Pueblo County covers 2,398 square miles in southeast Colorado, from the southern Front Range and Wet Mountains in the west to the Arkansas River valley and Great Plains in the east. It is bordered by El Paso County to the north, Crowley and Otero Counties to the east, Las Animas and Huerfano Counties to the south, and Custer and Fremont Counties to the west.
Pueblo County has a population of 163,591. More than 106,000 people live in the county seat of Pueblo—Spanish for “town” or “village”—at the confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River. Interstate 25 bisects the county, running through Pueblo and Colorado City (pop. 2,193), and US Route 50 connects the farming communities of Vineland (pop. 251), Avondale (674), and Boone (339) on the Arkansas River east of Pueblo. To the southwest, at the foot of the Wet Mountains, is the community of Beulah Valley (556), and to the south lies the small town of Rye (202).
The Pueblo County area was a Spanish possession from the sixteenth century until Mexican independence in 1821; it became one of the original seventeen counties of the Colorado Territory in 1861. The city of Pueblo developed on the site of trading posts established in the 1830s and ’40s, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it became the industrial center of the American West.
Pueblo County’s earliest inhabitants included Paleo-Indian and Archaic peoples, as well as members of the Apishapa culture, which dates from 1050 to 1450. By about 1500 the Pueblo County area was home to the Nuche or Ute people, hunter-gatherers who followed game into the high country during the summer and wintered in warmer pockets along the Front Range, such as the site of present-day Pueblo. By the mid-seventeenth century the Utes had obtained horses from the Spanish, allowing them to hunt bison on the plains. The primary Ute bands that occupied the Pueblo County area were the Tabeguache—the people of “Tava,” or Sun Mountain (Pikes Peak)—and the Muache, the “cedar bark people.” To the east, along the Arkansas River, were villages of Jicarilla Apache, a semi-sedentary people who hunted bison and farmed corn, beans, squash, and other vegetables along the river and its tributaries.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the horse-mounted Comanche had driven through Colorado on their way to claiming the Arkansas River valley, which pressed up against the northern boundary of New Spain. The Utes and Comanche formed an alliance, raiding and trading in what is now southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. In 1779, somewhere between the present-day sites of Pueblo and Colorado City, Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish Governor of New Mexico, drove his troops into the Comanche heartland and killed the powerful Comanche leader Cuerno Verde (Greenhorn). Greenhorn Mountain, at the southwest corner of Pueblo County, is named for the fallen chief. Despite this loss, Native Americans continued to battle the Spanish as they encroached on indigenous land. The Comanche continued their march south, eventually claiming a huge swath of land in southeast Colorado, western Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.
By the early nineteenth century, the Arapaho, another horse-mounted people who migrated from the Upper Midwest, laid claim to the present-day site of Pueblo and other lands along the foothills in what is now Pueblo County. They developed a fierce rivalry with the Nuche. Later, the Cheyenne arrived on the Colorado plains and frequented the Pueblo County area.
Trade and Early Settlement
In 1806–7 Zebulon Pike led an American military expedition west to locate the headwaters of the Red and Arkansas Rivers. In November 1806 he reached the terminus of the Fountain River at the Arkansas, near present-day Pueblo. Before embarking on an unsuccessful climb of what is now known as Pikes Peak, Pike had his men build a log fortification just west of the confluence. About five feet tall on three sides, the breastwork was the first official American structure in what would become Colorado. The exact location of the breastwork remains unknown.
After winning independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico opened trade relations with the United States along the Santa Fé Trail. Threatened by the presence of the American trading post at Bent’s Fort farther down the Arkansas, the Mexican government issued several land grants between 1832 and 1843 to encourage Mexican settlement of what is now southern Colorado. Two of these grants, the Nolan Grant and Vigil and St. Vrain Grant, included all the land south of the Arkansas River in present-day Pueblo County. However, Native Americans—predominantly Utes—fought against Mexican attempts to occupy these lands.
In the 1830s and ‘40s, proximity to Bent’s Fort and Taos, New Mexico made the current site of Pueblo an attractive place for those involved in the Rocky Mountain fur trade. American trader and ex-military man John Gantt built Fort Cass on the site in 1833, pioneering the liquor trade in the Arkansas Valley. By 1841 Teresita Sandoval, a Mexican woman, was operating a bison farm in the area with Matthew Kinkead, an Anglo-American with whom she cohabitated until she married another Anglo man, Alexander Barclay, in 1844. In 1842 the American traders George Simpson and Robert Fisher established El Pueblo, a small trading camp dealing mostly in buffalo hides, at the present site of the city of Pueblo. The post got a boost that year when trader Charles Autobees introduced “Taos Lightning,” a popular kind of illegal liquor.
Like other small settlements on the Arkansas at the time, El Pueblo was a preview of modern Pueblo’s cultural and ethnic diversity. Many of its approximately four dozen original residents were American men married to Mexican women, but it also attracted Utes, Arapaho, and other Native Americans. Men constantly came and went, journeying to Taos or Bent’s Fort for supplies, trading, or to repair weapons and equipment. Several large ranches, some owned by Mexicans and others by Americans, developed around the small trading nexus, and a cornfield was planted.
