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Pikes Peak or Bust! - Fountain Valley's Forgotten History

 

Last updated 8/3/2022 at 8:45am

U.S. Library of Congress item 98688437

This 1859 Fiala map showing Independence Camp is a rare treasure, as it's the only lithographed map with this Fountain-area camp that historical author Larry Obermesik has been able to find.

"And now you know the rest of the story." - Paul Harvey

The initial goal of my research was simple: learn more about the history of the territory between Fountain and Pueblo. But I quickly discovered from 1859-64, the timeframe I'm most interested in, the South Fountain Valley's history wasn't really documented that well.

So I went back to the beginning and read the expedition reports famous explorers like Fremont, Kearney, Long and Pike produced, to see what they'd written about this area. Sad to say, those reports didn't include much commentary between Fountain and Pueblo either. However, they did provide me with an important clue.

Some reports mentioned the same landmarks: Pikes Peak, Fountain Creek, The Old Trail and a Cottonwood grove. A Cottonwood grove between Fountain and Pueblo? I'd never heard of that before. Besides that one tidbit, the expedition reports didn't teach me much.

My next idea was to read an old Colorado history book from cover to cover. But when I got to page 20, something stopped me dead in my tracks!

Before Jenks & Company reach Pueblo in this Pikes Peak or Bust series, I'd like to share some little-known Fountain Valley history with you. For the first time in the modern era, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of Fountain Valley's story can now be told.

INDEPENDENCE CAMP

Julia Holmes was a leader in the fight for women's rights in the 1800s and an ardent abolitionist. Her husband was one of John Brown's lieutenants, and their home became an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Julia Holmes was a Progressive Rock Star!

Zebulon Pike never climbed Pikes Peak - he said no one could. In 1858 Julia Holmes proved him wrong, becoming the first American woman to reach the summit. Unfortunately, few of Julia's letters have survived.

On page 20 of Hall's History of Colorado Volume #4, Mr. Hall recounts an event William Parsons wrote about in his famous Pikes Peak Gold Rush guidebook, which Holmes also mentioned in one of her letters.

On July 4th, 1858, Julia Holmes was traveling with William Parsons and The Lawrence Party through Southern Colorado. About 15 miles north of Pueblo, the Chico Creek Cutoff they were traveling on ran into The Old Trail, at a "beautiful grove of cottonwoods."

To commemorate the Independence Day holiday, they named the place Independence Camp, took the afternoon off and drank the rest of their whiskey. Independence Camp? I had never heard of that either. I call the crossroad where those trails met, Independence Junction.

Almost everyone who came to Colorado on the Santa Fe Trail in the Gold Rush days visited Independence Camp. Like Jimmy Camp, it was an important way station for weary travelers. To learn more about this long-lost Fountain Valley Gold Rush campground, I turned to the Library of Congress.

That's where I found a drawing of Independence Camp from 1859, attributed to a prospector from Rhode Island named Daniel Jenks. The Library also holds two of Daniel's original gold rush journals, which had never been published before. In journal volume #4, Jenks visited Independence Camp - so we know it was a real place. While Jimmy Camp is remembered in Colorado Gold Rush lore, Julia Holmes' Independence Camp has been forgotten.

In his gold rush journal, Daniel Jenks wrote that his traveling companion, Loren Jenks, was so impressed with Independence Camp, he decided to stay there. From 1859-64, Loren and his family lived at Independence Camp - they called it Jenks Ranch.

But in 1859 Colorado wasn't a U.S. Territory yet, and Indian reprisals were an abiding concern. Over the years, 20-25 other families joined them there at Jenks Ranch, making it one of the largest squatter communities in Southern Colorado.

In 1862 Loren Jenks petitioned the U.S. Government for a Post Office at Jenks Ranch, 18 miles north of Pueblo, on the Cherokee Trail. His request was approved, but the Post Office was built 14 miles north of Pueblo and named Wood Valley. According to the Postal Service, that's what the area had been known as previously.

From 1862-64, Loren Jenks was Postmaster at the Wood Valley Post Office. Loren, his wife Elizabeth, and brother Judson Jenks were among Pueblo and El Paso counties' first residents. The Jenks family were storied figures, but their tales - and Wood Valley's importance to Colorado history - have never been written of before.

Beyond a few mentions in local newspapers, my search for more information about Wood Valley seemed fruitless until I found an old Pueblo Chieftain newspaper article about a local geologist and researcher named Nancy Prince. Prince had been discussing efforts to preserve Wood Valley's history years earlier.

Nancy's great-great-grandfather, Joseph Benesch, was one of Wood Valley's first legal property owners.

