the front range to Laramie, and then into southern Wyoming and Utah. [22]

If the desired purpose of Army and scientific exploration of the Rocky Mountains was to locate a practical railroad route for migration and commerce, the experiences of Fremont, Gunnison, and Marcy did not speak highly of the potential of southwestern Colorado. In 1859 and 1860, two further expeditions into the region occurred, both of which encountered hardships in the rugged mountain wilderness. The results of these explorations further postponed any ideas of permanent settlement in southwest Colorado until the mineral discoveries of the 1870's led to a renewed interest in the area.

In the summer of 1859, Captain John M. Macomb of the Topographical Corps led a party northward out of Santa Fe along the Old Spanish Trail. He crossed over to the headwaters of the San Juan River, and marched due west from the river past the southern edge of the Sierra de la Plata Mountains of southwestern Colorado. In the Montezuma Valley region, he and his men found the ruins of numerous ancient Indian villages. [23] His task was to discover if there was a practical railroad or wagon route through the San Juan River country into Utah, and on to the west coast. He found the country so difficult that he recommended against the construction. The Macomb expedition, brought the day of the Army explorer in southwestern Colorado to a close. The mountainous terrain obviously was not a good place to build a railroad, and the weather was too severe for permanent settlement. It was to be left to the unofficial explorers, the mineral prospectors, to bring the full potential of the region to light.

One such mining expedition was led by Captain Charles Baker, who brought a prospecting group into the Animas River Valley in 1860. This party, like the Army explorers who preceded it, was met with hardships and discouraged expectations. The prospectors camped in what was known as Baker's Park, the site of present Silverton, and began diggings. After reporting lucrative findings, the area underwent a minor rush of about 300 prospectors and treasure seekers. [24] Baker's reports however, were misleading. Placer prospecting proved inadequate to a task that only later lode mining could accomplish. Heavy winter snows, a continual battle against rugged terrain, and harassment by hostile Indians combined with the persistent reminder of Fremont's and Marcy's ordeals in the San Juans to put an end to active interest in the area for at least another decade.

The southwestern Colorado region proved initially unfavorable to the needs of early Anglo-American explorers and prospectors. The potential for a transcontinental railroad, permanent settlement, and even mineral wealth, spurred by discoveries in eastern Colorado in 1858 and 1859, seemed, at best, remote. The area did, however, continue to be particularly suited for its original inhabitants. The Ute Indians had long found the mountains and river valleys amenable to their way of life. With a resurgence of interest in mineral resources by 1870, American miners, prospectors, and settlers flocked to the region once spurned for its rugged environment. A new period of development was taking shape in southwest Colorado. Two decades of southwestern Colorado history, from 1860 to 1880, proved to be a series of cultural clashes over what way of life not only could, but would maintain a permanent hold in this expanding frontier.

Chapter IV: Notes

1. Carl Ubbelohde, Maxine Benson, and Duane Smith, A Colorado History (Boulder: Pruett Press, 1976), p. 43.

2. William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. Inc., 1966), p. 231.

3. For a history of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, see William H. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 1803-1863 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), pp. 3-21.

4. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire, op. cit., p. 250.

5. Densil H. Cummins, "Social and Economic History of Southwestern Colorado, 1860-1948" (Ph.D. Thesis: University of Texas, 1951), p. 86.

See also: Cart Abbott, Colorado: A History of the Centennial State (Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1976), p. 50.

6. Marshall Sprague, The Great Gates (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1964). p. 142.

7. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire, pp. 240-241.

8. Forbes Parkhill, The Blazed Trail of Antoine Leroux (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1965), p. 164.

9. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire, p. 266.

10. LeRoy R. Hafen, "Coming of the White Man: Exploration and Acquisition, In: History of Colorado, Vol. I, eds. James H. Baker and Leroy R. Hafen (Denver: Linderman Co. Inc., 1927), pp. 333-338.

See also: Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire, p. 266.

11. LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann Hafen, Fremont's Fourth Expedition (Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1960), pp. 17-18.

See also: Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire, p. 266.

12. Wilbur Fisk Stone, History of Colorado, Vol. I (Denver: S. J. Clarke and Co., 1918), p. 62.

13. Leland H. Creer, "The Explorations of Gunnison and Beckwith in Colorado and Utah in 1853", Colorado Magazine (VI, No. 5, September, 1929), pp. 184-192.

14. Duane Vandenbusche, Early Days in the Gunnison Country (Gunnison: B & B Printers, 1974), p. 10.

15. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire, p. 287.

16. See: E. G. Beckwith, "Report of Exploration for a Route for the Pacific Railroad", Pacific Railroad Reports, Vol. II (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1853), pp. 113-114.

See also: Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire, p. 288.

17. See: S. N. Carvalho, Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West with Colonel Fremont's Last Expedition (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1954).

18. Vandenbusche, op. cit., p. 15.

19. Parkhill, op. cit., pp. 169-170.

20. Vandenbusche, op. cit., p. 20.

21. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire, p. 306.

22. Vandenbusche, op. cit., p. 13.

23. Cummins, op. cit., p. 204.

24. Frank Hall, History of the State of Colorado, Vol. II (Chicago: Blakely Printing Co., 1890), p. 192.

See also: Richard Bouts, "Lake City to Silverton: A Historical Narrative for the American Flats Planning Unit". Manuscript, Bureau of Land Management, Montrose, Colorado, 1977, pp. 20-21.

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008