Significance of the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail

FIRST OFFICIAL U.S. EXPLORATION PARTIES

Santa Fe Trail Scenic and Historic Byway follows the corridor through which U.S. history entered what is now the State of Colorado. In 1806, Lt. Zebulon Pike came this way, following up the wide and gentle valley of the Arkansas River on his way to the discovery of what he called simply "The Great Mountain." (Pikes Peak pictured here) He was exploring and trying to determine the extent of the Louisiana Purchase, as was Col. Stephen Long. Three years later when Long, after traipsing along the foot of the mountains from the Front Range south, sent most of his party back to "the States" down the same Arkansas valley while he trudged on looking for the Red River, though he mistakenly followed the Canadian River east and was surprised to find himself back on the Arkansas instead of the Mississippi. It was a vast and confusing land. Pike got lost, too.

 

INTERNATIONAL BOUNDARY

But all seemed quite clear on the none-too-accurate maps back in the stately meeting rooms of Washington. There, Secretary of State (later President) John Quincy Adams and Senior Onis, Spain's Ambassador extra ordinaire to the United States, signed a treaty in 1819, designating this same Arkansas River valley through which our Byway passes, as the International Boundary between Spain and the U. S., thus settling the rather large question of what exactly Jefferson had bought from France back in 1803. The treaty was ratified in 1821, just in time for Spain to lose it all to the insurgent Republic of Mexico. This part of the Arkansas River remains one of the few places in the Continental U. S. that served as an International Boundary, which it did between Mexico and the U. S., until the war of 1846-48, when we snatched away about half of Mexico's territory in order to fulfill our Manifest Destiny and all that.

 

THE SANTA FE TRAIL

Meanwhile, "The Commerce of the Prairies" developed from a trickle of traders with pack mules to dozens upon dozens of wagon trains, hundreds of prairie schooners, laden with trade goods pulled by groaning oxen, in an ever increasing stream between Missouri and Santa Fe. It started in a small way - a few caravans of mules from Santa Fe, heavily laden with hides and tallow. In the very year of the Adams-Onis Treaty and the Independence of Mexico, 1821, Missouri Indian trader William Becknell heard that Santa Fe was open to trade from the U.S. He hurried West -- right along our Byway -- to be the first to reach that fabled (and trade-hungry) Royal City. After realizing a neat little 5000% profit, he hastened back to Missouri so he could be the first out the following Spring. He wasn't. At least one and possibly two wagon trains of trade goods set out before him. But the race was on.

While it is true that much -- probably a majority -- of the traffic over the Santa Fe Trail went via the so-called Cimarron Cutoff through what is now the panhandle of Oklahoma and across the northeast New Mexico plains, the Mountain Branch of the trail along the Arkansas, across the plains of Colorado, to the Purgatoire, and over Raton Pass, remained the favorite of many of the traders. It offered more reliable water supplies, had better forage for livestock, and was generally more secure from Indian raiders. The Centaurs of the Plains, the Comanche, learned what rich rewards could be had by plundering the travelers along the Cimarron Cut off. Much more of the Santa Fe Trail traffic came this way after 1866 when "Uncle Dick" Wootton opened his famous Raton Pass Toll Road, a much improved trail. That meant the Raton Mountains could be crossed in only two or three days, with maybe not more than two or three broken axles.

AN AMAZING OUTPOST OF CIVILIZATION

In 1833, the three Bent brothers and their business partner, Ceran St. Vrain, built what was to become a commercial hub of civilization whose influence and magnetic pull were felt throughout the High Plains and Central Rockies, and whose name has become legendary: Bent's Old Fort. Originally conceived simply as a trading post for mountain trapper's beaver furs and Indian's buffalo robes, it soon became the point of supply, the social center, the place of refuge and safety, the rest and relaxation point, for every white man and many Indians on the plains and in the mountains. It was almost a second home to many of the West's most famous mountain men, scouts, and Indian fighters, including the illustrious Kit Carson. It was soon established as the favorite layover and repair depot on the Santa Fe Trail. Bent's Old Fort was so strategically located that the U. S. Military wanted to take it over, but their terms were not good, and rumor says that, in a fit of rage, William Bent burned it rather than let the Military have it. It is now fully restored and operated as a National Historic Site by the U. S. Park Service.

