Category Archives: Native American History

Colorado City, Colorado: Gateway to the Goldfields

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article have appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine and the Ute Pass Vacation Guide

In 1859, the rough and tumble town of Colorado City debuted as the portal to Ute Pass, next to what would eventully become Colorado Springs, Colorado. The pass was an ancient Indian trail skirting up the north base of Pikes Peak and on to the gold fields on the western side of the state. As  more travelers utilized the pass in their quest for gold, Colorado City grew in the form of stick‑built shacks and log cabins. Later, fine stone and brick structures would mingle with tidy wood bungalows and impressive Victorian homes.

Everything a prospector could want was available in Colorado City, including mining supplies, pack mules, grub and grog. There were also a variety of vices, from drinking and dining to poker and prostitution. Local merchants made a tidy profit on the transient population, which flowed constantly in and out of town.

When Colorado Springs was platted in 1872, liquor was banned within its city limits. Then in 1878, Manitou Springs formed to the west. Colorado City, nestled snugly between the two resort towns, prospered: not only as a “sin city” but as a blue collar town as well. A number of railroad workers were employed by the Colorado Midland Railroad. Local mills, namely the Golden Cycle Mill, processed gold ore shipped by train from teh famed Cripple Creek District on the back side of Pikes Peak, and other area mines. The city became a mesh of church‑going families, would‑be prospectors, wild folk and nomads.

Look down Colorado Avenue today and it is easy to envision a Colorado City of the past. Horse races and shoot outs took place on the dirt streets with alarming frequency. Wagons and horses sent pedestrians scurrying as the street bustled with life. The old buildings sported every business house imaginable, and the shouts of street hawkers mingled with the bawdy music flowing from the saloons.

Upwards of 24 taverns once lined the south side of Colorado Avenue. Many of them connected via underground tunnels to the respectable businesses on the north side of the street. In back of the saloons, madams like Laura Bell McDaniel, Mamie Majors and Nellie White were the reigning pleasure queens. The houses of “ill fame” spanned four blocks on Cucharras St. The lawmen and temperance unions of Colorado City levied their own public war against the shameful nightlife, but it was sometimes a losing battle. When the city outlawed liquor, some of the saloon owners and prostitutes started their own town, Ramona, outside the city limits.

On the north side of town, churches, lodges, meeting halls and more respectable social places mingled among the quaint homes and upstanding citizens of the town. Still, there were some real characters adding much color to Colorado City. Prairie Dog O’Byrne’s taxi wagon held a cage with a pet prairie dog inside and was pulled by two tame elk. Judge Baldwin was an honorary judge who was known for his love of libations. Anthony Bott, a founder of the town, also made a name for himself in the Cripple Creek District. Dusty McCarty was a blinded miner who honed his skills at bartending and was the best source of where to go and what to do in town. Bob Ford, the killer of Jesse James, dealt faro in Colorado City before going off to Creede and getting killed.

In 1917 Colorado City was annexed to Colorado Springs, and Colorado City’s wild days ended. Since that time, the city has evolved into an historic section of the Pikes Peak region with a variety of novelty  shops, boutiques and eateries. Neighborhood tours reveal an outstanding array of unique architectural designs, including a few pre-manufactured homes that were literally purchased from catalogs—in essence, the first modular homes in the state.

The Old Colorado City History Center at 1 South 24th Street houses a museum with photographs and hundreds of artifacts outlining Colorado City’s wild and woolly past. To see historic Colorado City on the way to Cripple Creek, take Highway 24 west at Colorado Springs and turn right at 21st Street. For more information, call the Old Colorado History Center at 719-636-1225 or the Old Colorado City Associates at 719-577-4112.

Early Fur Trappers Around Huerfano Butte, Colorado

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.

Buckskin Charlie: A Proud Indian

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in the Ute Pass Vacation Guide in 2000.

Long before Colorado’s Ute Pass became Highway 24, an ancient Indian trail once skirted the base of Pikes Peak. Much of it comprises Ute Pass as we know it today, with traces of the original path veering off and onto the highway.

