by Nancy Christofferson
ROCKY MOUNTAIN SOUTHWEST — In the late 1700s, Spain still claimed most of the western United States, from the Missouri River to the Pacific coast. Numerous expeditions had been sent out from Nuevo Mexico north, east, and west to discover not only the natural resources and how best to reach them, but also to understand the topography, the people and the hazards.
France also claimed some of these lands, and French Canadians had been fur trapping and befriending and trading with the indigenous people for years.
Misunderstandings between the two super powers of the day led to more exploration. As the trappers wandered throughout the mountains and along the river valleys, they returned to civilization to report their findings. Alas, the mapmakers they reported to had a hazy grasp of what they were hearing. Their maps were odd looking creations depicting the Arkansas River rising in the mountains east of Santa Fe, Spain’s governmental seat.
The two countries in 1762 signed a secret agreement ceding to Spain the lands “owned” by France west of the Mississippi, which should have settled the dust. The next year, the city of St. Louis was founded. Auguste Chouteau, then 14 years old, was in charge of the construction. The Chouteau name would become one of the most common, and most prestigious, in the annals of fur trading from Arkansas to the Pacific Northwest.
By 1769 the Spanish were firmly entrenched along the Mississippi, led by a native Spanish governor. At the time, travel time to Santa Fe was estimated at 12 to 16 days, but required an agreement with the Comanche tribes of the plains (from the upper Missouri south to New Mexico) for safe passage.
Boundaries of “Upper Louisiana,” as the vast tract of the west was called, were ambiguous at best. However, Santa Fe was the most important town in the western portion, as St. Louis was in the east.
In 1790, Pierre Vial, a native Frenchman hired by Spanish officials, was given the task of finding the best route between the two cities for communication and trade. Vial, who became known as Pedro, hired two Spaniards to go with him. Traveling first southeast to the Pecos River, the threesome then headed east, then north until they reached the Canadian River in Oklahoma. From here they went northeast to locate the Arkansas River, but in central Kansas were captured by the Kansa Indians. The tribe stole all the men’s supplies, from horses to their clothing, and kept them captive for more than two months. A French trapper known to the Indians happened by, vouched for Vial, and with their possessions returned, the travelers continued on to St. Louis, accompanied by some of their former captors. The trip had begun May 21 when they’d left Santa Fe, and ended Oct. 3 beside the Mississippi, but at least they achieved their goal.
Vial and his two companions then left St. Louis the following June 14, went up the Missouri River into Nebraska, in order to avoid the warring Osage tribe, which was numerous and widespread, and three months later started southwest. With assistance from Pawnees, they reached Santa Fe in October, via the Pecos.
In further contact with the Pawnee, Vial determined them to be friendly and helpful, and good citizens of New Mexico.
Back in St. Louis, the Spanish officials were issuing licenses to trade with the many tribes of the plains and mountains. Almost all of these trading companies, and the trappers who worked for them, were French. One was the Missouri Company, which included Auguste Chouteau and his son Pierre, and Joseph Robidoux. A third partner was Benito Vasquez who, interestingly to this La Veta resident, had a son named Louis who had a stepson named Hiram who is considered to be one of the founders of the town of La Veta.
French trappers were all over the west, and it is interesting that, in those thousands of square miles of empty prairie and mountains, they encountered not only Spanish but also a few easterners called Americans after 1776.
On October 1, 1800, France and Spain signed another secret treaty. This time, France gained back that land she had ceded to Spain just 37 years earlier.
Still, borders were murky. So, when on April 30, 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte sold the entire Louisiana territory (at about five cents an acre) to the United States, Spain was still insisting she owned a great deal of what the U.S. considered its new addition.
The States maintained it had paid for all that land drained by the Mississippi River, which meant west from that river to the Continental Divide. Spain thought the deal only pertained to the west BANK of the Mississippi.
Spain didn’t just claim the land, it policed it. Now those French trappers caught on Spanish territory were arrested and imprisoned in Mexico. This included Pierre Chouteau and his companion Jules DeMun. Zebulon Pike learned firsthand about those prisons when he and the members of his exploring party were captured in the San Luis Valley in February 1807. He was escorted from the village of Albuquerque to jail in Chihuahua by Facundo Melgares under gubernatorial order.
Of course Pike was freed soon after, but others spent as much as eight years in jail.
When Pike did return east, he told of the opportunity the markets of Santa Fe offered. Fine fabrics, he reported, brought as much as $25 per yard, a considerable markup from St. Louis prices.
By 1820, Melgares was governor of New Mexico. After traveling the province’s northern border while searching for Pike, Melgares was well aware of the threat of “spies” in those wide open spaces. He decided to build a fort to guard the major trail over Sangre de Cristo Pass in southern Colorado. It was duly built, in Huerfano County, and manned by a small force. Not many months later, the little garrison was attacked by 100 Frenchmen disguised as Indians, or so the survivors reported when they fled back to Santa Fe.
The following year, 1821, a compromise between the States and the new free nation of Mexico, not Spain, was hammered out defining the border between them to be the Arkansas River. No one asked the current residents of the property for permission to seize their homelands.
That summer some Missourians, with $10,000 worth of goods, set off for Santa Fe. From St. Louis they traveled down the Mississippi by boat to the Arkansas, and then up the latter until they literally ran out of water for navigation. Buying horses from the Osage, they cached their heavier trade goods and went overland to the Canadian where they were captured by the Comanche. The Indians took what they wanted and kept the Missourians as well until their message was finally clear – don’t cross Comanche land. The remainder of this group arrived in Santa Fe in December 1821.
The Missouri party had met Hugh Glenn and Jacob Fowler in Oklahoma. With about 20 men, they’d traveled up the Arkansas bound for Santa Fe with trade goods. What with weather and Mexican troops, they did not reach Santa Fe until January 1822.
While both these parties managed to freight their goods to their target, a third group was also traveling southwest from Missouri. This one was led by William Becknell, who was welcomed to Santa Fe in November 1821 after about eight weeks on the trail.
Finally, someone had found the route, and William Becknell became known as the founder of the famous Santa Fe Trail.