The Pueblo Indians of Taos in the 1300's had a well-established system of hunting and trading trails in southern Colorado. Long before Coronado's men "discovered" them in 1540, the Taos Indians were known as gifted traders and were famous for their regional trade fairs. They operated on the interface between the products of sedentary life: pots, corn and cotton cloth, and the products of the hunter's life: meat and hides.
Early Spanish penetrations into southern Colorado are not well recorded, or their records were not well preserved. The first American Territorial Governors of New Mexico liked to use the old papers to light their cigars and start fires. There is a record of an expedition of Don Juan Oñate's men into the San Luis Valley in 1598. A tribe of Ute Indians had a good laugh watching them as they tried to corral a buffalo herd for an experimental domestication program. The Spanish efforts met with so much resistance from the buffalo that several men were injured and several horses killed.
Juan Archuleta travelled up to the Arkansas River in search of runaway Taos Indians in the 1660's. The Indians had fled after an unsuccessful rebellion and had sought safety among the Apaches of El Cuartelejo (a loose federation of Apache tribes along the Arkansas). In 1706, Juan de Ulibarri also went to El Cuartelejo to retrieve Picuris Indians. The Apaches begged him to stay and fight their enemies, the Pawnees. Ulibarri left, saying he couldn't lead his troops into battle without a drum and a bugle.
Governor Valverde led another expedition to the Arkansas in 1719, hoping to punish the Comanches who were raiding Spanish settlements in northern New Mexico and to investigate rumors that French trappers were entering the area. According to their report, Valverde's party of 600 had a great time on this holiday with lots of hunting while studiously avoiding any contact with hostile Comanches. The only bad time they had was when they got into some poison ivy and bears ate their lunch.
In 1720, Don Pedro de Villasur travelled up to the North Fork of the Platte to investigate rumors that the French were supplying weapons to the Pawnees and encouraging the Pawnees to attack Spanish settlements. The rumors were true: Villasur and his men were killed and scalped by the Pawnees as they slept beside the river.
The routes taken by all these groups were different, although most of them crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains over Taos Pass before heading north to cross the Raton Mountains into what is now Colorado. In 1749, a group of French traders were arrested in Taos and they testified that they had been guided over the Sangre de Cristo Pass by Comanches who had been using the pass to raid New Mexican settlements and trade with the Taos Indians since the 1720's. The route was a gradual and relatively easy crossing of the Sangre de Cristo's, ascending along South Oak Creek from the Huerfano River over Sangre de Cristo Pass, down Sangre De Cristo Creek into the San Luis Valley and then down the valley to Taos.
In 1768 the Spanish used this new route in their punitive expedition against the Comanches on the Arkansas. Governor Juan Bautista de Anza came south this way after his defeat of the Comanches and killing of Cuerno Verde, their chief, on the plains at the foot of Greenhorn Mountain. On his way north to do battle, de Anza had also noted the gentle Cochetopa Pass on the western side of the San Luis Valley, proclaiming that these passes would be "the paths of empire" by which the region would be settled by Spain.
In 1806, Lt. Zebulon Pike became the first official American explorer to enter Colorado. His party followed the Arkansas River to the site of Canon City before making their way up Grape Creek and into the Wet Mountain Valley. They then travelled over either Medano or Mosca Pass into the San Luis Valley at the Great Sand Dunes. Leaving a string of frozen and starved men along the way, Pike made it to the mouth of the Conejos River. He had time to build a stockade before he was arrested and taken to Santa Fe for questioning, later to be released.
After Pike came the fur trappers (American, French and others). Although everything south of the Arkansas was claimed by Spain, the trappers worked the area freely. As the nearest customs officials were in Santa Fe, Taos became a commercial center for outfitting the trappers and for trading in their pelts. The route over Sangre de Cristo Pass became known as the Trappers Trail and fingers of it extended northward into Wyoming.
In 1821, Mexico declared its independence from Spain and threw open the doors for trade. William Becknell was poised at the border on the Arkansas and quickly made his way up the Purgatoire River and over one of the Raton passes (San Franciso, Long's Canyon, Raton Pass, Emery Gap, we don't know which). As the first trader into Santa Fe, he made an outrageous fortune. Then he hurried back to Missouri for more goods, establishing the Cimarron Cutoff on the Santa Fe Trail along the way. As these trails are not one-way, over the next 10 years Americans moved more and more goods west and Mexicans moved more and more goods east.
By the early 1830's, small trading posts began to show up, the biggest one being Bent's Fort, established in 1833 by William and Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain on the upper Arkansas. Bent's Fort became the center of a huge trading empire and a favorite haunt of the Plains Indians, mountain men and Santa Fe Trail traders. To reach their interests in Santa Fe and Taos, Bent, St. Vrain and Co. used the trail along Timpas Creek and over Raton Pass, the route that came to be known as the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail.
Quite often folks would follow the Arkansas to the site of Pueblo where they came to the Trappers Trail. Others would follow the Huerfano River Trail to its junction with the Trappers Trail at Badito. Going this way a horseback rider could make it from Bent's Fort to Taos in only 3 days.