Old Indian Trails of Pike’s Peak

The principal Indian trail into the mountains from the plains to the northeast of Pike’s Peak came in by way of the Garden Ranch, through what used to be known as Templeton’s Gap. It crossed Monument Creek about a mile above Colorado Springs, then followed up a ridge to the Mesa; then it went southwest over the Mesa and across Camp Creek, passing just south of the Garden of the Gods; from there it came down to the Fountain, about a mile west of Colorado City, and there joined another trail that came from the southeast up the east side of Fountain Creek. The latter trail followed the east side of the Fountain from the Arkansas River, and crossed Monument Creek just below the present Artificial Ice Plant in Colorado Springs, from which point it ran along the north side of the Fountain to a point just west of Colorado City, where it crossed to the south side, then up the south side of the creek to the Manitou Springs. From this place it went up Ruxton Creek for a few hundred yards, then crossed over to the west side, then up the creek to a point just below the Colorado Midland Railway bridge; thence westward up a long ravine to its head; then in the same direction near the heads of the ravines running into the Fountain and from a quarter to a half of a mile south of that creek for two miles or more. The trail finally came down to the Fountain again just below Cascade Canon and from there led up the Fountain to its head, where it branched off in various directions.

The trail I have described from Manitou to Cascade Canon is the famous old Ute Pass trail which undoubtedly had been used by various tribes of Indians for hundreds of years before the discovery of America. We know it was used later for many generations by the Spanish explorer, the hunter, the trapper, and the Indian until the white settler came, and even after that by occasional war-parties, up to the time the Indians were driven from the State of Colorado. Marble markers were placed at intervals along this trail by the El Paso County Pioneer Society in the summer of 1912. This trail and those leading into it from the plains were well-traveled roads and gave indication of long and frequent use.

Dr. Edwin James, botanist and historian of Long’s expedition, who visited the Pike’s Peak region in 1820, says:

A large and much frequented road passes the springs and enters the mountains running to the north of the high peak.

Ruxton frequently mentions the Ute Pass, and states that it was the principal line of travel to and from the South Park for all the Indian tribes of this region at the time of his arrival, as well as previous thereto.

There was another much-used trail into the South Park which entered the mountains near the present town of Canon City. It led in a north-westerly direction from the latter place, and reached the South Park proper near Hartsell Hot Springs. This route was used by the Indians occupying the country along the Arkansas River and to the south of it. In addition to the two principal trails, there were others of lesser note, as, for example, that over the north end of Cheyenne Mountain, and one west of the present town of Monument; but these were difficult and were not used to any great extent.

In 1806, Lieutenant Pike attempted to lead his exploring expedition over the Canon City trail, but evidently had a very poor guide, and, as a result, lost his way very soon after leaving the Arkansas River. They wandered about through the low mountains west of the present mining camp of Cripple Creek, and finally reached the Platte near the west end of Eleven-Mile Canon where the river emerges from the South Park. He mentions having found near that point a recently abandoned Indian camp which he estimates must have been occupied by at least three thousand Indians.

Thomas J. Farnham, on his way to Oregon in 1839, passed through the South Park, reaching it from the Arkansas River by the trail already described. He tells of his trip, in a rudely bound little book of minutely fine print, published in 1843. In recounting his journey from the Arkansas River to the South Park, he frequently mentions James Peak as being to the east of the route he was traveling. Previously, when encamped on the Arkansas River, below the mouth of the Fontaine qui Bouille, he speaks of the latter stream as heading in James Peak, eighty miles to the northwest; he also states that one of the branches of the Huerfano originates in Pike’s Peak, seventy to eighty miles to the south. This brings to mind the fact that previous to about 1840 the peak that we now know as Pike’s Peak was known as James Peak. Major S. H. Long, who was in command of the expedition that explored the Pike’s Peak region in 1820, gave it this name in honor of Dr. James, who is supposed to have been the first white man to ascend it. After about 1840, this name was gradually dropped and Pike’s Peak was substituted.

