Colorado Explorers

Long before the first Colorado explorers, was a prehistoric period, around 15,000 years ago. Before recorded history, a man walked the area, along with mammoths and other prehistoric mammals.

Remains have been found substantiating this rare find. The first recorded people of Colorado were the Native Americans, who inhabited the area between 700 – 1000 A.D. The first Colorado explorers were made up of men from the newly formed colonies of the U.S., as well as adventurers from other countries. Spanish explorers sailed to Mexico to buy supplies and check on Spanish holdings.

Gold was always on their mind and they put together expeditions to search the surrounding mountains for the rich ore. Their travels brought them into the Colorado territory long before it became a part of the U.S.  Colorado received its name from the Spanish, along with towns, rivers, mountains, and valleys named in their language.

With France continuing to advance its holdings in America, French explorers were sent west to encourage trading with Native Americans. And, as a side note, the French did not want to harm our Native American people.  They frequently intermarried and became friends with the Indians. Other countries, along with our own, did not observe this practice of friendship.

Then in the early 1800s, the U.S. bought the Colorado territory from the French, who had bought it back from the Spanish, who….we’ll get into that later. With the Louis and Clark expedition, the west was opened up to a more rugged band of American explorers who arrived before and after the U.S. sent expeditions into the new west. These men traveled all over the territory mapping out new trails, trading furs with the natives, and building forts and outposts.

Most explorers were in search of a way to the Pacific Ocean, across the country.  Not only did they map the Colorado Territory, but they also continued on into Utah and beyond. Let’s take a look into the early explorers of our western territory and how Colorado was discovered.

Spanish Explorers: The Quest for Gold

Spanish explorers named the state of Colorado. It can mean red, rosy or colorful.  As the conquistadors rode into the wilderness of what is now Colorado, they saw many red rock formations.

These were sandstone, erosion, cliffs or mountains of red.  So Colorado got its name.

Explorers arrived in the 16th century of Colorado history.  And since the horse was the mode of transportation for the Spaniards, when the Native Americans saw them for the first time, they were terrified.

Little did they know that the horses the Spanish brought to the region would change the native’s lives in a big way.

The famous explorer Coronado, arrived in the southwest from Mexico City in 1540.  He and his troops were in the Colorado territory for one thing, well two actually. To obtain the land for Spain and search for gold.

Spanish troops were very well protected.  The mounted troops wore shining armor and silver all over their horses. They carried colorful flags and banners, marching through the wilderness as on parade.

Spanish Explorers Arrive in Search of Gold

The gold they were searching for was told to be in present-day Colorado at a mythical place called Quivira and its Seven Cities of Cibola.

This story was just that.  A rumor which found its way to Spain and so the explorers arrived in search of untold riches.

However, upon questioning the natives about this city, they pointed Coronado further east, into present-day Kansas.

As the Spanish continued east, they came across “hump-backed cattle” (buffalo).

Not able to find the mythical city, Coronado and his men returned to Mexico City in disgrace.

Coronado’s Failure

In the century that followed this expedition, the Spanish influence was of no importance at that time. Although the Spanish were becoming entrenched in Mexico and the southwest U.S. (at the time), it was not until between 1664 and 1680 that another Spaniard ventured into Colorado.

The Spanish had made slaves out of the Indians of New Mexico. A band of them fled to a place about 100 miles from present day Pueblo in Colorado.

The governor sent a military expedition after the band of runaways.  It was led by a military captain named Juan Archuleta, who captured the band and returned them to New Mexico.

Throughout the years, the Spanish explorers oppressed and enslaved the Native Americans.

Finally, in 1706, on a trek to round up more slaves for the Spanish government, a man named Juan de Ulibarri, claimed the Colorado territory for Spain.

It didn’t matter to them that the country being claimed rightfully belonged to the Indians.  He stated:

“The royal ensign Don Francisco de Valdez drew his sword, and I, after making a note of the events of the day and hour on which we arrived, said in a clear intelligible voice: ‘Knights, Companions and Friends: Let the broad new province of San Luis and the great settlement of Santo Domingo of El Cuartelejo be pacified by the arms of us who are the vassals of our monarch, king and natural lord, Don Philip V-may he live forever.’

The royal ensign said: ‘Is there any one to contradict?’ All responded, ‘No.’ Then he said: ‘Long live the king! Long live the king! Long live the king!’ and cutting the air in all four directions with his sword the ensign signalled for the discharge of the guns.

After throwing up our hats and making other signs of rejoicing, the ceremony came to an end.” (from “Colorful Colorado, Its Dramatic History” by Caroline Bancroft).

The Spanish explorers were celebrating a new conquest, the Indians were rebelling the ownership of their land and while this was going on, a new fighter arrived in the arena.