American explorer John C. Frémont stopped at El Pueblo to resupply on expeditions to the Rocky Mountains in 1843 and 1845. He returned to the Pueblo County area on another expedition in 1848, purchasing supplies farther up the Arkansas at Hardscrabble before continuing on to the Wet Mountains and Sangre de Cristos.
South of El Pueblo, the Greenhorn settlement began in 1845 when El Pueblo co-founder John Brown set up a store near Greenhorn Creek. By January 1847 the settlement consisted of little more than a few Indian lodges and an adobe building. The 1849 California Gold Rush drew most of Greenhorn’s earliest inhabitants to the West Coast. Greenhorn was not resettled until 1870, after the establishment of the Colorado Territory and the removal of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute.
In 1848 the United States acquired the Pueblo County area via the Mexican Cession at the end of the Mexican-American War. By that time the fur trade had all but ceased and the settlements in the Pueblo County area fell silent; only a few residents remained at Pueblo by the summer of 1849, the year William Bent set fire to his fort farther down the Arkansas. After a brief period of resettlement in 1853, a Ute-Apache attack in 1854 killed most of the population at El Pueblo. After wiping out the inhabitants of the fort in December 1854 and making off with the settlement’s cattle and corn, a Ute party under the Muache leader Blanco was ambushed by Arapaho, reflecting the contested nature of the area.
In response to the killings at Pueblo, the United States launched a military campaign against the Utes and their Apache allies in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. The campaign pressured the Utes into peace negotiations, and in 1855 they agreed to a treaty. Congress, however, did not ratify the agreement, and hostilities between the United States and Native Americans in the Pueblo area continued.
Three years later, the Colorado Gold Rush brought thousands of white fortune-seekers across the plains to the Rockies. The confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River was once again an important crossroads—this time its important connection was not south to Taos but north, via Fountain Creek, to gold diggings at Cherry Creek. A travelers’ camp called Independence sprang up on the east side of Fountain Creek, and members of the Josiah Smith prospecting party renamed it “Fountain City” when they arrived in September 1858.
Pueblo County was established in 1861 as one of the original seventeen counties of the Colorado Territory. East of present-day Pueblo, Boone was first settled in the early 1860s, named for Colonel Albert G. Boone, owner of a local ranch and the caretaker of William Bent’s children at West Point. Boone was also known for negotiating treaties with various Indian tribes. It was also during the early 1860s that the Beulah Valley was settled by Anglo-American ranchers and farmers; at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the valley was used as a secret gathering place for Confederate Army recruits from Colorado.
After a period of violent encounters with whites during the gold rush and its aftermath, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were removed to Oklahoma via the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, and the Ute were removed to Colorado’s Western Slope via the Treaty of 1868.
In the wake of the destruction of the buffalo and removal of Native Americans, great cattle herds came to the Colorado plains during the 1870s. In 1869 rancher Charles Goodnight, who helped pioneer the Goodnight–Loving Trail from Texas, began grazing cattle in Pueblo County. He soon acquired a large piece of the Nolan Grant and established his ranch headquarters in Rock Canyon, west of present-day Pueblo.
Industrial Growth and County Development
The modern city of Pueblo took shape between 1872 and 1894 through the gradual merger of four separate towns: Pueblo, South Pueblo, Central Pueblo, and Bessemer. The town of Pueblo, at the site of the old trading post, was formally established in 1870. In 1872 visionary railroad builder William Jackson Palmer established the town of South Pueblo along his Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG).
Nearly every economic, cultural, and political development in Pueblo County after 1900 can be traced to one company—Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I). To provide a steady supply of rails for the D&RG, Palmer’s Colorado Coal & Iron Company (CC&I) built the nation’s first steel mill west of the Mississippi River in South Pueblo in 1881. Branch lines of the D&RG soon sprawled west from Pueblo into the mountains, reaching all the way up the Arkansas Valley to mineral-rich Leadville. Pueblo’s proximity to coal fields to the south, the markets of Colorado Springs and Denver to the north, and mines to the west quickly made it into a transportation hub. The Pueblo Smelting and Refining Company built the city’s first smelter in 1882, and by 1889 Pueblo had three smelters processing 400 railroad cars’ worth of gold, silver, and carbonate ore per day. By the turn of the century the city was the smelting capital of the world.
In 1892 CC&I merged with John C. Osgood’s Colorado Fuel Company to form Colorado Fuel & Iron. By the time the Rockefeller family took the reins of CF&I in 1904, Pueblo was well on its way to becoming the “Pittsburgh of the West.” While smoke-belching smelters converted ore from Colorado mines into thousands of ounces of gold and silver and thousands of tons of lead, the steel mill took in coal, iron ore, and limestone, pumping out rails, structural beams, nails, railroad spikes, iron castings, and other products. By 1909 CF&I’s property in Pueblo was valued at a remarkable $40 million, and the company employed some 5,000 workers.
