Fort Uncompahgre History

Historic Fort Uncompahgre on the Old Spanish Trail

Trading Beads

Antoine Robidoux and Fort Uncompahgre, by Ken Reyher, 1998, Western Reflections Publishing Company, Montrose, Colorado.

Fort Uncompahgre was constructed in 1828 by Antoine Robidoux, a trader based out of Mexican Santa Fe. The post was situated about two miles down from the confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers near the present day community of Delta in Western Colorado. This location afforded abundant timber for construction purposes and for firewood, and pasture for pack animals. It was also a gathering spot favored by the Ute Indians, and a nearby natural ford provided easy access across the river. The precise location of the fort has been lost, due to shifting meanders of the Gunnison River.

The Ute Indians apparently encouraged the presence of a trader deep in their territory for purposes of being able to obtain firearms. Tribes located to the north were obtaining firearms from both the Hudson’s Bay Company and from American trappers and the introduction of these guns was upsetting the balance of power among the western tribes. Although Spanish law and later Mexican law prohibited sale or trade of firearms to the Indians, such trade at a remote location in a difficult country to traverse might be conducted without much fear of official sanction.

Robidoux established several trails for supplying goods to Fort Uncompahgre. The first of these, known as the Mountain Branch of the Old Spanish Trail, lead north out of Santa Fe, up into the San Luis Valley, thence northwest across Cochetopa Pass, then down into the valley of the Gunnison River to Fort Uncompahgre. This was a very difficult and challenging route, however, if not snowbound, was much shorter than following the Old Spanish Trail. The second trail, known as Robidoux’s Cutoff, was used for goods being imported from St. Louis. The Cutoff left the Santa Fe Trail near Bent’s Fort, proceeded westward to the vicinity of present day Pueblo, thence around the south end of the Wet Mountains and over Mosca Pass down into the San Luis Valley. Here it joined with the Mountain Branch. The Cutoff was advantageous in that it was far shorter than freighting the goods into Santa Fe and then up, and it avoided Mexican customs, where taxes reached as high as 30 percent. The Cutoff was also useful for importing contraband items such as firearms for trade with the Indians.

Little is known about the construction or layout of the fort except that it was on the south bank of the Gunnison River. Few travelers passed through the fort because of its remote location and difficult access through rugged terrain. There are no known contemporary descriptions of the fort. Fort Uncompahgre probably resembled another fort built later by AntoineRobidoux, Fort Unitah, located in present day eastern Utah. Fort Uncompahgre probably consisted of a few crude log buildings surrounded by a fence of cottonwood pickets. This type of construction would have been acceptable to Ute Indians who were very sensitive about permanent structures being built on their lands.

Accounts indicate that between 15 to 18 individuals were employed at the fort. These men would have been responsible for trading, limited trapping, preparing hides and skins, and bundling fur packs. Additionally, the cottonwood pickets and log structures would have needed continual maintenance and replacement as the soft cottonwood rotted out. Transportation to this location was difficult and expensive and anything that could be made or grown locally would reduce costs significantly. Employees probably raised a garden which may have included corn, wheat, beans, lentils, potatoes, melons and squash. Sheep or goats were probably also kept at the fort.

Robidoux’s employees were all Mexicans, probably from the Santa Fe area. Employees typically worked under a one-year contract, and would be paid in trade goods, most of which they would receive at the end of their service. At the time, New Mexico (as the northern colonies of Old Mexico were known) had a surplus of labor and then current wage rates were approximately $5.00 per month for skilled craftsmen, while unskilled labor was worth no more than $2.00 per month.

The primary building structure on the post would have been the trade room. Trappers and Indians would have brought their skins and furs here to be graded and weighed. They could then choose from a selection of trade goods displayed in another area of the trade room. The living quarters of the trader, or his principal would have adjoined the trade room. Other structures on the post probably included a storage building for the furs, a kitchen\living quarters for the post cook, and a black smith/carpenters shop.

