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The Society for the History of Discoveries
42nd Annual Meeting
Denver, Colorado
September 6-9, 2001

A Brief History of the Rocky Mountain Region

Situated within the undefined northern extension of New Spain, the Rocky Mountain Region became part of the Spanish New-World Empire during the early 16th Century. The first Spanish military expeditions into the area began with that of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado who, in 1540-41, explored the Rockies as far north as Taos, New Mexico and skirted the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo range on his way to the Great Plains and Quivira. This and other, smaller, exploratory expeditions were eventually followed by Spanish attempts at settlement in the Kingdom of New Mexico, beginning with the failed effort of Gaspar Castaño de Sosa in 1590-91 and Juan de Oñate in 1598. Oñate’s settlement, near the San Juan Indian Pueblo north of present Española, NM, was on the verge of retreating in failure when, in 1607, royal authorities decided, by the narrowest of margins, that the few Pueblo Indians who had been converted to Christianity in New Mexico were sufficient reason to disallow complete Spanish abandonment of the entire central North American continent above the Río Grande. Thus, in 1608-10, The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi (Santa Fé) was built to establish a center of Spanish authority in middle North America.

With the enormous distances involved, Spain’s hold on the isolated frontier territory was always difficult and tenuous; nonetheless, excepting the period 1680-92 when an Indian revolt sacked Santa Fé and forced all Spaniards out of New Mexico, the province survived as the northernmost land-locked outpost of the Spanish New World Empire for over 200 years. However, the vast ocean of land claimed by Spain north of New Mexico proved too much to wholly explore, much less to absorb. One early Spanish governor lamented over “…this kingdom, at the end of the earth and remote beyond compare”. So, with little support from the Spanish government for its interests in the area, most of the Rocky Mountain Region remained Spanish simply by claim rather than by occupancy. Occasional exploratory and military expeditions, together with more frequent hunting and trading parties, established some familiarity and many geographic names (including colorado) in the southern Rockies but a permanent Spanish presence did not exist north of Taos, NM. In fact, Spain probably knew less of the northern portion of its Rocky Mountain territory than did France, whose explorers and traders, moving west and south from French Canada, were the first Europeans to enter that area, and whose Louisiana-based activities, both real and rumored, were a vexing source of Spanish concern. British fur traders also commonly trespassed on nominal Spanish territory from their later outposts in Canada and the Northwest.

As the result of political developments elsewhere in the world, title to most of these still largely unknown lands passed from Spain to France by treaty in 1800 and were then sold by France to the recently established United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Although certain Louisiana Purchase tracts were given back to Spain in 1818-19, they and all remaining Spanish territory in the U.S. Rocky Mountain Region were ceded by Spain to Mexico in 1821 and from Mexico to the U.S. in 1848.

Finding itself the holder of an immense expanse of new property, about which it knew little, the United States sponsored exploratory expeditions to define and describe the Great Plains and the adjoining Rocky Mountains as far west as politically permissible. Among those, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled up the Missouri River, across the Rockies, down the Columbia to the Pacific and back in 1804-07. Likewise, in 1806-07, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike led a party up the Arkansas River to the southern Rocky Mountains in Colorado and across the Sangre de Cristo range to the upper Río Grande near present Sanford, Colorado where he was arrested by a Spanish cavalry unit. In 1821, Major Stephen H. Long took an expedition up the Missouri and Platte Rivers across the central Great Plains to the Front Range of the Rockies, where Denver now stands, then south to the Arkansas and down that river and the Canadian River to U.S. settlements. Captain John Fremont also made a number of excursions in the 1840’s. The United States continued to support those types of expeditions to the Rocky Mountain Region well into the late 1800’s. And, of course, beginning in the early 19th Century, independent fur-trapper entrepreneurs were sorting out Rocky Mountain geography for their own interests. Most often, these “mountain men” also served as guides and interpreters for exploratory expeditions after 1840.

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