Colorado’s Cherokee Trail

Trail crossing of Black Squirrel Creek


     Throughout the early part of the 19th century, the old trail along the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies served as the main connecting link between the Arkansas and Platte river systems. Though now commonly referred to as the Cherokee trail, it was - throughout its long history - a trail of many names.

     The trail began, no doubt, as an extension of the old Ute Trail, which came out of South Park and around Pikes Pike to the mineral springs of present Manitou, Colorado. Over the centuries this pre-Columbian Indian trail seems to have been extended southward along the east side of Fountain Creek, all the way to a favorite campsite on the Arkansas River in present downtown Pueblo, Colorado.

     By the time of the first Spanish military expeditions to the Arkansas River - in 1706, and again in 1719 - this portion of the trail was being referred to as "the lodgepole trail of our enemies." A century later, members of the Long Scientific Expedition described it as "a large and much frequented road." About the same time, trader Jacob Fowler gave it the first of its many names. The "Great Ware (War) Road," he called it, in obvious reference the unending series of war parties that followed it past his makeshift cabin on the Arkansas River.

     More obscure are the origins of the northern section of the trail - from where it left Fountain Creek and climbed the divide to its crossing of the South Platte River. It too seems to have begun as an Indian trail, used by the northern Crows on their horse-stealing forays into the Comanche grasslands, used also by both the Mountain Ute and the Plains Indians on their incessant raids into each others' territory.

    By the mid-1830's this old trail had become rutted and scarred by the iron-clad wheels of trading wagons. Subsequent to the 1834 construction of Fort Laramie in present eastern Wyoming a trading route was established between it and Taos in Mexican territory. This became known as the Taos (or Trappers) Trail, and it incorporated along its way the old Indian trail over the Platte-Arkansas divide. A year later, the first of four more trading posts were established on the South Platte River below modern Denver, and at least twice a year into the 1840's the Indian traders took their wagons across the divide trail, then along the Arkansas River Road to a meeting with the Santa Fe Trail near Bents Fort.

     By the time of the California Gold Rush the divide trail was already serving as the great Front Range connecting link between the Santa Fe Trail to the south and the Oregon Trail to the north. With the rush of gold seekers west, it became known as the California Road, the Arkansas Emigrant Trail, and - after the passage of two bands of Cherokee Indians in 1849 & 50 - as the Cherokee Trail.

     This divide (or Cherokee) trail was never primarily an emigrant route like the Oregon Trail, nor primarily a route of commerce like the Santa Fe Trail. Instead it always remained primarily the trail of the adventurer: of the nomadic Indian, the Spanish soldier, the Rocky Mountain fur trapper, the Indian trader, the explorer, the dragoon from Fort Leavenworth, and the gold seeker. It is the story of these adventurers that needs to be told, using their own words to best describe their experiences as they followed the old trail across the Platte-Arkansas divide.