Fort Collins History and Architecture

Euro-American Explorations, ca. 1540-1858

1540-1858 | 1844-1866 | 1866-1877 | 1877-1900 | 1900-1919 | 1919-1941 | Introduction

Mariano Medina

The earliest recorded European explorers in northeastern Colorado were the Spanish, whose expeditions reached the Great Plains in the 1540s. Motivated by the example of Cortez, as well as tales of "Cibola," the legendary seven cities of gold, the Spanish organized numerous expeditions to explore the uncharted regions of the West. In 1540, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led an expedition which traveled northward from Mexico into the Great Plains. Although Coronado never found cities of gold, his expedition became the basis for Spain's claim to the entire Great Plains, including most of northeastern Colorado. In the early 1700s, other Europeans, particularly the French, were reportedly violating Spanish claims to the area by trading with the Native Americans. In 1720, Pedro de Villasur led a military expedition into northeastern Colorado to discourage French infiltration. After Villasur and his party were killed by Pawnees, French activity in the region increased.

In 1803, northeastern Colorado, including what would become Larimer County, was purchased by the United States from France as part of the Louisiana Territory, that vast region drained by the Mississippi River. The French had reacquired the Louisiana Territory from Spain in 1800 through the Treaty of San Ildefonso. Although the Louisiana Purchase nearly doubled the size of the United States, the boundaries of the territory were vague. The southern boundary of the acquisition was disputed by Spain, a situation which led to some conflict with the United States. Finally, in 1819, the Adams-Onis Treaty established the southern border of the Louisiana Territory at the Arkansas River.

In order to delineate the boundaries of the Louisiana Territory, as well as to determine what resources were to be found within the region, government-sponsored expeditions were soon sent forth to survey the newly-acquired land. In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark headed a "Corps of Expedition" to study and inventory the resources and inhabitants of the newly acquired region. The Lewis and Clark Expedition provided the country with scientific information about the natural resources, Indian tribes, topography, and climate of the area. Although the party did not enter Colorado, the mission paved the way for further exploration and development of the vast territory, and encouraged a proliferation of trapping enterprises seeking to profit from the natural resources of the region.

Among the most important of the subsequent expeditions were Zebulon M. Pike's explorations of the Central Rockies and Southwest. In 1806, Pike and twenty-three men journeyed westward from Belle Fontaine near St. Louis. When Pike reached the Arkansas River in central Kansas, he divided his party, sending some men southward to explore the Red River region, while his group continued westward into what is now northeastern Colorado. In November and December, Pike's party explored the Rocky Mountains as far north as the South Platte River. While looking for the headwaters of the South Platte River, Pike discovered the mountain peak that would later bear his name, Pike's Peak.

Pike's party was eventually captured by Spanish troops who were patrolling the borderlands and believed Pike was conducting espionage as well as exploring. Following his release, Pike published his account of the expedition. The 1810 report, which greatly advanced knowledge about the American Southwest, would shape perceptions about the Great Plains and would affect settlement patterns in the West for many years. Pike described the land as typified by "sandy deserts" which had little water or timber. He believed the area was suitable as grazing lands for livestock and for Native American habitation, but asserted it was not conducive to the widespread development of farms and towns. Prospective settlers came to regard the area as "a great prairie ocean to be crossed" rather than a destination.

Following Pike's expedition, the next official government survey into northeastern Colorado was led by Major Stephen Harriman Long in 1820. Traveling westward along the South Platte River, the Long expedition explored the area where the river flows from the mountains, near the future site of Denver. Accompanied by a team of scientists, Long supplied the first detailed account of the South Platte River basin. His party located Long's Peak and climbed Pike's Peak. Like Pike, Long also contributed to the myth of the West as an uninhabitable area, the "Great American Desert."

As settlement activity in the Pacific Northwest increased, the government continued its efforts to chart the region, sending professional explorers and scientists to examine it in a systematic manner. These expeditions represented a shift in emphasis from discovering natural features to investigating areas for settlement, defining trails and transportation routes, and studying the native cultures. At this time, Americans believed that it was their "manifest destiny" to settle the continent from sea to sea. In 1835, Colonel Henry M. Dodge and a party of United States Dragoons traveled along the Platte River to the Rocky Mountains in an effort to open the trail to Oregon to the groups of settlers waiting to go west and to impress Native American groups. The "Cache de la Poudre River" was noted on maps published in accounts of the expedition.

