The gardens at Fort Uncompahgre in Delta are planted with medicinal herbs the native Utes and early fur trappers likely relied upon.

Photo by Tom Ross

The gardens at Fort Uncompahgre in Delta are planted with medicinal herbs the native Utes and early fur trappers likely relied upon.

Tom Ross: Before there were roads

Fort Uncompahgre in Delta an early outpost on Western Slope

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Almost 50 years before the family of James and Margaret Crawford became the first European settlers of Steamboat Springs, Antoine Robidoux built a trading post near the confluence of the Uncompahgre and Eagle Tail (now the Gunnison) rivers just downstream from present-day Delta.

If you’ve never visited the Fort Uncompahgre Living History Museum, put it on your list.

In 1828, when Robidoux and his employees from Santa Fe built a log stockade to link a few cabins and secure their trading post, there were only a few Europeans roaming the Rocky Mountains, and the Western Slope of Colorado was particularly remote.

I would urge that the next time you drive south on U.S. Highway 50 from Grand Junction for a getaway to Telluride, Ouray or Durango, you make a point of visiting the fort. Some historians think the word Uncompahgre is a contraction of the Ute words for “hot water spring.” The original site of the trading post was several miles downstream from the replica history museum. But the current location is much more convenient for visitors.

If you pass the Days Inn motel on the right, you’ve just missed the right turn into Confluence Park and the faithful replica of the old log buildings at Fort Uncompahgre. The only hot water spring we could locate there was the city’s indoor swimming pool with its retractable roof.

Still, the hour we spent with historian Ken Reyher at the replica of Fort Uncompahgre last week gave me new insights into an era when there were very few Americans roaming the Colorado Rockies.

Of course, when Robidoux built the modest fort, Colorado had yet to become a state. Instead, it was under the control of Mexico.

Robidoux, who already had established trade with the native Ute Indians at Fort Uintah, a dozen miles north of present-day Roosevelt, Utah, had married the adopted daughter of the governor of New Mexico. In so doing, he had become a Mexican citizen with the ability to acquire a trading and trapping license.

The original log buildings are long gone — the Utes burned them in about 1846, two years after a bloody misunderstanding with the traders.

However, volunteers in Delta, relying on historical records about Fort Uintah, have recreated Uncompahgre with remarkable attention to detail. The low cabins are complete with New Mexican-style wood-burning fireplaces and crude sleeping bunks.

Most fascinating were the trade goods that Robidoux’s men swapped with the Utes for packs of beaver pelts.

Reyher pointed out that there were no roads in the region in the late 1820s and 1830s, and all of the trade goods stocked at the fort, as well as bars of iron for the blacksmith, arrived on the backs of mules.

Many of the trade goods were intended to make the lives of native women easier. They included needles and thread, steel knives and camp axes, bolts of cloth and iron cooking pots.

Reyher showed us samples of scissors, still made in China today, that changed life on the frontier. There also were large twists of braided tobacco, blocks of brown unrefined sugar and beautiful glass beads from Czechoslovakia, which were traded to the Utes in the early 19th century and continue to be manufactured in the 21st century, Reyher said.

Beaver pelts were in high demand for use in making fine hats for gentlemen in Europe, and when adjusted for inflation, sold for $320 in today’s dollars, making the trading post a very profitable business. A cavalry saber or a 70-caliber musket traded at a value that was the equivalent to $3,500 today.

The men from Santa Fe who worked at keeping the fort in good repair and hunting for food were in their late teens for the most part, Reyher said. The wife of the trading post’s foreman was expected to cook two meals a day for the men.

There are different theories about the demise of Fort Uncompahgre.

Reyher, who says it’s almost a certainty that the famed scout Kit Carson slept at the fort, thinks the Utes who once traded there peacefully, attacked its Mexican occupants in retaliation for another mistaken attack. The original attack was made by Mexicans seeking retribution against a group of Navajo warriors for a raid on sheep and cattle. Those Mexicans mistakenly fell upon a Ute village.

The Utes who attacked Fort Uncompahgre killed most of the residents but deliberately released an American whom they did not hold responsible. And although they felt it was their right to claim the trade goods, they did not immediately destroy the fort.

However, Robidoux, who had been violating the law by trading guns to the Utes, never returned, and after two years the natives burned it to the ground.

Utah historian John D. Barton, who has written a book on the subject, theorizes that Robidoux’s reputation for cheating the Indians, as well as his involvement in capturing or trading Indian women and children and selling them into slavery, made him despised.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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