The Utes were among Colorado’s first residents. Ute Pass served as the gateway for their tribes, who worshiped the magical bubbling waters at today’s Manitou Springs. They often camped up and down the pass, even after the formation of Colorado City in 1859, Colorado Springs in 1871 and Manitou Springs in 1872. Frequenters of Ute Pass included Buckskin Charlie, one of the last tribal leaders of the old Ute nation in Colorado.

Born circa 1842, Buckskin Charlie was an original Colorado native. His father was Ute and his mother Apache, but both died before Charlie was 11 years old. The young boy eventually became a warrior, participating in many battles against plains Indians. One such skirmish left the scar of a bullet wound on his forehead. Later, he learned to speak English and served as a scout for the U.S. Army. He earned his famous nickname for the number of antelope he killed during an expedition on behalf of the United States.

Buckskin Charlie also made fast friends with Ouray, head of the Mouache Utes. The two men often made trips to Washington D.C. and talked treaties with the government. It was Ouray who appointed Buckskin Charlie his successor when he stepped down as leader of the Utes. When Ouray died in 1880, Charlie assisted in his secret funeral ceremony.

Photographs of Buckskin Charlie often depict him wearing a moustache, a rare characteristic among Native Americans. As the leader of his people, Charlie encouraged his tribe to let their children be educated by whites and attend church services. He also dressed in white men’s clothing when visiting the Capital. Ever wary, however, government officials took note of Charlie’s preference for his native Ute tongue and his refusal to outlaw peyote and other ceremonial aspects of his native culture. Still, Charlie was patient and sensible in his dealings with U.S. officials, even when arguing over broken treaties. He was respected by both whites and his tribe, and reigned over the Ute Nation for an amazing 56 years.

The turn of the century held many changes for residents of the Pikes Peak region. In recognition of the passing of an era, the El Paso County Pioneer’s Association decided in 1912 to dedicate the old Ute Pass trail to those who had used it long before any white man. Buckskin Charlie and his tribe were cordially invited to the ceremonies. Scores of Utes, dressed in full regalia, rode the pass. As the party passed into French Creek Valley just below Cascade, the Indians burst into ceremonial song. Buckskin Charlie led the pack, declaring, “I seventy years old and never been so happy.”

Buckskin Charlie continued living a colorful life. In 1925, he assisted in the moving Ouray’s remains to the cemetery at Ignacio. Throughout his career, he maintained his outstanding reputation and personally met with seven United States presidents. He died in 1936 and is buried beside Ouray at Ignacio, in Southern Colorado.

Pictured: Buckskin Charlie and his sons.

Nothing Ever Happens in Mayer…Until You Find Bones

C 2017 by Jan MacKell Collins

When my husband and I first moved to Mayer, Arizona, the first fifteen people we met uttered the same sentence to us: “Nothing ever happens here.”

For the most part, they were right. Mayer, located south of Prescott, is a sleepy little town that once served as a stage stop and later a rail stop on the road south to Phoenix. There are a few small businesses, residents scattered in town and along the hills surrounding town, and a fine library. That’s about it.

One day in 2014, when I was working for the Prescott Daily Courier, I got a most interesting phone call. A man named Garry Cooper, who lived on the homestead of town founder Joe Mayer, had found some bones in his yard. What follows here are the articles I wrote for the Courier regarding the matter.

Mayer Resident Unearths Skeletal Remains in Yard

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

The digging of a grave for a beloved Mayer pet has led to the discovery that the spot is already taken.

Longtime resident Garry Cooper, who takes in rescue dogs, was recently shoveling out a final resting place for one of his beloved canines. “I have an elderly dog, Cubby,” he says, “and I started digging a burial spot for him.” After digging down two or three feet, Cooper found what resembled animal bones. But a friend who visited last week, and who works as a registered nurse, saw the remains and immediately determined they were human. She advised calling the police.

Local deputies from the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office in Mayer arrived on the scene and immediately determined the burial was not recent. “We sent out an evidence technician and determined the remains to be of historic origin,” explains Dwight D’Evelyn, YSCO Media Relations Coordinator.

The case was referred to the Arizona State Museum but Todd Pitezel, Assistant Curator for Archaeology Mandated Programs confirmed on Thursday that the Museum “will not be excavating” the body. Pitezel said the case has now been referred to the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe. “I am consulting with the Hopi and Yavapai Prescott [tribes], and we will figure out what to do,” he says.

