Southeast Colorado
Historical Markers

Map of Southeast Colorado Historical Markers

Topics (click on a topic to jump to that section)
Army of the West | Bent's Fort | Borderlands | Charles Autobees | Plains Indian Life | Rocky Ford | Sand Creek Massacre | Trail Days

Army of the West

Marker Topic: Army of the West
Address: East side of I-25 in roadside park near Trinidad
City: Near Trinidad
County: Las Animas
Marker Text: "Away into the wee hours of the morning did we tramp, tramp, tramp. Nothing broke the stillness of the night but the steady tramp of the mean and the rattle of the wagons. We were now to prove the sincerity of those patriotic oaths so often sworn, and right nobly it was done."

"At the first sign of daylight, 'Assembly' sounded as shrilly as if waking to renewed exertion the iron sinews of a steam engine, instead of a weary mass of human energy scarcely composed to rest. But it was none the less inexorable and, satisfying nature with a crust of hard bread, we were on the road again." - Ovando J. Hollister, Boldly They Rode (1863)

Charged with moving on Santa Fe, New Mexico, during the Mexican-American War, Col. Stephen Watts Kearny made strategic use of the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail. The well-known commercial route simplified a daunting logistical task - moving 1,500 men and an equal number of supply wagons across nine hundred miles of desolate prairie. From Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the troops advanced about twenty-five miles a day in stifling heat, crossing the Arkansas River into Mexican territory on August 1, 1846. Five days later the army forded the Purgatoire River in the vicinity of present-day Trinidad, and on August 18 it occupied Santa Fe without firing a shot. Kearny's long-distance march not only improved the road but also helped popularize it. Trade traffic increased, and the trail remained an important military pipeline.

The Civil War nearly came to Colorado when Confederate forces, seeking control of the Rocky Mountain goldfields, came out of Texas and drove halfway through New Mexico. In response, two units of the First Colorado Regiment came together near the newly founded town of Trinidad on March 7, 1862. They marched south for the next thirty-six hours, covering ninety-two miles (including a snowy hike over Raton Pass). Only when their pack animals began to drop from exhaustion did the soldiers finally halt. After a few hours' sleep they were on their way again - "with all possible and impossible speed," one soldier wrote - into a blinding windstorm. The regiment reached Fort Union, New Mexico, on March 11 and provided decisive support at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. Days later, the Rebels were in full retreat.

Bent's Fort

Marker Topic: Bent's Fort
Address: CDOT Rest Area - East Bound US 50 - just west of La Junta - Sante Fe Trail
City: La Junta
County: Bent
Marker Text: On the other side of the Arkansas River, one mile to the west, stands a reconstruction of Bent's Old Fort, the unique creation of three cultures: Anglo-American, Cheyenne, and Mexican. Ceran St. Vrain and the brothers William and Charles Bent conceived the idea of a trading empire centered here on the Arkansas River. The Cheyennes picked the fort's site and agreed to supply Bent, St. Vrain & Co., with buffalo robes, a mainstay of the fur trade. Hispanos from New Mexico built the fort using adobe construction techniques especially suited for this region. Bent's Old Fort flourished from 1834 until 1849, when it was abandoned.

Santa Fe Trail: Mountain Route

From 1821 to 1846, the Sante Fe Trail was an international road for American and Mexican traders. In 1848, the Mexican-American War ended, adding new Mexico to the United States. The trail became a national road for commercial and military freighting, stagecoach travel, and mail service until the railroad reached Sante Fe in 1880.
- Long Distance Trails Office, National Park Service

Borderlands

Marker Topic: Borderlands
Address: Parking Area above Arkansas River Park at Union Ave
City: Pueblo
County: Pueblo

Borderlands

The 1819 Adams-Oñis Treaty fixed the boundary between the U.S. and Spain at the Arkansas River, formalizing a centuries-old convention - the Arkansas had always been a border. Neighboring Indian tribes fronted tensely on this crucial waterway, whose wealth of resources (water, timber, pasture, game) were essential for survival. The colonial powers, too, jostled for control of the river, which came to represent the proverbial line in the sand. Any breach drew the fiercest resistance. Spain was particularly vigilant, ignoring French and American travelers north of the Arkansas but treating all who ventured south of it (including Zebulon Pike) as hostile invaders. With America's 1848 conquest of northern Mexico and the removal of the Arapahos and Cheyennes in 1865, the river finally ceased to divide. For the first time in perhaps 1,000 years, the Arkansas served a single country. Today, it remains a cultural border of the American Southwest.