John C. Fremont conducted five expeditions between 1842 and 1854. In 1843, during his second expedition, Fremont's goal was to continue his earlier explorations, and to survey the interior of the region and map the trail to Oregon, locating campsites, water, and Indian tribes. Fremont's group included Thomas Fitzpatrick, a mountain man who was to guide several important emigrant groups through the West, and William Gilpin, who would later become governor of the Colorado Territory. In an attempt to locate a new overland trail, Fremont journeyed along the Kansas River, rather than the Platte, and crossed the mountains at the Cache la Poudre, thence traveling northward to return to the emigrant trail at the Sweetwater River after crossing the Laramie Plain. By the time of Fremont's expedition, the prospect of the two thousand mile journey to Oregon had begun to stir general excitement along the Mississippi Valley and many individuals crossed the country that year. The widely-published reports of Fremont, who was popularly known as "The Great Pathfinder," further increased American interest in the frontier and convinced many that the trip to the West Coast was feasible. Fremont's expedition gathered scientific and cartographic information about the region which added greatly to the nation's accumulated knowledge and spurred further development.

The end of the Mexican War in 1848 led to further exploration of the Southwest during the following decade. In 1856, F. T. Bryan was dispatched to the area to investigate a new route for the Oregon Trail, a mission which caused him to explore the Cache la Poudre River. In 1857, a government sponsored party led by R. B. Marcy followed the Cherokee Trail through Laporte to the Laramie Plains.

The Fur Trade, 1804-1858

Acquisition of the Louisiana Territory also stimulated exploration of the newly purchased land by private parties, particularly trappers and traders who followed waterways across the plains toward the mountains in search of beaver and other fur-bearing animals. A French Creole trader, Baptiste La Lande, arrived in northern Colorado in 1804. La Lande trapped on the South Platte, following it into the mountains and then headed southward to Santa Fe. The following year, James Purcell and a small band of hunters also trapped in the Rocky Mountains west of the South Platte River basin before being captured by Spanish troops.

In August 1811, Ezekial Williams joined a party of twenty-one trappers led by Jean Baptiste Champlain and traveled south from Manuel Lisa's Fort on the Yellowstone River with the intention of trading with Arapaho Indians near New Mexico. The party split up on the North Platte River near Casper, Wyoming, and Williams continued with a small group toward the upper Arkansas River. The party hunted in South Park and had an encounter with the Arapahos in which some of the party were killed and Williams was captured. Williams escaped, cached his furs, finally reached St. Louis in the fall of 1813. He returned the following year to retrieve his cache. Williams' explorations were important because they established the existence of a chain of mountains, the Central Rockies, and they documented the wealth of beaver and the nature of Indian groups in the area. His reports concerning the richness of fur resources in the area led to an influx of trappers in later years.

When beaver hats became fashionable in Eastern markets during the 1820s, American fur companies sought to challenge long-established British firms exploiting the fur frontier and funded a number of trapping ventures. In 1824, William Ashley's Rocky Mountain Fur Company party of twenty-five men traveled up the South Platte to the Rocky Mountains and then northward into southern Wyoming heading for the Seedskeedee (Green) River. During this trip, Ashley originated the first annual rendezvous of fur traders. In 1826, James Ohio Pattie joined Ewing Young's party which worked the Rocky Mountains, traversed the parks of Colorado, and moved northward toward the Yellowstone, before returning along the trail east of the mountains to Santa Fe. Pattie's chronicle of the journey is one of the few written narratives of a trapping expedition recorded, although by that date many mountain men were seeking their fortunes in the West.

In the 1830s, a line of fur trading posts reached from Fort Laramie on the north to Bent's Fort on the south. In 1835, Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette built the first trading post in the area, Fort Vasquez, an adobe structure on the South Platte above the mouth of St. Vrain Creek. In 1836, Lancaster Lupton established an adobe fort called Fort Lancaster (Fort Lupton) about ten miles up the river from Fort Vasquez. In 1837, Henry Fraeb and Peter Sarpy built a new trading post on the South Platte near the two others. Shortly thereafter, Fort Lookout (later named Fort George and then Fort St. Vrain) was founded by Ceran St. Vrain and William Bent. This adobe post became the largest along the South Platte Valley and the third largest in the Rocky Mountain area.

The fur trade reached its height during the 1830s, and by that date, virtually every water resource in the region had been examined by trappers. Watrous reported that early settlers found the remains of trappers' cabins and camps in many places in Larimer County. Routes through the county were also well established during this period and caravans destined for the Green River regularly crossed the county. Watrous stated that, as early as 1828, Canadian trappers were living with Indian wives in the vicinity of present-day Laporte, although they had not permanently established homes there.

