Legendary Trails of Southern Colorado
The Pueblo and Taos Indians
The Pueblo Indians of Taos in the 1300s 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 traveled up to the Arkansas River in search of runaway Taos Indians in the 1660s. 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 traveled 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 1720s. The route was a gradual and relatively easy crossing of the Sangre de Cristos, 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 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.
Fur Trappers and Traders
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 1830s, 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 1840s, 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 an 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. He would then 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 were willing or able to enforce the law. The Mexican War changed all this.
Stephen Watts Kearney
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, when 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.
John C. Fremont
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 traveled 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 moccasin soles. Ten 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.
Captain John Gunnison
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 arrows from a group of Pahvant Utes. The whole expedition was wiped out.
John C. Fremont’s Final Expedition
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.
1859 Gold Rush
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.
Sanderson-Barlow Stage Line
A stage route from Las Animas to Boggsville and then up the Purgatoire River Trail to Trinidad was opened in 1871. In the mid-1870s, 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 railroad town northeast of Walsenburg) to Lake City in the San Juan Mountains.
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad
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.