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A Quick History of La Junta, Colorado

La Junta, Colorado’s history goes back for thousands of years.

But things really began to hop in the middle of the 1800s, when La Junta was a border town, and at the junction of a major trade route.

Photo: Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site lies just outside of La Junta and is an excellent stop for families visiting southeastern Colorado.

Folks have been visiting La Junta, Colorado for a long, long time.

Prehistoric People

As many as 10,500 years ago, Paleo-Indians hunted bison on the plains near La Junta. One archaeological site close by exposes a place where nearly 200 bison were driven into an arroyo and killed.

Projectile points were found buried with the bones in such a way as to suggest that they were the instruments of death for many of the animals.

As time passed, the culture of the Plains Woodlands people came to  influence those living in the area.

American Indians

More recently, different tribes of American Indians called the La Junta area home. And the location of La Junta on the Arkansas River means that more than once it was on the border between the territories of two tribes.

Archaeologists date the presence of Apachean folks in the area from around 1350. Of Athapascan stock, the Apaches are linguistically related to some Pacific Northwestern tribes and the Bloods of Canada. Whether they migrated into the area via the plains or along a mountain route is open for some debate.

In the mid-1700s, the Utes were occupying the mountainous areas of Colorado. As they were able to obtain more horses, they expanded out onto the plains and joined with a linguistically related group, the Comanches to push the Apaches south.

The Arapaho people began migrating into the area from North Dakota or Montana around 1800, after breaking with their kin, the Atsina. Another Algonkian-speaking group, the Cheyenne, were hunting in South Dakota and Northern Wyoming about that same time.

New Spain

Meanwhile, starting in the mid 1500s, the Spanish were busy exploring and colonizing what are now Mexico and New Mexico. Santa Fe became the northern capital of New Spain. Its citizens were subject to very restrictive Spanish trade laws, and Santa Fe struggled economically on the frontier.

In the late 1600, France began to colonize the Mississippi River Valley. When French fur trappers traveled west, trading with the Comanches of Texas, news spread to Santa Fe that European goods might be obtained across the plains to the east, instead of going south through Spanish routes.

However, diplomatic relations with the Comanche and other nations created a barrier to the trade that the Spanish settlers were so hungry for.

The Mallet Brothers

Then, in 1739 Frenchmen Paul and Pierre Mallet, brothers and fur traders, hiked into Colorado along the Arkansas River. They headed south when they hit the eastern edge of the Rockies made their way to Santa Fe.

The Mallet boys were the first to take the path that would eventually become one of America’s most important trade highways, the Santa Fe Trail. They traveled right by the spot that would eventually be La Junta, Colorado.

French businessmen in New Orleans heard of the trip and sensed a hungry market for their goods. In spite of the Spanish desire to control trade avenues, the French made expeditions to Santa Fe. However, difficulties of the journey, trouble with the Indian nations, and the Spanish authorities’ tendency to arrest expeditions leaders (including Pierre Mallet in 1750) made it rough to do business. Then the French and Indian Wars put the kibosh on the whole business in 1754.

It wasn’t until the end of the French and Indian War and the Spanish defeat of the Comanches in 1779, that things calmed things down on the plains of southeastern Colorado.

What Have We Bought?

Then, in 1803, the young United States bought the Louisiana Purchase from France. The western boundaries weren’t very clear. After Louis and Clark got done exploring the northwestern part of the territory, Thomas Jefferson sent Zebulon Pike to find out what was in the southwest quadrant of the new purchase. 

In November of 1806, the Pike expedition traveled along the Arkansas River past what is now La Junta. Pike, after some wandering around and winter mountain climbing, built a little fort and raised the American flag on Spanish land. He was promptly arrested and taken to Santa Fe.

When things were all sorted out and Pike returned to the States, he published his journal. It was the first written record of southeastern Colorado, and it was so helpful to folks who wanted to go there themselves.

Still Tough to Trade

American fur traders gathered pelts in the Colorado Rockies and a trickle of traders brought goods from the states into Santa Fe, but the Spanish government remained vigilant and arrested men who tried to violate the trade laws.

The people of Santa Fe remained in poverty and hungry for consumer items.

Mexican Openness

Everything changed in 1821, when Mexican revolutionaries over threw Spain, and Santa Fe became a part of the Republic of Mexico.

The Arkansas River was the border with Mexico, and the site of present day La Junta, on the south side of the river, would have been in Mexico.

The new Mexican government opened trade with the outside world. Within months, traders left Missouri, traveled the Santa Fe Trail along the Arkansas River, came into Santa Fe, and got to work.

From Beaver to Bison

On another continent, the Napoleonic Wars had interrupted the fur supply to Europe from Siberia, and American trappers in the Rockies were happy to fill the void. By the 1820s (just when New Mexico was opening up for trade) the rich fur areas in the northern and western areas of Colorado were depleted.

Trappers moved south to work the rivers and drainages of southern Colorado, but the market for beaver fur was declining, and the animals were becoming scarce. Trappers were moving out on the prairies to hunt buffalo (bison) to fill a fashionable demand for buffalo robes in the East and Europe. Two fellows, Ceran St. Vrain and William Bent saw an opportunity.

The Biggest Store

They constructed an impressive building on the Santa Fe Trail, along the Arkansas River, to serve as a commercial hub for the area. Travelers along the Santa Fe Trail could stop in for rest and a meal. Traders came to unload their goods and pick up stuff they needed. News and information that would affect the markets was as important as any other item a businessperson could pick up at Bent’s Fort.

You can visit a replica of Bent’s Old Fort today, just outside of La Junta, at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site. Run by the National Park Service, it is a living history museum with great exhibits about what life was like there when the place was at its busiest.

