An Isolated Empire: A History of Northwest Colorado
BLM Cultural Resource Series (Colorado: No. 12)
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Chapter III:

Exploration by America in the far west began after Louisiana was purchased by the United States in 1803. With this acquisition, millions of acres of unexplored land was added to the nation. As a result, a series of expeditions and surveys were ordered by the government, beginning with Lewis and Clark, and not ending until 1876. The purpose of the survey efforts was to map the land and to provide basic information on the resources, native inhabitants, and the flora and fauna of these vast new areas; their suitability for settlement was to be determined. Usefulness of the land was uppermost in the minds of most Americans at the time, and for this reason, the surveys were conducted at government expense, for public purposes. To insure that exploration of the west was accomplished, the United States government assigned the task to the U. S. Army. Within the Army, the Topographical Engineers were given the job of actual exploration. [1]

One of the visitors to the northwest corner of Colorado included Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville, who explored the Great Basin in 1826, and again in 1832, but did little to improve knowledge of Colorado. Besides official government explorers, there were other travellers in the west. Several parties of men interested in the west made long, hard treks into the wilderness. One such group was the Thomas Jefferson Farnham party of adventurers who took the Santa Fe Trail to Bent's Fort, from which they went northwest to the Blue River country, crossing the Continental Divide into Middle Park and then moving west into the Yampa (Bear) Valley. Once on the Yampa, the party went to Fort Davy Crockett in August of 1839, where Farnham described his stay. On the way to Crockett, the Farnham party observed Steamboat Springs, and crossed the country near the Little Snake River, which he noted was quite dry and useless. Brown's Park was described as a virtual paradise after the Little Snake area. [3] Farnham noted that the Brown's Park Valley was rich and could be used for agriculture; he said that some vegetables were being grown there for the fort's consumption. [4] Upon leaving the fort, the party went up the Green River and then on to Oregon, their final destination.

In an area where there were few white men, Farnham and his group met the party led by F. A. Wislizenus of St. Louis. The two groups compared notes and then parted. Farnham's descriptions of Fort Crockett were glowing, while Wislizenus found it a miserable place. The two had taken different routes, and Wislizenus' was far easier; perhaps that is why he tended to be critical of the fort.

Another private traveller, E. Willard Smith, visited Brown's Park in April, 1840, and noted that Fort Crockett was still active. Smith also hunted in North Park, but he proceeded to the West Coast without having provided much information about far western Colorado. [6]

In 1843, the first of two major army expeditions to map and survey the west was begun. John Charles Frémont was ordered to blaze trails into Oregon and California, and in general to discover practical routes for settlement of the west. To do this, Frémont was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographic Engineers. His second expedition in 1844 took him into Colorado.

Guided by Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick, Frémont took a party from Fort St. Vrain in eastern Colorado to the Laramie Mountains via the Cache la Poudre River, and then from North Park into the Green River country along the Yampa Valley. Charles Preuss, the expedition's scientist, made observations of altitude, longitude and latitude, and took notes on the flora and fauna of the region. [7] The Frémont expedition stopped at Steamboat Springs, which they named. [8] The expedition then moved on to the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

Upon reaching Salt Lake, the party turned around and marched back to the Uintah country, where they visited Antoine Robidoux at his fort (Fort Uintah), which was wiped out by Indians only a few weeks after Frémont's visit. [9] From here Frémont moved into Brown's Hole, finding the remains of Fort Crockett. The group then marched to Vermillion Creek, then to the St. Vrain Area which took them back to the Platte; from there they returned to St. Louis, down the Platte and Missouri Valleys. [10]

Frémont's observations of the country in western Colorado were typical. He found North Park and the Yampa Valley abundant in game. He saw little use for the land west of the present Craig area, and he felt that Brown's Hole was of marginal value. He noted the constant outcroppings of coal, and he was interested in the numerous springs and mineral waters that were found in the region. [11] Other than these observations, the second Frémont expedition did little to improve knowledge of this region.

In 1845 Frémont was commissioned to explore Colorado in preparation for possible war with Mexico. Relations between the United States and Mexico had been poor since the proposed annexation of Texas. Some popular sentiment in the nation demanded war. The Army was aware of this and tried to prepare; they needed routes for invasion and sent out Frémont to find them. His third expedition was for military purposes only.

