Rabbitbrush Rambler: Sangre de Cristo Pass

After writing about Robidoux/Mosca Pass last week, I’ll move south today to Sangre de Cristo Pass on the eastern flank of the Blanca Peak massif. This historic passageway through the Sangre de Cristos, situated on the boundary between Costilla and Huerfano Counties, does not appear on highway maps, but it once had importance.  

Just before a traveler on U.S. 160 reaches La Veta Pass, heading east, look up to the left. The approach road to Sangre de Cristo Pass climbs quickly to and from the top, and to the right its trace swings down to meet the old road to LaVeta Pass. Sangre de Cristo Pass is on private land, so no trespassing, please.      

The route to Sangre de Cristo Pass from the east came up the Huerfano River from the landmark called Huerfano (“Orphan”) Butte, to Oak Creek, over Sangre de Cristo Pass, and thence down Sangre de Cristo Creek. This well-known route connected pueblos and settlements in northern New Mexico with the Indian country on the plain. It was frequented by indigenous tribes, Spanish travelers, and trappers and traders.

Nearly 200 years ago, when laws, orders, and news still had to come from Spain to Mexico City and finally to Santa Fe, some people in today’s New Mexico might have heard that the kings in Europe who spoke English and French had lost their power in America and that the one in Spain had nearly lost his too in 1810. Now Spanish soldiers in 1819 were on their way to the top of Sangre de Cristo Pass to watch for American and French Canadian intruders who were a threat to the one in Seville.

Spanish troops probably had been on this pass before, looking for Indians who were continually fighting each other or were on their way to or from raiding scattered pueblos and rancheros, but on this day the soldiers were gathering stones to create a small, triangular-shaped outpost with a good view of troublemakers who might be heading toward the San Luis Valley and New Mexico. Between hostile Indians on the plains and the ambitions of people in Washington, St. Louis, Kentucky, and Texas, there were potential intruders aplenty to be watching for in 1819.

I don’t know whether the solders in this remote little post on the pass ever actually espied anyone while it lasted. Time ran out. By 1821 Mexico was independent, Spanish soldiers had left, and fur trappers and frontiersmen were on their way into the new Republic of Mexico.

During the fur trade, trappers and traders usually called this route between Taos and the plains the Taos Trail, or sometimes the Trapper’s Trail or Sangre de Cristo Trail. Until reaching Sangre de Cristo Creek north of Taos, the Taos Trail was the same as what has been designated as the North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail. Taos Trail went east over Sangre de Cristo Pass to the plains and the Arkansas River area, while OST continues north and then west. Crossing the steep Sangre de Cristo Pass with wagons became challenging, to say the least.

With the fur trade, American trading posts quickly appeared, and so did alcoholic beverages. Taos Lightning, flowing from Simeon Turley’s thriving mill and distillery on Rio Hondo, journeyed up the Taos Trail to El Pueblo, up the Front Range in today’s Colorado, and other posts along the Arkansas – especially Bent’s Fort, plus those to the west like Robidoux’s. But the Taos Revolt in January of 1847 violently ended the lives of the distiller, the new American Governor Charles Bent and others.

The takeover of New Mexico by the U.S. Army brought major changes, two of which were settlement on land grants and a military post in the San Luis Valley. The period also attracted interest in locating railroad routes by Fremont and Beale-Gunnison, and then the Pikes Peak Gold Rush brought waves of prospectors, new enterprises, a new town called Denver, and a new territorial government. Routes of travel and modes of transportation changed rapidly after 1860, and with them Sangre de Cristo Pass.

The maps and pamphlet by Glenn R. Scott provide an outstanding source of information about all the historic trails in this area. (See Historic Trail Map, Trinidad 1x2 Quad, Southern Colorado, USGS, 2001, which can be found on the internet.)