La Junta is located on the heart of the Mountain Branch of the Old Santa Fe Trail. You can easily travel and explore the old trail by car on Highway 50 and 350 by following the Santa Fe National Historic Trail.
Santa Fe National Historic Trail
Come visit La Junta and experience the wonder of the Santa Fe Trail first hand. U.S. Highway 50 from the Kansas border through La Junta and U.S. Highway 350 from La Junta to Trinidad follows the route of the "Mountain Branch" of the Santa Fe Trail. Along the way visit Boggsville near Las Animas and Bent's Fort in La Junta. Faint traces of the old wagon ruts can still be seen just outside of La Junta and along Highway 350 at various locations including Iron Springs.
Satellite image of Santa Fe Trail Wagon Ruts at Iron Springs between La Junta & Trinidad on HWY 350
Desperate times called for desperate action. William Becknell needed cash; real “sink your teeth into” silver coin to be exact. Missouri in 1821 had a severe shortage of hard cash and Becknell was broke – more than that - he was seriously in debt. Missouri at that time was on the edge of the frontier of a young United States and William Becknell was a seasoned frontiersman. He had heard the tales of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the travels and adventures of Zebulon Pike in the far west. He knew of the Spanish settlements across the Arkansas River and their demand for trade goods, especially in a sleepy little town called Santa Fe. Until now trade was forbidden by the Spanish government in Santa Fe, but Mexico had just won its independence from Spain, and Becknell was gambling that things had changed out west. He was willing to risk all on a daring trading venture across the wild, unknown prairies to find out. If he was wrong only death, starvation, or prison awaited him beyond the prairie sunset – but if he was right he could make his fortune.
I doubt that William Becknell and his companions had any idea of what they were about to set in motion when they left Missouri on September 1, 1821 and pointed their pack mules west. They followed the United States side of the Arkansas River through what would become western Kansas and eastern Colorado decades later. Near the confluence of the Purgatory River they crossed the Arkansas River into Mexico (near the future site of La Junta). At that time the Arkansas River was an international boundary between the United States and Mexico. Their route would become the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail which went over Raton Pass. When the Becknell party reached Santa Fe in November instead of being arrested as foreign invaders they were welcomed and soon sold all their trade goods – at a hefty profit no less. On their return trip the Becknell party took another route home to Missouri. This route went across the eastern New Mexico plains into what would become Oklahoma then on into Kansas where they crossed the Arkansas River back into the United States. This second return home route would become the Cimarron Cutoff.
Legend has it that when the Becknell party returned to Franklin, Missouri in January 1822, Becknell slashed the rawhide bags of coins and let them fall onto the cobblestones. The tinkle of silver coins that day set off a race for Santa Fe; the Santa Fe Trail was born!
The Way to Santa Fe
Even before Becknell could set out on his second trip to Santa Fe a year later, others set out on their own trading ventures to Santa Fe. On the original 1821 trip Becknell used pack mules to make the crossing, but the demand for trade goods was so great something more than mules were needed. Wagons would have to be outfitted for the trade rather than pack mules. That presented some problems, especially the crossing over Raton Pass on the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail. On the positive side the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail had plenty of water and it was relatively safe from Indian attack but Raton Pass was treacherous, steep and unforgiving. Often wagons had to be dismantled and hoisted over rocks and ledges a process that could add days to the trip to Santa Fe. Early travelers observed broken remnants of wagons strewn all along the way over Raton Pass. The Cimarron Cutoff became the most popular road to Santa Fe in the early years of the trail as it avoided Raton Pass and was more suited to wagon travel. It was also shorter by over one hundred miles and if a savvy trader could beat his competition to Santa Fe that only meant more profit. But the Cimarron Cutoff had its problems too. After crossing the Arkansas River west of present day Dodge City in Kansas, it was a waterless route until the traders reached the Cimarron River (which could be dry too in certain years) furthermore it went right through the heart of Comanche and Kiowa territory making it more prone to Indian attack.
