The Santa Fe Trail in Colorado – The Mountain Route

Colorado Santa Fe Trail Map

Colorado Santa Fe Trail Map.

Colorado Santa Fe Trail Sites:

Mountain Route:


Fort Lyon


Bent’s Fort


Raton Pass

Army Train on the Santa Fe Trail

Army Train on the Santa Fe Trail.

The Santa Fe Trail is significant to the history of what became the State of Colorado. When legal trade began in 1821, over half of Colorado’s land was under Mexican ownership; the other half was unorganized territory. Southeastern Colorado’s dramatic landscape inspired the name for one of the main routes of the trail; the  Mountain Route became especially important as the railroads moved into the state. The Mountain and  Cimarron Routes of the Santa Fe Trail crossed the southeastern corner of Colorado, though the Cimarron Route traversed only 14 miles of Baca County. In contrast, the Colorado segment of the Mountain Route was much longer, totaling 181 miles. Before entering New Mexico, this route crossed present Prowers, Bent, Otero, and Las Animas counties.

When trade between Missouri and  Santa Fe began in 1821, several groups claimed the area now comprising the State of Colorado. Before the arrival of white settlers, the lands in what is now at least four different Indian tribes claimed eastern Colorado. The Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho were located in the northeastern portion of the future state; the KiowaComanche, and Jicarilla Apache/Apache extended into the southeastern portion. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States claimed a vast area that included most of eastern Colorado. The Louisiana Purchase did not specify the southwestern boundary with Spain, so in 1819, the Adams-Onís Treaty established the boundary between the United States and Spain as the west bank of the Sabine River, the south bank of the Red River, the 100th meridian, the right (south) bank of the Arkansas River, a line from the headwaters of the Arkansas River to the 42nd parallel, and then west on this parallel to the Pacific Ocean. The Arkansas River divided eastern Colorado with the land north of the river belonging to the United States and lands south of the Arkansas River to Spain. Following Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, the Arkansas River formed the border between the United States and Mexico in the portion of the future State of Colorado lying east of the continental divide until 1848.

San Luis Valley, Colorado by Kathy Alexander.

San Luis Valley, Colorado, by Kathy Alexander.

The area, now known as Colorado, underwent various claim and boundary phases before becoming a state in 1876. When Texas became an independent republic in 1836, it claimed a narrow strip of mountain territory extending northward through Colorado to the 42nd parallel. During the early 1840s, Mexico granted lands to some of its wealthy citizens in the San Luis Valley, south of the Arkansas Valley and within the Rocky Mountains, hoping to secure claims against Texas or the United States. Through the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo following the Mexican-American War in 1848, Mexico ceded to the United States most of that portion of Colorado that had not already been acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. Between 1848 and 1861, the border between New Mexico Territory and Colorado was an east-west line just south of Bent’s Fort. In 1850, the federal government purchased his claims in Colorado.

On May 30, 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law. The act created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. This act defined the boundaries of Kansas Territory as the Missouri border to the east, the 40th parallel to the north, the 37th parallel to the south, and the summit of the Rocky Mountains to the west. Lands in what is now eastern Colorado were part of Kansas Territory until the 1859 Wyandotte Constitutional Convention placed the western boundary of Kansas Territory a few miles west of the 102nd meridian – 18 months before Kansas statehood.

The discovery of gold on the slopes of the Colorado Rockies was the occasion for a sudden immigration into a deserted stretch of mountains and plains. Early in 1859, gold was found by George A. Jackson along Chicago Creek on the May 6 site of Idaho Springs. On May 6 of the same year, John Gregory made the famous gold-lode strike on North Clear Creek, stimulating a rush of prospectors who established the camps of Blackhawk, Central City, and Nevadaville.

Rich discoveries caused a stampede of miners to California Gulch on the present site of Leadville in 1860. In the first three years after the Jackson and Gregory discoveries, 100,000 people made the pilgrimage to the diggings. Half of them reached the mountains, and half of those who arrived survived the disappointments and decided to settle there. This small population of prospectors and settlers, totaling only 25,371 in 1861, became a community, then a territory, and 15 years later, a state. Before Colorado Territory was established, it included portions of the Nebraska, Utah, Kansas, and New Mexico territories. Along with admitting the state of Kansas, Congress finally established Colorado’s current boundaries, forming Colorado Territory in 1861. In 1876, Colorado was finally admitted to the Union as the 38th state.

