c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article originally appeared in Backwoodsman magazine
Picture today’s Huerfano County in southern Colorado, circa 1700: the prairies roll out like a natural carpet over rolling hills, interrupted by the occasional rocky ridge or mountain range slicing through the plains. Strange and wonderful rock formations and patches of fauna, including a rainbow of colorful prairie flowers, enhance the landscape. Antelope, deer and smaller animals roam the hills at will. The skies are strikingly blue most days and pitch black at night as a million stars shine across the prairie grass. Wind and snow strike in winter, making travel and shelter difficult. The land is noticeably quiet, save for the occasional village built by Native Americans, and a few Spanish or Anglo explorers as they pass through.
There is water too, from creeks to streams to rivers. The Huerfano River, the largest in the county, winds its way nearly through the middle of the land. The river has been known by many names: “Chiopo” during the 1700’s, “Rio San Juan de Baptista” during General Juan de Ulibarri’s expedition in 1706, “San Antonio” when Spanish explorer Antonio Valverde traveled through in 1719, and “Rio Dolores”, so-named by Juan Bautista de Anza in 1779. Explorer Stephen H. Long called it “Wharf Creek” in 1823, and Thomas Farnham bastardized the name to “Rio Wolfano” in 1839. Soon after, the river officially became known by its present name.
The Huerfano River actually takes its name from a small volcanic hill of the same name located halfway between today’s Colorado City and Walsenburg. Spanish for “orphan”, Huerfano Butte was, and is, highly visible to travelers from all directions. Spanish explorers are said to have visited the area as early as 1594. Two Frenchmen, identified in history books only as the Mallett Brothers, may have been the first Anglo-Americans to pass through the area in 1739.
The Malletts were thought to have traveled over Sangre de Cristo Pass along an ancient Indian trail. Ten years after the Malletts visited the area, a group of French traders told their Spanish captors in Taos that Comanches had guided them over the pass. The Spanish subsequently found Sangre de Cristo Pass (Spanish for “Blood of Christ”) and began using it alongside the Native Americans for the next seventy years as they continued exploring Colorado. Anglo and French pioneers also arrived, and the region became known as an excellent place to hunt and trade. Sangre de Cristo Pass soon gained the nickname of “Trapper’s Trail” as more men used it to travel between Huerfano Butte and Taos.
Huerfano Butte was also conveniently located near the Huerfano River, making it a prime landmark for those seeking any settlements in the region. The first of them was a small Spanish fort built along Trapper’s Trail at a place called Huerfano Canon. The fort was likely built near the place known today as Badito, in 1819. The fort was actually built in an effort to ward off attacks from Anglos and others. Within a few months, however, a band of 100 men “dressed like Indians” attacked the fort. Six Spaniards were killed; the survivors fled.
The desire of incoming pioneers to explore and settle the area, the abandonment of the fort, the growing popularity of Sangre de Cristo Pass and the dawn of the fur trade in Colorado brought many changes to the Huerfano Valley within a very short time. The area made for excellent hunting and trapping year round. Beaver, buffalo, venison and a host of other game was readily available. Trapper’s Trail provided a viable means to transport goods to Taos. Thus, between 1820 and 1835 many more forts were constructed in the region at which to conduct trade. They included Gantt’s Fort and Fort William (a.k.a. Bent’s Stockade), both built along the Arkansas River 1832.
When Gantt’s Fort folded in 1834, William Bent relocated Fort William some seventy miles east along the Arkansas in order to be closer to buffalo ranges and plains Indians. Regular trappers around Huerfano Butte had no problem making the trip to sell and trade their wares, especially since they could easily hunt, camp and trade along the way. In a short time, Bent’s New Fort was the hot spot for doing business. At the time, the fort was identified as being at what was then the Mexican border, and was the only place to trade between Missouri and Taos.
In time, many of the trappers and fur traders around Huerfano Butte were contracted to keep Bent’s Fort supplied with buffalo meat and robes. They included Bill New, Levin Mitchell, plus several others who camped along the Huerfano River, took trapping expeditions into the mountains and held their own smaller rendezvous’ in preparation to take their goods and money to the fort. In the meantime William Bent, along with his brothers Charles and George, plus trader Ceran St. Vrain, worked to improve the Bent’s Fort.
The fur trade began declining beginning about 1840 as Europe began favoring silk hats over those made of beaver. For traders around Huerfano Butte, however, trapping remained a staple of the economy for several more decades. During the 1840’s another, closer trading post was established at Badito between Huerfano Butte and Sangre de Cristo Pass. There was also Greenhorn near today’s Colorado City, favored because of its namesake creek and shady trees. Both Badito and Greenhorn were accessible within a day or so ride, depending on the goods being hauled. Both also persevered through constant Indian threats, especially throughout the 1840’s.
Ex-trapper John Brown deserves credit for officially establishing Greenhorn, although French-Canadian and American fur trappers had already long favored the place for camping and trading. Over the next decade, visitors and residents at Greenhorn included such historic characters as Archibald Metcalf, Marcelino Baca, Kit Carson, Jim Dickey, Jim Swannick, William Guerrier, Charles Kinney, Alexander Barclay and Bill New. Over at Bent’s Fort, no less than forty-four fur traders remained gainfully employed by 1842.