Crossroads of the Arkansas

Pueblo sits at the intersection of two ancient thoroughfares - the Arkansas River, gateway to the mountains and a key prairie highway, and Fountain Creek, part of the long north-south road along the Front Range of the Rockies. Utes, Plains Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahos, and Cheyennes all frequented the area around present-day Pueblo; the Spanish and French sent explorers here; and the site's steady traffic made it a perfect location for nineteenth-century traders from Mexico and the United States. By the 1890s the railroads, built along the two timeless footpaths, were carrying immigrant workers from around the world to Pueblo. Today this welcoming junction of mountain and plain bears the influence of more than thirty nations.

Pueblo

Pueblo's frontier precursor, El Pueblo (1842-1854), counted African Americans, Mexicans, Anglos, and Indians among its ever-changing residents. The city that eventually grew here boasted even greater ethnic diversity. Vast waves of immigrants came to Pueblo in the late nineteenth century, landing in Smelter Hill's shanties, then moving up as their prospects improved. These new Americans - Italians, Irish, Slovenians, Welsh, Germans, Greeks, Russians, Southern and Eastern European Jews, and Japanese - found plentiful work in the smelters and rail yards, and they added immeasurably to the city's cultural life. Pueblo's Italian stonemasons constructed many of Pueblo's buildings; Hispanos contributed to livestock raising practices and labor for the railroad; the first Slovakian Eastern Orthodox church in Colorado was built in Pueblo in 1899; and all groups had thriving businesses, newspapers, and civic organizations. Thousands came to Pueblo in search of the American dream of freedom and opportunity. While for some the search was fruitless, for many more the dream proved a reality. Today many of their descendants are civic and cultural leaders.

Pueblo's lavish Mineral Palace (est. 1891) featured shrines to King Coal and Queen Silver. How apt - for coal was literally king in Pueblo, and hard metals made the town glitter. Incorporated in 1860 as a ranching and supply town, Pueblo soon became Colorado's capital of heavy industry. Its furnaces glowed around the clock, employing 8,000 workers and producing such quantities of iron and steel that the city grew famous as the "Pittsburgh of the West." But the catastrophic flood of 1921 staggered Pueblo, and the Great Depression shuttered many of its businesses. By 1943 the Mineral Palace was gone, along with the wealth it embodied. Pueblo began to retool in the 1980s, mining resources such as art, culture, recreation, and tourism to manufacture a new age of prosperity.

Railroads

Pueblo's leaders put up $50,000 to lure the Denver & Rio Grande to town in 1872. What an investment! The railroad not only transported cattle, but fed ores to local smelters that fashioned these raw materials into rails, spikes, and pistons. D&RG magnate William Jackson Palmer founded Pueblo's first steel plant, which later evolved into mighty Colorado Fuel and Iron - by 1900 among the world's largest steel producers. Four other railroads connected Pueblo to distant markets, fueling commerce and employing thousands of workers. The industry sagged during the Great Depression but bounced back briefly during World War II, when trains delivered munitions to the Pueblo Army Ordnance Depot. Though the railroads' passenger heyday ended after the war, freight cars still rumble through Pueblo, a routine nearly as old as the city itself.

Charles Autobees

Marker Topic: Charles Autobees/Land Grants
Address: Boone Town Park-S side of CO 96-SE Corner of Main & College Ave.
City: Boone
County: Pueblo

Charles Autobees/Land Grants

Charles Autobees was perfectly suited to help settle this part of the West. Born in St. Louis in 1812, he came west in the 1820s, and for the rest of his life he worked as a trapper, trader, scout, rancher, and public servant. Fluent in English, Spanish, and several Indian languages, Autobees possessed all the skills and friendships necessary to succeed in this borderland, a territory hotly contested by Mexico, the United States, and native peoples from half a dozen tribes. In 1853 he built a ranch known as Autobees' Plaza five miles south of here - one of the first permanent settlements in what would become Colorado and a center for local government. From then on until his death in 1882, the frontiersman acted as a teacher-helping others who, like him, sought to put down roots here. Hundreds of his descendants still live in this area.

