Otero County is located in southeastern Colorado and covers 1,270 square miles of rolling plains and the fertile Arkansas River valley. It is bordered by Pueblo County to the west, Crowley and Kiowa Counties to the north, Bent County to the east, and Las Animas County to the south and southwest.
The county is named for Miguel Otero, the nineteenth-century New Mexican politician who helped found the county seat of La Junta. The La Junta and Rocky Ford areas are known for producing high-quality cantaloupe and watermelons. Areas of natural and historic significance include the Comanche Natural Grasslands, the Purgatoire River dinosaur track site, the Koshare Indian Museum at Otero Junior College, and the Bent’s Fort National Historic Site. Although La Junta experienced a revival of business interest during the 1990s, farming and ranching remain the main pillars of the Otero County economy, which currently supports a population of 18,831.
Rumors of Spanish Exploration
Although it is commonly asserted that Spanish explorers first visited Colorado’s stretch of the Arkansas River in the mid-sixteenth century, there is no conclusive evidence that either the expedition of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541 or of Francisco Leyva de Bonilla in 1593 made it to present-day Colorado. An attack by Native Americans, possibly Plains Apache, killed all but one of the Bonilla party. This attack was subsequently thought to have occurred on the Purgatoire River, which flows through Otero County and southeastern Colorado. In some accounts, the river’s name refers to the unblessed Catholic souls who were allegedly sent to purgatory along its banks ; yet it may refer to the lost souls of men who never reached it, as the location of the Bonilla expedition’s demise remains uncertain.
By the 1720s, the Comanche had driven the sedentary Plains Apache from the Arkansas River valley. At this time, the area of Otero County was in the heart of an expanding Comanche territory that ran north and south between the Arkansas and Cimarron Rivers, and stretched from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the west to what is today south-central Kansas in the east. The Comanche built their empire on the backs of massive horse herds, trading the animals for food and weapons, and using them to raid Spanish and Native American settlements throughout the Great Plains and Southwest. They occasionally clashed with the Arapaho, who roamed the plains north of the Arkansas. In the 1740s, the Comanches formed an alliance with the Taovaya Wichita on the eastern edge of their territory, and in 1790 they made peace with the Kiowa, their rivals on the eastern Colorado plains.
Meanwhile, the Cheyenne were pushed southward over the Colorado plains by the powerful Lakota farther north. By 1820 the Cheyenne also claimed territory north of the Arkansas that included present-day Otero County. The Cheyenne acted as middlemen for the Comanche horse traders for about a decade, until they were again pressed from the north by the Lakota. With their resource base seriously threatened, the Cheyenne and Arapaho decided to invade Comanche territory along the Arkansas. There they vied with the Comanche for access to stands of cottonwood trees along the river, which offered essential shelter, fuel, and forage during the plains’ harsh winters.
Trade Development and Bent’s Fort
During the eighteenth century, French, Spanish, and Native American traders frequented what became known as the Santa Fé Trail in southeastern Colorado. The trail, which connected Missouri and New Mexico, followed the Arkansas and Purgatoire Rivers in present-day Otero County. In the early nineteenth century, the trail cut across the Comanche heartland. Jealously patrolled by the Spanish, it was opened to American traders after Mexican Independence in 1821.
In 1830, following the advice of a young Cheyenne leader, the American traders Ceran St. Vrain and William and Charles Bent relocated their trading post on the Arkansas River to a large adobe fort further downstream, just east of present-day La Junta. Completed in 1833, Bent’s Fort became the trading center of the plains and the most prominent post along the Santa Fé Trail. Wares were brought from and distributed to all parts of the continent; items traded included Navajo blankets, Iroquois beads, New Mexican corn, Cheyenne buffalo robes, Louisianan molasses, gunpowder, rifles, flour, iron tools, and cookware from across the United States. Throughout the 1830s, the fort represented a threat to the Comanche; the Cheyenne were the Bents’ primary trading partners, and it was through trade at the fort that they obtained weapons to fight the Comanche.
The war exacted heavy casualties among both the Comanche and Cheyenne before peace was brokered in 1839. Over the next year, the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, and Naishan formed an unprecedented alliance of Plains Indians. The agreement granted all Native American groups the right to winter in the cottonwoods along the Arkansas, and allowed the Comanche to begin trading directly at Bent’s Fort. In 1841 alone, as many as 1,500 Comanches visited the fort. They sent horses and mules to American farmers in the Midwest in exchange for weapons and ammunition that helped them carry out raids farther south.
Decline of Trade at Bent’s Fort
The lucrative trade centered at Bent’s Fort did not last long. The Comanches killed large numbers of bison to keep up their massive raid-and-trade empire, and by the late 1840s, overhunting and a period of extreme drought combined to decimate the bison population. Bison had not only fed the Native American groups trading at Bent’s Fort but also were the source of robes and other commodities; the sudden shortage scattered the Plains Indians in different directions as they searched for better sources of food and supplies. Also by this time, American pioneers began using the Arkansas as a westward corridor; their wagon trains trampled grazing grass and consumed precious timber supplies as fuel wood. A cholera epidemic in 1849 ravaged all the Plains Indian groups and doomed any hope of continued trade at Bent’s Fort.
