The Front Range of Colorado and Wyoming has provided a spectacular stage for a succession of explorers, frontiersmen, and pioneers since the middle part of the 17th Century. It was during the year 1664 that the first recorded visit by white men to Colorado took place. During that year the Spaniard Juan Archuleta penetrated into southern Colorado. But it wasn't until 42 years later that history recorded the next foray into the land called Colorado. In 1706, the Spaniard Juan de Ulibarri led a mixed group of soldiers, settlers, and Indians to the pueblo settlement of El Cuartelejo in search of French interlopers. Curiously, during that same year, a group of 20 French Canadians were actually in Colorado, on their way to Santa Fe. The two groups never met although Ulibarri did find evidence of the French at El Cuartelejo. The Indians there showed him a new French rifle. Fourteen years later, in 1720, Don Pedro de Villasur led an ill-fated expedition northward in search of the French. Villasur's command reached the Platte River and then turned east toward the forks of the Platte. It was in this area that disaster struck. Villasur's command was nearly wiped out by the Pawnee Indians. Meanwhile, the French were beginning to show up in increasing numbers in Colorado. In 1724, Bourgmont reached the eastern border of Colorado. In 1739, Pierre and Paul Mallet made their way up the Platte River and into Colorado on their way to New Mexico. The Mallet brothers were the first French traders to reach Santa Fe from Louisiana.
In 1779, the southern Front Range of Colorado was penetrated by Don Juan Bautista de Anza during his pursuit of the famous Comanche chief Cuerno Verde. Twenty-five years later, in 1804, mountain man James Purcell entered the wind-swept basin known as South Park. It was here that he discovered placer gold in one of the streams. In 1806, Captain Zebulon Montgomery Pike sighted the peak named for himself from the plains east of the Front Range. This was the first official sighting of Pikes Peak by white men since de Anza in 1779. But the northern Front Range was still relatively unknown when a party of trappers led by Ezekiel Williams and Jean Baptiste Champlain passed through the area during the fall of 1810. This group of trappers roamed the length of the Front Range for a full year before splitting up in the summer of 1811. Williams eventually made his way back to Missouri. During the winter of 1812-1813, a group of mountain men and Astorians led by Robert Stuart passed through the northern Front Range region on their way back east. This group of mountain men included Robert McClellan (a good friend of the famous explorer William Clark), Benjamin Jones, Francois Leclerc, Andre Valle, Ramsay Crooks, John Hoback, Edward Robinson, and Jacob Reznor. (Hoback, Reznor, and Robinson split up from the main party and returned to the mountains to trap. In January of 1814, all 3 partners were ambushed and killed by hostile Indians.) In 1816, the northern Front Range was penetrated by a group of trappers led by Auguste Pierre Chouteau and Julius De Mun. Chouteau and De Mun discovered North Park, which they named "the Bull Pen".
In 1820, the Stephen H. Long expedition journeyed up the Platte River in search of its source. This expedition was guided by Joseph Bijeau, a trapper and Indian trader who had been working the Front Range of the Rockies since 1814. While journeying south along the Front Range, they met the famous Arapaho chief Bear Tooth. Shortly thereafter, on July 14, 1820, Edwin James and 2 companions became the first men of record to climb Pikes Peak.
The following year, in 1821, the death of a trapper named Joseph LaRamie on a north-flowing tributary of the Plate River resulted in lasting fame for the dead fur-trapper. The Laramie River, the Laramie Mountains, and the future Fort Laramie were all named in his honor. (Actually, very little is known for sure about Joseph LaRamie. This enigmatic Frenchman was originally from Canada but his history is clouded.)
During the 1820's, a veritable rogue's gallery of mountain men and fur-trappers invaded the Rockies. In the fall of 1824, a party of trappers led by William H. Ashley ascended the Platte River with supplies for the rendezvous on Green River. This group of trappers included Albert Gallatin Boone (grandson of Daniel Boone) and Antoine St. Charles Janis. Ashley journeyed up the Cache la Poudre River, over Dead Man Hill Divide, and north along the Snowy Range to Rattlesnake Pass. He eventually arrived at the rendezvous in the spring of 1825. The following year, Ashley again led a large party of trappers west to the Cache la Poudre River where they camped for three weeks before moving on to the rendezvous. This illustrious group of trappers included Robert Campbell, David Jackson, Jedediah S. Smith, Hiram Scott, Jim Beckwourth, Moses Harris, and Louis Vasquez.
In 1827, an ill-fated trapping expedition led by Sylvestre Pratte met with misfortune in North Park. This group of mountain men included Ceran St. Vrain, Thomas L. Smith, Old Bill Williams, Antoine Leroux, Francisco Robidoux, Bautista Trudeau, and Louis Ambroise. While in North Park, the expedition lost its leader. Sylvestre Pratte died after being bitten by a rabid dog. (It was also during this trip that Thomas L. Smith lost his leg, becoming the legendary "Pegleg" Smith.) While Sylvestre Pratte lay dying in North Park, a party of 50 trappers and
traders (which included Lucien Fontenelle, Joshua Pilcher, Andrew Drips, Henry Vanderburgh, and Charles Bent) were making their way westward along the Platte River. They passed the future site of Fort Laramie on their way to the Sweetwater River and South Pass.
