HUERFANO — We are told Huerfano County was named for Huerfano Butte which also gave rise to the name of the Huerfano River that runs beside it. The butte, legend says, has served as a lookout point for residents and travelers for centuries, dating back to the native Americans. It was called the Orphan for its lonely placement on the prairie. When early Spanish explorers entered southeastern Colorado, they had no names for landmarks, so identified them by names of their own choosing. What the first expeditions may have dubbed the Huerfano is unknown, but in 1706, when Juan de Ulibarri led his soldiers through, he called the river Rio de San Juan Baptista. He went farther to claim all the land for King Philip V of Spain, terming the new territory as Santa Domingo. Thirteen years later Captain Antonio Valverde, governor of New Mexico, led his men along the same general route. When he reached the Huerfano, he called it Rio San Antonio. Valverde encountered many natives living along the waterway, who he called Carlana Apaches. These residents, who were raising crops in the valleys, called the river Chiopo. In 1779, Governor Juan Bautista de Anza inadvertently named Greenhorn Peak after killing Apache Chief Cuerno
Verde in the mountain’s shadow. He referred to the nearby river as Rio de Dolores. When Lt. Zebulon Pike ascended the Arkansas River, which was well known at the time along its eastern reaches, he called the Huerfano the Second Fork (of the Arkansas). A decade or so later when Jules DeMun and Auguste Pierre Chouteau led a party of trappers up the Arkansas, they counted a little differently and made the Huerfano out as the Third Fork. The party spent the winter of 1815-16 alongside the river. Sometime between the trappers’ identification and when Major Stephen Long was sent to explore the plains and mountains of the region in 1820, it had become known as Wharf Creek. This is what happened to names corrupted by mountain men who pronounced things the way they heard them, such as Fish for Apishapa and Toes for Taos. Some form of Wharf stuck, however, by 1839 when a writer named T.J. Farnham visited, it was called Rio Walfano. The famous southern Rocky Mountain topographer Richard Kern in 1851 drew an official, detailed map of New Mexico Territory and clearly marked the Huerfano. Unfortunately, he carefully placed the river SOUTH of the Apishapa. The information had been provided, the map says, by no other than famed mountain man Old Bill Williams. By the time Charles Autobees and others settled near the junction of the river and the Arkansas in 1853, the name Huerfano had firmly stuck. While Charles’s residence became Autobees Plaza, it and small settlements nearby became known as the Huerfano Village. The valley was known as a “sylvan paradise”. Autobees’ neighbors included Joseph B. Doyle, George Simpson, whose wife bore three children along the Huerfano, William Kroenig, Marcelino Baca, Juan B. Charlifue, Richens Lacy “Uncle Dick” Wootton and other former trappers and traders settling into the quiet life of farming. These men, accompanied by their wives and children, had been encouraged to settle there by the landowner, Ceran St. Vrain. This was the man claiming most of the land south of the Arkansas in the drainages of the Purgatory, Apishapa and Huerfano rivers based on a Mexican land grant of 1843. Some of the village’s residents were builders of El Pueblo, or Fort Pueblo as it is also known. Autobees himself was familiar with the fort and its residents because of his regular delivery of Taos Lightning, straight from Simeon Turley’s whiskey distillery at Rio Hondo. When El Pueblo was overrun by Ute Indians under Chief Blanco on Christmas Day, 1854, it was the men of the Huerfano village who helped identify and bury the dead. Residents of the scattered placitas in the region fortified themselves in the strongest plazas and waited to see if the Utes returned. The Huerfano village, or settlement, was on the south side of the Arkansas south of what is now Boone in Pueblo County. When Huerfano had been organized as one of Colorado’s original 17 counties in 1861, Autobees Plaza was selected its first county seat. Huerfano post office was established Feb. 25, 1862 – 154 years ago – in Huerfano County. When the vast Huerfano County was divided, the village was thereafter in Pueblo County. Except for Fort Wise in 1860, it was one of the earliest offices in Huerfano County. So far, in the past 155 years since the formation of Huerfano County, it has been vilified for being unprounceable as well as unspellable if it’s pronounced correctly. The Colorado Chieftain went so far in 1882 as to suggest a definition of the word, as in “Huerfano is said to be a Greek word and derived from the same root as damfino. The chap who attempts to pronounce it correctly for the first time is always compelled to fall back on the latter word.” One assumes this was written facetiously. In 1889 the Superintendent of the Bureau of Immigration and Statistics advised the county had been formed in 1860 from Pueblo and Las Animas counties. Since Las Animas County did not make the map until 1866, and Pueblo took land from Huerfano rather than the other way around, evidently no one could spell, pronounce OR identify the area historically. Despite folks being unable to either spell or pronounce the word uniformly, Huerfano became a popular place name. The Little Orphan post office on the Huerfano River opened in May 1865. The name was changed to Badito in September 1865. In 1866, it became Huerfano’s second county seat. Then there was Huerfano Canyon. This was the post office serving the settlement that grew around Herbert Gardner’s trading post in the upper valley. The post office of Huerfano Canyon was opened in April 1871 but the name was changed to Gardner the following December. But someone evidently liked the name Huerfano Canyon, so the Huerfano Canon name was adopted for a new post office in April 1878. This lasted until 1890 when the named was changed to Talpa. We know it as Farisita. Another Huerfano popped up in the northeast section of the county in 1882. This was usually better known as Huerfano Station, and it was located alongside the railroad tracks of the Denver and Rio Grande. That post office operated until 1884. It was resurrected in 1888 but renamed Ute. It was not far south of Apache Creek which in turn is not far south of Pueblo County. But still, it seemed the name Huerfano just had to be perpetuated. So, in 1900, a new Huerfano appeared, not far from the last. This was also on the railroad right of way, but on what was called the joint tracks shared by the D&RG and the Colorado and Southern. This Huerfano had a store, saloon, a post office between April 1900 and April 1929, along with railroad necessities such as a pump house, depot, section house, loading chutes, living accommodations for employees, as well as a hotel and school. It was platted, and had a mayor. In 1901 natural gas was struck there. After World War I, the area around Huerfano was said to be “filled up with ex-soldiers” who’d taken up homesteads on half sections of land. After all these villages named for Huerfano in some form, the word never again was used for a community settled after the last Huerfano post office closed in 1929.