Topics (click on a topic to jump to that section)
Continental Divide and Utes | Fort Davy Crockett | Fur Trapping | Lake County War | White River - Battle at Milk Creek
Marker Topic: Continental Divide and the Utes
Address: Granite Pulloff, MP 189 US-24 N of Granite - E side of road
The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail
Early white travelers dreaded the forbidding Continental Divide (the high mountains separating the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds). Later settlers viewed it as a challenge to be conquered: road builders surmounted it, railroaders tunneled through it, and engineers diverted Western Slope water underneath it to irrigate farms and to sustain cities in eastern Colorado. But the Continental Divide Trail, which Congress designated a National Scenic Trail in 1978, simply takes the landmark on its own terms. When 800 miles of Colorado wilderness. The route often diverges from the Divide proper some portions are simply too rugged for travel. And therein lies the Divide's mystique: though mapped and breached, it remains somehow impenetrable, one of the nation's last unspoiled places.
Many of the roads through the Rockies began as Ute hunting trails and were widened for freight traffic during the mineral rushes of the 1860s. These rubble-strewn routes made for tedious going; one early traveler complained that after a full day's travel she could still see the embers from the previous night's campfire. That changed in 1880, when the first Denver & Rio Grande train steamed into Leadville, shortening a days-long ordeal into an hours-long excursion. Two other railroads soon pushed into the Upper Arkansas Valley, and by the 1920s motorists were driving along 40 South (precursor to U.S. 24), one of the first paved highways across the mountains. But for all the advances in travel technology, the original routes have scarcely been improved upon; somewhere deep beneath the asphalt, the Utes' footprints still linger.
Leadville-bound miners of the mid-1800s had their choice of roads through the formidable Mosquito Range all of them long, difficult, and hazardous. Mosquito Pass offered the most direct route from Denver, but at 13,188 feet it was steep and often buried in snow. Trout Creek Pass, though lower and easier, required a sixty-five-mile detour. Most travelers opted for the Tarryall and Arkansas Wagon Road, which crossed 11,900-foot Weston Pass and emerged about six miles north of here at the mouth of Union Creek. Leadville's silver-mining boom brought an unbroken stream of wagons, pack trains, and stagecoaches. Though the wagon ruts are no longer visible, the old roadbed is quite evident across the Arkansas River as one drives along U.S. 24.
Marker Topic: Fort Davy Crockett
Address: Town Park - north side of US 40 in center of town
Fort Davy Crockett
Fur Trappers and Trading
"It is a low one-story building constructed of wood and clay, with three connecting wings and no enclosure... The whole establishment appeared somewhat poverty stricken, for which reason it is also known to the trappers by the name of Fort Misery." - Frederick A. Wislizenus, 1839
The Rocky Mountain fur trade was in decline by the late 1830s, but it remained alive and well on the banks of the Green River at Fort Davy Crockett. Built soon after Crockett's death at the Alamo in 1836 and named in his honor, the post hosted such luminaries as Kit Carson, Jim Beckwourth and Joe Meek. With more accessible regions trapped out, Brown's Hole enjoyed a brief stay at the industry's forefront, entertaining thousands of guests for summer rendezvous. But changes in the fur market soon left free trappers out in the cold. By 1841 Fort Davy Crockett's proprietors had departed for more promising ventures, and the remaining tenants turned to horse raids and Indian fights. By the time John C. Fremont came through Brown's Hole three years later, the old post was abandoned.
Brown's Hole Robber's Nest
In its own way, Brown's Hole at the turn of the twentieth century was a bastion of law and order. People generally got along with their neighbors and minded their own business, governing themselves and settling their own scores. They often turned a blind eye to cattle rustling and tax evasion and tolerated the likes of Butch Cassidy, Isom Dart, and Black Jack Ketchum, but that's just the way things were in this remote valley. All in all, Brown's Hole was a friendly and prosperous place... unless you wore a badge. One Wyoming sheriff, afraid to chase a fugitive into the valley, assigned the task to a man named Philbrick - who was himself wanted in three states.
