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Early expeditions in Nuevo Mexico

by Nancy Christofferson
NUEVO MEXICO Y COLORADO — The vast country north and east of the lower Rio Grande was named Nuevo Mexico in the 16th century by the Spanish moving into the area from the south. The name was later expanded to include the territory that includes almost the entire western United States of today, right up to the Canadian border and west to the Pacific Ocean. What was not termed Nuevo Mexico, or New Mexico, was New Spain.
We’ve all heard of Coronado – Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, to be exact – who traveled northeast out of Mexico in 1540 searching for legendary golden cities. His was an exploratory mission, and while he headed deep onto the plains, others went north and west across the deserts seeking other treasures.

It was not until the 1670s that Juan de Archuleta followed Coronado’s lead into the wilderness of the Great Plains. His exact route is unknown, but he had been sent by the governor of New Mexico to find some Indians who had fled from their Indian enemies (or were kidnapped by them), into the northern unknown and return them to their homeland. Archuleta found them living comfortably in a fortified adobe known to the Spanish as El Cuartelejo. This was in either western Kansas or eastern Colorado – historians differ on the location. What is known is that the Spanish soldiers encountered Pawnees, and those Pawnees had been trading with Frenchmen.

The Spanish were appalled to learn of the French presence on what they considered to be a part of the Spanish province. However, it turned out that the French were harboring a completely erroneous concept of the plains. For years in the 1600s, they thought the rumored rich mines of New Mexico were accessible by traveling UP the Missouri river. Their printed maps showed this misconception to be widely accepted. It was not until 1719 when brothers Paul and Peter Mallet with six other Frenchmen ascended the Missouri into Nebraska that it was realized the Spanish settlements were nowhere close so they headed to the south. The Mallets are still considered the first Europeans to reach New Mexico from Missouri.

The uprising of the Pueblo people and the ensuing abandonment of northeastern New Mexico by the some 2,000 Spanish occupants caused a lull in the search for French or gold. As the Spanish filtered back into the region from the south where they had moved their seat of government from Santa Fe, attention was again turned toward learning more about the wandering French and securing the northern reaches of Nuevo Mexico from them.
Their first venture north was in 1694, when Governor Don Diego de Vargas led an expedition into the San Luis Valley, the first known European incursion into what would become Colorado from the south.

Once again, in 1706, the return of the escaped Indians at El Cuartelejo became an issue. Spain’s expressed purpose for colonizing the New World was to convert the heathen natives to Christianity, and the escapees had been duly converted. One strongly suspects another motive for their return was that at least some of the Indians were personal property, i.e., slaves, of the Spanish.

Juan de Ulibarri, or Uribarri, was sent from Santa Fe on July 13, 1706 with 40 Spaniards and 100 Indian allies to find El Cuartelejo. One of the “Spaniards” was actually French, Juan de l’Archeveque, who had explored with La Salle and may have been among those who murdered him, which could explain his presence in Spanish territory. Ulibarri’s route took him north of Taos, then east where he encountered “friendly Apaches” who were living in the upper Canadian and Cimarron river valleys and raising vegetables. Farther east he met with more Apaches residing on “rancherias” who gave the troops meat, roasting corn, tamales and wild plums, among other things,
They warned him of hostiles on the plains. Ulibarri had in fact been held up in Taos for several days because of the threat of attack by marauding tribes. To avoid a confrontation with the hostiles, he entered the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo range and crossed the divide to the Purgatoire River. There is conjecture about his route, some claiming he entered now Colorado through Long Canyon, others believing he was as far east as Mesa de “Maya”, or Mayo. The Long Canyon version has him crossing Cucharas Pass into the vicinity of La Veta and on to Greenhorn Mountain and thus to the plains. This theory is based on his mention of passing to the west of “Las Tetas”, long thought to be a colloquial expression referring to the twin Spanish Peaks and their “breasts of the world” connotation. The tetas of his journal were explained as “two little hills very much alike, sharp and pointed”, and so were probably not the Spanish Peaks and perhaps instead were buttes. One suggestion is these were Walsen Crag and St. Mary Hill near Walsenburg seen from a distance to the west.

Along the way, Ulibarri happily named the new geographic features he saw, the Rio de Santa Ana (the Purgatoire), Las Tetas de Dominguez, and Rio de San Juan Baptista (Huerfano) before reaching the Nepestle, the Indian name for the Arkansas River, near the site of today’s City of Pueblo. He was excited about the Arkansas, saying it was four times as large as the Rio Grande, and that its broad valley was the “best” discovered in New Spain. He named it Rio Grande de San Francisco.
Continuing north from the river and after wandering about the prairie for several days when his native guide became lost (twice) while searching for water, he reached his goal and claimed it and all the surrounding land for his monarch and country.

It was early August when Ulibarri and his forces reached El Cuartelejo. They found their missing Picurie Indians living with the Cuartelejo Apaches in evident peace. He did not describe their residences beyond writing they were given “excellent quarters” for their stay.

Historians are divided as to whether El Cuartelejo was in Otero or Kiowa County, Colorado, or Scott County, Kansas about 50 miles east of the Colorado line. With Ulibarri giving his “mileage” in leagues, the length of which in 1706 is also debated, though today a league is generally accepted to be around two and a half miles, many feel the former is the correct location. Nothing has been found on the Colorado prairie to substantiate these claims. On the other hand, remains of stone and adobe buildings, one as large as 35 by 53 feet and containing seven rooms, dating to circa 1700, were excavated many years ago in Kansas. The ruins were judged to be of Pueblo origin. The ruins even include evidence of an irrigation system and other characteristics of Pueblo life. In addition, artifacts of Apaches of the same period were found at the site.

Back to Ulibarri. By this time it was mid-August and, fearing to journey in winter snows, the men rounded up their Picuries and rapidly made their way back to Santa Fe. Again, his path is unknown and historians (of course) argue about whether he retraced his steps or took another route altogether. At any rate, his trip home was much quicker, as they arrived in Santa Fe on September 2.