The Cherokee Trail

The Cherokee Trail (also known as the Trappers' Trail) was a historic overland trail through the present-day U.S. states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana that was used from the late 1840s up through the early 1890s. The route was established in 1849 by a wagon train headed to the gold fields in California. Among the members of the expedition were a group of Cherokee.


The route of the trail ran from the Grand River near present day Salina, Oklahoma, northwest to strike the Santa Fe Trail at McPherson. From there it followed the Santa Fe Trail west, then turned north along the base of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains over the Arkansas/Platte River divide and descended along Cherry Creek (Colorado) into the valley of the South Platte River. The original 1849 trail followed the east side of the South Platte River to present-day Greeley then west via a wagon road to Laporte in Laramier County. From Laporte, the wagon road was built north past present-day Virginia Dale Stage Station to the Laramie Plains in southeastern Wyoming. The trail was then blazed westward and northward around the Medicine Bow Range crossing the North Platte River then turning north to present day Rawlins. The trail proceeded west along the route of present Interstate 80 finally joining the Oregon, California and Mormon trails near Granger, Wyoming.

In 1850, an additional route was blazed on the west side of the South Platte River, crossing the Cache la Poudre River, and then to the Laramie Plains. There the trail turned west near present day Tie Siding, and proceeded along the Colorado/Wyoming border to Green River and to Fort Bridger where it struck the other emigrant trails.

Parts of the 1850 trail can be seen on Bureau of Land Management land in Wyoming. In Sweetwater County the trail on BLM sections is marked with four foot high concrete posts.

In Colorado parts of the trail are still visible and walkable in Arapahoe, Douglas and Larimer counties. An approximation of the route can be driven on State Highway 83 from Parker near Denver to Colorado Springs.

In 1849, Lieutenant Abraham Buford, escorting the mail from Santa Fe to the east, turned south at McPherson, Kansas, to follow the recently blazed Evans/Cherokee Trail to Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, and then connected with another trail to nearby Fort Smith, Arkansas. Starting in 1850 the trail was used continuously by gold seekers, emigrants and cattle drovers from Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, and the Cherokee Nation.

In 1850, a member of a wagon train en route to California discovered gold in Ralston Creek, a tributary of Clear Creek north of present day Denver. Stories of this discovery led to further expeditions in 1858, and the subsequent 1859 Colorado Gold Rush.

In the 1860s portions of the trail from northern Colorado to Fort Bridger in Wyoming were incorporated as part of the Overland Trail and stage route between Kansas and Salt Lake City, Utah.

The outlaw L.H. Musgrove traveled on the Cherokee Trail from Colorado into Wyoming during the 1860s.

CHEROKEE AND OVERLAND TRAILS CORRIDOR IN COLORADO

Mariano’s Crossing:  Latitude N 40.40056ᵒ, Longitude W 105.12433ᵒ (GPS WGS84)

(Located on private property—Please respect) 

The Cherokee and Overland Trails crossed the Big Thompson River ½ mile north of here.  Although segments of the main trail were re-routed as communities developed, the north-south trail corridor hugged the piedmont, or the eastern base, of the Rocky Mountains.

In 1858 a frontiersman as noted then as were Jim Bridger, Jim Baker, Elbridge Gerry and Kit Carson settled on the Big Thompson.  Trapper, trader, guide and Army scout Mariano Medina brought his wife Tacanecy (a member of the Flathead tribe), their four children, and several Spanish and Indian followers to this river crossing on the only connecting “road” between the Santa Fe Trail to the south and the Oregon-California Trail to the north.  With the discovery that same year of gold near where Denver lies today, Mariano wisely anticipated heavy trail traffic.  His settlement, first called Miraville, then Mariano’s Crossing, Big Thompson Station, and finally Namaqua, thrived until after his death in 1878.

In 1861 the Overland Mail Company bought a failing stage line running from Kansas City to California, following the old emigrant trails up the North Platte River through Nebraska and Wyoming.  The next year, because of Indian troubles, the route changed to ascend the South Platte River into Colorado, but only as far as Latham Station, where it followed the Cache La Poudre River.  Denver City pressed to be included, and in September 1862, as a result of another route change, it succeeded. The Overland was authorized to use most of the old Cherokee Trail, segments of which had also been known as The Trappers’ Trail, Bridger’s Road, Taos Trail and Old Laramie Road.

Wisely, a month before the Denver route change, Mariano and his stepson Louie Papa received a permit from the Colorado Territorial Legislature to “keep a toll bridge at the crossing of the Big Thompson on the Cherokee Trail” 65 miles north of Denver.  From Denver the trail continued north to Mariano’s Crossing (later Namaqua Station), and then to Laporte, where it crossed the Cache La Poudre River before heading into today’s Wyoming and on west over Bridger’s Pass to Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Overland Mail Company required station proprietors to build and maintain bridges at their own expense, and the legal contract bound the company to put its stage coaches across them, paying the customary toll.  Mariano’s bridge was located 200 ft. upriver, or west, of the current Namaqua Avenue bridge.  His sturdy toll bridge withstood several floods and provided a lucrative income.  Mariano also fattened and traded trail-worn livestock, irrigated and sold grass hay, kept a general mercantile store, raised potatoes, and boarded stage passengers.

Namaqua was designated a home station on the Overland stage route and entertained a multitude of travelers overnight, among them frontiersman Kit Carson and Army Generals Grant, Sherman and Phillip H. Sheridan.

Situated here between the trails, the Mariano Medina Family Cemetery was one of several “firsts” with which the pioneer was credited, including the first settlement in the valley, first school and first church.

The trail’s legacy as a main transportation corridor along the foot of the Rockies continues in modern times.  U. S. Highway 287 closely follows it.  The trail has evolved to become Interstate 25, connecting towns and cities today as it did settlements in the early days, and as it has done since the first Native American followed a faint game trail north or south.

 


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