Women of Brown's Hole
As the unlikely head of her own "gang," Elizabeth Bassett combined Southern gentility with raw frontier courage. Neighbors and ranch hands basked in her generous hospitality, but good manners only went so far in Brown's Hole. Bassett backed down from no one in this valley full of coarse characters, doing whatever was necessary to ensure her family's well being. Her two daughters were just as fearless. Ann Bassett, the "queen of the cattle rustlers," defied prosecutors and murderous rivals who tried to run her out of Brown's Hole. Her sister, Josie, built a homestead in Utah and worked it independently for half a century. She was still chopping her own wood at the age of eighty.
"We had formed the opinion... that Captain Beckwourth was a rough, illiterate backwoodsman, but we were most agreeably surprised to find him a polished gentleman, possessing a fund of general information which few can boast." - Rocky Mountain News, December 1, 1859
The boundless West could barely contain Jim Beckwourth. Born into slavery, then released by his white father, he came to the Rockies in 1824 and trapped the streams of Colorado and Wyoming with such mountain masters as Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jedediah Smith, and Jim Bridger. For forty years Beckwourth crisscrossed the wilderness as a trapper, scout, and businessman, making and witnessing history. He lived among the Crows as a war chief, helped establish El Pueblo on the Arkansas River, rode with the U.S. Army during the Mexican War, turned up in California on the eve of the gold rush, and operated one of Denver's first trading posts. Universally respected, Beckwourth never ceased his roaming. The life of this former slave is a monument to freedom.
Northwest Colorado Ranching
The hardscrabble canyons of northwestern Colorado offered no rich farmland, furs, or precious metals. But they did have enough pasturage to lure a few ranching families in the 1870s. Scattered over an area 300 miles square, these "neighbors" - crusty Charley Crouse, the tight-knit Hoy brothers, the hard-working Spicers, the resourceful Bassetts - wrung decent livings out of this unwanted ground, one of the nation's last unsettled frontiers. They took on all comers, stubbornly facing down rustlers, Utes, bandits, and, when necessary, each other. They even outlasted the cattle barons, whose huge herds ran here from the 1890s until World War I. By then the grass had almost given out, but the pioneer spirit remained. To this day, family ranches endure in northwestern Colorado.
Sheep - Cattle Wars
"Thirty-eight hundred sheep were stampeded over a bluff into Parachute Creek on September 10th... One of the herders, Carl Brown, resisted and was shot in the hip." - Craig Courier, September 14, 1894
When forty armed cattlemen ordered him to stop grazing his sheep in northwestern Colorado, Jack Edwards spat, "This is public domain, and I have as much right to use it as anybody!" The law agreed with him, but his captors had tradition - and guns - on their side. By local custom, whoever first grazed a section of open range held "rights" to it; sheepherders were considered trespassers and treated accordingly. In the 1890s and again in the 1910s, the cowmen terrorized their rivals, clubbing sheep to death and shooting defiant herders. The sheepmen countered by buying or leasing private acreage. Peace finally came in 1934, when Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act, which imposed strict grazing regulations. By then Jack Edwards had retired a wealthy stockman - in Oregon.
Marker Topic: Fur Trapping
Address: CDOT Rest Area at top of Cameron Pass Summit, CO-14
Fur trappers began working the Cache la Poudre valley in the 1820s, establishing one of the first commercial links between present-day Colorado and the global economy. They worked long hours, braved animal attacks and hard weather, and spent weeks at a time in solitude - but most of these free spirits wouldn't have had it any other way. Wandering from stream to stream, these mountain men charted the area's geography and named many of the landmarks, including the Cache la Poudre - which a group of French trappers christened in 1836 for a stash of gunpowder left near the river. By 1850, when the legendary Kit Carson installed some traps not far from here, the fur trade had sunk into decline; but the trappers had already made their mark as the advance guard for Western settlement and trade.
