Nestled in a cottonwood-lined valley beneath the 14,000 foot Mount Culebra of the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the west and the Spanish Peaks to the north, the valley has been utilized for at least 10,000 years by the indigenous people of the area who encamped along the Purgatoire riverbank and flourished hunting the valleys’ abundant game.
The first European to enter the area was a Spanish soldier and explorer Juan de Ulibarri in 1706. Ulibarri’s party journeyed north to the Arkansas River, skirted the Spanish Peaks, and made their way to El Quartelejo, the northernmost Indian pueblo located in present-day Kansas. Ulibarri claimed the area for Spain and reported the presence of the French on the plains. On another mission in 1719, New Mexican Governor Antonio de Valverde crossed Raton Pass and traveled through the area, reaching the Purgatoire River’s headwaters. The following year, Pedro de Villasur embarked on an ill-fated journey northward from Santa Fe to determine if there were French incursions on the western plains. He met his death at the hands of a group of Pawnee Indians.
During Spanish possession, no trade was allowed with the United States, and those who were caught were often arrested and jailed. However, brothers Pierre Antoine and Paul Mallet, French Canadian voyageurs, led a party of six from Illinois to Santa Fe through what would later become Trinidad in 1739.
In 1821 Mexico won its independence from Spain, and southern Colorado south of the Arkansas River became part of Mexico, and trade between Mexico and the US was legalized by treaty. The same year, a young Missouri entrepreneur named William Becknell made the first trip on what would become known as the Santa Fe Trail, which became a vital link for commerce between Missouri in the United States and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The trail ran about 800 miles west from Missouri, eventually splitting into branches known as the Mountain Branch and the Cimarron Cutoff leading to Santa Fe. A major component of early trail commerce was the fur trade, and in 1832, Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain erected Bent’s Fort in present-day Otero County about 88 miles northeast of Trinidad. It became the most important post of the southwestern fur trade.
After passing Bent’s Fort, the Santa Fe Trail’s Mountain Branch paralleled the Purgatoire River and forded it in this area before making its difficult route over Raton Pass. This area soon became a favored campground for travelers along the trail as thousands of lumbering freight wagons pulled by six or eight-span of oxen made their way to and from Santa Fe. Often, these trains rested here, making repairs and recuperating before continuing their trips. Here, there was ample water, shaded campgrounds, and good forage for the livestock. The main trail followed a path along what is now Trinidad’s Commercial and West Main Streets.
Settlement began in the Purgatoire River Valley in the 1840s when Hispanic people moved northward into the area from New Mexico. However, most of these early people were pushed out by hostile Ute Indians.
In August 1846, during the Mexican-American War, the U.S. Army of the West, commanded by Colonel Stephen W. Kearny, marched through here to conquer the Mexican territorial capital of Santa Fe. His army of 1,600 soldiers, 1,500 supply wagons, 15,000 oxen, 4,000 mules, accompanied by numerous teamsters, drovers, and a few women, camped along the Purgatoire River. After resting for a short time, the large caravan then made their way over the crude trail across Raton Pass. Though the army made it over the pass, their journey was fraught with difficulty. At times, it was necessary to draw the wagons up and let them down by ropes. Many wagons were destroyed, and supplies had to be left behind. Making matters worse was the fact that the soldiers were on half and third rations.
In 1847, Congress authorized the transport of mail from Independence, Missouri, via Bent’s Old Fort and Trinidad to Santa Fe on the Santa Fe Trail’s Mountain Branch. The first mail from the east came to the Trinidad area on the Santa Fe Trail in 1849.
In 1860, the United States Army established Fort Wise (later Fort Lyon) on the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail and the next year saw the Postal Service change the mail route from the Cimarron Cutoff to the Mountain Branch. This resulted in the area receiving a Barlow & Sanderson stage line.
By that time, the Colorado Gold Rush had begun, and New Mexico traders began to bring freight caravans through Trinidad to supply the fledgling city of Denver. One of these traders was Felipe Baca, who traveled through the valley to sell a load of flour. Impressed with the valley’s potential for agriculture and grazing, 29-year-old Felipe determined to move to the valley. Baca had already become a prosperous farmer and rancher in New Mexico, accumulating most of his wealth through raising sheep. A few months later, he left his family in northern New Mexico and moved to the Purgatoire Valley, laying claim to a choice piece of bottomland that would eventually lie in the heart of the city. The next spring, Baca’s workers began to erect a dwelling and planted several crops. After harvesting, he and his men returned to New Mexico with wagonfuls of melons and grain. He then gathered his wife Maria Dolores Gonzales Baca, and his children and made the permanent move.
