Louis Vasquez (1798–1868) was a fur trapper and mountain man active in Colorado during the 1820s and 1830s. He reportedly constructed Fort Convenience and a hunter’s cabin that predated the majority of settlement in the region. One of the Colorado fur trade’s more successful trappers, Vasquez is also known for operating Fort Vasquez, a trading post on the South Platte River, established in1835.
Pierre Louis Vasquez was born in St. Louis in 1798, the son of a Spanish father, Benito, and a French-Canadian mother, Julie Papin. Louis was the youngest of twelve children, and his father died when he was twelve, leaving his oldest brother, Benito, Jr., as the head of the family. All of Vasquez’s surviving letters were written in French, the family language. In 1822, at age twenty-four, he answered an advertisement placed by William Ashley in a St. Louis newspaper seeking young adventurers for the western fur trade. Vasquez and others were to become the mountain men of the West, hunting, trapping, and trading throughout the northern Rocky Mountains, including what was to become Colorado. Although not as famous today as some of his contemporaries, such as his occasional partner Jim Bridger, Vasquez was highly regarded in his day.
In a letter datelined “Hams Fork July 9th 1834 United States Territory,” Vasquez wrote to his brother Benito, informing him that he was staying in the mountains to trap beaver rather than returning to St. Louis. Vasquez was taking a break from the frenetic activities of the annual rendezvous of mountain men, traders, and Indians along the Green River, in present-day southwestern Wyoming. Vasquez and his men had been there since mid-June. On the nineteenth, William Sublette and Jim Fitzpatrick, Vasquez’s colleagues in the American Fur Company, had moved their camps from the Green River to Hams Fork, a nearby tributary, seeking better pastures. Presumably Vasquez joined them in the move.
His letter was unusually newsy. He had traded with the Crows in the previous fall and spring and had lost two men in a battle with the Blackfeet. In a postscript he asked Benito to send him some novels. On the next day, July 10, journalist William Marshall Anderson recorded that Vasquez departed with ten men, “their objective probably the Laramie Mountains.” Vasquez was approaching his thirty-sixth birthday at the time, but already he was a grizzled veteran trapper, commonly referred to as “Old Vaskiss.”
Vasquez’s first known foray into present-day Colorado was in the 1830s. There is no evidence of his being in the state before 1834, although there are gaps in the record. He was still operating in Wyoming in 1833 and through the summer of 1834, so it is unlikely he was in Colorado before that, at least not for any substantial amount of time. After Vasquez and his band of trappers departed Hams Fork in 1834, his next point-of-contact was on December 30, 1834, when he wrote another letter to Benito and datelined it “Fort Convenience.” Unlike the July letter, this one gives no indication of his specific whereabouts, nor any description of “Fort Convenience.” The mystery lies in the fact that Vasquez never mentions the fort again, no other contemporary accounts of it exist by name, and no firsthand descriptions of its remains are known. Yet in later decades, published accounts confidently described the location, year of construction, and physical appearance of a “temporary fort” that some claim was Fort Convenience.
Throughout the decades, historians and other writers have repeated the story of the temporary trading post or fort, sometimes called Fort Convenience. The stated dates of construction range from 1832 to 1836. The structure is variously described as a cabin, log cabin, “little more than a single adobe building,” and a “temporary post.” Commonly, this post was confused with Fort Vasquez. Of course, it is quite possible that Vasquez was simply being whimsical when he gave “Fort Convenience” as his return address in December 1834, even though this quirk is somewhat out of character—Vasquez does not reveal a keen sense of humor in his letters and, although fun-loving, he was not known as a prankster.
Another of Vasquez’s marks on Colorado’s pre-territorial history comes through the story of a hunter’s cabin. As the story goes, the first gold prospectors working their way up Clear Creek Canyon in 1859 came across the remains of a hunter’s cabin near the confluence of the west Fork of Clear Creek and the main stem (sometimes known then as the South Fork). Today the area is known as Empire Junction, at the foot of Douglas Mountain near the town of Empire. Since that time, the “hunter’s cabin” has become linked with Louis Vasquez. According to most descriptions, the structure was a log cabin surrounded by a fence made of antlers, with piles of animal bones nearby.
The story of the cabin parallels the stories about Fort Convenience in that Vasquez reportedly built the structure but there are no contemporary accounts of it. Vasquez and his colleagues never mentioned it, and no documentation of such a cabin exists from the pre-mining era, either by early explorers of the Clear Creek basin or by the prospectors themselves. In both cases historical accounts refer to “evidence” or “records” without any supporting documentation. Accounts of the cabin appear primarily in newspaper articles and unpublished personal notes. In addition, the alleged site of the cabin has been altered considerably since the 1830s, with the construction of the Colorado Central Railroad in 1877 and the relocation of US Highway 6 in the 1930s. For these reasons, historians have given the hunter’s cabin little attention, but modern accounts exist by people who claim to have seen the cabin ruins. Thus, there remains at least a small chance to locate the cabin’s site and confirm its existence.
In July 1835 Vasquez returned to St. Louis, where he got his trading license from William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs. That fall he returned to the South Platte River with his new partner, Andrew Sublette, and his nephew Pike, who was making his first trip to the mountains. The best known of Vasquez’s Colorado connections is his co-proprietorship of Fort Vasquez with Sublette from about 1835 to 1841. The fort stood on the east bank of the South Platte River, near present-day Platteville north of Denver. Fort Vasquez was one of four prominent trading posts that sprang up along the South Platte in the 1830s, along with Fort St. Vrain, Fort Jackson, and Fort Lupton. When Vasquez’s enterprise failed, he joined with Jim Bridger to build and operate Fort Bridger in southwestern Wyoming in 1843. It was the first fort in the trans-Mississippi West built expressly to trade with immigrants rather than for the fur trade. Thus, its operation essentially marked the end of the fur trade in the West. Vasquez sold his share of Fort Bridger to the Mormons in the mid-1850s and left the mountains for retirement in Missouri, probably in 1855. By 1859 he was living in Westport, now a part of Kansas City. He died on September 7, 1868, at age seventy, and lies buried in Kansas City.
Adapted from William A. Wilson, “Louis Vasquez in Colorado and the Uncertain Histories of Fort Convenience and a Hunter’s Cabin,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 23, no.1 (2003).