More and more explorers began looking for Huerfano Butte. Amongst them was a party comprised of John W. Gunnison, Lieutenant Edward Griffin Beckwith and Richard Kern. John C. Fremont also made frequent trips through the area. On his last expedition in December of 1853 Fremont’s daguerrotypist, Solomon Carvalho, captured what was surely the first photograph of Huerfano Butte. Carvalho actually suggested in his memoirs that an equestrian statue of Fremont should be placed on the butte. Senator Thomas Benton also suggested that the butte be carved into a giant statue of Christopher Columbus pointing West.
Thankfully, nobody ever came back to carve up Huerfano Butte. Trappers and traders continued living in the area, sometimes venturing as far as Hardscrabble some 50 miles northwest. Maurice Le Duc had a store there in 1853, and most of the occupants were French and American traders, Mexicans and fur trappers with their Indian wives. The next year, following a smallpox outbreak amongst the Utes, the Indians attacked both Hardscrabble and Fort Pueblo. They believed goods traded to them by Anglos were contaminated with smallpox germs on purpose.
Following the battles, things settled down and fur traders and trappers continued working to live peacefully amongst Native Americans. In 1859, a community called Huerfano was identified as being approximately fifteen miles south of Alexander Hicklin’s ranch near today’s Colorado City. Hicklin’s, the only Anglo hostelry between Pueblo and Taos, was located just over the hill from Greenhorn. A good friend of Alexander Hicklin’s, Boanerges “Bo” Boyce (more correctly identified amongst historians as a Frenchman named Beaubois), homesteaded just a short distance from Huerfano Butte. Between them, Hicklin and Beaubois were able to establish an even better network amongst traders and trappers.
Together, Beaubois and Hicklin also influenced area settlers. As the Civil War loomed on the horizon Colorado, which was not yet a state, was claimed by the Union. Beaubois and Hicklin, the latter of whom hailed from Missouri, were southern sympathizers. In 1862 Leander and Norbert Berard, Louis Joseph Clothier, Leon Constantine, French Pete and Antoine Labrie—all former employees of Bent, St. Vrain & Company—helped found Butte Valley along with a John Brown (it should be noted that this John Brown was not the same John Brown who established Greenhorn). The community as a whole decided, probably at the urging of Hicklin and Beaubois, to side with the south.
Furthermore, Alexander Hicklin was harboring rebel fugitives and secretly fighting against the union by posing as a mail station to gain information. The clever farmer would sell beef to Union troops who were heading south. However, the cattle always seemed to scatter in the dead of night near Butte Valley, and most of them found their way back to the Hicklin Ranch. Residents of Butte Valley also knew to direct southern rebels to the ranch, where Hicklin would send them up into a mountain hideout near Beulah to receive training and arms.
Union troops largely ignored Butte Valley until the summer of 1864, when Jim Reynolds’ notorious Reynolds Gang began robbing stagecoaches in southern Colorado. After a skirmish near Canon City, one gang member was killed and another arrested. The prisoner revealed the gang was headed for Butte Valley. Lt. George Shoup of the First Colorado Cavalry later claimed he had sent word to Butte Valley for the men to be detained should they appear. But residents of the community were either unaware of or chose to ignore Shoup’s command when only two gang members passed through. The men purchased supplies and went on their way without incident. When it was learned that the bandits had been allowed to leave Butte Valley, Shoup had the entire population arrested. Only John Brown later returned to the area and later ran a grocery store in Walsenburg (founded circa 1870). The other residents fled and were never heard from again.
Butte Valley was replaced in about 1864 by Huerfano Canon, also known as Huerfano Crossing, at the site of Badito. The community had two general stores, a post office and a teacher. Beaubois sold his ranch to Ceran St. Vrain in 1865 and moved to Greenhorn, where he was killed within a year by an irate sharecropper. A post office, named Little Orphan after Huerfano Butte, was established at Badito on May 1, 1865. Four months later the post office was renamed Badito and in 1866 became the county seat of Huerfano County.
Dozens of settlements continued to pop up in Huerfano County over the next hundred years. Some, such as Walsenburg, Cucharas, La Veta and Gardner (established as Huerfano Canyon circa 1871), still exist as small and charming communities. Others went through a series of names and changes before becoming ghosts. They included Spanish Peak and Fort Francisco (both now part of LaVeta); Malachite and Tom Sharp’s Trading Post, Huerfano Crossing (later Farisita), Quebec (later called Scissors and Capps, circa 1880), Rouse, Apache, Santa Clara, Maitland, Pryor, Muriel, Orlando, Winchell, Mayne, McGuire, Larimer, and many others after the turn of the century. All lived amazing short lives and have been virtually forgotten.
Badito contined serving as a rest stop along stage routes and Trapper’s Trail until about 1873. The community of Huerfano no longer exists and many historians are confused as to its exact whereabouts. Huerfano County slowly moved into a new era as a farming and ranching area supplemented by the railroad. The area as a whole began experiencing a population decline in the late 1950’s. But the region does still uphold its historic roots with several museums and no less than an amazing twenty or so burial grounds in the vicinity. The burials are testimonials to all of the pioneers of the area, including the fur traders and trappers that once inhabited this area.