The Cache la Poudre Valley's geographical location, at the eastern edge of the foothills, slightly south of an easy pass through the mountains and also south of the Oregon Trail, insured its use as a pathway for many travelers. Trappers and traders working and traveling through Colorado explored Indian trails through the county and identified routes which were later used by explorers and settlers. On their way to Fort Laramie or to a rendezvous on the Green River, many of these mountain men followed a path which skirted the eastern edge of the mountains, passing through the future site of Laporte, and traveling across the Laramie Plains. Later, this route was to become an established pathway for other travelers. The trappers thus influenced the future development of the region through their exploration of its resources and transportation routes. Often, the mountain men were the first Euro-Americans to identify the topographical features of the area.

By the 1840s, the fur trade was declining due to changes in public taste and dwindling resources. By 1840, buffalo robes had replaced beaver pelts as the main article of western fur trade. Unlike beaver pelts, buffalo robes were too bulky to be carried by pack animals or boat. They had to be hauled by wagon, and this traffic brought the first wagon trains into northeastern Colorado. When Fremont's expedition entered the area in 1843, it found that most of the trappers in Larimer County were gone.

Although the boom in fur trading lasted only a couple of decades, these mountain men had an extensive impact in advancing the development of the region. Crisscrossing the area while conducting their activities, the trappers and traders were instrumental in opening the West for settlement by discovering the natural features, paths, and trails throughout the territory which would later be used by emigrants. Scattered reports of gold discoveries offered by the mountain men attracted the interest of prospectors. In addition, some of the mountain men were among the first permanent Anglo settlers in the region.

Property Types


Euro-American Exploration and the Fur Trade, ca. 1540-1858. This historic period begins with Coronado's 1540 expedition from Mexico and ends with the first permanent Euro-American settlement in the Cache la Poudre Valley.

Potential Property Types

Property types associated with exploration and the fur trade could include resources such as trails, camp sites, and caches.

Trails. The earliest trails were created by Native Americans as they crossed the county to reach hunting grounds. Established trails were also utilized by trappers and traders. The basic route of the Cherokee Trail has been identified as exemplified by Brent N. Petrie's "Map Showing Outstanding Natural and Historic Landmarks in the Boulder-Fort Collins-Greeley Area, Front Range Urban Corridor, Colorado" (See Figure 1). The Cherokee Trail was an important pathway utilized by native groups, mountain men, and various parties passing through Colorado toward the major trails to the north. Although the basic route of the trail has been documented, it is likely that few physical remnants associated with the trail exist due to the nature of its use, which left little imprint on the landscape, and the likelihood that many different local variations of the route were followed by individuals and groups. The rarity of resources associated with the trail would lend them significance. The routes of some of the explorers can be documented from their journals, however, these parties wrought few physical changes to the landscape.

Camp Site, Cache. Camp sites of exploratory parties can be identified from journals of expeditions, however, the groups which passed through Larimer County came to document the resources of the area and generally did not alter the landscape. Although historical documents refer to the existence of trappers, especially French Canadians, working the waterways of Larimer County, it is also unlikely that structural remnants of the early period will be found due to the transient nature of the trapper's lifestyle. Watrous reported that by the time of Fremont's expedition in 1843, most of the trappers were gone from the area. Antoine Janis reported that the Cache la Poudre River had received its name when a group of trappers hid gun powder near the river in 1836. Although this story was later discredited, the mountain men did store their supplies in such caches. The nature of these primitive storage facilities suggests little likelihood that such resources remain. If such resources were found, they would be considered extremely significant.

Registration Requirements

Due to the rarity of resources associated with this context, the identification of any associated site is considered significant. Most resources would be significant under criterion A, for their association with either the exploration of the state or the fur trading industry. Resources which maintain integrity of design, location, and craftsmanship would also be significant under criterion C, for their construction techniques. Although identified camp sites which have been altered may not be considered eligible to the National Register, they possess local significance as they are associated with historical activities in the area.

Threats to Resources

Threats to resources of the exploration and fur trade era result from the ephemeral quality of the resources which are subject to natural deterioration and to development which utilizes the land associated with historic sites.

Designated Resources

National Register of Historic Places
Local Landmark Designations
Janis Cabin located at the Fort Collins Museum, 1985
Data Gaps
Camp sites of expeditions.
Early camps or cache sites of trappers and traders.
Physical evidence of early pathways, such as trail markers.

1540-1858 | 1844-1866 | 1866-1877 | 1877-1900 | 1900-1919 | 1919-1941 | Introduction

Table 1 - Population Growth
Table 2 - List of Historic Subdivisions

Fort Collins Museum of Discovery          Poudre River Public Library District
Preserving the history of Fort Collins, Colorado & the Cache la Poudre region