Riding the Trappers' Trail

(click image with hand to enlarge)

In 1975 my middle daughter and I decided to ride the Camino Real to Taos where we would pick cactusup the Trapper's trail which was the old mountain man route from Taos to Bent's Fort in eastern Colorado. I wanted her to experience some of the ambiance I had known from riding the Santa Fe Trail three years before. I talked with several people about the route,

among them Helen Blumenshein, daughter of the artist, and who had published an article on the Camino Real, and I had the site of Sangre de Cristo Pass pointed out to me (by, I believe, Ruth Marie Colville of Del Norte).

On the last day of June we picked up the trail at Vadito where it leaves the pavement and ascends a canyon to the west of U.S.Hill, thence to Taos. U.S.Hill was named for the spot where the army camped in January,1847 while headed for Taos during the rebellion. They had apparently followed the Camino Real along the wagon road which had served as a branch of the Santa Fe Trail and was in use as late as 1933 . (New Mexico,WPA 1940) We camped the first night at the top of the pass . Descending the next day, the view was almost the same as described nearly 150 years before.

taosOn emerging from the canyon, the view expanded to a valley nearly circular to the casual glance, hemmed in by a snowy range, while El Rio Grande del Norte, a few miles distant, rolled between sand banks to the southwest. The level plain below wore a cultivated, civilized aspect. Reposing quietly at our very feet was the hamlet, El Ranch[o], to the west the village Ranchita, and toward the northwest, San Fernandez de Taos, its walls, as well as those of the minor towns, mica lime-washed to a dazzling whiteness. To the northeast, at the base of a contiguous mountain, was the dismal Pueblo de Taos, but a few weeks since the scene of fiercest strife. The brook down whose channel we had kept the preceding few hours was, at its egress, directed into a large acequia, or ditch, and from that, in numberless smaller ones, through the valley, to serve in lieu of the grateful showers in which the American farmer puts so much dependence. For many years Taos had been the scene of a famous trade fair called by one author the "biggest doings in all the West"(American Heritage). In came Comanches, Arapahoes,Pawnees, Utes, Apaches, Chihuahua traders, all under the protection of the "truce of God" (a lull in the constant internecine warfare) to exchange buffalo and deer hides, horses, knives, blankets,whiskey, guns,silver and captives. Marc Simmons has described it as day and night haggling,drinking , horseracing, and romance. He says nine months after the fair occurred a rash of births known as "grass babies". It was in Taos that the main uprising against the newly conquering Americans occurred. The recently appointed governor Bent (one of the Traders of Bent's Fort) was killed with several others. ...

The next day we skirted the valley, along the river, passed the Indian petroglyphs and the Martinez Hacienda through Taos to Arroyo Seco,the site of Turley's Mill and our second camp. George Ruxton, a young Englishman traveling the length of Mexico on a British passport, also here in 1847, described his visit to Turley.

The next morning we descended into the Arroyo, and even in daylight the track down was exceedingly dangerous., and to have attempted it in the dark would have been an act of no little temerity. On the other bank of the stream was situated a mill and distillery belonging to an American by the name of Turley, who had quite a thriving establishment. Sheep and goats, and innumerable hogs, ran about the corral; his barns were filled with grain of all kinds, his mill with flour, and his cellars with whisky "in galore." Everything about the place betokened prosperity. Rosy children, uniting the fair complexions of the Anglo-Saxon with the dark tint of the Mexican, gamboled before the door. The Mexicans and Indians at work in the yard were stout, well-fed fellows, looking happy and contented; as well they might, for no one in the country paid so well, and fed so well, as Turley, who bore the reputation, far and near, of being as generous and kindhearted as he was reported to be rich. In times of scarcity no Mexican ever besought his assistance and went away empty-handed. His granaries were always open to the hungry, and his purse to the poor. I here laid in a small supply of provisions, flour and dried buffalo meat, and got besides a good breakfast-rather a memorable occurrence. Three days after I was there they attacked his house, burned his mill, destroyed his grain and his live stock, and inhumanly butchered himself and the foreigners with him, after a gallant defense of twenty four hours-nine men against five hundred.

Ruxton is referring to the next step in the events after the killing of Governor Bent. The rebels had moved on Turley's mill after Taos. ...

I had read that the site of the mill was lost but here we were camped beside it, surveying the ruins and taking pictures in this idyllic spot, one hundred and thirty years later. The lush green grass and sounds of rushing water reflected a tranquillity belied by history. Setting out under a blazing sky we traversed the piñon and juniper covered hills, through the D.H.Lawrence ranch and the bizarre old dirt highway past Lama, finally reaching the town of Questa known in those times as Rio Colorado (red river). This was a town with a unique history as suggested in Ruxton's account.