At the same time that Baca was building his dwelling, another man named Albert W. Archibald, an area prospector, built a log house on the north side of the river in Trinidad in March 1861. That same year, Archibald assisted Dr. John Whitlock in surveying a townsite where the Main and Commercial streets were laid out along the Santa Fe Trail’s ruts. Once the plat was complete, Whitlock inquired what the new town would be called, and bystanders proposed that Gabriel Gutierrez, who owned the only business – a saloon – have the honor of naming the settlement. When Gutierrez suggested “Trinidad,” the name was accepted. The second business in the new town was built by Juan Ignacio Alires, who established a store that offered groceries, fabric, and “whiskey by the quart.”
In the meantime, Felipe Baca and his family had settled into their new home, and in addition to farming and ranching, Felipe opened a general store. He was soon also responsible for constructing a 400-acre ditch to irrigate area farmland, known as the Baca Ditch. One of Trinidad’s most prominent pioneer citizens, he was involved in many early efforts to develop the city and would later serve in the Colorado Territorial Legislature in 1870.
In July 1861, Barlow, Sanderson & Company bought the Denver and Santa Fe Stage Line and, the next year, organized the Southern Overland Mail and Express. This stage line operated weekly post coaches from Kansas City, Missouri, to Santa Fe on the trail’s Mountain Branch. The line used the ruins of Bent’s Fort as a stage station, with routes proceeding to both Trinidad and Pueblo. The coach traveled over Raton Pass to Fort Union, Las Vegas, and Santa Fe from Trinidad. It became the largest and most important stage company in Colorado. A full coach load consisted of a driver, a messenger, and ten passengers with an allowance of 110 pounds of luggage each. The fare was $200.
Demonstrating the importance of the Santa Fe Trail trade to Trinidad, there were seven general merchandise stores within three blocks.
During the early part of the Civil War, some Confederate guerrillas were operating in the neighborhood of Trinidad, and in 1862, the Colorado Volunteers marched past Trinidad on their way over Raton Pass to New Mexico, where they destroyed Confederate hopes in the Battle of Glorieta Pass.
In 1862, encouraged by Felipe Baca’s bountiful harvest, about 12 families from Mora, New Mexico, in 20 ox-drawn wagons, accompanied by livestock, arrived in Trinidad. These settlers soon established homesteads and placitas.
In 1864, coal mining in southern Colorado began in the area, with the earliest mines located at Starkville and Engleville near Trinidad. A call went out to Europe for a trained labor force of miners. Before long, this led to an influx of immigrants from various ethnic backgrounds, including Hispanic, Greek, Italian, Polish, Irish, Lebanese, Slavic, and Northern European.
That same year, mountain man “Uncle Dick” Wooton arrived and built his home on top of the mountains in Raton Pass. Wooton, a former trader, Indian fighter, scout for John C. Fremont, and friend to Kit Carson, decided to build a toll road over Raton Pass to New Mexico.
By 1865, Wootton he leased land from Lucien Maxwell, owner of the Maxwell Land Grant, to build the 27-mile toll road over the pass. Hiring Ute Indians to build the road, which required cutting down hillsides, blasting and removing rocks, and building bridges, they dramatically improved a tough stretch of the Santa Fe Trail. He then erected a tollgate in front of his home, charging $1.50 for 1 wagon or 25 cents for a horse rider. However, Indians were always allowed to utilize the road free of charge. His home also acted as a Barlow and Sanderson stagecoach stop, where passengers could get a meal.
Though the toll road made traveling over Raton Pass much easier, it was still not a place for the inexperienced, and the banks of the road were littered with broken parts of wagons that didn’t make it. Some caravans took up to seven days to complete the crossing.
Albert W. Archibald started the first school in July 1865 with about 13 students. The school was taught in English and Spanish.
That same year, famed mountain man, trapper, and trader, George Simpson, moved his family to Trinidad. By that time, he had settled down into family life and would hold various civic positions in the town, drove stagecoaches over Raton Pass, wrote articles for the newspaper, served on the school board, and worked as a book dealer.
