Old Colorado forts add appreciation for July 4

44

PLATTEVILLE, Colo. | American Indians in the vicinity of the Old Fort St. Vrain, west of present-day Platteville, dubbed the Fourth of July celebration there in 1843 the “Big Medicine Day” for the way fort employees and their white guests whooped it up.

“These guys knew that they were men without a country. Colorado was not even a territory then,” Berthoud resident Diane Brotemarkle, a local history buff and author, said. “They didn’t have a place to go vote … and so they loved the Fourth of July. It was like their special celebration of who they really were and where their interests really were.”

That year, they hoisted a U.S. flag, fired a salute and feasted on buffalo meat, macaroni, fruit cake and ice cream made with snow from Long’s Peak, according to Brotemarkle’s 2001 book, “Old Fort St. Vrain.”

Researching local fort history led to a second book released last year, “Hawkbells and Horseshoes on the Platte,” in which Brotemarkle documents the life of Elbridge Gerry — a Colorado pioneer credited with being the first permanent white settler in what became Weld County in 1861.

Writing both books gave her a deeper appreciation of what so many Americans today take for granted when they celebrate the nation’s independence and expansion, she said.

The settlement story starts when white men decided in the 1820s to explore this wilderness to trap beaver. Companies back east paid top dollar for the pelts dyed black to make fashionable top hats for wealthy men.

By the mid-1830s, the beaver trade grew enough to justify the establishment of four forts — all of them independent except for Fort St. Vrain — along the South Platte River where they clustered near present-day Platteville, about 18 miles northeast of Longmont.

These small, non-military fur trading forts had about 20 employees each during the busy winter hunting season. They sat roughly midway between larger forts in Laramie, Wyo., to the north and Lamar to the south. They included Fort St. Vrain (1837-1846); Fort Vasquez (1835-1842); Fort Jackson (1837-1838) and Fort Lupton (1836-1846), which is in the present-day city of Fort Lupton.

“On the one hand, we know so much. And on the other hand, we know so little,” said Gregory Light, who helps run Fort Vasquez’s small museum south of Platteville on U.S. Highway 85.

For instance, History Colorado — formerly known as The Colorado Historical Society — notes that men could earn more than a rural school teacher or a city factory worker by venturing into this wilderness to trap.

But that meant literally leaving the country and so many of its conveniences, customs and protections to work, Brotemarkle said.

Other than some overarching federal regulations — such as the prohibition of selling “Taos lightning” moonshine to American Indians — these folks coped with vigilante justice. “There wasn’t any law. There wasn’t any government. It wasn’t the United States,” she said.

In 1840, hat makers began using Chinese silk instead of beaver pelts, which caused beaver pelt prices to tumble from between $8 and $9 per pelt to between $1 and $1.50 per pelt, Brotemarkle continued.

That forced white inhabitants to collaborate more with the Plains Indians to trade buffalo products, such as robes, leather and braided mane.

That business eventually dried up, too, due to overhunting and the near extinction of 30 million buffalo once roaming the plains.

Yet, inroads had been made and the area began filling in during the second half of the 19th century with residents ready to put down roots for other reasons, such as farming, ranching and mining.

Fort Lupton and Fort Vasquez opened replicas of the original adobe structures and provided interpretive information to the public. But nothing exists of Fort Jackson, which disintegrated on private land, and only a granite marker erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1911 and now surrounded by a wrought-iron fence designates the Fort St. Vrain site.

Yet, the St. Vrain name lives on as one selected by area parks, power stations, a school district and even credit unions.

It belonged to Marcellin St. Vrain, a Frenchman, who managed the fort established by his older brother, Ceran St. Vrain, through the Bent, St. Vrain Trading Company in 1837.

Knowing that history adds value to modern life, Brotemarkle began her research in 1997 to learn more about her late husband’s homesteading family.

“It turned out to be good therapy in lots of ways,” she said.