 

THE ARMY OF THE WEST AND THE CONQUEST OF NEW MEXICO

Again history marched this way, for it was at this famous trading fort, when it was at its peak of popularity and influence in 1846, that Col. Stephen Kearny assembled his impressive, if rather hodgepodge, Army of the West. From there he marched his 2,000 men and 1200 supply wagons and artillery pieces over the second leg of our Byway, invading Mexico along the Mountain Branch, over the prairies that are now part of the Comanche National Grasslands. They moved from water hole to water hole (some of which can still be seen), to the cool waters of the Purgatoire, then up and over Raton Pass and on to a bloodless conquest of Santa Fe, securing the northern battlefield of the U.S. Mexican War for the United States.

 

 


Wagons and Ruts Replaced by Trains and Rails

 

After the destruction of Bent's Fort, wagon bosses on the Santa Fe Trail began looking for another rest and repair stop. They found it at Boggsville, a small community founded in 1862 at the confluence of the Purgatoire and Arkansas Rivers. A collection of about 20 adobe structures and the last home of Scout Kit Carson before his 1868 death, the little village is undergoing reconstruction by the Boggsville Revitalization Committee of the Pioneer Historical Society of Bent County. It is open to the public and lies just two miles south of Las Animas on our Byway.


The drumbeats of war echoed along our Byway again in 1862 when the Colorado Volunteers quick-stepped through the dusty streets of the little adobe village called Trinidad. They marched up the steep trail and over the Raton mountains, hurrying to a battle at Glorieta Pass, where their victory stopped the Confederate drive to grab the gold fields of Colorado and California, saving the riches for the Union.

By this time, the Missouri Stage Company, and later the famous Barlow and Sanderson stagecoaches, were rollicking over the Mountain branch and along our proposed Byway. Coaches made quick changes of teams at stage houses, whose foundations can still be seen at many of the Trail's watering holes.

Not until the arrival of the AT&SF Railroad at Trinidad in 1878 did the vital link of the Santa Fe Trail fade from Colorado history. For years after that, wagon trains from the vast territories not served directly by the railroad, wound through Trinidad's streets to reach the rail head. And the town's Main Street was frequently choked with dusty herds of half-wild cattle on their way to the railroad holding pens.

 

 

 


A VIOLENT START OF THE 20th CENTURY

 

Those same streets, lined with ornate Victorian buildings, now designated the Corazon de Trinidad National Historic District, were center stage of one of the more violent episodes in the battle between emerging labor unions and entrenched money interests that swept our nation at the beginning of the 20th century. Rowdy protest marches surged through the streets and more than one man fell from gunshot blasts. The surrounding coal camps, several of which are along our Byway, or just a few miles off it, including the Cokedale National Historic District, were under siege. The climax came just 10 miles north of our Byway. The nation gasped in horror when women and children died in a burning tent colony during the Ludlow Massacre, now memorialized by a UMWA monument.

 

 


A SPANISH HERITAGE

This is the part of Colorado that was Spanish and Mexican territory for twice as long as it has been a part of the United States, and it shows it. The southern miles of our Byway travel along the Purgatoire River where remains of early day Placitas (small Mexican villages) can still be seen. Right on the Santa Fe Trail and our Byway is the Colorado Historical Society's only property that preserves a significant bit of Hispanic culture: Trinidad's Baca House museum. The Baca family are pictured at left. There are many other reminders of the Spanish past: places and names reflect it; adobe structures and ruins recall it; the importance of Cinco de Mayo and whispers of Penitente moradas cling to it; an irreplaceable collection of Hispanic religious folk art in Trinidad's A. R. Mitchell Museum celebrates it. There is a different ambience here, older than Colorado. Significant? Rather! A National Historic Trail, two National Historic Districts, a National Historic Site, a Colorado State Historical Society Museum, and numerous historical markers erected by the D.A.R. and the National Forest Service all testify to the Byway's historic significance. The scenic, recreational, ethnic, and educational aspects of our Byway strongly support its designation as a Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway.

 

 

 

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