The San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado contain some of the most rugged country in North America. Superimposed upon this awesome wilderness is a rich zone of mineralization stretching from the La Plata Mountains north to Silverton and Ouray and east to Creede and Summitville. The San Juans have been described as "the best and worst mining country ever struck." These mountains are uniquely enriched in ore deposits but the ruggedness of the area has always impeded exploration and production. This part of Colorado is arguably the highest region in North America. Nearly ¼ of all the 14,000 foot peaks in North America are located in the San Juan Mountains. In addition, the area is heavily forested. This pristine wilderness was described by Hubert H. Bancroft in 1890 as "the wildest and most inaccessible region in Colorado, if not in North America"… a region of "unparalleled ruggedness, and sublimity more awful than beautiful." It is still so today.
In 1765, a prospecting expedition led by Don Juan Maria de Rivera journeyed north from Santa Fe, eventually reaching the Gunnison River in Colorado. This was the first recorded incursion into the awesome range of mountains that the Spaniards initially called "Sierra de las Grullas" (Mountains of the Cranes), but later renamed the San Juans.
Eleven years later, an exploring party led by Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez penetrated the southern and western flanks of the San Juan Mountains on their way to California. Northwest of present-day Durango, Colorado, the expedition encountered unmistakable signs of earlier Spanish mining activities. Escalante and Dominguez named this group of mountains the "La Platas". (Spanish prospectors were almost certainly working the San Juans prior to Rivera's 1765 expedition.) The fathers mapped and explored much of the Colorado/Utah border region including the San Miguel and Elk Mountains of Colorado and the Uinta and Wasatch Ranges of Utah. Part of the trail blazed by the Escalante-Dominguez expedition of 1776 became known later as the "Old Spanish Trail", one of the early America's most famous pathways through the wilderness. The Franciscan fathers never made it to California but were forced to return to Santa Fe, arriving there in January, 1777.
For nearly half a century the San Juans slept. Occasionally, groups of Spanish prospectors would journey north from Santa Fe, vanishing into the mountains in search of gold and silver. (Old Spanish mine workings have been reported in many sections of the San Juans including the Dolores River valley (near Rico), the Animas River valley (near Silverton), the La Plata Mountains, the headwaters of the Piedra River, and the Needle Mountains.) But during the early 1820's, a new breed of adventurers entered the San Juan region - the mountain men and fur-trappers. Trappers were searching the streams and rivers of the San Juan Mountains for beaver as early as 1822. During that year, Major Jacob Fowler reached the headwaters of the South Fork of the Rio Grande, below Wolf Creek Pass. (Fowler was one of the first mountain men to work the San Juans; Fowler Pass [9189 feet] is named for him.) By 1824, trappers from Taos were pouring over the southern mountains in search of beaver. During that year, Ewing Young and William Wolfskill began to work the area south of Weminuche Pass, concentrating on the tributaries of the San Juan River. To the west, near present-day Durango, William Becknell and a party of trappers were working the tributaries of the Animas River. Meanwhile, William Huddart, Etienne Provost, and Antoine Robidoux journeyed north from Taos on a trapping expedition to the Green River in Utah. This group of trappers established Cochetopa Pass as the easiest entrance to the Gunnison Basin. (Cochetopa Pass is the northern terminus of the San Juan Mountains - the Sawatch Range rises up north of the pass.) In 1826, a large group of free trappers led by Sylvestre S. Pratte (son of Bernard Pratte) made their way north from Taos into the mountains of Colorado. The eastern San Juans were trapped by members of this party. The following year, a group of trappers led by James Ohio Pattie worked the San Juan River and its tributaries. Six years later, in 1833, a party of trappers led by William G. Walton began working the Dolores River country, north of present-day Rico. This group discovered the remains of ancient Spanish smelters, arrastres, and furnaces throughout the area. During the fall of 1833, Kit Carson and Richard Bland Lee followed the Old Spanish Trail through the San Juans to the Uinta River where they rendezvoused with Antoine Robidoux. By 1835, the southern Rockies were filled with trappers searching for choice beaver streams. (The southern Rockies tended to produce beaver with much lighter fur than the northern variety. Initially, these lighter-colored beaver pelts were quite popular.) But eventually the southern Rocky Mountain fur trade collapsed as the beaver were trapped out. By the early 1840's it had virtually disappeared.
The year 1848 witnessed the Fourth Expedition of the "Pathfinder" John C. Fremont into the Rocky Mountains. Fremont's ill-fated Fourth Expedition included Alexis Godey (an experienced mountain man and Fremont's 2nd in command), Charles Preuss (Fremont's topographer who served on all four expeditions and would eventually commit suicide back east), Frederick Creutzfeldt (a botanist), Benjamin J. Kern (the expedition's doctor), Richard Kern (Fremont's artist), Thomas E. Breckenridge and Charles Taplin (both experienced frontiersmen), Antoine Morin and Vincent Tabeau (members of Fremont's second expedition), John Scott (a hunter), Henry King, Edward Kern (brother of Richard and Benjamin Kern), Raphael Proue, Henry J. Wise, Benjamin Beadle, George Hubbard, Elijah T. Andrews, and Sanders Jackson (an ex-slave of Senator Thomas Hart Benton). While at Bent's Fort, Fremont hired the notorious mountain man "Old Bill" Williams to guide the expedition to the Gunnison Valley.
