Huerfano County, Colorado
Fort Stevens

Contributed by Karen Mitchell
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Sangre de Cristo Pass is a natural opening between the main range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Culebra Range. The summit of the pass (9459 feet above sea level) is at the Huerfano-Costilla County line. The pass is crossed by an old trail which came from the Arkansas River, up the Huerfano River to Badito, and then up South Oak Creek. On the west side of the mountains, it followed the Sangre de Cristo Creek down to the San Luis Valley. The Indians had used this opening for centuries and it was an alternate route for the Ute War Trail.

The earliest recorded crossing of the pass was in 1719. Don Antonio Valverde Cosio with a large army followed the eastern base of the mountains to the Arkansas and on the return to Santa Fe, crossed the pass. In 1740, the Mallet Brothers probably crossed the pass with their goods on the mission to establish trade with Santa Fe.

In 1779, Governor Juan Bautista de Ansa returned to Santa Fe after his defeat of Cuerno Verde by the then established route - which he named Sangre de Cristo Pass, He recognized the pass as an easy gate to the plains and east from the San Luis Valley and New Mexico which were part of the Spanish Empire.

When August Choteau and Jules de Mun attempted to establish fur trade with New Mexico in 1815 to 1817, they also crossed this pass.

During the year 1819, acting Governor Facundo Melgares, on order from Spain, fortified the pass. It had been reported that although the trail was only a foot- path, it could easily be made useable for artillery and a handful of men could hold off an army from crossing into the Spanish territory. The fort, which was adobe, was built near the trail, close to a Spring and in a location where the Huerfano River, the Spanish Peaks and the Wet Valley could be guarded.

There are conflicting stories as to why the fort was abandoned but since Mexico gained its independence in 1821 and did not feel the threat of the French and Americans as Spain had, the need for the fort was gone.

Mexico encouraged trade with the east and north and when Jacob Fowler crossed the pass in 1822 to establish a marketplace in Santa Fe, he reported camping near the remains of the Spanish fort which appeared to have been abandoned about a year.

The exact location of the fort is in question since a century and a half of rain, snow and wind have destroyed the adobe walls.

The trail was used by the fur trappers and mountain men as the route from the northern front range to Taos to sell their furs. One branch of the Santa Fe Trail from the east followed the Arkansas to the Huerfano and crossed the pass. The Taos Trail and Santa Fe Trails kept to the west side of the Huerfano River avoiding the canyons and went through Greenhorn, St. Mary and then to Badito. George Ruxton followed this route in 1847 and described it in his adventures.

In 1853, John W. Gunnison and his expedition followed the route over Sangre de Cristo Pass on his government survey to determine a transcontinental railroad route. He determined it feasible for a railway. Because the Spanish trail was too rough for wagons, they cut a six-mile stretch of roadway on the route. In places, Beckwith, an assistant, reported that the wagons had to be held by hand ropes to prevent them from overturning. This expedition was later attacked by Indians in Utah; Gunnison and six of his men were killed.

A wagon road was established over the pass and was used for many years as the supply and mail route to Fort Garland, the San Luis Valley and the San Juan Mountains.

In 1863, the infamous Espinozas, who had bean murdering people throughout the area, attacked a party on this pass, killing all the mules and taking a woman captive. This incident caused Tom Tobin to agree to track down the outlaws, which he did and cut off their heads as proof of the accomplishment.

The United States Army established a location for a fort near this trail in the Huerfano Valley in 1866. Fort Stevens was to guard the mail routes and fight the Indians, but although the supplies were sent to the location and construction was begun, the fort was never completed and was abandoned within two months.

With the Mosca Pass Tollroad (1870's to 1905) and the improvement of other nearby passes and with the railroad crossing at La Veta Pass, the road fell into disuse. Only the faint tracks remain.
National Archives Military Section
540-k357-1361- Page 77

Fort Stevens, Colorado Territory
General Orders #19, Head Dist. of New Mexico
Fort Union, Aug.15, 1866

The following orders are republished for the information of the troops and of the people of New Mexico and Colorado.

Headquarters, Department of the Missouri, Santa Fe, N.M. July 26, 1866 General Field Orders #5.

I. For temporary purposes, the limits of the District of New Mexico are hereby extended to include that part of Colorado lying South of the dividing ridge, between the waters of the Arkansas and the Platte rivers, and as far east as Pueblo on the Arkansas and the crossing of the Purgatoire, by the Raton road to Fort Lyon.

II. At some point within the region of the upper Huerfano or the Cucharas the commanding officer of the District of New Mexico will establish a military post, to be garrisoned by one company of infantry and two companies of cavalry, to cover the settlements along the Fontaine-qui-bouilt, Upper Arkansas, Huerfano, and Purgatoire rivers, from incursions of the Ute Indians, as also to protect those settlements from raids that may be made by the Indians of the Plains.

After being fully established the Post will draw its supplies direct form the General Depot at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Subject to the approval of the Secretary of War, this post will be designated “Fort Stevens” in commemoration of the name and services of General Isaac Ingalls Stevens, deceased.
By command of Major General Pope
Joseph M. Bell
Assistant Adjutant General

General Orders #20. Hdq. District of New Mexico, Fort Union, Aug.15, 1866
“In compliance with orders from Department Headquarters, a military post will at once be built on one of the upper tributaries of the Arkansas river, the exact point to be here after designated, when fixed by a board of officers. This post will be known as Fort Stevens.

The troops, which are to proceed without delay to establish and build this post are: Capt. & Br. Col. Andrew J. Alexander's Company G. U.S. 3rd Cavalry, and Companies F & H of the 57th U.S. Colored troops.

These troops will at once be moved to a camp by themselves, near Fort Union, N.M., when Col. Alexander will, with all possible dispatch, put them in complete readiness at all points to proceed to the post they are to occupy.

The chiefs of the Quartermaster Subsistence, Medical and Ordnance Department in New Mexico, will furnish on Col. Alexander's requisitions all means of transportation and supplies, necessary to give effect to what is here ordered.
James N. Carleton
Brvt. Brig. General, U.S.A.

Fort Stevens, Colorado Territory
General Orders #24
Head Dist. Of New Mexico, Santa Fe September 26, 1866

By direction of superior authority the building of Fort Stevens, Colorado Territory is stopped, and that post is hereby discontinued. Its garrison will be disposed of as follows:
Co. G, U.S. 3rd Cavalry will take post at Fort Garland, Colorado Territory.
Co's. F & H, 57th regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops will be held in readiness to march with the regiment to which they belong, to the east to muster out of service. Further instruction will be given in relation to the movement of these two companies.

The two pieces of artillery, now at Fort Stevens, and the ammunition, implements, etc., which pertain to them, will be taken to Fort Garland.

The materials, tools, means of transportation, supplies, stores, medicine, etc., now at Fort Stevens will as far as needed, be sent at once to Fort Garland; the remainder will be returned to the appropriate depots near Fort Union, and at Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Chiefs of the different staff departments will give such detailed instructions as will carry this order into full effect.
By command of Brevet Brigadier General Carleton
A.W. DeForest,
Brt. Major, U.S. Vol.

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