Land Grants

Charles Autobees's ranch lay within the four-million-acre Vigil-St. Vrain Grant, the largest of six land grants the Mexican government made in present-day Colorado during the 1840s. A remnant of Spanish colonial rule, the land-grant system transferred public acreage to private owners, who (in theory) would help populate territories under their control. The Colorado grants were meant to encourage settlement along Mexico's northern border (then defined by the Arkansas River) and secure it against threats from Indians and the United States. But the strategy failed: the United States annexed the region in 1848 after winning the Mexican-American War. The U.S. government immediately challenged the grants' legitimacy and dispossessed many landowners-including Charles Autobees, who lost control of his ranch lands despite holding a title deed. Some disputes ended up in court and stayed there for decades. Even today, unresolved land-grant issues occasionally surface.
Plains Indian Life/Buffalo Country

Marker Topic: Plains Indian Life/Buffalo Country
Address: CDOT Rest Area-Junction of CO 96 & 287
City: Eads
County: Kiowa

Plains Indian Life

By the nineteenth century, Colorado's southeastern plains country was home to many native peoples, including Comanches, Kiowas, Plains Apaches, Arapahos, and Cheyennes. Although vastly different in language and culture, they shared certain adaptations and inventions that allowed them to survive and prosper in the challenging prairie environment. The horse, introduced to the Indians by the Spanish, provided the means to hunt the far-ranging herds of buffalo, the Indians' primary food source. The travois, a horse-drawn carrier, made possible the rapid movement of people and things. And the tipi, a portable buffalo hide shelter, provided protection against even the most severe storm.

The Southern Cheyennes
Originally an agricultural people of the Great Lakes region, the Cheyennes ventured into the western plains country sometime in the seventeenth century, where they became a classic Plains Indian people. By the early nineteenth century, the Southern Cheyennes occupied present Kiowa County and southeastern Colorado. Here, they lived with other native peoples, sometimes in cooperation, sometimes in conflict. After the great Indian peace council of 1840, a generation of quiet settled over the region. Tragically, this peace was shattered in 1864 at Sand Creek, a few miles east of here, when U.S. troops killed over 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children. In 1867 the Cheyennes - along with their Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche allies - were forcibly removed to reservation lands in present Oklahoma.

Don't Fence Me In

Large-scale cattle ranching on these high plains began during the 1870s. By then, the Plains Indians had been forcibly removed to reservations, and the great buffalo herds had been hunted to near extinction. Here, in southeastern Colorado, the vast grasslands attracted eastern and European capitalists who saw a beef bonanza equal to any gold discovery. And so began the day of the cattleman - a time when the range was open and grass was king. To help the great cattle barons, Colorado required would-be sodbusters to fence roaming cattle out of their property. The open range prevailed until the late 1890s, when a network of rails, windmills, and barbed wire opened this region to farmers.

Buffalo Country

As North America's largest land animal, the buffalo weighs in at 3,000 pounds, stands six feet tall, and spans twelve feet between head and tail. Before the combined pressure of white and Indian hunters brought the animal to near extinction in the late nineteenth century, more than thirty million roamed the western grasslands, with about eight million here on the southern Plains. Although large and ponderous-looking, buffalo gallop at speeds up to thirty-five miles per hour - and can sustain this pace for fifteen miles. Its great weakness is sight. If an object does not move, a buffalo may not see it at all. Today, buffalo thrive in zoos, parks, wildlife refuges, and on ranches.

The Great Buffalo Hunt

In January 1872, twenty-one-year-old Grand Duke Alexis of Russia visited Denver, where he was promised an exciting buffalo hunt. The ducal escort party included some of the West's most legendary names: Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok. Detraining at Kit Carson, Colorado, the hunters headed for a valley between Rush Creek and the Big Sandy, a few miles northeast of here. Alexis, armed with a brace of pistols, bowie knife, and rifle, took aim and knocked down a fine bull and two cows. The success of the gala hunt, along with the champagne and whiskey that flowed freely, greatly improved relations between Russia and the United States.

Rocky Ford

Marker Topic: Rocky Ford
Address: CDOT Pulloff-NE of 2nd & Elm Ave (US 50-E bound) in park-West Side of Town 
City: Rocky Ford
County: Otero

History of Rocky Ford

Rocky Ford got off to a rocky start - its first building sat on land sold fraudulently to town founder George Washington Swink - but a smoother road lay ahead. Established in 1870 at a busy river crossing named by Kit Carson, the town moved a few miles in 1876 to get nearer the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, where it benefited from steady trade traffic and an ample water supply. Its main asset, though, was Swink himself. He developed Rocky Ford's two main cash crops, melons and sugar beets; courted the town's largest corporation, the American Beet Sugar Company; and helped build the Rocky Ford Ditch, the spine of an extensive irrigation network. Swink's formula - land, transportation, industry, and water - represented prairie town-building at its best. He died in 1910, but his many gifts to this town still live on.