The following spring, William L. Sublette and Hiram Scott were appointed to lead the east-bound caravan back to St Louis. Hiram Scott never made it. Somewhere near the famous Oregon Trail landmark known as Scott's Bluff, Hiram Scott dropped out of the caravan, too sick to go on. He died shortly thereafter.
During the summer of 1829, William Sublette again journeyed west along the Platte River with a large party of mountain men and trappers (including Joseph L. Meek and Robert Newell). They arrived at the famous Oil Spring on July 1, 1829. (Oil Spring was located near the mouth of the Wind River, about 10 miles southeast of the town of Lander, Wyoming. During the 1820's, the spring actually produced some 60-70 gallons of crude oil every day!)
In the summer of 1830, William Sublette again journeyed up the Platte River with supplies for the rendezvous, but this time he employed 10 wagons for the trip. This was the first recorded use of a wagon train on the Platte River trail. The following summer, Thomas Fitzpatrick and Kit Carson brought the supply caravan up from Taos, New Mexico. On their way to the rendezvous they were met by Henry Fraeb in the Laramie Mountains. In 1832, the indefatigable William Sublette again led the pack train from St. Louis. Thomas Fitzpatrick and Nathaniel Wyeth were with Sublette when they were joined by a party of trappers at Laramie's Fork. This group of trappers included A.K. Stephens and Zenas Leonard. That summer, Captain Louis Eulalie de Bonneville also ascended the Platte River with an expedition that included 110 trappers and 20 wagons. The Rockies were becoming crowded!
In 1833, Albert Gallatin Boone returned to the mountains with his young son, William Ashley Boone. In a desperate effort to save his son who had been sick for some time, Boone took him to Manitou Springs, at the foot of Pikes Peak. The healing waters of the "sacred" spring failed to keep the boy alive - he died in August of 1833.
The year 1834 witnessed the establishment of Fort William (the future Fort Laramie) by William Sublette and Robert Campbell near the confluence of the North Platte and Laramie Rivers. This venerable old fort would see a procession of adventurers, mountain men, soldiers, and pioneers before its closing in 1890. (Actually, old Fort William was located about one mile from the site of the future Fort Laramie; Fort William was officially abandoned in 1841 and the new fort was erected upstream.)
The following year, Sublette and Campbell sold Fort William to Thomas Fitzpatrick, Milton Sublette, and Jim Bridger. The new proprietors of Fort William found themselves in competition with the newly-founded trading post on the South Platte River, Fort Vasquez. (Fort Vasquez was built by Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette near present-day Platteville in 1835.) A military expedition led by Colonel Henry Dodge arrived on the South Platte in 1835 bringing another competitor to the field. Lieutenant Lancaster P. Lupton accompanied this expedition, noted the possibilities, and returned the following year to found Fort Lancaster just upstream from Fort Vasquez. Meanwhile, Andrew Drips and Lucien Fontenelle arrived at Fort William with the American Fur Company supply train. Fontenelle, sick with the cholera, was forced to remain at Fort William while Tom Fitzpatrick took the caravan on to the rendezvous.
In the spring of 1836, Fitzpatrick again led the annual supply train up the Platte River to Fort William. This mixed group of mountain men and missionaries included Milton Sublette, Dr. and Mrs. Marcus Whitman, Rev. and Mrs. H.H. Spalding, W.H. Gray, Miles Goodyear, and Sir William Drummond Stewart. Milton Sublette was forced to remain at Fort William while Fitzpatrick continued on to the rendezvous. An old leg wound previously received by Sublette had steadily worsened during the journey west. Milton Sublette, the "Thunderbolt of the Rockies", died at Fort William in April of 1837, at the tender age of 26. The year 1837 would see the establishment of two more trading posts in the Front Range area. Henry Fraeb and Peter A. Sarpy founded Fort Jackson near the site of present-day Ione and Bent, St. Vrain, and Company built Fort Lookout (the future Fort St. Vrain) just 10 miles away.
In the spring of 1838, the annual supply train led by Andrew Drips arrived at Fort William. This caravan included a second group of missionaries (led by Reverend W.H. Gray) and an adventurer named August Johann Sutter. In 1840, Jim Bridger, Henry Fraeb, and Moses B. Harris escorted another group of missionaries to Fort William. This party of mountain men and missionaries included the famous priest Father Jean Pierre DeSmet. (Before he came west with Bridger, Fraeb, and Harris in 1840, Father DeSmet administered the last rights of the church to the French mountain man Lucien Fontenelle at Bellevue, Nebraska in 1839. His grave overlooks the Missouri River.) Accompanying the 1840 caravan were Joel P. Walker (brother of the famous mountain man Joseph Reddeford Walker) and his family on their way to Oregon. At Fort William, Andrew Drips joined the group.