by Nancy Christofferson
SOUTHERN COLORADO — Following Juan de Ulibarri’s lead some 13 years previously, in 1719 Governor Don Antonio Valverde was still worrying about the French intrusion into Spanish territory, and the missing Indians entrenched at the faraway El Cuartelejo, and how best to solve these problems.
Like Ulibarri, a professional soldier, Valverde had, after a (relatively short) military career, been appointed “captain for life” of the presidio at El Paso and served Santa Fe as well. He’d traveled the southwest in the past chasing Apaches, Utes and Comanches, fought them, served as governor in Santa Fe for three years and all the while tended his vineyards in El Paso.
Valverde was on his way home after trailing unruly Utes and Comanches and failing to find them, when he learned a party of Indians from El Cuartelejo, “the far quarter” on the High Plains, was on its way to meet with him on the Rio Napestle, aka Arkansas River.
He returned to Santa Fe and collected a force of 105 Spaniards and about 500 native allies and servants. From Taos, he wrote that he followed Ulibarri’s route as closely as possible. From his journal, it is apparent he crossed the later Raton Pass into the Purgatory Valley. It was fall by then, and the mountain crossing proved bitterly cold and difficult. Along the way they had forded a river they referred to as the Nuestra Senora del Rosario, which was either the Rayado or the Cimarron. Ulibarri had called this same waterway the Rio de Santa Magdalena. One difference between the two journeys was that Valverde, traveling so late in the year, referred to the creeks and rivers as arroyos because they were dry or almost so.
Descending into the Purgatory valley, it is thought Valverde’s army camped near the site of Trinidad. How closely he was following Ulibarri’s travel diary is unknown, but Valverde called the Purgatory the Rio de Las Animas instead of Ulibarri’s Rio de Santa Ana. It is said that the word Perdidas was added to Rio de Las Animas at a later date. When the French actually did explore this country, they changed the Perdidas to Purgatoire. American fur trappers and mountain men whose tongues failed to manipulate French sounds changed this to Picketwire.
Near Trinidad Valverde encountered about 70 Apaches under the leadership of a chief Carlana. These people farmed along the Purgatory in what the Spanish termed rancherias. They also named them Carlana Apaches. When Ulibarri had met Indians in the same area in 1706, they were called the Penxaya Apache.
The party spent several days along the Purgatory, one a Holy Day celebrated with “some very good glasses of wine.” We are not informed whether this was the commander’s personal vintage.
Back on the road again, the Spanish headed north to locate the Napestle, or Arkansas. They reached a river which Valverde dubbed the San Antonio. They camped on the river bank and admired “broad, spacious meadows, filled with poplars”. From here they set out to follow the river downstream. Not far north, they came to another river and called it the Rio San Francisco. “Here they hunted ad caught many deer and a lot of good fat prairie hens with which they made very delicious tamales.” In the evening Valverde and the accompanying priest observed the eve of St. Francis Day with a “small keg of rich spirituous brandy”, which was acknowledged as the governor’s own product.
Camp was moved some 10 or 12 miles before stopping again on the same river. Historians believe this river to be the Huerfano, or the Rio de San Juan Baptista of Ulibarri. At this point is made mention of the mountains rising high on their left, or west. Hunting that day brought in more deer, birds, one mountain lion and a wildcat. To complete the menagerie, Valverde viewed the remains of a very large bear that had been killed after it ran into camp. On another date in his journal, he made note of the multitude of buffalo on the plains, and the importance of the beast to Native American life.
The army and its captain found this area “very pleasing”. They viewed the forested eastern slopes of Greenhorn Mountain, many springs and miles of open grasslands. They reached the Arkansas, only to find the plains sparsely wooded, and without fresh water. They re-crossed the river to the south. Finally, they met their messengers from El Cuartelejo. Historians believe by then the party was some 100 miles downstream of Pueblo, possibly in the neighborhood of today’s Las Animas.
Once again, these Indians of the high plains carried news of French, who had a large settlement to the north, and had allied themselves with the Pawnees and other tribes. One of these warriors bore a gunshot wound inflicted, he reported, by the French and their allies in a battle “on a river to the north”.
Valverde wasted no time returning to Santa Fe, where he arrived in November. Within days he had written a report to the viceroy in Mexico City concerning the threat posed by the French intruders to the north.
As a result, seven months later, in July 1820, Governor Valverde sent a “well-equipped” army back to the area around El Cuartelejo. The commander was Pedro de Villasur and his men included 45 Spanish, 60 Indian allies, a priest, a French interpreter and various servants. His route is unknown, but some historians have speculated he followed Ulibarri’s lead through Long’s Pass and the Cucharas Valley, and that he even built a fortification at the later site of La Veta.
At El Cuartelejo, Villasur was joined by 50 or so Apache warriors. Compared to the previous expeditions, Villasur traveled quickly, and by early August was on the North Platte River in today’s Nebraska. Near the river his forces encountered a large camp of Pawnees, who refused to parlay. The El Cuartelejo Apaches suspected the Pawnees would attack, and dispersed. On the morning of August 13, 1720, the Pawnees did indeed attack and, aided by Oto allies, killed many of the soldiers and other New Mexicans, including Villasur. Had he kept a journal of his travels so far, it may have been lost at this point.
Survivors of the battle were, within a month, back in New Mexico reporting the disaster to their governor.
After this debacle, New Mexican officials knew with certainty that the French and their allies were in control of the northern Spanish province. However, they were unable to gather enough soldiers or militia to return to the prairies due to financial and governmental conditions. They must have seethed with frustration as French trappers began filtering into the northern settlements of New Mexico beginning in the 1730s.
In 1750 one Felipe de Sandoval with several companions left the relative civilization of the Louisiana area to ascend the Arkansas River. They traveled at first by canoe, then foot, and while part of the men turned back, Sandoval reached Santa Fe through the aid of Comanche guides and horses. His information, coupled with intelligence from Plains Indians, told then Governor Velez that the Arkansas was not only a landmark to the north, but that it extended many, many miles to the east where it became a great river that was navigable and it banks populated with white as well as native settlers. Still, it would take many more decades to fully realize the river could be used as a trail marker between the Missouri and the Rio Grande.