In the meantime several questions remain. Are the bones really those of a Native American? Whose body is it? And how did it get there?

When Cooper purchased his property in 1987, it was known as the former second home site of town founder Joe Mayer and his family. Mayer’s first home washed away in the flood of Big Bug Creek in February of 1891, so he rebuilt at the new location a bit further away from the creek. Mayer’s second home included a general store, post office and restaurant.

Mayer’s former home succumbed to fire in the early 1970’s, according to Cooper. Not much was left when Cooper acquired the property except the barn. The foundation posts were supported by metatas, grinding stones of the type local Native Americans would have used. The barn remains intact, and Cooper has since constructed a new house on the property. During various landscaping and construction projects over time, he also has  unearthed various artifacts, from glass and rusted metal to arrowheads and pottery shards.

Some of the items have been found while digging burials spots for Cooper’s other pets of the past, a total of nine in all. But there’s been nothing like this. “The two main leg bones are sticking out of the bank,” says Cooper, who ceased work and has covered the pit until officials can come and examine the remains. On Friday a member of the Yavapai Tribe, who did not wish to be identified, arrived for a brief look at the bones but declined to elaborate on what comes next.

Until an official examination takes place, speculations continue about the origins of the bones. They were found roughly twenty yards from Mayer’s former home. Cooper says the original terrain on the property was as much as two feet higher, so the body was originally buried four to five feet underground. Big Bug Creek, which runs nearby, is situated some twenty seven feet below the site. There are no records that Mayer, the little Frenchman with a big heart who was known for his generosity and kindness, offered up a final resting place for anyone prior to the Mayer Cemetery’s establishment in 1907.

Officials appear to be leaning towards the remains being of Native American origin. The theory is certainly plausible since Hohokam, Yavapai and other early agricultural tribes once inhabited the area. For now, however, the true ethnic origins of the skeleton remain a mystery. Cooper said he did not find any signs of clothing or other artifacts, just bones. He is worried, however, that the discovery might delay Cubby’s inevitable burial. “If my dog dies tomorrow,” he says, “I can’t dig another hole.”

Bones Likely Native American

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

Human bones which were recently unearthed in a Mayer resident’s yard are thought to be Native American, according to authorities.

Earlier this month, Garry Cooper was digging a grave for his dog when he found some skeletal remains. Deputies at the Mayer substation called in Forensic Anthropologist and Evidence Technician Katie Hoffman, who determined the bones were indeed human, and very old. Hoffman recommended contacting the Arizona State Museum.

The remains were found on the former home site of town founder Joe Mayer. At one time the homestead included a post office, store and restaurant, but there is no evidence the Mr. Mayer offered up burial space as part of his services. By the time Cooper purchased the property in 1987 the old buildings were gone.

According to a report from the Yavapai County Sheriff, Cooper said the bones were unearthed close to the base of a large cottonwood that was once located on the property. In an interview last week, Cooper likened the tree to a “Centennial Witness Tree” across the street, which in 2012 was verified to be at least a century old. Cooper’s tree was dead, however, and he removed it.

Mayer’s cemetery was not founded in 1907. Because the area was once populated by Native Americans, and because Cooper has unearthed Native American artifacts on his property from time to time, the remains could very well date to before the town of Mayer was established. For now, however, the bones’ origins remain a mystery. “Unless it’s fully excavated, there’s no way to determine the origin,” Hoffman said.

On Thursday Todd Pitezel, Assistant Curator for Archaeology Mandated Programs confirmed that the case has been referred to the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe. But an official investigation to establish the origins of the skeleton may take several weeks or even months. “There’s always a lot of tape around these cases,” Hoffman said. “It can take a great deal of time.”

Mayer Bones Reburied

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

A Mayer resident who recently unearthed human remains now has an official grave on his property, as well as a new burial spot for his beloved dog.

Garry Cooper was digging a final resting place for his ill canine earlier this month when he accidentally unearthed human bones. Investigations by law enforcement and an evidence technician from the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, a member of the Yavapai Tribe and officials from the Arizona State Museum concluded the skeletal remains were indeed human, and very old.

