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      Close to Heaven… Down to Earth


Legendary Trails of southern Colorado

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
horses killed.

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
a bugle.

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
into Wyoming.

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.

By the early 1840’s the beaver trade had collapsed. In 1842, a group of traders
(including George Simpson, Joseph Doyle and Alexander Barclay) built Fort Pueblo
near the junction of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River. The traders wanted pelts
and buffalo robes and offered guns, coffee, sugar, flour, copper kettles and cloth
in trade. What the Indians really wanted, though, was Taos whiskey. Simeon Turley
started a distillery north of Taos, at Arroyo Hondo, about 1831. In 1836 Turley
hired a tee-totalling ex-trapper named Charles Autobees as a travelling salesman.
Autobees would pack mule trains with flour and Taos Lightning and head north on
the Trapper’s Trail, sometimes going as far as certain trading posts on the South
Platte. Then he would load the pelts and robes he got on a wagon at Pueblo and take
them to Missouri over the Santa Fe Trail. Pretty much everything he did for a living
was illegal but neither the Mexican nor the American authorities was willing or
able to enforce the law. The Mexican War changed all this.

Stephen Watts Kearney and his Army of the West came through Colorado on the Mountain
Branch of the Santa Fe Trail and headed south over Raton Pass in 1846. He claimed
New Mexico for the United States in a bloodless coup. A few months later came the
Taos Uprising: a mob of Taos Indians and Mexicans killed all the Americans and other
foreigners they could find, including Governor Charles Bent, Simeon Turley, Luc
Beaubien (of the Miranda-Beaubien Land Grant), and a host of others. Dick Green
(Governor Bent’s personal slave) escaped to Santa Fe and came back a few days later
with reinforcements. The fighting was fierce but when it was over, the Americans
were in charge. When Dick Green got back to Bent’s Fort, William Bent freed him
and his family as reward for Dick’s courage and dedication.

In November of 1848, John Fremont arrived in Pueblo to mount his fourth Western
expedition: he wanted to cross the Rockies in the winter. They left town and headed
up the Arkansas and then up Hardscrabble Creek to the Wet Mountain Valley. They
travelled south in the valley and probably crossed Mosca Pass into the San Luis
Valley before getting lost on the way to Cochetopa Pass. They ate their mules, then
their belts and mocassin soles. 10 men died during the retreat. There were stories
of cannibalism. The ones who survived dug their way through 30 foot snow drifts
with cooking pots and dinner plates.

In 1852 the federal government established Fort Massachusetts at the base of Mt.
Blanca to deal with problems caused by restless Apaches and Utes. The site overlooked
the San Luis Valley entrance to the Sangre de Cristo Pass. In 1858 the fort was
relocated 6 miles south to Fort Garland.

In 1853 Capt. John Gunnison headed up the Huerfano River to Badito and then over
the Sange de Cristo Pass. The route was easy, even crossing Cochetopa Pass was uneventful.
By October they were in Sevier Lake, Utah. Then, emerging from his tent at sunrise
one day, Gunnison took 15 arows from a group of Pahvant Utes. The whole expedition
was wiped out.

In December, 1853, Fremont, on his fifth and final expedition, headed up the Huerfano
River into the Wet Mountain Valley where they crossed over Medano Pass to the Great
Sand Dunes. This time he got across Cochetopa Pass easily and made it to Utah before
a severe winter storm stopped him. Again the men ate their mules while listening
to Fremont lecturing about the evils of cannibalism. Finally, one of the men died
and the rest decided to abandon their supplies and move on. The whole expedition
fell apart when they reached the Mormon settlements.

The Gold Rush of 1859 brought a new rush of traffic along the trails. Several military
forts were built along the Arkansas between 1860 and 1867. In 1866, “Uncle Dick”
Wootton finished his toll road over Raton Pass. Charles Goodnight blazed a cattle
trail over nearby Trinchera Pass in 1867 to avoid paying the toll on Wootton’s Raton
Road. Further east is Toll Gate Canyon, a favorite haunt of outlaws and highwaymen.
Black Jack Ketchum and his gang gained a lot of notoriety for their work in this

A stage route from Las Animas to Boggsville and then up the Purgatoire River Trail
to Trinidad was opened in 1871. In the mid 1870’s, the Sanderson-Barlow Stage Line
ran service from Denver to Santa Fe through Pueblo, Trinidad and Las Vegas, and
another stage line ran from Cucharas (a railrod town northeast of Walsenburg) to
Lake City in the San Juan Mountains.

In 1877 the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad blasted its way over La Veta Pass and
connected Walsenburg with the San Luis Valley. In 1878 the Atchison, Topeka and
Santa Fe arrived in Trinidad. They bought the rights to Wootton’s Toll Road and
laid tracks over Raton Pass, arriving in Lamy, the nearest station to Santa Fe on
February 16, 1880. That pretty well marked the end of the big trail days.