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Frontier Forts, part 1

For those who are inclined toward the study of history or militaria, it is probably no surprise to learn there were more than a dozen frontier forts located within a two-hour drive of Walsenburg or La Veta. These forts were both military and civilian, built between 1807 and 1867. Some are still standing, some have been completely destroyed, and some have been reconstructed. The oldest of these establishments is Pike’s Stockade. This is the oldest documented fortification in the State of Colorado. Capt. Zebulon Pike was sent west by President Thomas Jefferson in 1806 to explore the far reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. After wandering around southern Colorado all summer and fall, despite the fact they knew they were in Spanish territory, Pike and his men entered the Sangre de Cristo mountains for a winter crossing that led them into privation and starvation. In February 1807 the small force built a 36-square foot log enclosure for shelter. Within a few days, Spanish troops appeared and arrested Pike. He was taken to Santa Fe for questioning and later released.

Pike’s Stockade was abandoned and fell into ruin. In the 1920s, the land was purchased by the state and the Colorado Historical Society built a replica. It was recognized as a National Historical Landmark in 1962. It is located near Sanford in the San Luis Valley south of Alamosa and is open to the public for no cost. Nearly as old as Pike’s Stockade but occupied by a different military entity, the Old Spanish Fort was built in 1819 on a plateau along the route of what became the old Taos or Trapper’s Trail in Huerfano County. This trail is considered by some to be the oldest road in Colorado. The governor of New Spain Facundo Melgares ordered its construction to guard against such intrusions as Pike’s, or those of French trappers who were beginning to appear along the territory’s northern boundary. The fort was built of adobe and the entire garrison numbered six men. In 1820, the inhabitants were attacked by 100 whites disguised as Indians. One survivor made it back to Santa Fe. The empty fort was seen by several early American travelers over Sangre de Cristo Pass. One studying it in 1821 noted it looked recently abandoned. The site has been placed in several different locations and has never been rebuilt. The Spanish fort is occasionally referred to as Fort Sangre de Cristo. Gantt’s Fort was built in 1831 by Indian traders John Gantt and Jefferson Blackwell at the junction of the Arkansas and Purgatory rivers. It is considered to be the first place built specifically as a trading post on the Arkansas. It also served as winter quarters for trappers. It is thought to have been built of cottonwood logs and contain two buildings. Fort Gantt has the dubious distinction of introducing Taos Lightning, that infamous old rotgut whiskey, to the Colorado plains. Fort Gantt was moved six miles upstream in 1834 and became known as Fort Cass, built of adobe. It lasted but one year. No trace of either of these forts has been reported. There were three Bent family forts. The first, Bent’s picket post stockade, was built in 1832 or ’33 about eight miles below the junction of the Arkansas and Fountain Creek. It received a license to trade with the Indians on Dec. 13, 1834, at which time it was called Fort William. Bent’s Old Fort, probably the best known civilian fort and trading post of the frontier plains today, was the dominant site in the southwest for travelers, trappers and traders in its day. Also called Fort William, it was destroyed by William Bent in 1849. Bent’s New Fort, constructed in 1853, was sold to the U.S. government for a military post in 1859. This became best known as Fort Lyon. Bent’s Old Fort was reconstructed, based on drawings of the 1830s and ‘40s. It has been a National Historic Site administered by the U.S. Park Service since it was opened in 1976. It is open year round and has many activities, special events and educational opportunities. It is between La Junta and Las Animas. Admission charged. Another fort of the 1830s was LeDuc. French Canadians, through the cooperation and possibly financial assistance of the Bent brothers, established this trading post about 1835 near an ancient Indian trail through the Wet Mountain Valley and across the Sangres. It was sited on the old Hardscrabble Trail at the foot of Greenhorn Mountain. Licensed to trade by the Mexican government, the post had some friends among the Indians because of Maurice LeDuc’s Ute wife, not to mention the availability of Taos Lightning. The fort was said by travelers to be of picket logs, 144 feet wide with bastions on each corner, with a 48 square foot plaza in the center and wooden gates on the west. Inside the enclosure was another made of adobe to provide living quarters. A small settlement grew up around the fort and soon engulfed it, causing its disappearance around 1838. This fort was also known as El Cuervo, Crow’s Nest, Buzzard’s Roost and Maurice’s Fort. A historical marker entitled “Hardscrabble” was erected near the site. Yet another fort of the ‘30s was called the Milk Fort, or Pueblo de Leche. This was a cluster of adobe houses built around a central courtyard or plaza. Many of the inhabitants were workers from Bent’s Fort, with their families. The milk referred to goat herds raised nearby. Several early travelers mentioned passing by here, because it was only about five miles above Bent’s Old Fort on the Arkansas River. This, too, was swallowed up by the surrounding settlement. El Pueblo, occasionally called Fort Pueblo, was built in 1842 by a group of trappers and traders. It was a fortified trading post of adobe. Estimates of its size vary, but about 60 feet square is the accepted concept. The thick walls were said to be eight feet high, with 10 to 12 foot high towers or bastions at two corners. Again, travelers of the time described and gave a location for it., though at least one was quite unimpressed, calling it “mean and miserable”, just like its occupants. This fort failed to protect anyone inside after one of its number invited a party of Utes in to join the Christmas celebration of 1854. As a result, all the male inhabitants were murdered and a number of women and children taken captive. The fort was abandoned and was swallowed up by the City of Pueblo. A reconstructed model opened in 1957 and moved several times until it found its home at 301 N. Main. Admission charged.