On Tuesday James T. Watson PhD, Assistant Curator of Bioarchaeology for the Arizona State Museum, visited the site to document the partially unearthed remains and rebury them. “I just want to see what material is here and what the relationship of the bones are,” Watson explained. “The most important thing is to determine whether the skeleton is Native American. If it is, obviously the tribe has say over its disposition.”

Watson, who makes about a dozen such field calls each year, says the absence of a skull could indicate the bones may have been exhumed elsewhere and reburied. Without observing morphological analysis of the cranium—aspects that would tie the bones into certain groups of ancestral people—there is no way to determine at this time whether the remains are Native American, Anglo or some other race.

Watson’s examination of the site included looking for artifacts that might better identify the remains, which according to him could be hundreds or even thousands of years old. The bones appear to be those of an adult, but it’s too soon to tell whether they are male or female. Upon completing his investigation, Watson planned to rebury the remains and dig a new grave for Cooper’s dog.

Whatever the conclusion when Watson files his official report, there are no plans to remove the bones out of respect for the body. “There is never a good reason to disturb human remains, ” he said. Cooper said he will later plant a tree to mark the spot, so that future property owners will know the bones are there.

 

The Utes of Ute Pass, Colorado

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

For decades, Hollywood had movie fans believing all Indians were evil savages who ran around killing whites and committing barbaric acts. Such stereotyping has been countered by historians showing that America’s true natives were, like any culture, closely knit with their own society, religion and way of life that is in fact enviable. In Colorado, the Utes stand out as one of the friendliest tribes in the Indian nation. They also are the only indigenous Native Americans of Colorado. And, despite their reputation as a peaceful tribe, the Utes of Colorado were never violently conquered by another civilization. That isn’t to say they didn’t have their battles—beginning with early Spanish explorers—but it is rare to see an instance where the Utes started a fight. They just finished it.

Nobody really knows when Ute tribes first came to Colorado, or even where they migrated from. The Indians themselves simply say they have been here “since the beginning.” It is thought that the Ute nation is descended from the Desert culture, the Fremont Indians and perhaps even the Basket Makers, which would date their presence in Colorado to 10,000 years ago or more. Other sources speculate the Utes may have migrated from Mexico, since their native tongue is deemed Uto-Aztecan.

Throughout the 1600’s and 1700’s in Colorado, Utes both befriended and fought various incoming tribes, including Comanches, Apaches, and Navajos. Seven different tribes once thrived throughout the state, each with their own name, dialect and culture. The Utes commanded the mountainous regions of Colorado, guarding Ute Pass—one of the few ways to access the western portion of the state. It should be noted here that at last count, there were five areas officially known as Ute Pass. The pass referenced here today traverses a beautiful canyon west of Interstate 25 from Manitou Springs. Most recently, the area made international news for the Waldo Canyon wildfire in 2012 and the subsequent floods which created havoc along the pass in 2014.

In those early days, Manitou Springs at the bottom of the pass was regarded as a sacred sanctuary. Here, seemingly magical, bubbling springs flow from massive caverns below. The Utes believed a great god, Manitou, resided below the springs. Manitou’s breathing gave the springs bubbles and steam, bringing health to all who drank from them. To pay homage and bring good luck, the Utes made annual treks from the mountains to visit Manitou. Utes were adept at basketry, leather work and clay wares. They often left offerings of this nature, as well as beads and knives, for Manitou. Other tribes were permitted to pay homage as well, and springs were known as common ground among all nations. At the top of the pass near Florissant, however, immunity from war was forgotten; battles between the Utes and other tribes were common.

While the near the top of the pass Cripple Creek District is best known for its gold deposits and mining history, the Utes favored the area’s high country meadows as an abundant hunting ground for thousands of generations. Utes were hunters and gatherers, and the mountains offered an abundance of edible fauna, berries and wildlife. Because the District sits at an elevation close to 10,000 feet, however, the area did not make good winter quarters. The Utes spent their winters in the lower and warmer regions, such as northern New Mexico, once the snow began falling. Spring and fall were spent commuting and preparing for the alternate seasons.

