Established in 1842, El Pueblo (301 N Union Ave, Pueblo, CO 81003) was an independent adobe trading post that operated at the site of the present-day city of Pueblo and was used by a diverse, multi-ethnic group of trappers, traders, women, and mountain men. Largely abandoned after an 1854 attack by Utes, the post gradually disappeared over the next three decades as the city was built over its ruins. In the 1980s, anthropology professor William G. Buckles and students at the University of Southern Colorado (now Colorado State University–Pueblo) discovered the site, which is now home to History Colorado’s El Pueblo History Museum.
Trading on the Arkansas River
El Pueblo grew out of shifts that occurred in the Western fur trade in the 1830s and 1840s, as established trading posts put an end to the old fur-trading practice of the annual rendezvous. In 1833 Bent, St. Vrain, & Co. built Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River east of what is now La Junta. It became an important trading post on the Santa Fé Trail between Missouri and New Mexico. Traders working at the fort acquired buffalo hides from nearby bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho and sold the hides in St. Louis.
In 1841–42, Bent, St. Vrain, & Co. failed to deliver a shipment of hides, creating a shortage in eastern markets. George Simpson, a trader who worked at Bent’s Fort, saw that the shortage created an opportunity for him to establish a new trading post independent of a large company like Bent, St. Vrain, & Co. Other traders who joined him at the new post probably included Francisco Conn, Mathew Kinkead, and Joseph Mantz as well as the Bent employees Joseph Doyle, Robert Fisher, and Alexander Barclay.
Building an Independent Trading Post
In the summer of 1842, the group decided to build its independent post where the Arkansas River was joined by Fountain Creek, a spot about seventy miles upriver from Bent’s Fort. At the time, the Arkansas River was the border between the United States and Mexico, and the post’s location would make it the closest US settlement to Taos. The location offered several additional advantages as a trading center. Trading routes such as the Cherokee Trail and the Taos (or Trappers) Trail ran along the nearby rivers, providing easy access to multiple markets and trading partners, and Native American groups often passed through the area to use a well-known crossing of the Arkansas. In addition, the valley where Fountain Creek joined the Arkansas was at a relatively low elevation with a temperate climate, and the rivers promised plenty of water for agriculture.
From about May to September 1842, Hispano laborers built the trading post on the north bank of the Arkansas River west of Fountain Creek. The exact shape, size, and appearance of the post are unknown, but surviving accounts indicate that it was probably an adobe plaza similar in appearance to a New Mexico country house, with a series of rooms arranged in a rough square around a central courtyard. The rooms opened onto the interior plaza and had no entries on the outside, making the structure easier to defend. There was probably a large gate that allowed access to the central plaza from the side that faced the Arkansas River.
Life at El Pueblo
Called El Pueblo (Spanish for “town” or “people”), the post was distinctive in that it was neither a military fort nor owned by a trading company. Instead, it was an independent post that served as a base of operations for a diverse group of traders with Hispanic, French, Anglo, and Native American roots. It is unclear how many people lived at El Pueblo at any one time, but it could hold up to 100 residents. Noted traders, trappers, and mountain men such as Kit Carson, Richens Lacy Wootton, and James Beckwourth stayed there at times while the post was active. Hispano women like Teresita Sandoval provided the essential infrastructure for the day-to-day operations of El Pueblo. Each trader who stayed there had a few rooms for himself and his family and used the central plaza as a common trading area, with goods laid out on blankets on the ground.
El Pueblo became a center for farming and ranching enterprises that developed in the area, many of them started by people who had first operated as traders at the post. They sold their produce at El Pueblo and marketed their livestock to wagon trains along the emigrant and trading trails. In 1846–47, a colony of several hundred Mormons camped near El Pueblo during the migration that eventually led them to Salt Lake City. At El Pueblo they acquired livestock and learned about irrigation and other techniques for farming in the arid West.
The End of El Pueblo
In the late 1840s, El Pueblo’s resident traders began to decline. The Mexican-American War suppressed trade between the United States and Mexico. When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in 1848, it also transformed the trade dynamics of the region by increasing US territory in the Southwest, which now included El Pueblo. Meanwhile, the discovery of gold in California attracted fortune-seekers from across the continent. As a result of these changes, the population of El Pueblo dwindled, supplemented only by occasional wagon trains of migrants or traders passing through the area.
After the Mexican-American War, an influx of European Americans moving to and through the plains and Rocky Mountains began to place new pressures on Native Americans in the region. Hispanos from New Mexico started to establish permanent settlements in the San Luis Valley and the Arkansas River Valley, while settlers from the East streamed across a network of migration trails. In 1854, Utes upset by broken treaties and poorly conducted negotiations began to skirmish with settlers in what is now southern Colorado. On Christmas Eve, 1854, the Ute chief Tierra Blanca led about fifty warriors in an attack on El Pueblo. Only about fifteen or twenty people were there at the time, and most of them were killed.
After the attack, El Pueblo was abandoned. Over the next several years it was occasionally used by travelers and others in the area as a temporary shelter, but it never had any long-term occupants. As the adobe walls crumbled, a small town called Fountain City took shape on the opposite side of Fountain Creek during the gold rush of 1858–59. By 1860, a rival settlement was established on the west side of Fountain Creek near the abandoned El Pueblo. Settlers used some of El Pueblo’s adobe bricks to build their own structures and adopted the name of Pueblo for their town.
Pueblo soon overtook Fountain City and became the dominant social and economic center along the Arkansas River. The city succeeded for many of the same reasons that El Pueblo was originally established there, and it proved so successful that by the 1880s El Pueblo had disappeared under new development.
Rediscovering El Pueblo
In 1959 the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado) opened the El Pueblo History Museum, which included a full-scale replica of El Pueblo, in an old airplane hangar near the city’s Municipal Airport. At the time, the exact location of the original El Pueblo had been a subject of debate for decades. The question was complicated by the movements of the Arkansas River, whose course through downtown Pueblo had shifted about one-quarter mile south since the mid-1800s.
In the 1980s, students at the University of Southern Colorado started a project to determine the site of El Pueblo. An 1873 photo showing the remains of the adobe trading post helped them settle on a possible location under the Fariss Hotel, which was built in the early 1880s on Union Avenue south of First Street. In 1989 University of Southern Colorado anthropology professor William G. Buckles initiated a survey of the Fariss Hotel’s basement. The work yielded promising evidence, so in 1991 the city tore down the Fariss Hotel to allow for more extensive archaeological excavations. Buckles and his team discovered signs of the El Pueblo structure, as well as hundreds of related artifacts such as trade goods, rifle balls, and stone tools.
The excavation helped spark a revival of downtown Pueblo. The city and the Colorado Historical Society worked on a plan to bring the El Pueblo History Museum closer to the rediscovered El Pueblo site, and in 1992 the museum moved to a building on the same block. In 1996 the rediscovered El Pueblo site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
At the same time, Pueblo was developing the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk for its downtown area and included a new El Pueblo museum complex in the master plan. With the help of a gift from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the museum complex went forward and was completed in 2003. The complex occupies the block where El Pueblo was discovered and includes the El Pueblo History Museum, the William G. Buckles Archaeology Pavilion at the excavation site, and a reconstruction that resembles the original trading post.