Article by Ed Quillen
History – February 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine
From 1819 to 1848, the Arkansas River was part of the western boundary of the United States of America. On the other side lay Spain, then Mexico, perhaps the Republic of Texas, and other claimants included the Bear Flag Republic of California.
Much as the Rio Grande does today, the Arkansas River once served as an international border. If our national boundaries had remained where they were 150 years ago, you’d go through a customs station when you crossed the F Street bridge in downtown Salida.
With those boundaries, Tenderfoot Hill is part of the United States, while the land on the other side of the river belongs to Spain, Mexico, or the Republic of Texas. Leadville and Fairplay are in America, while Mt. Elbert, Buena Vista, Gunnison, Westcliffe and Saguache are on foreign soil. You might need a passport to travel around Central Colorado.
The Arkansas River’s career as a boundary defined by international trestles was brief, from 1819 to 1848, and it was a result of the same process that produced the modern map of Africa — distant imperialist powers carving up a continent they didn’t know much about.
Explaining how the Arkansas came to serve as a boundary, and why it Isn’t one now, is like calling the roll of famous historical figures from your schoolbooks. Columbus, La Salle, Jefferson, Jackson, Adams, Austin, Santa Anna, Napoleon, Bent, Pike — they all played a part in the rise and fall of the Arkansas as a boundary.
We can generally neglect the Indians, since everybody else involved in this tale pretty well dismissed any Indian ownership of the territory. So we start the story in 1492, when Columbus landed in the Caribbean, and announced that he was standing on Spanish soil.
This claim was solidified by dozens of Spanish expeditions into the interior. In 1539, less than fifty years after Columbus landed, Coronado journeyed far north into what is now Kansas to explore Spain’s newest conquest.
Even in the beginning, Spain wasn’t the only European country to claim a big chunk of the New World. Portugal was also a contender. To settle their rivalry, Pope Alexander Vl divided the world with the Treaty of Tordesillas. The line was about 1200 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands. Everything east went to Portugal, west to Spain — which explains why Brazilians speak Portuguese while the rest of South America speaks Spanish.
Other European powers ignored the papal mandate and pecked away at New Spain in the New World. Russians crossed the Bering Strait and worked south along the Pacific Coast. Along the Atlantic, the French paddled up the St. Lawrence and established a presence on the Great Lakes. South of the St. Lawrence, English colonies gained a coastal foothold.
Spain claimed a vast empire, more than it could hold in the face of these incursions. For our part of the world, the first real threat to Spanish sovereignty came from a Frenchman: René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.
In 1682, he ventured down the Mississippi Valley from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. He claimed the Mississippi, and all the territory it drained, for France, and named the territory “Louisiana” in honor of his sovereign, the Sun King Louis XIV.
Colonial authorities in Quebec scoffed at La Salle’s mad proposals, but the explorer returned to Paris with a grand scheme: establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, to be used as a launching point for an invasion of New Spain, especially the rich silver mines of Mexico.
With the king’s blessing, La Salle returned to the New World, but the explorer couldn’t find the mouth of the Mississippi again. His story ends in 1687, some 500 miles past his goal, where La Salle was murdered by mutineers near the Brazos River in Texas. Nevertheless, Louisiana, La Salle’s proposed settlement on the Mississippi, took form as New Orleans in 1718.
SPAIN STILL CLAIMED the territory along the river as far north as Illinois. But France had effective control at New Orleans and enhanced that control by founding St. Louis in 1764.
The French had mastered inland water transportation, something that eluded the Spanish, who handled deserts pretty well. The French got along better with the Indians, who feared enslavement by Spaniards but were happy to trade with the French.
Thus France gained much of the continent, and Colorado was where the two empires collided. Our oldest place names reflect that.
To the north, the names are French. Until 1921, the upper Colorado River bore a French name, the Grand (which explains Grand Lake, Grand County, and Grand Junction, remnants of a time when there was a Grand River. The formal Colorado then began in Utah at the junction of the Grand and Green rivers).
The Platte River gets its name from the French word “Platte,” meaning flat and shallow. Among the tributaries of the South Platte is the Cache La Poudre, commemorating a French expedition which cached some gunpowder along Its banks long ago. The oldest settlements along its banks bear Gallic names like “La Porte” and “Bellvue.” The “Park” in North, Middle, and South Park comes from the French word “parc,” meaning not a playground, but an enclosed area, like a valley surrounded by mountains.
The fourth big Colorado enclosed area is the San Luis Valley — sometimes called San Luis Park on old maps. There, the Spanish influence is ubiquitous, and the valley’s big river is the Spanish Rio Grands, not the French Grand.
Just by examining old place names, then, we can see that the Arkansas once served as a boundary between the empires of France and Spain.
But it wasn’t a formal boundary set by treaty, and two other imperial powers, Britain and then the United States, soon entered the picture. (Granted, many foreigners denounce American imperialism,” but I’m not trying to sound subversive here. It was none other than Thomas Jefferson who wrote of “establishing an empire” from Atlantic to Pacific.)
BRITAIN AND FRANCE were bitter rivals both in Europe and North America. Their conflict escalated into a war with two names: the Seven Years’ War in the Old World, and in the New World, the French and Indian War from 1756 to 1763.