In 1864, major floods were reported all along the Colorado Front Range. When a wall of water - said to be 18 feet high - came thundering down Fountain Creek, it uprooted every ranch and squatter encampment in its path. That's when the Jenks family, and many others, left the South Fountain Valley for good.

In 1865 Joseph Benesch came to the Fountain Valley in search of land to homestead. As Loren Jenks had done years earlier, Joseph found that special place and planted his family's roots there. Benesch's 160-acre Wood Valley homestead was at the southern end of the Cottonwood grove Julia Holmes and The Lawrence Party had called Independence Camp.

BUTTES JUNCTION

Before modern roads were built between Fountain and Pueblo on the west side of Fountain Creek, the primary road through the South Fountain Valley was on the east. The Old Trail along Fountain Creek is one of the oldest footpaths in North America, and it's been known by many names.

Using old maps and surveys, I set out to find the exact route The Old Trail took through Southern Colorado. At first I didn't believe what I was seeing; then the facts became undeniable. The junction of Old Pueblo and Hanover Roads (the Hanover "Y") is one of the most historically significant forgotten places in Southern Colorado.

Before modern times, almost everyone who traveled through this part of the state - whether by foot, wagon, horse or stagecoach - passed through that ancient trail junction. Since the 1800s, U.S. Government maps have referred to that area as The Buttes. So I call that crossroad Buttes Junction.

The first humans to visit North America followed ancient game-trails southward along the Continental Divide. When they reached Fountain Creek the trail veered southeast. A few miles down the road there's a narrow pass - with Fountain Creek meandering to the west and the Little Buttes rising to the east. At the south end of that pass sits Buttes Junction.

Thousands of years before white men arrived in Colorado, ancient trails met at that spot.

THE CHEROKEE TRAIL

In the late 1820s, gold was discovered in the state of Georgia. Over the next 20 years most of the Indians who lived there were forcibly removed and sent to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. In 1849 a company of those Oklahoma Cherokee set off for the California gold fields, determined to find a shortcut by going through Colorado.

The ad-hoc road those Cherokee constructed along the Colorado Front Range was the first to connect the main Southern and Northern emigrant routes, giving travelers an alternate path to California. The trails they pioneered in 1849 and 1850 - from Oklahoma through Colorado and then on to California - are collectively known as the Cherokee Trail.

The story of Fountain Colorado's history begins with those Oklahoma Cherokee, and their unrelenting quest for California gold.

Between Fountain and Pueblo the bulk of the original Cherokee Trail followed Overton, Hanover and Old Pueblo Roads. Fountain, Colorado's first inhabitants stopped at a place on the Cherokee Trail where well-traveled footpaths converged. To the trained eye, just like Independence Junction and Buttes Junction to the south, it was an ideal location for engaging in commerce with the passing emigrants. I call that crossroad Fountain Junction.

To help you visualize what the ancient trail network looked like in this area, I plotted trails from the oldest General Land Office surveys onto a modern map. As you can see, the Cherokee Trail went right through downtown Fountain!

Most of America's historic emigrant routes are marked in some way. Municipalities and businesses have used emigrant trail history to promote tourism and commerce for a long time. But the Cherokee Trail's route wasn't fully understood until 1999, when the iconic Cherokee Trail Diaries books were published.

It's been 173 years since those Oklahoma Cherokee blazed that historic trail to Fountain. If future generations are going to remember it, the Cherokee Trail between Fountain and Pueblo should be commemorated in some way.

SUMMARY

In the 1800s Fountain Valley residents traveled on the Cherokee Trail through those ancient trail junctions all the time. And they enjoyed picnicking and horse-racing events at "The Old Campground" known as Wood Valley. The places I've written about in this article were all well-known back then, there was no mystery.

But since the advent of modern transportation - only a couple generations ago ­- the memory of these places has almost been lost to time. We should not allow that to happen. Do your part to keep Colorado's history alive!

Support your local Museum, Historical Society, Library and Newspaper.

The Cherokee Trail went right through downtown Fountain, Colorado.

....

Editor's note: This article is supplemental to our ongoing series of excerpts from the new book "The Lost Gold Rush Journals" by Larry Obermesik of Hanover. The book is a first-hand account of 1800s traveler and prospector Daniel Jenks and covers his experiences - in his own words, transcribed from his journals - of the California Gold Rush and then his arrival in Colorado south of Fountain. Obermesik's story was featured in our Dec. 1, 2021, issue. Obermesik is a member of the Fountain Valley Historical Society.

Learn more online at: http://www.thelostgoldrushjournals.com.

Attend the Museum's open house Saturday, Aug. 6, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., with free hot dogs at noon, at 114 N. Main St., Fountain.

 

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