According to Indian accounts, the winter of 1848-1849 was one of the worst in the history of Colorado. Fremont's party was plagued by bad weather from the start. When the expedition reached Wagon Wheel Gap (near Creede, Colorado) they turned north up Alder Creek, following it into the La Garita Mountains. Near the Continental Divide, on the summit ridge of the La Garitas, the expedition foundered and was forced back by severe weather. Fremont was defeated. A relief party consisting of "Old Bill" Williams, Frederick Creutzfeldt, Thomas Breckenridge, and Henry King was dispatched by Fremont to Taos, New Mexico. Twenty days later, Fremont himself set out for Taos. Fremont's rescue party (which included Alexis Godey and Charles Preuss) eventually caught up with the first relief party. Meanwhile, the men left behind were dying of starvation and exposure. On January 29, 1849 the survivors were rescued by Alexis Godey. The toll of Fremont's disastrous Fourth Expedition was 11 men killed and 23 crippled or ill. The following spring, Benjamin Kern and "Old Bill" Williams were murdered by Ute Indians while trying to retrieve some of the expedition's abandoned equipment. (Apparently, Williams had guided a party of soldiers led by Major W.W. Reynolds to a Ute encampment near Cumbres Pass during the spring of 1848. The Utes had never forgotten that bloody attack and had a score to settle with "Old Bill".) One other significant event occurred during the Fremont expedition of 1848. The first discovery of gold in the San Juans was made by a member of Fremont's party near present-day Lake City, Colorado. (Indeed, this part of the San Juans was extremely rich in gold. Enos Hotchkiss made a fabulous strike here while cutting a toll road from Saguache to the San Juan mining camps. Lake City was born as a result of this gold strike.)
In 1853, a Pacific railroad survey party led by Captain John Gunnison journeyed west over Cochetopa Pass, bound for Salt Lake City. It was Gunnison rather than Fremont who would succeed in finding a railroad route through the central Rockies. Indeed, Gunnison had prior experience in the Salt Lake City area. During the summer of 1849, Gunnison served as second-in-command to Captain Howard Stansbury of the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers. This expedition (which was guided by Jim Bridger) established a supply route from South Pass, Wyoming to Salt Lake City. (While hunting buffalo near the Laramie River, Gunnison had the unpleasant experience of shooting his own horse in the head while aiming at a stampeding bull. As strange as it may seem, this was not an unusual occurrence out on the frontier. George Armstrong Custer managed to do the same thing in the summer of 1867.) Gunnison's 1853 expedition included three members of Fremont's ill-fated Fourth Expedition: Charles Taplin, Richard Kern, and Frederick Creutzfeldt. Other members of the Gunnison party included Antoine Leroux (guide), Lieutenant Edward G. Beckwith, Sheppard Homans (astronomer), and James Schiel. The expedition wisely by-passed the San Juan Mountains, using Cochetopa Pass as an all-weather gate to the Gunnison Valley. But now they found themselves confronted with the awesome Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. Gunnison was forced to detour around the canyon by following the old trail used by Antoine Robidoux in the 1820's which ascended Cerro Summit, then dropped down into the valley of the Uncompahgre. The expedition continued west and eventually reached Sevier Lake in Utah. On October 26, 1853, the surveyors were surprised by Paiute Indians who killed 8 men, including the survivors of Fremont's Fourth Expedition. Gunnison, veteran of the Seminole Indian wars, was found with 15 arrows in his body. (The Utes were also on the warpath at this time. In 1853, the Ute chief Walkara led a devastating raid on Springville, Utah.)
1860 was a pivotal year in the history of the San Juans. The first significant discoveries of gold in the San Juan Mountains by American prospectors took place during the summer of 1860. Charles Baker (famous Colorado mountain man) led the first group of prospectors into the San Juans, ascending Lake Fork of the Gunnison River to Cinnamon Pass. The mineralized heart of the San Juan Mountains lay before them! The Baker party eventually reached the headwaters of the Animas River (near present-day Silverton, Colorado) where they discovered rich placer deposits of gold. (George W. Howard, a member of the 1860 Baker expedition, discovered the Sunnyside mine, one of the first lode deposits found in the area. Howardsville, Colorado is named after him.) The Baker party left the mountains just in time. Behind them, the high mountain passes were already deep in snow. The following spring, Charles Baker returned to the San Juan diggings leading a large group of prospectors (with their families). But this year, the Baker party was not alone. Hundreds of other prospectors poured into the San Juans during the spring of 1861, scouring the streams for placer gold. Unfortunately, the placers were exhausted by July. (These early miners and prospectors should have been searching for lode deposits of gold and silver on the surrounding mountain slopes rather than panning the streams. Several extremely rich veins were in the area!) By the Fall of 1861, the San Juan diggings were virtually deserted. Again, the San Juans slept.
For the next decade, only sporadic prospecting expeditions penetrated the San Juan wilderness. In 1864, Robert Darling led a group of prospectors into the Dolores River country where they discovered several promising veins. In 1868, Charles Baker returned to the San Juan Mountains. Baker prospected throughout the area, eventually making his way into northern Arizona where he was killed by hostile Indians. The following year, Sheldon Shafer and Joe Fearheiler discovered the Pioneer lode near present-day Rico, Colorado. (Hostile Utes killed Joe Fearheiler shortly thereafter.)