Sand Creek Massacre

Marker Topic: Sand Creek Massacre
Address: CDOT Pulloff-Rd 54 & CO 96 
City: Chivington
County: Kiowa
Marker Text: "At dawn on the morning of November 29 I was still in bed when I heard shouts and the noise of people running about the camp. I jumped up and ran out of my lodge. From down the creek a large body of troops was advancing at a rapid trot, some to the east of the camps and others on the opposite side of the creek, to the west... [I]n the camps themselves all was confusion and noise - men, women, and children rushing out of the lodges partly dressed; women and children screaming at the sight of the troops; men running back into the lodges for their arms, other men, already armed, or with lassos and bridles in their hands, running for the herds to attempt to get some of the ponies before the troops could reach the animals and drive them off. I looked toward the chief's lodge and saw that Black Kettle had a large American flag tied to the end of a long lodgepole and was standing in front of his lodge, holding the pole with the flag fluttering in the grey light of the winter dawn. I heard him call to the people not to be afraid, that the soldiers would not hurt them; then the troops opened fire from two sides of the camps."

- George Bent, 1864. Bent was the son of William Bent and his Cheyenne wife, Owl Woman. Educated in St. Louis, and a Confederate Army veteran, Bent was living with the Cheyennes when Black Kettle's village on Sand Creek was attacked by soldiers.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 promised the Cheyennes and Arapahos that the territory between the Arkansas and Platte Rivers would be theirs forever. Forever lasted ten years. The 1859 Pikes Peak gold rush brought thousands of immigrants into Indian land; two years later a new treaty restricted the tribes to a small, remote reservation in south-central Colorado, far from gold country. Big Sandy Creek - Sand Creek to history - flows just west of today's U.S. 40 and marked the reserve's eastern boundary. But many Westerners objected to any Indian presence. On November 29, 1864, sixty miles downstream from this point, U.S. troops wantonly attacked Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle's peaceful village, killing several hundred men, women, and children. The infamous Sand Creek Massacre opened years of high plains conflict that ended only with the tribes' forced removal to lands in Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Montana.

Trail Days/Charles Goodnight Highway

Marker Topic: Trail Days/Charles Goodnight Highway
Address: Pinon Rest Area, NorthBound I-25
City: Pueblo
County: Pueblo

Trail Days

"A good sized steer when it is fit for the butcher market will bring from $45.00 to $60.00. The same animal at its birth was worth but $5.00. He has run on the plains and cropped the grass from the public domain for four or five years, and now, with scarcely any expense to its owner, is worth forty dollars more than when he started....and that is why our cattlemen grow rich."
-   undated item, Breeder's Gazette

It was that simple: drive the $5 steer to the $50 market and pocket the difference. Easy money. In post-Civil War Texas, where cattle outnumbered people six to one, almost anyone could cobble together a presentable herd and prod it north. From the late 1860s through the end of the century, hundreds of thousands of Texas steers hit the trail annually. Roughly a quarter of them came through here, on the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Though rougher, drier, and more exposed than routes into Kansas, the Goodnight-Loving Trail provided access to unclaimed grasslands and growing consumer markets as well as railheads. Thanks largely to this hoof-beaten highway, Colorado's cattle population grew from a scattered handful in 1860 to more than a million by 1880.

Charles Goodnight

"Charles Goodnight approaches greatness more nearly than any other cowman of history."
-   J. Frank Dobie, Cow People

In pioneering the first cattle trail from Texas to Colorado, Charles Goodnight risked everything. He and partner Oliver Loving drove 2,000 longhorns over nearly one thousand miles of trackless prairie in 1866, enduring Indian raids, dust storms, and four waterless days in the Texas panhandle. Their reward: a $12,000 sale and the eternal gratitude of the nation's stockmen. Goodnight settled just west of here at Rock Canon Ranch, bringing 30,000 head into Colorado. An economic downturn in the late 1870s ruined him financially, and he returned to Texas to build a new cattle empire. But this inspirational figure left a rich legacy in Colorado's economy and lore.