By 1865 Trinidad boasted a population of 1,200 people, 25 buildings, 60 adobe homes, two hotels, and five livery barns with large corrals for oxen, mules, and horses. That year, Felipe Baca donated land for a church, which was built with the aid of 11 pioneer families. In the beginning, the church was very simple, comprised of four walls, a dirt roof, and a dirt floor. The church was called Holy Trinity Pedro in 1866 and Bishop Lamy of the Archdioceses of Santa Fe sent a Jesuit priest Juan Munnecom sent from Mora, New Mexico, to serve the community.
In 1866, Las Animas County was carved out of the huge Huerfano County, one of the legislature’s territorial counties in 1861. By that time, Trinidad was the largest settlement in the new county and was selected as the county seat.
The same year, federal troops arrived in Trinidad after violence between settlers and the Ute Indians threatened to escalate. Despite the US government’s earlier attempts to remove the Utes by treaty, in 1865, there was still a significant population of Muache Ute near the Spanish Peaks who refused to abide the Anglo/Hispano encroachment on their homelands. After the traffic increased along Wootton’s toll road, conflict between the Ute and new settlers increased over livestock theft along the roads. As a result, the Muache began attacking area ranches and small settlements in the Purgatoire River Valley.
During one of these raids in October, George Simpson and his daughter Isabel were caught out on the Plains and fled for their lives to the closest high point, scaled the heights of a butte where they hid and escaped discovery. Simpson then declared the rocky hill had saved his life, and that he would like to be buried on its summit. When he died 20 years later, his wishes were granted, and the butte became known as Simpson’s Rest. An obelisk at the top of the butte marks this grave. Today, the butte is a favorite overlook for local residents, and a sign that reads “Trinidad” lights up on the hill every night. The bluff, overlooking the town from the north, can be reached by way of a road leading from North Avenue’s western end.
After the US cavalry arrived, and with the help of local volunteers, the Ute were defeated. However, the Indians continued to raid the area until military action during 1868 and 1869, and treaties forced the Indians onto reservations.
Also occurring in 1866 was the establishment of a post office in Trinidad and Barlow & Sanderson leased space in a small hotel on Main Street.
A Spanish school was started in 1867 in the home of Mrs. George Simpson on West Main Street. Afterward, Felipe Baca offered several acres of land with buildings on them for a school if the Bishop would secure the service s of the Sisters of Charity of Mount Saint Joseph, Ohio; five sisters came in February l869 in answer to the request for teachers and the school was opened to the public.
In 1867, Frank Bloom arrived in Trinidad. Bloom had come to Colorado the previous year with the Thatcher brothers, John and Mahlon, and operated a store in Canon City. The three moved to Trinidad the next year and opened the Thatcher Brothers and Company store. That year, while riding near Fisher’s Peak, Bloom discovered an outcropping of coal and soon opened the first commercial coal mine in the Trinidad district. Bloom and the Thatcher brothers would later start the Bloom Cattle Company, which became one of the state’s largest cattle outfits. Bloom would later become a banker and was also involved with various other business ventures in Trinidad, including publishing The Enterprise newspaper for a brief time. In 1882, he built a large, three-story brick mansion on the corner of Main and Walnut Streets. Today, the home is owned by the state of Colorado and operated as Trinidad History Museum by the Colorado Historical Society. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1970 and is part of the El Corazon de Trinidad National Historic District.
By the late 1860s, the areas’ livestock industry was booming with sheep and cattle grazing throughout the valley. After the Civil War, there was a great demand for cattle in the Midwest and a great supply of Longhorns in Texas. In 1866 Oliver Loving established the first trail over Raton Pass and north to Denver. To facilitate the herding of cattle, Charles Goodnight established the Goodnight Trail, which ran from the Pecos River to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where it formed several branches, including one north to Trinidad and beyond. The Texas cattle drives transported tens of thousands of cattle through the area until 1886.
By October 1869, Trinidad was described as having a flour mill, six stores, three doctors, three lawyers, and “saloons in abundance.” The next year, George Simpson provided Trinidad’s description for the Rocky Mountain Directory and Colorado Gazetteer. Simpson noted the fertility of the river valley, the “inexhaustible beds of coal,” and the abundant pasturage for cattle and sheep. He predicted that the geographic position of the town would ensure that it would be the commercial center of a large district, concluding, “The town, with a population of 1,000, with its forty stores and shops, with its numberless and slow-jogging freight wagons, with its daily and tri-weekly mail coaches, and rapidly increasing travel, already attracts attention abroad, and gives promise of a prosperous future.” However, Simpson appears to have exaggerated the town’s population, as the 1870 U.S. Census recorded 562 residents.