Now both the Comanche and Kiowa had centuries of raiding and warfare experience against the Spanish and Mexicans so they were pretty good at hit and run warfare tactics. When the first Americanos appeared on the Cimarron Cutoff they were more a curiosity than anything else – good for some meat, sugar, or coffee in exchange for unhindered passage through their territory. Unfortunately it didn’t take long for true open hostility and warfare to breakout. The dangers from Indian attacks got so bad that the Cimarron Cutoff was almost closed down in the 1840s.
Wagon Ruts outside Dodge City, Kansas on HWY 50
Bad Timing and Unfortunate Choices
We have the advantage of looking back at history and recognizing the pivotal points that influence future events for decades to come. One such seemingly random act of violence among many along the Cimarron Cutoff had far-reaching ramifications. It was the fall of 1828 and the Santa Fe Trail had been going strong for seven years. A wagon train was returning from Santa Fe when two of the traders rode ahead to a stream crossing where they lay down in the autumn sun. They literally were caught napping by a band of Indians and were shot with their own guns – as the story goes. When the wagon train came up to the crossing the other traders found a young trader by the name of McKnees dead and his partner, Dan Munroe, mortally wounded. Munroe died a short time later and both were buried on the banks of the Cimarron River. While the traders were finishing burying their comrades another band of Indians rode up. These Indians had nothing to do with the killings they were just looking for some handouts from the traders. The traders, enraged by the deaths of McKnees and Munroe, shot first and didn’t bother to ask any questions. They killed all but one of the Indians who escaped to spread the word of the outrage to his people. Thus began open warfare and retributions by both sides continued on the Cimarron Cutoff for decades.
Jedediah Smith wasn’t your typical mountain man. He didn’t drink strong spirits, didn’t swear, and carried his bible wherever he went – and he went all over the west. He had blazed a trail across the Mojave Desert to San Bernardino establishing an overland route to California; he explored the Pacific Coast and lived to tell about it, and was the first white man to see Yosemite. Jedediah knew how to survive in the wilderness; and was a very competent frontiersman. When he bought the American Fur Company from William Ashley he was well on his way to making a small fortune. Then Jedediah wanted to get involved with the lucrative Santa Fe trade. On his first crossing in 1831 his party took the Cimarron Cutoff. It was late summer and water was scarce. The situation was getting desperate when members scattered out looking for water. Jedediah Smith rode away from camp and into eternity – he was never seen again.
Later a band of Comancheros (Mexicans who traded with Comanches) related a story they heard from the Indians. Somewhere along the Cimarron River he was surprised by Comanches and killed. Jedediah Smith who explored and opened up so much of the west died alone along the Santa Fe Trail – his bones rest in a spot that we’ll never know. The Cimarron Cutoff was dangerous indeed. Many Santa Fe traders were taking a second look at the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail, especially after the construction of Fort William (Bent’s Fort) along the banks of the Arkansas River near present day La Junta, Colorado in 1833.
William and Charles Bent had the Indian trade in mind when they built the adobe fort on the north bank of the Arkansas River. Here they would be close to the buffalo hunting grounds of several plains tribes. The beaver trade had reached its zenith and the trade in buffalo robes was just beginning. The Bent brothers were astute businessmen, noted for their honesty and fair dealings and got along well with the Indians. They were ready to reap the profits of the changing times and when circumstances along the Cimarron Cutoff brought more and more Santa Fe Trail trade north along the Mountain Branch, Bent’s Fort was ready and waiting for them. Between the years of 1833 – 1850 Fort William or Bent’s Fort as it would later be called became a hub of commerce on the prairies and remained an important part of western expansion throughout the 1840s.
Changing Times in the Southwest
In May1846 war was declared with Mexico. Now Bent’s Fort took on new importance as the staging ground for Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny’s Army of the West. Kearny was ordered to march overland and seize New Mexico. The summer of 1846 seventeen hundred regulars and volunteers with the equipment to wage full scale war used Bent’s Fort as the rendezvous point before invading Mexico. To move the men and equipment into New Mexico Kearny made improvements to the trail over Raton Pass further increasing the popularity of the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail.