Farnham was very much pleased with, the South Park, and says of it, after describing its streams, valleys, and rocky ridges:

This is a bird’s-eye view of Bayou Salado, so named from the circumstance that native rock salt is found in some parts of it. We were in the central portion of it. To the north and south and west its isolated plains rise one above another, always beautiful and covered with verdure during the months of spring and summer. A sweet spot this, for the romance of the future as well as of the present and past. The buffalo have for ages resorted here about the last days of July from the and plains of the Arkansas and the Platte; and hither the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho, Black Feet, Crows and Sioux of the north, have for ages met and hunted and fought and loved, and when their battles and hunts were interrupted by the chills and snows of November, they separated for their several winter resorts.

How wild and beautiful the past, as it comes up fledged with the rich plumage of the imagination! These vales, studded with a thousand villages of conical skin wigwams, with their thousands of fires blazing on the starry brow of night ! I see the dusky forms crouching around the glowing piles of ignited logs, in family groups, whispering the dreams of their rude love, or gathered around the stalwart form of some noble chief at the hour of midnight, listening to the harangue of vengeance or the whoop of war that is to cast the deadly arrow with the first gleam of morning light.

Or, may we not see them gathered, a circle of old braves, around an aged tree, surrounded each by the musty trophies of half a century’s daring deeds. The eldest and richest in scalps rises from the center of the ring and advances to the tree. Hear him!

“Fifty winters ago when the seventh moon’s first horn hung over the green forests of the Ute hills, myself and five others erected a lodge for the Great Spirit on the snows of the White Butte and carried there our wampum and skins, and the hide of a white buffalo. We hung them in the Great Spirit’s lodge and seated ourselves in silence till the moon had descended the western mountain, and thought of the blood of our fathers that the Comanche had killed when the moon was round and lay on the eastern plains. My own father was scalped, and the fathers of five others were scalped, and their bloody heads were gnawed by the wolf. We could not live while our father’s lodges were empty and the scalps of their murderers were not in the lodges of our mothers. Our hearts told us to make these offerings to the Great Spirit who had fostered them on the mountains, and when the moon was down and the shadows of the White Butte were as dark as the hair of a bear, we said to the Great Spirit: ‘No man can war with the arrows from the quiver of thy storms. No man’s word can be heard when thy voice is among the clouds. No man’s hand is strong when thy hand lets loose the wind. The wolf gnaws the heads of our fathers and the scalps of their murderers hang not in the lodges of our mothers. Great Father Spirit, send not thine anger out. Hold in thy hand the winds. Let not thy great voice drown the death yell while we hunt the murderers of our fathers.’ I and the five others then built in the middle of the lodge a fire, and in its bright light the Great Spirit saw the wampum and the skins and the white buffalo hide. Five days and nights I and five others danced and smoked the medicine and beat the board with sticks and chanted away the powers of the great Medicine Men, that they might not be evil to us and bring sickness into our bones. Then when the stars were shining in the clear sky, we swore (I must not tell what, for it was in the ear of the Great Spirit), and went out of the lodge with our bosoms full of anger against the murderers of our fathers whose bones were in the jaws of the wolf and went for their scalps, to hang them in the lodges of our mothers.” See him strike the aged tree with his war-club; again, again, nine times. “So many Comanche did I slay, the murderers of my father, before the moon was round again and lay upon the eastern plains.”

Farnham, continuing, says:

This is not merely an imaginary scene of former times in the Bayou Salado. AR the essential incidents related happened yearly in that and other hunting-grounds, whenever the old braves assembled to celebrate valorous deeds of their younger days. When these exciting relations were finished, the young men of the tribe who had not yet distinguished themselves were exhorted to seek glory in a similar way; and woe to him who passed his manhood without ornamenting the door of his lodge with the scalps of his enemies.

This valley is still frequented by these Indians as a summer haunt, when the heat of the plains renders them uncomfortable. The Ute were scouring it when we passed. Our guide informed us that the Ute reside on both sides of the mountains, that they are continually migrating from one side to the other, that they speak the Spanish language, that some few half-breeds have embraced the Catholic faith, that the remainder yet hold the simple and sublime faith of their forefathers, in the existence of one great, creating, and sustaining Cause, mingled with the belief in the ghostly visitations of their deceased Medicine Men, or Diviners; that they number one thousand families.

