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Pathfinders

The first European explorers came in the name of the King of Spain. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado came very close to crossing the present-day boundary of Colorado during his fruitless search for rumored cities of gold and silver in 1540-42. After the colonization of what is now New Mexico in 1598, more expeditions would strike out for the plains looking for riches and, later, to chastise warring Indian tribes and search out intruding Frenchmen. The Front Range of the Colorado Rockies was known to 18th-century Spaniards as Sierra de Almagre and today’s Fountain Creek, Rio del Almagre. The Arkansas was called Rio Napestle, a name gathered from the Indians.

In the 1700s French traders explored west to the Rocky Mountains (part of which France claimed as its Province of Louisiana) from settlements along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. After being ceded to Spain in 1762 and then transferred back to France in 1800, Louisiana, totaling 828,000 square miles, was sold to the United States in 1803 for approximately three cents per acre. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled up the Missouri to explore the Louisiana Purchase a year later, and in 1806 Zebulon Montgomery Pike left Fort Bellefontaine, near St. Louis, to trace the Arkansas and Red Rivers as well as to spy on the Spanish settlements of New Mexico. He would attempt, albeit unsuccessfully, to climb the peak that today bears his name.

Other government expeditions to the plains and Rockies followed: Stephen H. Long in 1820 (whose men did scale Pikes Peak) and John C. Fremont in 1842, 1843, and 1845. Their published reports and maps, especially Fremont’s, gave Americans a fascinating look at a still mysterious Far West.

The discovery of gold in Colorado in 1858 led to numerous “guides” to the gold fields and maps of the territory, but it was not until the Hayden Survey of Colorado, beginning in 1873, that a thorough geographic examination took place. Under the direction of Ferdinand V. Hayden, teams of topographers, geologists, and naturalists tramped over nearly the entire territory. The photographer for the survey was William Henry Jackson. His spectacular views, or “sun pictures,” revealed the beauty and magnificence of the West and Colorado like no explorer before or since.