After the war with Mexico the U.S. Government never paid the Bents compensation for housing and supplying the Mexican War troops. At this same time the increasing unrest among the southern Indian tribes prompted raids on Santa Fe wagon trains causing a decline in business at Bent’s Fort. William Bent offered to sell the fort to the U.S. Army in 1849, but they declined the offer. Rather than letting the Army get the fort for free a frustrated William set fire and blew up the gun powder room of the fort. Bent’s Fort was blasted into ruins. Though portions of Bent’s Fort survived to be used as a stage station, post office and ranch headquarters into the 1880s – an era of the Santa Fe Trail had come to an end.
William Bent built a new fort on the Arkansas River at a place known as Big Timbers (west of Lamar, Colorado) in 1853, but the glory days of trading with the Indians were over. In 1859 William leased his new fort to the Army which had constructed a new camp of operations, Fort Lyon, nearby on the Arkansas River to protect Santa Fe traffic along the Mountain Branch of the trail.
The Santa Fe Trail in Colorado during the 1860s saw many changes as the emphasis shifted from trading to ranching and agriculture. Military forts were being built along the Santa Fe Trail, the area’s Native Americans were being pushed off their traditional tribal lands and onto reservations heralding an end to their way of life, and the coming of the railroads that would bring the end of the Santa Fe Trail was looming on the horizon.
In 1864, Col. John Chivington recruited soldiers for the Colorado Volunteers from Fort Lyon. They were to protect citizens from the sporadic depredations of Indians along the Santa Fe Trail but instead engaged in one of the most disgraceful massacres in U.S. history. The Sand Creek Massacre was a one-sided engagement against an encampment of unarmed Cheyenne women, children, and elderly. Chivington’s Colorado Volunteers nearly wiped out the entire camp on Sand Creek which was protected by treaty with the United States at that time. This outrage sparked an all out war on the southern plains. In retaliation for the Sand Creek Massacre, Cheyenne dog soldiers (including George Bent son of William Bent and his Cheyenne wife Owl Woman) attacked wagon trains, ranchers and farmers on the southern plains and the Santa Fe Trail. The war lasted until 1868 when at the battle of Summit Springs (near Akron, Colorado) the Cheyenne dog soldier’s grip on the eastern plains was broken.
Boggsville: Colorado's First Non-Military Settlement
Boggsville stands apart in the history of this region as the only non-military settlement along the Santa Fe Trail. The small settlement is located on the Purgatory River two miles south of present day Las Animas. In 1867, the noted frontiersman, Kit Carson, moved to Boggsville. This was his last home before his death in 1868 at Ft. Lyon. But let's start at the beginning...
Thomas O. Boggs came west on the Santa Fe Trail and stayed. He arrived at Bent’s Fort around 1843 and began working for the Bent brothers. His job was to organize stock raising between Taos, New Mexico and Bent’s Fort. He must have done a good job too because in 1846 he married the boss’s stepdaughter, Rumalda Luna Bent. In 1862 Thomas and Rumalda moved from Taos to the confluence of the Purgatory and Arkansas River (near present day Las Animas). Here they build a small ranching and agricultural settlement. The settlement would become know as Boggsville and would be an important stopping place on the Santa Fe Trail and a center of commerce and agriculture from 1863 – 1873. During this period Boggsville grew from a few adobe structures to a full-fledged community of 20 or more buildings. Boggsville grew in part because of its location on the Santa Fe Trail and its close proximity to Fort Lyon – the new one relocated across the Arkansas River in 1866 after the old one at Big Timbers and Bent’s New Fort was destroyed by floods. About this time, Boggs started construction of a new 9-room adobe home that blended Territorial architecture with Spanish Colonial styles found further south in New Mexico. The Boggs home with its unique architecture can still be seen today at Boggsville.
Boggsville’s citizens were a diverse mixture from every culture that played a role in the development of the Santa Fe Trail. White settlers, Native Americans, and New Mexicans worked side-by-side peacefully. It became common knowledge that everyone was treated fairly and equally at Boggsville. Perhaps it was this fact, and the presence of John Prowers and his Cheyenne wife Amache Ochinee Prowers that helped deter Indian attacks on the settlement. During a turbulent time on the eastern plains Boggsville was never attacked by the Cheyenne dog soldiers.
