The Taos Trail
by Nancy Christofferson
The words “The Taos Trail” can engender visions of everything from Native Americans to Spanish explorers to fur trappers slowly making their way across plains and mountains.
Huerfano County’s share of this long-lived and important trail has been abandoned for more than 100 years, but some parts of it are still in use, if unidentifiable today.
As can be deduced from the name, the Taos Trail connected Taos with the rest of the country to the north and east. It has been suggested the trail was originally opened by the Comanche, who were known to travel long distances even before they made acquaintance with horses. The Comanche were Huerfano’s dominant native people of the 1700s, having supplanted the Apache. What we remember about these people today are Greenhorn Mountain named for the Comanche chief, Cuerno Verde, who was killed in 1779, and Wahatoya, in which the waha means double, and the toya means mountain.
About all some people know about this route they learned from the book Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail, where the only thing about the Wahatoya is the author’s view of the Spanish Peaks from Bent’s Fort, and the trail to Taos was actually the Santa Fe Trail, so there is bound to be some confusion about the road’s whereabouts.
The trail most traveled ran from Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River, up that waterway to the mouth of the Huerfano, up the Huerfano to the old settlement of Badito, then after a few more miles beside the river, cut left, or south, up Oak Creek and across Sangre de Cristo Pass. The pass crosses Sheep Mountain north of Mount Mestas and drops into the San Luis Valley just west of the summit of North Veta Pass on Highway 160. From there it basically follows Sangre de Cristo Creek just like the modern highway does, though it meandered southwest while still east of later Fort Garland. Parts of this trail are still visible from the air.
The first written account of the existence of this pass was by Governor Juan Bautista de Anza, who had chased Cuerno Verde and his warriors north through the San Luis Valley, across the mountains and back south to the battlefield where the Comanche were defeated and Cuerno Verde was killed, just southeast of Greenhorn Mountain. Returning to Santa Fe, de Anza and his men camped near the Huerfano Butte and saw an opening in the mountains to the southwest, and followed the river until hitting a trail and following it. De Anza left a journal, and he recounted how his forces climbed 3,000 vertical feet in 20 miles, which was a gentle enough slope to convince him this would be the best route north from the settlements of northern New Mexico. He named it after the mountain range it traversed, and the name stuck. It became a popular route for Spanish traders heading for the Arkansas and the Great Plains, because the mileage was shorter, the climb easier and the route required crossing but one mountain pass.
Sangre de Cristo Pass became so well used, in fact, that when the Spanish heard white men were trespassing on the northern limits of Spanish territory in 1819, the acting governor, Facundo Melgares, dispatched a small force to the pass to fortify it. The whites were French trappers, but the Spanish believed them to be spies, and a threat to New Mexico.
Melgares had his men build a small fort of mud, or adobe, on the trail several miles northeast of the summit of the pass, which he described as an “easy footpath”, or at least until near the top. A handful of soldiers was assigned to stay there and guard the trail. In 1820 these men were attacked by “100 white men dressed as Indians” (who were probably Indians dressed as themselves, and who no doubt numbered in the tens or dozens at most). One survivor made his way back to civilization and the little “fort” was abandoned. Its lasting importance was that it was believed to be the first structure built by Europeans in the later state of Colorado.
In 1822 Major Jacob Fowler and party from Missouri arrived in this area. After building a cabin, considered the first built at the later site of Pueblo, and spending the winter, his group headed for “Touse” (Fowler was not much of a speller). They followed the trail, now fairly worn and certainly visible, from the Huerfano toward the southwest. Along the way they saw the Spanish “fort” which Fowler noted “to apperence ocepied about one year back” and camped there, where it was so cold and “Windey” they were “like to frees”. They forced their way on through three feet of snow, reached the San Luis Valley and Taos without further adventures, though with many more misspellings.
Travel along the trail and over the pass increased after Fort Pueblo was built in 1842. This fort relied on Taos for its supplies and, in return, its residents hauled their furs, hides and meat along it to the markets of New Mexico. Many a “mountain man”, such as Bill Williams, Uncle Dick Wootten, Charles Autobees and Kit Carson knew the way well. In fact, Kit’s wife Josefa managed to fall off her horse and into a snowbank somewhere on the pass.
Sangre de Cristo surpassed Raton Pass as a favored crossing when Indian attacks grew more numerous and brutal in the communities in what is now northern New Mexico. It was the trail most often used by mountain men, fur trappers and traders. Many stories passed down among these travelers regarding close encounters with grizzlies, Indians and weather.
One writer explained Raton Pass, which had a more gradual incline and milder climate, was the route most favored by pack trains and wagons but those on horses and in a hurry took the Sangre de Cristo route, except in winter.