He also stated that the Cheyenne were less brave and more thievish than any of the other tribes living on the plains.

Farnham’s description of the incantations practiced by the Ute is in the main probably true; the information on which it was based was doubtless obtained from his guide.

Ruxton tells of the use of the trail west of the present town of Monument by a war-party of Arapaho on their way to the South Park to fight the Ute. In the night the band had surprised a small company of trappers on the head of Bijou Creek, killing four of them and capturing all of their horses. The following morning two of the trappers, one of whom was slightly wounded, started in pursuit of the Indians, intending if possible to recover their animals. They followed the trail of the Indians to a point in the neighborhood of the present town of Monument where they found that the band had divided, the larger party, judging from the direction taken, evidently intending to enter the mountains by way of Ute Pass. The other party, having all the loose animals, started across the mountains by the pass to the west of Monument, probably hoping to get the better of the Ute by coming in from two different directions. The trappers followed the latter party across the first mountains where they found their stolen animals in charge of three Indians. The trappers surprised and killed all three of them, recaptured their animals, and then hurried on to the Ute, giving such timely warning as enabled them to defeat the Arapaho in a very decisive manner.

The battles in the South Park and on the plains between the contending tribes were seldom of a very sanguinary nature. If the attacking Indians happened to find their enemies on level ground, they would circle around them just out of gunshot at first, gradually coming closer, all the time lying on the outside and shooting from under the necks of their ponies. These ponies were generally the best that the tribe afforded and were not often used except for purposes of war. While engaged in battle, the Indians seldom used saddles, and in place of bridles had merely a piece of plaited buffalo-hide rope, tied around the under jaw of the pony. If the defending party was located in a fairly good defensive position, the battle consisted of groups of the attacking party dashing in, firing, and then dashing out again.

This was kept up until a few warriors had been killed or wounded and a few scalps had been taken; then the battle was over, one side or the other retreating. With an Indian, it was a waste of time to kill an enemy unless his scalp was taken, as that was the evidence necessary to prove the prowess of the warrior. Engagements of the kind I have mentioned have occurred in almost every valley in and around the South Park at some time during the hundreds of years of warfare that was carried on in that region.

Fremont, on his return trip from California, during his second exploring expedition, crossed the Rocky Mountains by way of Middle Park, then across South Park, reaching the Arkansas River near the present town of Canon City. On his way through the South Park he witnessed one of these battles, in describing which he says:

In the evening a band of buffalo furnished a little excitement by charging through our camp. On the following day we descended the stream by an excellent buffalo trail along the open grassy bottom of the river. On our right, the Bayou was bordered by a mountainous range crested with rocky and naked peaks, and below it had a beautiful park like character of pretty, level prairies, interspersed among low spurs, wooded openly with pine and quaking asps, contrasting well with the denser pines which swept around on the mountainous sides.

Descending always the valley of the stream, towards noon we descried a mounted party descending the point of a spur, and judging them to be Arapaho who, defeated or victorious, were equally dangerous to us, and with whom a fight would be inevitable, we hurried to post ourselves as strongly as possible on some willow islands in the river. We had scarcely halted when they arrived, proving to be a party of Ute women, who told us that on the other side of the ridge their village was fighting with the Arapaho. As soon as they had given us this information, they filled the air with cries and lamentations, which made us understand that some of their chiefs had been killed.