Highway for the Ages

Though less famous than the trails that brought American pioneers westward, the north- south route along the foot of the Rockies covers far greater distances in space and in time. This natural transportation corridor runs the length of the Americas and has carried ten thousand years' worth of traffic. Native peoples traveled it for centuries, Spanish explorers marched it during seventeenth- and eighteenth-century quests for territory and treasure, and U.S. pathfinders covered parts of the route during nineteenth-century expeditions. Colorado's first permanent settlers arrived on this trail from Mexico, filtering into the Arkansas River country beginning in the 1820s. By then the route was already a fixture of the North American landscape - truly a highway for the ages.

During the nineteenth century various names attached themselves to the ancient road. The segment between New Mexico and the Arkansas River became known as the Taos Trail. Farther north mountain men spoke of the Trapper's Trail; gold rushers, the Cherokee Trail; cattlemen, the Goodnight-Loving. Throughout its evolution from path to rail corridor, paved highway, and four-lane interstate, the route has remained fairly constant: from Santa Fe over Raton Pass into the Arkansas Valley, along Fountain and Cherry Creeks to the South Platte, then downstream to present-day Greeley, finally overland to Wyoming and points north. By whatever name, in whatever form, this ageless thoroughfare has always made for easy travel and useful connections.

El Pueblo

El Pueblo never achieved great commercial success, but one could make a living there. Built in 1842 by traders George Simpson, Matthew Kinkead, Robert Fisher, Jim Beckwourth, and several others, El Pueblo stood at a long-established crossroads with well-traveled roads and rich bottomland. Located on the north bank of the Arkansas River - the international boundary between Mexico and the United States - the adobe fort was a cooperative venture which proffered guns, powder, beads, and trade cloth to customers on both sides of the border. With a peak population of about 150 men, women, and children, El Pueblo had the feel of a semi-permanent settlement. But its uneven reputation scared some customers away, and the proprietors, having hoped for better profits, all departed by 1848. After a deadly Ute attack in 1854, El Pueblo was abandoned for good.

The town of Pueblo emerged as a center of industry soon after its 1860 founding, developing one of the deepest industrial bases and richest ethnic fabrics in Colorado. Waves of Europeans came to work in the city's steel mills, smelters, and factories - Germans, Irish, Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Slovenians, Greeks, and Japanese among others. By 1900 more than half of Pueblo's residents were immigrants or first-generation Americans. Widely known as "the Pittsburgh of the West," it had much in common with northeastern factory towns, including periodic labor strife and bustling ethnic neighborhoods such as Goat Hill, St. Charles Mesa, and Peppersauce Bottoms. A 1921 flood left central Pueblo underwater, but the sturdy community rebuilt. Pueblo remains one of Colorado's great cities.

Palmer's City

"My vision for this place is that it should be made the most attractive place for homes in the West - a place for schools, colleges, literature, science, first-class newspapers, and everything that the above imply."
- William Jackson Palmer, December 1871

William Jackson Palmer established Colorado Springs in 1871 as a resort for "people of means and social standing." His intentions were twofold: to appease his wife, Queen Mellen, a New York socialite who found the West badly lacking in refinement; and to attract investment capital for his expanding rail network. The settlement succeeded on both counts. With its scenic wonders, healthy climate, and opulent hotels, Colorado Springs grew popular with authors, painters, and persons of high breeding. It gained particular favor among the English, who settled in such great numbers the town was dubbed "Little London." Though it owed its existence to Palmer's Denver & Rio Grande, Colorado Springs wasn't just another railroad town; it represented the crown jewel of a vast rail empire.

The Cripple Creek gold strike of 1890 changed Colorado Springs forever. Without warning, Palmer's exclusive colony was overrun by men of crass ambition, their sweating animals and dusty boots soiling the genteel avenues to town. "Little London" became less retiring and more enterprising, more like a typical frontier community; by 1900 Tejon Street was line with mining concerns and the local population had tripled. As mining fever waned in the early twentieth century, tourism and tuberculosis sanatoriums kept Colorado Springs on the map. Fifty years later, another boom reshaped Colorado Springs: Fort Carson, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), all installed during and after World War II, made this a military hub. With the influx of jobs and federal money, Colorado Springs boomed anew, becoming one of the great cities of the Rockies.


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