CF&I operated as a regional monopoly, exercising extraordinary power over its workforce. As a result, labor strife, whether in the city or across the state and nation, frequently disrupted its Pueblo operations. For instance, in 1903–4 Pueblo’s smelter workers joined others in Denver, Durango, and Colorado City in a statewide strike, demanding shorter work days, safer working conditions, and better pay; strikes among CF&I’s coal miners elsewhere in Colorado interrupted operations again in 1913–14 and 1927.
Beyond labor strife, Pueblo endured its share of ups and downs in the twentieth century. The city’s industrial output increased in 1917–18 to meet World War I metal demands, and some 16,000 local men went off to fight. In 1921 a devastating flood put some sections of Pueblo a dozen feet underwater, inundated a smelter, wrecked 600 homes, and killed hundreds of people and scores of livestock. Some 3,000 refugees had to live in tent colonies in the aftermath, but three years later the city had recovered. The Depression of the 1930s brought a lull in industrial production, but demand for metals quickly skyrocketed at the onset of World War II. With most of the city’s male population in the military, women took over many positions in the steelworks, from clerical work to manufacturing, and helped push the complex to 104 percent operating capacity. In 1942 the US government built an ordnance facility in Pueblo to receive, store, and distribute ammunition. Overall, Pueblo County’s industrial production increased from $41 million worth of materials in 1940 to more than $72 million in 1954.
The steelworks remained busy throughout the rest of the twentieth century, although its status as the region’s most important economic engine declined with the rise of the retail trade and the collapse of the national steel industry in 1979. In 1983 the plant laid off 60 percent of its workforce, and CF&I went bankrupt in 1990. Today the scaled-down steelworks are operated by Evraz Corporation as the Rocky Mountain Steel Mills.
Pueblo’s industrial prowess in the twentieth century relied on the labor of immigrants from Canada, China, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Scandinavia, and Slovenia, as well as New Mexican and black workers from the United States. Among those who came from Eastern Europe were Jews fleeing the Russian pogroms of the 1880s and early twentieth century.
With so many countries and religions represented in the same city, Pueblo became a rich cultural mosaic in the early decades of the twentieth century. But relations between and even among Pueblo’s diverse communities were not always amicable. Pueblo’s Jewish population endured a schism in the 1890s, and the Ku Klux Klan organized against the city’s many Catholic residents during the 1920s. By 1923 the Klan counted nearly 1,000 local members, including Pueblo County Sheriff Samuel Thomas, who took fellow Klansmen with him on liquor raids.
In addition to providing water for residential and industrial developments, the Arkansas River also allowed Pueblo County to develop a strong agricultural economy, bolstered by demand from Pueblo, Denver, and other cities. Agricultural production exploded between 1910 and 1920, with crop acreage expanding from 630,114 acres to 993,226 acres and livestock value rising from $1.5 million to over $4.5 million. But such huge gains in production saturated the market with agricultural products, so the value of crops fell from $4.1 million in 1920 to $2.6 million by 1930. The value of agricultural products again dropped sharply during the Great Depression.
By 1950 ranching had surpassed farming in the county, with livestock valued at $5.2 million compared to just over $3 million for crops. In 1975 Pueblo County agriculture—as well as industry and municipal development—received a boost with the completion of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which dammed the Fryingpan River north of Aspen and sent its water over the Continental Divide to Pueblo County via the Arkansas River.
Agriculture remains an important part of the Pueblo County economy today. The county ranks in the top third of Colorado’s sixty-four counties in the value of its farm products; leading crops include the famous Pueblo chili peppers, dry edible beans, melons, potatoes, and other vegetables. About 33,000 cattle and several thousand horses, goats, and sheep are raised on county ranches. In 2015 Pueblo County officials and chile farmers began a marketing campaign to brand and promote the local peppers. The campaign met with immediate success when Colorado Whole Foods Markets announced that the company’s Colorado locations would be replacing New Mexico Hatch chiles with 125,000 Pueblo green chiles in August 2015. Cannabis has also become an important crop in Pueblo County, which allows the cultivation of both drug cannabis (marijuana) and hemp on agricultural and industrial properties. The county also leases water rights to cannabis producers.
While the county’s agrarian legacy is strong among ranchers and farmers on the Arkansas, cultural diversity remains a hallmark of the city of Pueblo. About 49 percent of the city’s current residents are Latino, 2.5 percent are African American, 2.2 percent are American Indian, and another 4.1 percent are of two or more races. Between 41 and 45 percent of the population identifies as non-Hispanic whites.
The city also continues to grapple with its industrial legacy. The defunct smelter, for instance, deposited waste rock (called slag) in a ravine between Santa Fe Avenue and the D&RG tracks. These slag piles, which contain heavy concentrations of lead, remain today and pose a threat to public and environmental health. As a result, in 2014 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the smelter waste area as part of a Superfund Site and began investigations to determine the contamination of the site and begin cleaning up the slag.