Extending along the river directly ahead of us was a low piney ridge, leaving between it and the stream a small open bottom on which the Ute had very injudiciously placed their village, which, according to the women, numbered about three hundred warriors. Advancing in the cover of the pines, the Arapaho, about daylight, charged into the village, driving off a great number of their horses, and killing four men, among them the principal chief of the village. They drove the horses perhaps a mile beyond the village to the end of a hollow where they had previously forted at the edge of the pines. Here the Ute had instantly attacked them in turn, and, according to the report of the women, were getting rather the best of the day. The women pressed us eagerly to join with their people, and would immediately have provided us with the best horses at the village, but it was not for us to interfere in such a conflict. Neither party were our friends or under our protection, and each was ready to prey upon us that could. But we could not help feeling an unusual excitement at being within a few hundred yards of a fight in which five hundred men were closely engaged, and hearing the sharp cracks of their rifles. We were in a bad position and subject to be attacked in it. Either party which we might meet, victorious or defeated, was certain to fall upon us, and gearing up immediately, we kept close along the pines of the ridge, having it between us and the village, and keeping the scouts on the summit to give us notice of the approach of the Indians. As we passed by the village which was immediately below us, horsemen were galloping to and fro, and groups of people were gathered around those who were wounded and dead and who were being brought in from the field.

We continued to press on, and crossing another fork which came in from the right, after having made fifteen miles from the village, fortified ourselves strongly in the pines a short distance from the river.

During the afternoon Pike’s Peak had been plainly in view before us and from our encampment bore north 87° east by compass. This was a familiar object, and it had for us the face of an old friend. At its foot were the springs where we had spent a pleasant day in coming out.

In 1859, a battle between the Ute on the one side, and the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux on the other, was fought six miles north of Colorado City, in the valley now occupied by the Modern Woodmen’s Home. There were several hundred warriors on each side and the battle was of unusual duration, continuing for almost an entire day. The Ute were finally victorious and drove their enemies back to the plains.

Until 1864, every spring after the white settlers came into this region, war-parties of Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux would come trailing in from the plains, pass through Colorado City, stopping long enough to beg food from the families living near the line of their march and then go on to the soda springs; here they would tarry long enough to make an offering to the Great Spirit who was supposed to be manifest in the bubbling waters, and then follow, in single file, up the Ute Pass trail into the South Park, where they would scout around until they had found a band of Ute. If they succeeded in surprising the latter, they would probably come back with a lot of extra ponies and sometimes with captured squaws and children, in which case they would exhibit a jubilant air; but at other times on their return, they would present such a dejected appearance that one could readily surmise that they had suffered defeat. These annual visits were discontinued after the tribes became involved in warfare with the whites.

In 1859, after the Pike’s Peak mining excitement had started, Col. R. B. Marcy issued a handbook for overland expeditions, in which he says, referring to a point at the mouth of Monument Creek, which he calls the forks of the Fontaine qui Bouille:

The road to Cherry Creek here leaves the Fontaine qui Bouille and bears to the right. There is a large Indian trail which crosses the main creek and takes a northwesterly course towards Pike’s Peak. By going up this trail about two miles, a mineral spring will be found which gives the stream its name of “The Fountain that Boils.” This spring, or rather these springs, for there are two, both of which boil up out of the solid rock, are among the greatest natural curiosities that I have ever seen. The water is strongly impregnated with salts, but is delightful to the taste and somewhat similar to the Congress water. It will well compensate one for the trouble of visiting it.

Marcy claims that while waiting at the mouth of Cherry Creek for a ferry-boat to be constructed to take them over the Platte River, which was very high at the time, one of his employees washed a small amount of gold dust from the sands of Cherry Creek. This employee was discharged soon after and went direct to St. Louis, where he told of his discovery, and Marcy claims that this was the beginning of the mining excitement in the Pike’s Peak region. This is different from other versions of the event, the most probable of which is that the discovery of gold was first made by the semi-civilized Cherokee Indians on their way to California.

What was known as the old Cherokee trail came up the Arkansas River to a point about twelve miles below the mouth of the Fontaine qui Bouille. From that place it ran in a north-westerly direction across the hills, striking that creek about eight or ten miles above its mouth; thence up the valley of the Fontaine to a point near the present town of Fountain; turning northerly by the way of Jimmy’s Camp to the head of Cherry Creek, and down Cherry Creek to its mouth, where Denver now stands. From this place, after running northerly along the base of the mountains for a considerable distance, it struck across the mountains through Bridger’s Pass, and then turned westerly along the usual traveled road to California. This trail was used by the first gold-seeking parties which came to the present State of Colorado in 1858. The first of these parties arrived at Cherry Creek only about two months after Marcy left. The second party followed a week or two later, and the third party, of which Anthony Bott, of Colorado City, was a member, was close behind it. Members of this third party explored the region around where Colorado City now stands, and later, with some others, returned and laid out the town.