In September 1831, authorities in Santa Fe granted a license to Antoine Robidoux for a second trading post near the confluence of the Whiterock and Unitah Rivers. This post, known as Fort Uintah, served both anglo and Mexican trappers as well as Ute and sometimes Shoshoni Indians. This Map shows the location of Fort Uintah. Rufus Sage, in Rocky Mountain Life, describes this fort as follows: “Robideau’s Fort is situated on the right bank of the Unitah,. . . . The trade of this post is conducted principally with the trapping parties frequenting the Big Bear, Green, Grand, and the Colorado rivers, with their numerous tributaries, in search of fur-bearing game. A small business is also carried on with the Snake and Utah Indians, living in the neighborhood of this establishment. The common articles of dealing are horses, with beaver, otter, deer, sheep, and elk skins, in barter for ammunition, fire-arms, knives, tobacco, beads, awls, &c.”

In the mid 1830’s, the Hudson’s Bay Company was become a competitive threat in the area. To hold them back, Antoine Robidoux built a third post, called Fort Robidoux in 1837 near the confluence of the Green and White Rivers. Fort Robidoux was probably just a temporary post, and when in 1838 the Hudson’s Bay Company withdrew from the Unitah Basin, Fort Robidoux was also abandoned. This Map shows the location of Fort Robidoux.

Towards the end of the 1830’s prices paid for beaver pelts declined precipitously. To make up for lost revenues, Fort Uncompahgre increased its trade in California horses, and in Indian slaves. Although the taking of new slaves was prohibited by the Spanish and later Mexican authorities, in practice the prohibition was not enforced. Powerful tribes would capture the women and children of their weaker neighbors and sell them in the northern colonies (New Mexico) where demand for laborers and wives was high. In the 1830’s boys between the ages of 8 to 12 years were valued at $50 to $100 in trade goods and girls were worth approximately twice as much.

By 1841 other developments were changing the economics of the fur trade. The Oregon Trail had been opened up, taking a steady stream of immigrants across the plains, through South Pass and on to Oregon and California. In addition to immigrants, the trail became a major route for hauling freight, supplying posts such as Fort Hall and Fort Bridger. Resulting lower freight costs combined with industrial expansion in the east meant much lower prices were being charged for trade goods then Robidoux could offer with his Santa Fe based operations. The Indians, unable to understand the logistical and industrial economics, concluded that they had been cheated for years by the Santa Fe and Taos traders, including Robidoux.

During the summer of 1843, hostilities broke out between the Utes and Mexicans of the Santa Fe area. Warfare spread up the San Luis Valley and thence over into the basin of the Gunnison River engulfing Fort Uncompahgre, which was staffed almost entirely by Mexican employees.

The “fort” which was designed more as a holding area for livestock, and to secure the trade goods and furs, was never intended as a defensive structure for war. With one exception, all of the Mexicans were slaughtered and their women taken prisoner. Only a single Mexican trapper, Calario Cortez, escaped the carnage. Fourteen days later, hungry and exhausted he arrived in Taos.

The Utes also captured alive an American who was visiting at the fort. He was later released with a message for Antoine Robidoux that the furs, hides and buildings were intact, and that the Utes’ quarrel was with the Mexicans, not the Americans or the French. What motivated the Utes is uncertain: did they expect that Robidoux would return to the fort as if nothing had happened, or were they trying to lure him back so he too could be killed is unknown. Also, it is not known why the Utes didn’t attack Fort Uintah, which was also staffed by Mexicans.

Fort Uncompahgre was left standing vacant for about two years before it was destroyed by local Utes. Antoine Robidoux never returned to the Uintah Basin to trap or trade for furs.

In 1990 Fort Uncompahgre was reconstructed upriver from its presumed original location on land owned by the city of Delta, Colorado. In recent years there has been renewed interest and in 2015 the Fort was reopened to the public.