The Pueblo Indians of Taos in the 1300’s had a well-established system of hunting
and trading trails in southern Colorado. Long before Coronado’s men “discovered”
them in 1540, the Taos Indians were known as gifted traders and were famous for
their regional trade fairs. They operated on the interface between the products
of sedentary life: pots, corn and cotton cloth, and the products of the hunter’s
life: meat and hides.
Early Spanish penetrations into southern Colorado are not well recorded, or their
records were not well preserved. The first American Territorial Governors of New
Mexico liked to use the old papers to light their cigars and start fires. There
is a record of an expedition of Don Juan Oñate’s men into the San Luis Valley in
1598. A tribe of Ute Indians had a good laugh watching them as they tried to corral
a buffalo herd for an experimental domestication program. The Spanish efforts met
with so much resistance from the buffalo that several men were injured and several
Juan Archuleta travelled up to the Arkansas River in search of runaway Taos Indians
in the 1660’s. The Indians had fled after an unsuccessful rebellion and had sought
safety among the Apaches of El Cuartelejo (a loose federation of Apache tribes along
the Arkansas). In 1706, Juan de Ulibarri also went to El Cuartelejo to retrieve
Picuris Indians. The Apaches begged him to stay and fight their enemies, the Pawnees.
Ulibarri left, saying he couldn’t lead his troops into battle without a drum and
Governor Valverde led another expedition to the Arkansas in 1719, hoping to punish
the Comanches who were raiding Spanish settlements in northern New Mexico and to
investigate rumors that French trappers were entering the area. According to their
report, Valverde’s party of 600 had a great time on this holiday with lots of hunting
while studiously avoiding any contact with hostile Comanches. The only bad time
they had was when they got into some poison ivy and bears ate their lunch.
In 1720, Don Pedro de Villasur travelled up to the North Fork of the Platte to investigate
rumors that the French were supplying weapons to the Pawnees and encouraging the
Pawnees to attack Spanish settlements. The rumors were true: Villasur and his men
were killed and scalped by the Pawnees as they slept beside the river.
The routes taken by all these groups were different, although most of them crossed
the Sangre de Cristo Mountains over Taos Pass before heading north to cross the
Raton Mountains into what is now Colorado. In 1749, a group of French traders were
arrested in Taos and they testified that they had been guided over the Sangre de
Cristo Pass by Comanches who had been using the pass to raid New Mexican settlements
and trade with the Taos Indians since the 1720’s. The route was a gradual and relatively
easy crossing of the Sangre de Cristo’s, ascending along South Oak Creek from the
Huerfano River over Sangre de Cristo Pass, down Sangre De Cristo Creek into the
San Luis Valley and then down the valley to Taos.
In 1768 the Spanish used this new route in their punitive expedition against the
Comanches on the Arkansas. Governor
Juan Bautista de Anza came south this way after his defeat of the Comanches
and killing of Cuerno Verde, their chief, on the plains at the foot of Greenhorn
Mountain. On his way north to do battle, de Anza had also noted the gentle Cochetopa
Pass on the western side of the San Luis Valley, proclaiming that these passes would
be “the paths of empire” by which the region would be settled by Spain.
In 1806, Lt. Zebulon Pike became the first official American explorer to enter Colorado.
His party followed the Arkansas River to the site of Canon City before making their
way up Grape Creek and into the Wet Mountain Valley. They then travelled over either
Medano or Mosca Pass into the San Luis Valley at the
Great Sand Dunes. Leaving a string of frozen and starved men along the way,
Pike made it to the mouth of the Conejos River. He had time to build a stockade
before he was arrested and taken to Santa Fe for questioning, later to be released.
After Pike came the fur trappers (American, French and others). Although everything
south of the Arkansas was claimed by Spain, the trappers worked the area freely.
As the nearest customs officials were in Santa Fe, Taos became a commercial center
for outfitting the trappers and for trading in their pelts. The route over Sangre
de Cristo Pass became known as the Trappers Trail and fingers of it extended northward
In 1821, Mexico declared its independence from Spain and threw open the doors for
trade. William Becknell was poised at the border on the Arkansas and quickly made
his way up the Purgatoire River and over one of the Raton passes (San Franciso,
Long’s Canyon, Raton Pass, Emery Gap, we don’t know which). As the first trader
into Santa Fe, he made an outrageous fortune. Then he hurried back to Missouri for
more goods, establishing the Cimarron Cutoff on the Santa Fe Trail along the way.
As these trails are not one-way, over the next 10 years Americans moved more and
more goods west and Mexicans moved more and more goods east.
By the early 1830’s, small trading posts began to show up, the biggest one being
Bent’s Fort, established in 1833 by William and Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain
on the upper Arkansas. Bent’s Fort became the center of a huge trading empire and
a favorite haunt of the Plains Indians, mountain men and Santa Fe Trail traders.
To reach their interests in Santa Fe and Taos,
Bent, St. Vrain and Co. used the trail along Timpas Creek and over Raton
Pass, the route that came to be known as the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail.
Quite often folks would follow the Arkansas to the site of Pueblo where they came
to the Trappers Trail. Others would follow the Huerfano River Trail to its junction
with the Trappers Trail at Badito. Going this way a horseback rider could make it
from Bent’s Fort to Taos in only 3 days.