Hard Times

By 1948, with the end of the Mexican-American War, New Mexico became a permanent part of America. The hard currency that Mexico had provided with its silver mines was cut off, and trade on the Santa Fe Trail declined. 

Business at Bent’s Fort fell off. In 1847 William Bent’s brother was killed, his wife died, and most of his best customers had been driven away or weren’t taking that road any more. Bent tried to sell the fort, with no takers.

Sometime later, travelers in the area heard an explosion, and the fort burned. No one knows what happened.

Cattle Country

In the mid-1850’s, a young cattle drover from Arkansas, John Barkley Dawson, took a herd along the old Santa Fe Trail, turning north at Pueblo. He headed the cattle up along the Front Range, and then west through Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada to Northern California. It was worth it to him to drive them all that way because the miners of the ’49 gold rush were hungry enough to pay a pretty price for the beef.

Four years later, when prospectors found gold in Colorado, Dawson, by now ranching in Texas, saw an opportunity. He trailed more cattle into Colorado by the same route, which passed right by present day La Junta. This route was called the Dawson Trail.

In 1861, John Wesley Prowers brought 600 head of cattle to graze along the Arkansas River in the vicinity of the Purgatoire River. The profitable use of this beef to supply hungry mining camps in the mountains launched southern Colorado’s cattle industry. By the mid-1860’s over 100,000 head grazed on the eastern prairies of Colorado.

Moving Stuff Around

The 1870s were a time of intense competition between railroads for the commodities and markets of the west. Santa Fe, New Mexico was still a commercial and political hub. The gold and silver camps in Colorado and New Mexico needed outlets for their minerals and supplies for their miners. The cattle ranches and agricultural areas needed transport of their goods as well.

With the Union Pacific chugging through the country to the north of Denver, and the Denver and Rio Grande heading straight south along the Front Range, the Kansas Pacific raced across the prairies to Denver. At Kit Carson, Colorado, the Kansas Pacific stretched a branch down to the Arkansas River, where the line reached its terminus.

In 1876, the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad (known as the Santa Fe) reached the same spot, and a dusty scrap of a town was springing up where the tracks stopped. For a few years it was named Otero, after Miguel Otero, who had moved his wholesale merchandising firm with the progress of the Kansas Pacific Railroad across the country.

Mr. Otero was not the only one in business at this place where freight and passengers loaded the trains to head east or unloaded onto wagons to travel the Santa Fe Trail west. A depot, warehouses, saloons, and dance halls were among the buildings in town.

La Junta

But then, in 1878, the Kansas Pacific Railroad called “uncle”, and pulled up the tracks of its Kit Carson branch, leaving the Arkansas Valley business to the Santa Fe Railroad. Without the Kansas Pacific Railroad in the picture, the Santa Fe was able to dictate the name of the town, which was changed to La Junta, which means “the junction.”

The name refers to the railroad junction, with one branch heading west along the Arkansas River to Pueblo, and the other southwest along Timpas Creek to Trinidad, Colorado. From there, the railroad could head over Raton Pass into New Mexico.

Racing for Raton

The Santa Fe Railroad was competing fiercely with the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, which was building south along the Front Range from Denver. Both had ambitions to reach the Santa Fe, New Mexico markets first. By reaching Raton Pass first, the Santa Fe Railroad was able to capture the path from La Junta all the way to the New Mexican capital.

With the extending of the railroad, La Junta was no longer a terminus town, and started to decline. However, its location at the junction of the two branches of the railroad made it a good spot for the Santa Fe Railroad to establish the headquarters of its Colorado division. It built a depot, roundhouse, and shops at La Junta.

Turkey Red and Watermelon

In 1881, the city incorporated and greater numbers of settlers arrived to try their hand at agriculture in the fertile flood plain of the Arkansas River. Areas farther from the river needed irrigation, which allowed homesteaders to grow wheat, corn, hay, onions, peas, and melons. Even higher areas that could not be irrigated were used for dryland farming of Turkey Red strains of wheat. These imported strains could withstand the winds and dry climate of the plains. Livestock, especially cattle, continued to be an important part of the agricultural economy of the area around La Junta.

Sweet Times and Bitter Winds

Sugar beets were first planted in the La Junta area around the turn of the century and provided a strong economic boost to the Arkansas Valley through the 1970’s when corn syrup began to be used more prevalently as a sweetener.

When World War I decreased food production in Europe, farmers experienced a boom, supplying sustenance for hungry people overseas as well as in America. However, in the years after the war, prices declined, and marginal land that had been plowed in the boom years began to blow away. Lack of forage and a drop in prices for cattle caused significant reduction in herds. Costs exceeded profits and farmers became tenants on their land or left their farms altogether. Southeastern Colorado was hit hard during the years of the Dust Bowl.

New Deal

La Junta received its share of help when Franklin Roosevelt became President. The city park is primarily the work of the CWA (Civil Works Administration) and the WPA (Works Progress Administration). So is La Junta’s Picketwire Theater (formerly the La Junta Junior High addition) and the Otero Junior College building.

However, La Junta’s economy was still slumping at the end of the 1930s, when the beginning of World War II finally gave it a boost. The war also brought an airfield to La Junta,  where British pilots trained safely away from enemy bombers.

Quiet Life

After the war, prices again slumped, and the area felt the effects of another recession. Since then, La Junta has remained an agricultural supply town, with lean years and prosperous times as well.

Its tall shade trees provide a cool oasis in the midst of the prairie’s glare, and it is a delightful place for traveling families to get out of the car and stretch their legs.

Related Links:

La Junta, Colorado - Overview
La Junta Attractions for Traveling Families

Colorado Towns and Cities
Colorado Destinations

Hiking with Kids
Camping in Colorado