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Dottie Bond


Classic Americana, during warmer days on Colorado’s western slope.

Western Slope


“A Fantasy land,” “a mystique,” “a state of mind”—these are only some of the expressions used to describe the Western Slope of Colorado, commonly defined as the roughly one-third of the state that lies west of the Continental Divide. The serpentine divide forms the region’s eastern boundary, running 276 miles from the Wyoming border to New Mexico and separating the Western Slope from Colorado’s more populous Front Range and the broad San Luis Valley...

Early History

The Western Slope has been inhabited for more than 10,000 years. From Paleo-Indianoccupation around 12,000 BC to the era of the Ute people (c. AD 1300–1880), the area’s early inhabitants were mostly nomadic hunter-gatherers, who followed large game on seasonal routes between the region’s many elevation zones. Evidence at the Mountaineer Archaeological Site near Gunnison indicates that Paleo-Indian peoples occupied the Western Slope as early as 12,000 BC. During the Archaic Period (6,500 BC–AD 200), Ancestral Puebloan peoples occupied parts of the Colorado and Gunnison River basins. Perhaps the most well-known of the Western Slope’s early inhabitants were the Ancestral Puebloan peoples, who lived in the Mesa Verde and the Four Corners regions from about 350 BC until approximately AD 1300.... (Read more in the link)

Exploration and Fur Trade

The first Europeans to visit Colorado’s Western Slope were the Spanish explorers of the mid-eighteenth century, beginning with Juan de Rivera in 1765 and Fathers Silvestre Escalante and Francisco Domínguez in 1776. The Spanish never made a concerted effort to extend their dominion very far into the Ute homeland, but they did leave a legacy on the Western Slope, including the name for the ruddy river that drained and formed large swathes of the region—the “Rio Colorado.”

The next wave of foreigners to venture into the Ute lands of western Colorado consisted of European, Canadian, and Anglo-American fur trappers. With thousands of beaver living along the many streams that flowed out of the high mountains, western Colorado offered a bonanza for mountain men during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

Early American Era

Though the fur trade era in this part of Colorado was relatively brief, the trappers who participated in it were among the first Anglo-Americans to truly become familiar with the Western Slope. Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and other former trappers later served as guides for official US expeditions into the region, such as those led by John C. Frémont (1843–53), John W. Gunnison (1853), and John Wesley Powell (1869).

The Colorado Gold Rush along the Front Range in 1858–59 prompted the organization of Colorado Territory in 1861. Around this time, several Western Slope areas became hotbeds of placer mining—a process that involves sifting out gold from gravel, mostly in streambeds. Breckenridge became one of the great mining towns in western Colorado history, while other mining districts sprang up in the Elk Mountains near present-day Crested Butte, in the Gunnison River Valley, and in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. These deposits were quickly panned out, but new discoveries over the next several decades would make mining a hallmark industry of the Western Slope.

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