Distraught over the trading post’s failure, William Bent stocked powder barrels against its adobe walls and blew it up. He built another trading post further downriver in 1853, but the escalating tensions between whites and Native Americans ensured that his trade business would never recover. He leased the new fort to the army, which renamed it Fort Lyon in 1862. Bent continued to trade with Native Americans, even serving as Indian Agent for the upper Arkansas tribes in 1859, but the warfare following the Sand Creek Massacre (1864) finally isolated him from the Indian groups with whom he had spent most of his life. In 1869, he died of pneumonia on his Las Animas ranch.
White Settlement and County Establishment
American cattle and sheep raisers established ranches in the Otero County area in the 1860s. By the mid-1870s, a combination of resource woes and immense pressure from the American military brought an end to Comanche dominance of the Otero County area. In 1875, Miguel Otero, then a merchant following the railroads westward, moved his company buildings to the new terminus of the Kansas Pacific Railroad—a spot along the Arkansas called La Junta, Spanish for “junction.” Otero’s small community had barely existed for a year before it nearly became a ghost town and the Kansas Pacific went bankrupt. But in 1876 the Santa Fe Railroad made La Junta a stop on its Chicago–Los Angeles line, and the town was saved. La Junta was incorporated in 1881.
In 1871, George Washington Swink and Asa Russell were traveling with a westbound wagon train when they decided to set up a general store near a shallow, stony crossing of the Arkansas that Kit Carson had earlier named “Rocky Ford.” Three years later, the Rocky Ford Ditch was completed, and in 1877 Swink planted the community’s first melon crop. The Arkansas River valley is subject to wide daily temperature swings during the growing season, which encourages cantaloupes and watermelons to sweeten considerably before harvest. Swink started the Watermelon Day tradition in 1878 when he shared some of his crop with riders of a passing train, and by 1881 he was growing nearly 300 tons of watermelons per year. Rocky Ford was incorporated in 1887, and Swink was elected the town’s first mayor.
The state legislature created Otero County in 1889, designating La Junta as the county seat. In addition to Rocky Ford’s famous melons, the farms in the county produced beans and alfalfa and, of course, raised plenty of cattle and sheep.
Otero Junior College and Koshare Indian Museum
In 1933 Colorado Springs scoutmaster “Buck” Burshears established the Koshare Indian Dancers with a group of Boy Scouts interested in Native American culture and accurate replications of native dances. Otero Junior College, Otero County’s only institute of higher education, was founded in 1941, and in 1949 the college became the site of the Koshare Indian Museum. Using extra funds from the Koshare program, dancers and supporters constructed an authentic replica of a kiva, a one-room ceremonial structure built by many Puebloan cultures in the Southwest. The kiva serves as a performance area for the Koshare dancers, while the attached three-level museum houses a large and distinguished collection of Native American art and other artifacts.
Comanche National Grassland
Like many of Colorado’s plains counties, Otero County was hit hard by the Dust Bowl (1934–40) and the Great Depression (1929–39) that accompanied it. The Dust Bowl prompted Congress to take action to preserve the ecology and economic viability of the Great Plains. In 1935 Public Law 46 made soil and water conservation a national policy. The federal government also bought 440,000 acres of cultivated land in southeastern Colorado, much of it in southern Otero County, and returned it to native grassland. In 1960 this land was designated as the Comanche National Grassland. It is managed by the US Forest Service, which maintains an office in Springfield, Colorado.
Dinosaur Tracks and Fossils in Picket Wire Canyon
After staging tank drills in the area for twenty years, the US Department of Defense gave Picket Wire Canyon to the Comanche National Grassland in 1991. The canyon—named for the Anglo mispronunciation of the Purgatoire, the river that cuts through it—has since been the site of numerous paleontological discoveries, including some 1,300 tracks left by packs of leaf-eating sauropods and solitary carnivorous dinosaurs nearly 150 million years ago.
Other notable discoveries in Picket Wire Canyon occurred in 2001–2, when volunteers and paleontologists unearthed major portions of a huge sauropod skeleton, and in 2013, when a team of Boy Scouts, volunteers, and Forest Service paleontologists found forty-five additional sauropod tracks along a portion of the riverbed that was previously covered with sediment.
In 2011 listeria bacteria on tainted cantaloupes killed 33 people and sickened another 147 throughout the United States. Some of the contaminated fruit was found to have come from Jensen Farms, some ninety miles east of Rocky Ford. At the time of the outbreak, the label “Rocky Ford Cantaloupe” was not trademarked, and melon farmers from the surrounding area, including Jensen Farms, sold their fruit with the same label. An investigation by the US Food and Drug Administration determined that Jensen Farms did not properly clean the fruit before sending it to market.
Following the outbreak, sales of actual Rocky Ford melons plummeted. To repair their fruits’ reputation, melon growers in Rocky Ford formed the Rocky Ford Growers Association, trademarked their melons, hired a public relations firm, and provided healthy preparation tips to consumers.
In 2012 Rocky Ford growers planted only 20 percent of their normal crop, but they sold every last melon. Thanks to the superior quality of Rocky Ford fruit and the growers’ association’s post-outbreak PR efforts, sales of Rocky Ford melons are on their way to reaching pre-outbreak levels.