Amache Ochinee Prowers was an anomaly in the annals of the old Santa Fe Trail. Amache was born Cheyenne but married into the white man’s world.
Amache spoke fluent Cheyenne, Spanish, and English. She was an educated young woman who loved to skate and ride a bicycle, yet she never lost her Cheyenne traditions. She often went buffalo hunting and at Christmas she made her special buffalo candy out of dried buffalo meat and sugar. She was truly a bridge between two different and often colliding worlds.
Amache was born near Bent’s Fort around 1846. She was the daughter of a Cheyenne sub-chief. She was just a young 15 years old when she met and married John Prowers, a young trader employed by the Bent brothers in 1861. Her father, Och-I-Nee, was killed at the Sand Creek Massacre. When the true details of the Sand Creek Massacre became know, the U.S. Government gave out 640-acre parcels of land near Boggsville to the survivors and their families. John Prowers as Amache’s husband gained peaceful control of the area while Amache’s presence diverted any reprisal attacks from Cheyenne dog soldiers.
In 1867, John Prowers moved to Boggsville and built a 2-story, 14-room adobe home. Shortly after Prowers built a "Trading House" on the east side of Boggsville to service the Santa Fe trade. They sold all manner of goods useful on the frontier; from clothes, bowie knives, candles, powder and shot, boots and shoes to whiskey and beef from Prower’s herd. Boggsville had become an important stop on the Santa Fe Trail. It was to be a short-lived prosperity however.
Boggsville’s decline began with the coming of the railroad to nearby Las Animas in 1873. Its decline was rapid and forewarned what was about to happen to the Santa Fe Trail in general in just a few short years. By 1880 Boggsville was just a ranch like many others so common in the area.
Boggsville Historic Site
In 1985 the historic site was acquired by the Pioneer Historical Society of Bent County and has become a unique living history museum of life on the old Santa Fe Trail. Boggsville is a renovation project in progress; the original town site is being rebuilt and restored. The restored and reconstructed buildings already completed offer a personal experience of life on the frontier for the visitor. A lot of early Colorado history had its roots at Boggsville and visiting the site today it’s hard to imagine that this quiet location on the Purgatory River is where the cattle and sheep industries in Colorado first boomed. It was here at Boggsville that the first irrigation ditches were dug to farm various crops and the first territorial school was built in 1871.
Boggsville is located off of U.S. Highway 50, on Colorado Highway 101, approximately 2 miles south of the City of Las Animas on the banks of the Purgatory River. Boggsville is open during the spring and summer months and hosts two special events with food, music, pioneer demonstrations and tours. The site is open daily and group tours are offered by reservation. Annual activities at the site include "Boggsville Days", "Santa Fe Trail Day", and a "Boggsville Christmas" party.
End of the Santa Fe Trail
The 1870s saw much activity along the Santa Fe Trail as the railroads followed the paths laid out by early trappers and traders. A major obstacle to the opening of the Southwest was overcome in the spring of 1878 when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad beat the Denver and Rio Grande railroad in crossing Raton Pass. Now it was only a matter of time before rails were laid all the way to Santa Fe. As the railroads inched forward new towns sprang up. Some faded as quickly as the tracks moved on, others found a permanence that endures to this day. La Junta became a major railroad town. With these towns came the permanent settlers, the farmers, ranchers and store owners.
By 1880 the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad had reached Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now freight could be transported by rail car and there was no need for wagon caravans across the prairies any longer. As the last spikes were driven into the rails in the sleepy hamlet of Santa Fe, the old Santa Fe Trail came to an end. But the Santa Fe Trail still lives on in our imaginations. Today you can drive Hwy 50 to La Junta and retrace the history of the Santa Fe Trail. Stop and look at the prairie vistas, in some places faint wagon ruts can still be seen. Visit Bent’s Old Fort or wander down the silent paths at Boggsville.
If you are very quiet and let your imagination go, maybe you can catch faint traces of jingling harnesses and teamster’s cries, ghostly sounds carried on the wind, as the caravans move again across a sea of grass to Santa Fe in another time so long ago.
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