The first highway over Cameron Pass, completed in 1882 by the Cache la Poudre and North Park Toll Road Company, ran more than one hundred miles from Fort Collins to the silver camp of Teller. Travelers paid three dollars per wagon, with additional fees for herd and pack animals, for the privilege of laboring up a demanding, boulder-strewn route. Some stretches were so hard to navigate (especially steep Pingree Hill) they left teamsters cursing in frustration. Opened to free public travel in 1902, the road received much-needed improvements in the 1910s, with a smoother surface and an easier grade carved out by convict laborers. When the road reopened in 1915, two hundred automobiles drove to a celebratory picnic at milepost 109 (about forty miles east of here), motoring with ease over the once-formidable route - and heralding a new generation of auto tourism.
Longs Peak is named for explorer Stephen H. Long, who sighted it in 1820. French fur trappers called this imposing mountain and its eastern neighbor, Mount Meeker (13,911 feet), Les Deux Oreilles, or "the two ears."
Marker Topic: Lake County War
Address: Granite Pulloff, MP 189 US-24 N of Granite - E side of road
Marker Text: "Lake County is in a state of anarchy and confusion which surpasses in the enormity of its crime the worst epics of our Territorial history. The law is under the feet of an organization which... enforces its decrees with knife and pistol." - Daily Central City Register, July 8 1875
The Lake County War (a dispute that started over water rights and lasted from 1874 to 1875) reached its climax in Granite when probate judge Elias Dyer was killed in his courtroom by members of the "Committee of Safety." This vigilante organization sought to purge the county of lawbreakers real and imagined, using illegal arrests, coerced confessions, and forced exile in its campaign. The law was no match for this gunbarrel regime; Judge Dyer sealed his doom by pressing charges against roughly thirty Committee members (who all went free when nobody would testify against them). Territorial leaders worried that this disorder might doom Colorado's bid to join the Union; but while the cause of statehood survived the Lake County War, the county itself nearly didn't. By 1879 it had lost 90 percent of its territory. Ironically the newly formed Chaffee County - not Lake - became home to all the land (and all the ruthless Committeemen) involved in this bloody episode.
Marker Topic: White River - Battle at Milk Creek
Address: Pulloff at intersection of CO 64 & Road 7 - .9 miles east of county historical marker
County: Rio Blanco
Attack at White River
Nathan C. Meeker, U.S. Indian agent at the White River Agency, wanted the Utes to become Christians and farmers. But in September 1879 they were too preoccupied with hunger to care. The previous winter had been hard, and the government had not delivered on promised food supplies. Starvation stalked the Ute villages. Meeker, on the other hand, paid little attention to food. Instead, he plowed up the tribe's sacred horse track. When they objected, he asked for the army's protection. On September 29, 1879, the Utes responded to the threat of military action. At the White River Agency, one mile west of this point, they attacked and killed Meeker and eleven other white men, and they took Meeker's wife and daughter as captives. Coloradans shouted, "The Utes Must Go!" Two years later, the Tabeguache and White River Utes were removed to barren reservation lands in Utah.
Battle at Milk Creek
On September 29, 1879 - the same day Utes attacked White River Agency - 120 troopers under the command of Maj. Thomas T. Thornburgh splashed across Milk Creek, a stream fifteen miles north of here which marked the northern boundary of the Ute Reservation. Thornburgh had been told by Ute leaders that to cross Milk Creek meant war. Nevertheless, he deployed his men. The Utes immediately attacked, raking the soldiers with heavy fire. A week later, when the Ninth Cavalry (the famed African American "Buffalo Soldiers") and the Fifth Cavalry rode to the command's rescue, forty-two troopers had been wounded, and Thornburgh and ten men lay dead. Utes losses numbered twenty-three men killed. The Battle of Milk Creek was the Utes' last military stand against white encroachment.