In 1859, occurred the memorable visit of Horace Greeley to the Pike’s Peak region. He arrived in Denver, June 16th, having come by the Smoky Hill route. Writing from Denver, he says, among other things:

I have been passing, meeting, observing, and trying to converse with Indians, almost ever since I crossed the Missouri River. Eastern Kansas is checkered with their reservations, Delaware, Kaw, Ottawa, Osage, Kickapoo, Potawatomie, while the buffalo range and all this side belong to, and are parceled among the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, and the Apaches, or perhaps among the two former only, as Indian boundaries are not well defined. At all events, we have met or passed bands of these three tribes, with occasional visitors from the Sioux on the north, and the Comanche on the south, all these tribes having for the present a good understanding. The Ute who inhabit the mountains are stronger and braver than any one of the three tribes first named, though hardly a match for them all, are at war with them. The Arapahoe Chief, Left Hand, assures me that his people were always at war with the Ute; at least he has no recollection, no tradition, of a time when they were at peace. Some two or three hundred lodges of Arapaho are encamped in and about this log city, calculating that the presence of the whites will afford some protection to their wives and children against a Ute onslaught, while the braves are off on any of their fighting-that is Stealing-expeditions. An equal or larger body of Ute are camped in the mountains some forty or fifty miles west, and the Arapahoe warriors recently returned in triumph from a war party on which they managed to steal about one hundred horses from the Ute, but were obliged to kill most of them in their rapid flight so that they only brought home forty more than they took away. They are going out again in a day or two, and have been for some days practicing secret in cantations and public observances with reference thereto. Last midnight they were to have had a great war dance and to have left on the warpath to-day, but their men sent out after their horses reported that they saw three Ute on the plain, which was regarded as premonitory of an attack, and the braves stood to their arms all night and were very anxious for white aid in case of the Ute foray on their lodges here in Denver. Such an attack seems very improbable and I presume the three Ute who caused all this uproar were simply scouts or spies on the watch for just such marauding surprise parties as our Arapahoe neighbors are constantly meditating. I do not see why they need to take even this trouble. There are points on the mountain range west of this city, where a watchman with sharp eyes and a good glass could command the entire plain for fifty miles north, south, and east of him, and might hence give intelligence of any Arapahoe raid at least a day before a brave entered the mountains; for though it is true that Indians on the warpath travel or ride mainly by night, I find that the Arapaho do this only after they have entered on. what they consider disputed or dangerous ground; that they start from their lodges in open day and only advance under cover of darkness after they are within the shadows of the mountains. Hence the Ute, who are confessedly the stronger, might ambush and destroy any Arapahoe force that should venture into their Rocky Mountain recesses, by the help of a good spy-glass and a little “white forecast”; but the Indians are children. Their arts, wars, treaties, alliances, habitations, crafts, properties, commerce, comforts, all be-long to the very lowest and rudest ages of human existence. Any band of schoolboys from ten to fifteen years of age are quite as capable of ruling their appetites, devising and upholding a public policy, constituting and conducting a state or community, as the average Indian tribe.

I have learned to appreciate better than hitherto, and to make more allowance for the dislike, aversion, and contempt wherewith Indians are usually regarded by their white neighbors, and have been since the days of the Puritans. It needs but little familiarity with the actual, palpable aborigines, to convince anyone that the poetical Indian-the Indian of Cooper and Longfellow-is only visible to the poet’s eye.

Monument Colorado,

Howbert, Irving. The Indians of the Pike's Peak Region. New York: Knickerbock Press. 1914.

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2 thoughts on “Old Indian Trails of Pike’s Peak”

  1. Hello, I teach at Fountain Valley School of Colorado. We are studying Native Americans in Colorado Springs. Would someone be able to take a group of 10 students and 2 teachers on part of the Pikes Peak trail? Thank you, Shauna

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