The French were moving down the Mississippi River from Canada to explore their newfound land and began moving further west toward the Spanish territory.

French Explorers: Trade was Their Business

French explorers were on the move west.  The Spanish were settled in the uncharted territory of Colorado, enslaving the Native Americans.  They had no idea others were heading their way.

As early as 1682, a Frenchman named La Salle floated down the Mississippi River from Canada, where they had settled.

La Salle claimed the Mississippi and the land surrounding it for France, in the name of King Louis.

Other Frenchmen started exploring the area west of the Mississippi and closer to the land the Spanish occupied.

LaSalle Led French Explorers Further West

The Spanish, aware of the westward movement of the French, sent an expedition in 1720 to the eastern part of Colorado to assert their authority as the first to claim the state for Spain.

A man named Villasur led more than 100 Spanish troops to the plains of Colorado, where they were ambushed by Indians along the South Platte River.

The Indians were probably led by Frenchmen.  The ambush ended Spain’s rule in the eastern part of Colorado.

The French were more kindly to the Native Americans under their rule.

Many became friends with the Indians, traded with them, hunted with them and learned their culture.

With the new land in French hands, more explorers started investigating the state of Colorado.

The Mallet brothers traveled the Platte River with six other Frenchmen.

In 1739 they gave the river its name, Platte.  At the time, the brothers tried to ford the river in a flat bottomed boat called a platte.

They followed the Platte River on a southwest direction that fed into the Arkansas River and from this river, on to Timpas Creek to the present land around Trinidad.

The Mallet brothers were the first to chart the route through Colorado.

Interesting to note that the brother’s trail is the present-day route of the Santa Fe Railroad.

The brothers returned to French-owned Louisiana and never came back to Colorado.

Because of the Mallet’s, the French headed west to trade with the Indians and the Spanish.

They were successful traders and the Spanish were jealous of their trading skills.  So they refused to trade with them.

The French were doing well in the territory, until the French-Indian War.

It is misnamed because the war was not between the French and Indians, who they befriended.

The war was between France and England. A contest to see which country would expand America.

In 1763, the English won and France ceded all the land they claimed to Spain, who was England’s allies.

Spain now owned the whole state of Colorado, as well as all French territory in the colonial U.S.

All was well until 1800, when Napoleon pressured Spain to give the Great Louisiana Territory back to France.

Then in 1803, France sold the territory to the United States.  This was known as the “Louisiana Purchase”.

It opened up a whole new world for the colonial U.S.

American Explorers Expanded Our Country’s Boundaries

The first American explorers, Louis and Clark, opened a pathway to Colorado and the territories beyond all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Thomas Jefferson sent them to find a fast route to the Pacific after the Louisiana Purchase was bought from the French.

President Jefferson was fascinated by the tales from the French about the majestic mountains, abundant wildlife, and friendly natives that inhabited the territory.

After Louis and Clark, he sent a fellow named Zebulon Pike out to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red Rivers.

Mr. Pike is most famous for discovering the mountain that would bear his name, Pikes Peak.

Louis & Clark were the Original American Explorers

In 1820, Stephen Long was sent to the new Colorado territory to find more information from Pike’s results.

Long explored the area during the summer, and following the Platte River, could cover about 20 miles a day.

His fact-finding mission was to chart the area that would be of use to later expeditions.

During their trek, Long’s group spotted the “Two-ears Peak”, which if you have visited Colorado, is known as “Long’s Peak”, named after Stephen Long.

Suddenly the Colorado territory was teeming with Americans.

After Mr. Long’s expedition came to Colonel Henry Dodge in 1835 and then Colonel Stephen Kearney in 1845.

Col. Kearney followed Long’s route and was noted for befriending the Indians of the area.

John C. Fremont spent the most time in Colorado.  He visited Fort St. Vrain on the South Platte River, explored the North, Middle and South Parks of the territory and followed the Arkansas River to Leadville.

During the long winter, Fremont’s expedition was hit by a raging blizzard in the mountains.  All of his pack mules froze to death and many of his men died.

Fremont’s last trip to Colorado was in 1853. He was hired to map out the best route for a railroad.

During that year, Captain John Gunnison was also hired by the railroad to find a suitable route.

His exploration sent him over the Continental Divide and into the Western Slope of the state.

He followed a river into Utah where he was killed by Indians.  The river and town of Gunnison were named for him.

You can see that in just a few years, the territory of Colorado was bursting with activity.

Reading about these explorers’ adventures is truly exciting.  Just imagine the hardships they faced in an unknown land without any signs to guide them.

When their exploits were published, it threw the adventurous new Americans of the east into overdrive and many headed west.

They thought they were heading for an easy and exciting new life.  Little did they know.