Pawnee Buttes
Pawnee Buttes

The Colorado Plains, stretching across the eastern part of the state, hold a rich and fascinating history that has shaped the region’s cultural, economic and natural landscape. Understanding this history provides valuable insights into the lives of those who have called these plains home and the forces that have shaped the region
over time.

Native American History

Italian Cave | Julesburg
Italian Cave | Julesburg

Before European exploration, the Colorado Plains were inhabited by various Native American cultures. Early inhabitants included the Clovis, Folsom and other Paleo-Indian cultures, who lived in the region over 10,000 years ago. Later, the Plains Indians, including the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, and Ute tribes, inhabited the area. These tribes led nomadic lifestyles, following buffalo herds and adapting to the region’s challenging environment. They also engaged in trade with European settlers and fur traders who ventured into the plains.

European Exploration and Settlement

The first European explorers to encounter the Colorado Plains were the Spanish, led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in the early 1540s. Following the Spanish, French and British fur traders established trade routes throughout the region, forging relationships with Native American tribes. In the early 1800s, American explorers, such as Zebulon Pike, ventured into the Colorado Plains, conducting surveys and mapping the area.

Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny

As the United States expanded westward in the 19th century, the Colorado Plains played a significant role in the nation’s growth. Pioneers traveled through the region on trails like the Oregon Trail, California Trail, and Santa Fe Trail, searching for land, gold, or new opportunities. Military forts and trading posts were also established in the region, providing resources and protection for settlers. Fort Sedgwick, near present-day Julesburg, was one such military fort, protecting travelers and serving as a vital supply center.

The Colorado Gold Rush and Homesteading

In 1858, gold was discovered in Colorado, igniting a gold rush that brought thousands of settlers to the region. Mining towns sprouted up across the plains, and the population of the area surged. The Homestead Act of 1862 also played a crucial role in the settlement of the Colorado Plains, granting land to those willing to cultivate and improve it. Towns like Burlington, Holyoke, and Stratton were founded during this period, attracting homesteaders seeking fertile land for farming and ranching.

Agriculture and Industry

The Overland Trail Museum | Sterling
The Overland Trail Museum | Sterling

As the Colorado Plains were settled, farming and ranching became vital to the region’s economy. Settlers introduced irrigation systems, transforming the arid landscape into fertile farmland. The cattle industry also flourished with the expansion of the railroad, which allowed ranchers to transport their herds to markets more efficiently. The construction of the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1860s, for instance, helped to spur the growth of towns like Cheyenne Wells and Julesburg, which served as important trading centers for the region’s agricultural products.

20th Century Developments

The 20th century brought both challenges and advancements to the Colorado Plains. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s devastated the region, causing widespread crop failure and forcing many families to leave their farms. In response, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established to help reclaim the land, planting trees and implementing soil conservation practices. The rise of agribusiness and modern farming techniques in the latter half of the 20th century transformed the region’s agricultural practices, increasing efficiency and productivity.

The growth of industry and the development of highways in the 20th century also helped to spur the growth of towns like Limon and Wray. These towns became important commercial and transportation hubs, attracting new businesses and residents and contributing to the region’s economic growth.

Preservation and Tourism

As the Colorado Plains entered the 21st century, efforts to preserve the region’s history, culture, and natural environment have become increasingly important. Organizations and local communities have worked together to protect historic sites, such as the Pawnee National Grassland, which features the striking Pawnee Buttes and offers visitors a glimpse into the region’s natural beauty and history.

The Pioneering Plains is also home to several museums and historical sites, such as the Fort Sedgwick Museum in Julesburg and the Lincoln County Tourism office in Hugo, which showcase the area’s rich past. The Overland Trail Museum in Sterling, showcases the area’s pioneer history, while the Fort Morgan Museum in Morgan County highlights the role of the military fort in the region’s development.

Annual events, like the Haxtun Corn Festival, celebrate the region’s agricultural heritage and provide opportunities for locals and visitors alike to connect with the area’s history and traditions.

Scenic byways, such as the South Platte River Trail Byway and the Pawnee Pioneer Trails Scenic Byway, provide opportunities for travelers to explore the region’s history and natural beauty. These routes showcase the diverse landscapes and charming towns of the Colorado Plains, offering visitors a chance to experience the region’s unique character and learn about the forces that have shaped it over time.

The Colorado Plains hold a rich and diverse history that has shaped the region’s landscape, culture, and economy. From the earliest Native American inhabitants to the European explorers, pioneers, and homesteaders who ventured into the area, the Colorado Plains has been a land of opportunity and challenge. Today, efforts to preserve and share this history through museums, historic sites, and annual events help to ensure that the story of the Pioneering Plains continues to be told and celebrated for generations to come. So, set out on a journey to explore the Colorado Plains’ rich history and discover the stories, landscapes, and communities that make this region truly unique.