After Mexican Independence in 1821, American and Mexican traders developed the Santa Fe Trail. It quickly became a commercial and cultural link between the United States and Mexico. It also served as a road of conquest during the Mexican-American War and later the Civil War. Early in the history of the Santa Fe Trail, the Cimarron Route was used by wagon traffic. Pack animals could use the Mountain Route, but it was rarely used before 1846. This trail route included several notable sites.

In the late summer of 1832, a Bent, St. Vrain & Company wagon train eastbound out of Santa Fe pioneered what would become the Mountain Route (or Bent’s Fort Route) of the Santa Fe Trail. The party left Santa Fe via Taos, New Mexico, crossed Raton Pass into what is now southeastern Colorado, and reached the Arkansas River near the future location of Fort William (Bent’s Old Fort) eight miles northeast of present-day La Junta. From there, they traveled down the Arkansas River, joined the Cimarron Route, and reached Independence, Missouri, in November.

Bent's Fort, Colorado by Kathy Alexander.

Bent’s Fort, Colorado by Kathy Alexander.

Fort William, named for William Bent and later known as Bent’s Old Fort, occupied an area that, at the time, was the border between the United States and the newly independent Mexico. The rectangular adobe fort faced eastward, with towers at each corner and 14-foot walls of three-foot thickness. Constructed by Mexican laborers employed by brothers Charles and William Bent and partner Ceran St. Vrain, the fort was completed in 1834. It was a trading post from late 1833 – before the fort was completed – through 1849.

In 1849, William Bent became the sole owner of the fort, but the prosperity of Bent’s Old Fort was dwindling due to a decrease in trade and an increase in American Indian hostilities. Bent held the Army partially responsible for the decline of his business due to their presence at the fort before and during the Mexican-American War, which led to increased tensions with and between the neighboring American Indians. The U.S. Army considered establishing a fort in the area in response to the increased tensions. At that time, Bent attempted to sell his fort to them but considered the Army’s offer too little compensation for his losses. Concurrently with his attempt to sell the fort to the Army, a major cholera epidemic attacked large groups of American Indians – including the Southern Cheyenne, whom Bent considered his strongest ally in the region. When the epidemic passed, half of the Southern Cheyenne had died.

In August 1849, after sending his employees and family off with the remaining trade goods, Bent set fire to the adobe fort’s wooden substructure and rolled powder kegs into the main rooms of the fort to destroy it. Several conjectures exist as to why he would see the fort destroyed: 1) to deny the Army occupancy of the fort; 2) to prevent the Ute, Apache, Comanche, and Arapaho from using it in the fight against the U.S. Army; and 3) in response to the cholera epidemic. Whatever the reason, he moved 38 miles down the Arkansas River to the Big Timbers. At the Big Timbers, Bent resumed trading with the local Indians. He built three log structures to form a U, with the open side facing the river. However, in the winter of 1852-1853, he built a more impressive stone fort with 12 rooms around a central courtyard and 16-foot tall walls. He operated this smaller post from 1853 to 1860. Although he failed to sell Bent’s New Fort to the U.S. Army, they did lease it as the Upper Arkansas Indian Agency, commissary, and quartermaster storehouse for nearby Fort Wise (Fort Lyon).

Fort Lyon, Colorado in the 1800s

Fort Lyon, Colorado, in the 1800s.

Fort Lyon, first established as Fort Wise, was built less than one mile west of Bent’s New Fort by the Army in 1860. It was named for Henry Wise, Governor of Virginia; however, in 1861, the name was changed to Fort Lyon in honor of General Nathaniel Lyon, who was killed at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Missouri during the Civil War. Fort Wise/Old Fort Lyon was an essential military link on the Santa Fe Trail between Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Fort Union in New Mexico, being the “principal guardian of the Mountain Branch.” It was deeply involved in the Indian troubles of this region during and after the Civil War. The 1861 Treaty with the Arapaho and Cheyenne was signed here, but it was not honored by either side. Due to its location in the Arkansas River floodplain and subsequent flooding, the fort was relocated to its present location east of Las Animas in 1867. New Fort Lyon was active from 1867 to 1889, being abandoned as a fort by an act of Congress in 1890. Beginning in 1867, New Fort Lyon served as part of the Army’s Department of the Missouri, a regional network of forts and military facilities in the Missouri River drainage. This post replaced Old Fort Lyon and helped guard the Santa Fe Trail and, later, the railroad line.