Rio Colorado is the last and most northern settlement of Mexico, and is distant from Vera Cruz 2000 miles. It contains perhaps fifteen families, or a population of fifty souls, including one or two Yuta [Ute]Indians, by sufferance of whom the New Mexicans have settled this valley, thus ensuring to the politic savages a supply of corn or cattle without the necessity of undertaking a raid on Taos or Santa Fe whenever they require a remount. This was the reason given me by a Yuta for allowing the encroachment on their territory. The soil of the valley is fertile, the little strip of land which comprises it yielding grain in abundance, and being easily irrigated from the stream, the banks of which are low. The plain abounds with alegria, the plant from which the juice is extracted with which the urracabelles of Nuevo Méjico cosmetically preserve their complexions. The neighbouring mountains afford plenty of large game-deer, bears, mountain-sheep, and elk; and the plains are covered with countless herds of antelope, which, in the winter, hang about the foot of the sierras, which shield them from the icy winds. No state of society can be more wretched or degrading than the social and moral condition of the inhabitants of New Mexico: but in this remote settlement, anything I had formerly imagined to be the ne plus ultra of misery, fell far short of the reality:-such is the degradation of the people of the Rio Colorado. Growing a bare sufficiency for their own support, they hold the little land they cultivate, and their wretched hovels, on sufferance from the barbarous Yutas, who actually tolerate their presence in their country for the sole purpose of having at their command a stock of grain and a herd of mules and horses, which they make no scruple of helping themselves to, whenever they require a remount or a supply of farinaceous food. Moreover, when a war expedition against a hostile tribe has failed, and no scalps have been secured to ensure the returning warriors a welcome to their village, the Rio Colorado is a kind of game-preserve, where the Yutas have a certainty of filling their bag if their other covers draw blank. Here they can always depend upon procuring a few brace of Mexican scalps, when such trophies are required for a war-dance or other festivity, without danger to themselves, and merely for the trouble of fetching them. Thus, half the year, the settlers fear to leave their houses, and their corn and grain often remain uncut, the Indians being near...

An interesting observation: for Europeans bringing civilization to the New World are actually providing a "game preserve" for the untamed natives. ...

At Questa we cleaned up and washed our dishes in the river, then we headed up onto the dry sage plains leading to Colorado. After spending the night at Rio Costilla (rib) we rode on into the San Luis Valley skipping such sites as Pike's stockade (where he was arrested by the Spanish to be transported to Mexico in 1807) and Kit Carson's Ft Garland. Visiting the fort in 1866, General Sherman observed

"These Red Skins think Kit twice as big a man as me. Why, his integrity is simply perfect. They know it, and they would believe him and trust him any day before me." ...

Crossing the Trinchera (originally part of the Sangre de Cristo grant owned by Lee and Beaubien who were passkilled at Taos,) we ascended the long open valley towards the pass. Today the wagon ruts followed by Carson, the Utes and Comanches, the Cavalry and Spanish governors are clearly visible along the edge of the valley. And above the highway, climbing the steep hill at the top, the straight ruts of the ox carts, numerous but converging, cross the summit of Sangre de Cristo Pass, now abandoned. (Three years later at breakfast in an Española cafe, I spoke with an oldtimer who had ridden with a herd of horses, coming from Texas to New Mexico in 1920.) The top of the pass is open on the west side and enters the forest on the east. Described by James Josiah Webb as beyond words, "I can only say it is beautiful-grand-perhaps sublime would not be extravagant." He recalled seeing it in a painting by Bierstadt (although mistitled.) It appeared as ft.talpain a drawing I had by Richard Kern - of the disastrous Frémont forth expedition (and killed by Indians)- but that's another ride! I having drunk water too close to civilization was possessed of guardia and unappreciative, being barely able to stay mounted on my horse. Down the winding Oak creek we went, past one of two old Spanish forts built in 1819-20 (the other being Ft. Talpa a few miles beyond at Farisita), until we finally reached Badito on the Huerfano river where we were to meet Lennie , a friend from Ft.Collins who was to join us for the rest of the trip. ...

For next week we rode leisurely over the high mesas south of the Arkansas river under a broiling sun encountering the largest number of rattlesnakes I had ever seen outside of a prairie dog town. At night we were afraid to throw our sleeping bags on the ground for them, and I took to spreading a lasso to encircle our beds according to the old folk remedy. One night we camped beside a pond which allowed us a most delicious refreshment, but the rattlers were so thick we had to carry a rifle down to the shore to leave with our clothes so we could safely return in the dark to the safety of our lariat. (I believe I shot one in the dark that night.)

In mid July we reached Bent's fort probably the most famous site on the (mountain branch) of the Santa Fe Trail. Part of the trading empire of the Bents and Ceran St.Vrain, it was built around 1830... In addition to employing Kit Carson and other famous names of the mountain man era, it had housed Kearney's army marching to occupy New Mexico and California in 1846, and Col. Frémont on his exploratory expeditions. In 1852 after the U.S. Government took over Ft.Laramie in its plan to secure the Western land from the Indians to whom it had been promised "for as long as the grass may grow and as long as the rivers, may run", William Bent offered it for sale to the government. Insulted by the low price he was offered, he blew it up instead.

(Images above:ruts of the Camino Real,top of pass towards Taos,Taos valley,ruins of Turley mill,Jaffa at Urraca wildlife area,Sangre de Cristo pass,Ft.Talpa,Huerfano butte and Spanish Peaks,Bents Ft.in winter)

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© 1996 by Curtiss Frank

A complete account of this ride is available from the author.