After a treaty between the Utes and the Spanish was established in 1675, the Utes became accustomed to the presence of Spaniards, Mexicans and eventually, white settlers traipsing up and down Ute Pass. They traded freely with early explorers and weathered several historic events, including New Mexico Territorial Governor Juan Bautista de Anza’s quest to kill the Comanche leader Cuerno Verde in 1779, Zebulon Pike’s failed attempt to scale Pikes Peak in November of 1806, and Major Stephen H. Long’s successful climb to the top of the mountain in 1820. They also met such famous explorers as Kit Carson, explorer John C. Fremont, and English adventurer George F. Ruxton, all of whom traversed Ute Pass during the 1840’s.

The year 1859 saw the first use of Ute Pass by freighters. Hundreds of prospectors and merchants were making their way to the gold fields on the western slope of Colorado. Skirmishes between whites and Indians still occurred, but the occasional troubles hardly stopped people like Augusta and H.A.W. Tabor, who traversed the pass on their way to Leadville. Within a year, Ute Pass became known as the “Gateway to the Goldfields”. The Utes’ passiveness at the new flurry of activity was encouraged by their famed leader, Ouray, who encouraged friendships with white men. In 1863, Ouray served as an interpreter at the Conejos Peace Treaty and was subsequently appointed leader of the Tabeguache Utes. In 1873, he also assisted in negotiating the Brunot Treaty. Unfortunately many of these treaties, designed to bring peace between the Indians and the government, were later broken by the white men who agreed to them.

In the aftermath of the infamous Meeker Massacre of 1879, Ouray and another Ute, Buckskin Charlie, went to Washington D.C. to negotiate a peaceable end to the ordeal. When Ouray resigned his position as Ute leader a short time later, he appointed Buckskin Charlie his successor. Ouray died in 1880, but the town of Ouray on Colorado’s western slope was named for him. Ouray’s wife Chipeta also had two towns named for her, including the Ute Pass resort town of Chipita Park.

A Colorado native, Buckskin Charlie was orphaned by the age of 11. He became a warrior, participating in many battles against plains Indians. One skirmish left a bullet scar on his forehead. Later, Charlie served as a scout for the U.S. Army. He earned his famous nickname for the number of antelope he killed and subsequently skinned on the expedition. Buckskin Charlie reigned over the Utes for an amazing 56 years. Photographs of him often depict him wearing a moustache, a rare characteristic among Indians. Charlie encouraged his tribe to let their children be educated by whites and attend church services. He also spoke English and dressed in white men’s clothing when visiting Washington D.C.—even though the government noted his preference for the Ute tongue and his refusal to outlaw peyote and other ceremonial aspects of his native culture. Still, Charlie was patient and sensible in his dealings with U.S. officials, even when arguing over broken treaties.

As Charlie continued his negotiations, more and more whites migrated to Colorado. Throughout the years, the Utes had watched as early ranchers homesteaded on their treasured hunting grounds and began mining in the Cripple Creek District. By the 1890’s, when the District was formed, the Utes had lost their hold on the area altogether. Within a few short years, hundreds of prospect holes and mines were erasing the past. Two gulches, Papoose Gulch and Squaw Gulch, were so-named for the remains of an “aborigine woman” and a child that were found there. More than likely, they were actually Ute skeletons.

Indeed, the turn of the century held many changes for residents of the Pike’s Peak region. In 1912, the El Paso County Pioneer’s Association in Colorado Springs decided to dedicate the old Ute Pass trail to those who had used it long before any white man. Buckskin Charlie was invited to the ceremonies. Scores of Utes, dressed in full regalia, rode the pass. As the party passed into French Creek Valley just below Cascade, the Indians burst into ceremonial song. Buckskin Charlie led the pack, declaring, “I seventy years old and never been so happy.” Ute outposts were still visible along the pass as late as 1920.

Throughout his career, Buckskin Charlie maintained his outstanding reputation and personally met with seven United States presidents. He died in 1936, and some say his death was the last of the Indian frontier as Native Americans knew it. Although fewer in number, however, many Utes still live in Colorado, maintaining their peaceful lifestyles and ceremonial beliefs.

Utes and Colorado pioneers traverse Ute Pass in 1912.

Utes and Colorado pioneers traverse Ute Pass in 1912.