Boggsville, Colorado by Kathy Alexander

Boggsville, Colorado by Kathy Alexander.

Boggsville, one of Colorado’s earliest extant agriculture and trade centers, is approximately two miles south of Las Animas. This small complex of two trading stores, owned separately by John W. Prowers and Thomas O. Boggs, was a stage stop on the Santa Fe Trail. Boggsville was founded in 1862 on the west bank of the Purgatoire River, three miles from New Fort Lyon. It was built on 2040 acres of the original four million-acre 1843 Vigil & Saint Vrain, or Las Animas, Mexican Land Grant, comprising most of southeastern Colorado. Boggsville served as a center of commerce and agriculture between 1867 and 1873; it was also the first county seat of Bent County. Thomas and Rumalda Luna Boggs, John W. and Amache Ochinee Prowers, Kit and Josepha Jaramillo Carson called Boggsville their home. Las Animas City was the first town established in southeastern Colorado. It was located on the Arkansas River across from Fort Lyon. It served as the home station for the Barlow and Sanderson Stage Company and later became the county seat for Bent County. It was abandoned after 1873 when the Kansas Pacific Railway built west to Las Animas.

Raton Pass, New Mexico.

Raton Pass, New Mexico.

Raton Pass sits astride the existing Colorado-New Mexico border near Trinidad. Although the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail had been in use since the 1830s, its terrain provided many obstacles to wagon movement. One such obstacle was the tortuous 8,000-foot, axle-breaking Raton Pass. Both a barrier and a gateway, the Raton Ridge symbolized the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail. This pass was difficult to cross until the Army made improvements during the Mexican-American War.

The Mountain Route and its most important feature, Raton Pass, played a significant role in military history. Stephen Kearny’s Army of the West used this route in 1846 on its way to the conquest of New Mexico. Also, in 1862, Colorado Volunteers poured through Raton Pass on their way to Glorieta Pass, where they defeated troops of the Confederate Army. However, the pass was not widely used until “Uncle Dick” Wootton started improving it in 1865 as part of his toll road. The improvements continued to encourage many travelers, including the operators of the stagecoach lines, to use the Mountain Route instead of following the Cimarron Route.

Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, Chicago, Illinois, 1943

Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, Chicago, Illinois, 1943

After the completion of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad in 1880, the trail was abandoned as a national route. The railroad closely followed the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail. While in 1863, the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad had planned to build over the Cimarron Route southwest to Santa Fe, this route’s geography forced the railroad to adjust its route due to limited water availability for steam engines along La Jornada. Further, the lack of settlement along the Cimarron Route would limit traffic through the area. The Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad railroad line was instead laid near the mountain route of the Santa Fe Trail. In 1878, Wootton sold his toll road through Raton Pass to the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad.

The Mountain Route was a significant route of the Santa Fe Trail and continued to be a significant route for the railroad. Once called the Raton or Bent’s Fort Route during trail days, the Mountain Route was longer and more difficult than the Cimarron Route, but it was considered safer due to the abundance of water and lack of Indian attacks. Though the railroad boom led to the trail’s obsolescence as the wagon road to Santa Fe, it maintained – and produced a change in the character of overland trade along the trail. The development and implementation of the railroad network across the United States, particularly along the Santa Fe Trail, enabled freighters to ship larger and more frequent quantities of goods to and from the expanding territories, increasing profits and aiding in the settlement of these new territories.

© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated May 2024.

Also See:

Colorado – The Centennial State

Colorado Photo Galleries

Santa Fe Trail -Pathway to the Southwest

Santa Fe Trail Photo Galleries

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