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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
National Register of Historic Places
Local Landmark Designations
Janis Cabin located at the Fort Collins
Camp sites of expeditions.
Early camps or cache sites of trappers and traders.
Physical evidence of early pathways, such as trail
Links to Historic Contexts
and the Fur Trade, ca. 1540-1858