This third expedition was guided by Kit Carson, and took Frémont up the Arkansas River to Tennessee Pass over which his party crossed into the Grand (Colorado) River Valley. They then turned north and reached the White River. From here they marched west down the White River until they joined the Green River. From the Green, they moved west across Utah and Nevada into California. [12] His journals make little mention of Colorado; this was understandable in that there was little interest in science on this trip. The area was crudely mapped and then forgotten; California was of more interest.

Frémont's contribution of knowledge of the west cannot be under estimated; through his mapping and descriptions of the land, the public as well as the government learned what was there. Western Colorado was written off as "worthless". A major event in the region was needed to re-stimulate interest.

The needed stimulus came in 1859 with the discovery of gold along Cherry Creek near Denver. The Russell Brothers from Georgia found a little of the precious metal in placers along this waterway, and through continual "booming" by eastern and mid-western newspapers, a gold rush began in Colorado. The Pikes Peak Boom brought an estimated 100,000 people to Colorado. Soon it was evident that free gold along the creeks was not going to be enough. As miners worked their ways up the various creeks along the Front Range, Clear Creek proved to be the best. By 1861, the towns of Central City, Georgetown, and Empire were booming mining camps, and settlement was projected in Middle Park. William Byers, editor and owner of the Rocky Mountain News, bought Hot Sulphur Springs in 1861, and planned to turn it into a tourist resort. However, before that could happen an access road was needed. [13]

At Empire, with the urging of Byers, the citizens decided it would be wise to provide a road into Middle Park, using Empire as the starting point. A Swiss engineer named Edward L. Berthoud was hired to blaze a trail over the mountains. Guided by ex-trapper Tim Goodale, Berthoud and his party left Empire May 10, 1861, and traced a route over a logical pass in the Rockies. It took the group seventeen days to cross the Divide. [14] They concluded that this route would require 1-1/2 miles of roadway from Golden City (Golden, Colorado) to Hot Sulphur Springs. The cost was projected at $18,040; Berthoud concluded that such a road was possible. [15] However, due to a singular lack of traffic into Middle Park, the wagon road that was built was barely passable, and rarely used. Byers was unable to stir interest in it, and it was not until the 1870's that a new and better road was finally constructed. Berthoud's expedition was important in providing a passage over the Divide; the opening of Middle Park.

Berthoud later blazed a trail across western Colorado, using the White River Valley, and across the Green to Salt Lake. Jim Bridger was his guide, but nothing came of the effort. The Army was called in to provide railway surveys in the 1850's, and the John Gunnison survey of Colorado provided information about the Gunnison River country. This was the last official effort until the late 1860's when a new survey was made in northwestern Colorado.

John Wesley Powell was chosen for the job of surveying the White River country, northwestern Colorado, and the Green River. This awesome task was begun in 1868 when Powell started preliminary work. He gathered a party of men at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, and then marched them down to the White River. Here, near the present site of Meeker, Colorado, he found a small park, where he wintered. Powell Park was west of the White River Indian Agency founded in 1868. [16]

Powell, having successfully wintered in Powell Park, prepared to leave in the spring of 1869. His plan was to survey the Green River, stopping to take latitude and longitude readings, in addition to providing basic mapping of the area. This rugged river had never been fully explored before, although some fur trappers including Jim Bridger claimed they had boated part-way down the Green. Powell's crew included only nine men in three specially designed wooden boats. By the time the party reached the junction of the Green and Yampa Rivers, they had lost one boat and considerable quantities of supplies. They passed through Flaming Gorge and into the Canyon of Ladore (near Brown's Hole). Powell's men continued down the Green River to the Colorado River where they went into the Grand Canyon, reaching Collville, Utah, during the summer of 1869. [17]

The Powell survey of 1869 provided new and more accurate information on northwestern Colorado. The area was described by Powell as being of marginal quality for agriculture, and he concluded that the only way to make it work was to irrigate on a massive basis. [18] However, Powell noted that there was not enough water available for that effort. He described Brown's Park: ". . .natural meadow lands are found interspersed with the fine groves of cottonwood". He also noted that: "Some of the bench lands are well adapted to irrigation, but a portion of them and the foothills back of them are naked, valueless bad lands". [19] He estimated that there were only ten square miles of irrigable land in Brown's Park. [20]

The Powell survey included valuable information on the condition of lands in the far west. Powell felt that this land was indeed not suited for agriculture, and he did not see it for cattle land. Nonetheless, Powell's main objective of tracing the Green and Colorado Rivers was achieved, and it would be up to another to finish exploration in western Colorado.

Map 3. The Explorers (click on map for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 31-Oct-2008