200 years on the Santa Fe Trail: Non-profits plan multi-day celebration of historic landmarks

Heather Willard
LA Junta Tribune
The Santa Fe Trail Bicentennial will be marked with living history exhibits, bus trail tours and speakers at Otero Junior College

Miles of history are located within the grasp of Southeast Colorado residents, and it's caretakers are starting to drum up interest for a September symposium celebrating 200 years since the creation of the trails. 

The Santa Fe Trail Bicentennial will be marked with living history exhibits, bus trail tours and speakers at Otero Junior College that will celebrate the trails' impacts on the past, present and future. 

In preparation, Canyons and Plains, a non-profit organization that oversees the trails, has been releasing short articles regarding aspects of the trails, which cover areas of seven Southeast Colorado counties. 

The articles have appeared on the non-profit's Facebook page, and illustrate aspects of life during the trail's advent as well as stories of settlers or Native Americans who were important figures at the time.

Rick Wallner, president of Canyons and Plains, said the regional heritage group is hoping to use the symposium to bolster heritage tourism in and around La Junta.

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He noted that on odd-number years, the National Historic Parks Association hosts symposiums, and that this year's 200 year symposium is expected to be special due to the anniversary.

The symposiums are held anywhere along the trail, and La Junta lucked into hosting.

"We want to make it the year of the trail," Wallner said. "It's a great time to come visit Southeast Colorado, and walk in the ruts of the past."

The Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail scenic byway extends 180 miles, ranging east of Holly to south of Trinidad, and is recognized as a National Historic Trail, as well as a State of Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway. Canyons and Plains manages the byway.

The trail symposium is scheduled for Sept. 23-26, 2021, and is also supported by the National Park Service. Registration is required for anyone hoping to join the bus tours or the presentations at Otero Junior College through the Santa Fe Trail Association. 

Most recently, Canyons and Plains of Southeast Colorado has posted regarding the lucrative nature of trading along the Santa Fe Trail.

Items of interest from the east, such as cloth, canned goods, tools and ammunition, moved westward along the trail, while goods produced in the West moved east to provide those settlers with pelts, hides, Native American blankets and jewelry, as well as mules and horses.

In 1825, Canyons and Plains stated the trail facilitated $65,000 worth of goods trading between Mexico and the United States. That number rose drastically in just a few decades, and by 1862 the trail was facilitating about $40 million worth of trades and business each year.

The group noted that in today's currency that would equal around $1 billion worth of business.

The Bicentennial celebration is aimed at educating those who attend about the crucial piece the trail played in the American experience and this country's history.

To this end, living history reenactors are sought to illustrate what life was like at Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site in 1843.

Three bus tours are planned during the symposium.

The first is set to cover areas of Otero and Las Animas counties. Planned topics for the tour range from the importance of the trail's water sources and how that helped establish ranches; aspects of stage coaches and how the trail helped with military efforts in addition to the development of helium; and information on how the Santa Fe Railroad was important to the region.

The second tour is set to cover areas of Bent and Otero counties, and will focus on the towns, homes and land where early settlers first made settlements.

Tour organizers plan to focus on Fort Lyon II during the first stop, then Bents New Fort and Fort Wise/Fort Lyon I on the second. The third site will be Boggsville, with the day finishing out at Bents Old Fort. 

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The organizers plan to discuss how settlers lived in the area, and how the Santa Fe Trail fed commerce, trade and other aspects of life for these settlements.

In total, the second bus tour is expected to last about 9 hours and will cover 148 miles of the trail. It is by far the longest of the three tours, with the first planned to last 5.5 hours and the third not following a set time schedule.

The third, final tour is themed on walking in the footsteps of the past, and will be focused on sites in Otero County. The tour will be focused on Iron Springs, as well as give visitors an idea of what life on the trail was like as the settlers reached Raton Pass and saw the road ahead clearly for the first time in miles.

Organizers hope the experience will give participants an idea of how barren the area was for early travelers.

Chieftain reporter Heather Willard can be reached via email at hwillard@gannett.com or on Twitter: @HeatherDWrites.