Britain and its continental ally Prussia won. On the European continent this made Prussia a leading power, which resulted in its dominance over a unified Germany and, perhaps eventually, to a couple of world wars.
France lost that 18th-century war, along with all of its territorial claims in North America, to Great Britain. This left a lot of French speakers on the north side of the Great Lakes, whose Francophone descendants still chafe under British control and threaten to make Quebec an Independent nation.
Along the Mississippi, the east side of Louisiana went to Britain, and the west side was duly confirmed as Spanish territory. For a time, the French were out of the picture. But Britain couldn’t keep all that it had won in North America, either. The war in the new world had been expensive, and so Parliament raised colonial taxes. Further, Britain didn’t want to fight any more Indian wars, so it closed off everything between the Appalachians and the Mississippi to settlement.
Neither action sat well with many colonists, who in 1776 launched a revolution against the British. When the dust settled in 1783, the thirteen British colonies were the United States of America, and they weren’t about to stop at the Appalachians.
Already they were populating Kentucky, and the pioneer farmers needed to get their produce to market. The inland rivers were the easy route — but the port at the end of the river, New Orleans, was in Spanish hands. Spain also held “East Florida” (basically today’s Florida) and “West Florida” (essentially the Gulf Coast between Florida and New Orleans).
To stem the American tide, Spain in 1784 closed the lower Mississippi to all but Spanish shipping. Americans took up bribery and smuggling, and the commerce continued, as did the flow of Americans who took the land they wanted, despite Spanish claims to most of Mississippi and Alabama.
By 1795, Spain recognized reality and agreed to the Treaty of San Lorenzo del Escorial. While keeping the Floridas, Spain gave up its claims to upper Mississippi and Alabama, and guaranteed that Americans would have the right of free navigation along the Mississippi.
At that moment, that was all the Americans really wanted. Spain was weak, and if the Americans should ever need more from the Spanish empire, they were sure they could push and get it. Spain wasn’t all that interested in keeping it, anyway, since the territory cost more to administer than it collected in revenues.
BUT THEN THE “LOUISIANA TERRITORY” changed hands again, on account of Napoleon. In the wake of revolution, he seized control of the French government in 1799. In a series of intrigues and betrayals, and in exchange for a minor Italian principality that he never delivered, Napoleon gained control of Louisiana from Spain in 1802.
This alarmed Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States, because there was no treaty with France which guaranteed American access to the port of New Orleans. So Jefferson dispatched Robert Livingston to Paris with instructions to spend up to $7.5 million to buy New Orleans for the United States, thereby guaranteeing an outlet for the farmers of the eastern Mississippi Valley.
Napoleon surprised everybody by offering to sell all of Louisiana. Haiti may have been the main reason he wanted to get rid of his American holdings. Slaves had revolted there, declaring independence, and Napoleon hadn’t been able to put down the revolution with the troops at hand. He couldn’t spare more soldiers from Europe because he knew that war with England was inevitable. He wanted America to be at least neutral in the coming conflict.
From his vantage, it was better to sell Louisiana, and get something for it, than to lose it in war, and get nothing for it. In the process, America would be less likely to become another enemy, which was the last thing he needed with much of Europe aligning against him.
Thus Napoleon sold all of Louisiana — that is, France’s claim to the entire western drainage of the Mississippi — to the United States for $15 million.
That big real-estate deal of 1803 was the famous Louisiana Purchase.
The precise borders of Louisiana and New Spain had never been set down precisely, since the territory had never been formally explored or mapped.
Jefferson rectified this with two expeditions: Lewis and Clark went up the Missouri to its headwaters and on to the Pacific, and Zebulon Pike, who searched for the headwaters of the Red River — today’s boundary between Texas and Oklahoma.
WHY WAS IT IMPORTANT to find the headwaters of the Red? Look at a U.S. map, and the Red River is the last major river to flow into the Mississippi from the west. Given some understandings of the Louisiana Purchase, the Red’s drainage would be American soil, while the next watershed to the south would remain in Spanish hands.
But when Pike ventured up the Arkansas and then turned south, he never found the Red. Logic decreed that the Red would begin in the Shining Mountains, somewhere between the headwaters of the Arkansas and the Rio Grande. But the Red actually begins out on the Great Plains, in the panhandle of Texas.
Since nobody knew where the Red really started, nobody knew where the boundary was between the Louisiana Purchase, now part of the United States, and the remaining part of the Spanish Empire.
Settling the question was important, for there were increasing frictions in the disputed areas. While pursuing “Indians and bandits,” Gen. Andrew Jackson seized Pensacola in Spanish West Florida before getting orders to withdraw. American settlers were invading Texas.
Thus the American secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, and the Spanish ambassador to Washington, Luis de Onis, negotiated the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, which set boundaries between American and Spanish holdings and defined what America really got with the Louisiana Purchase.
Much of the treaty concerned the Floridas, of little relevance here. On this side of the Mississippi, the United States “forever” renounced any claim to the Spanish province of Texas. The Arkansas River became part of the international boundary between the United States and that Spanish province of Texas.
In the words of the treaty, from the site of today’s Dodge City, Kan., “thence following the Course of The Southern bank of the Arkansas to its source in Latitude 42 North. . . But if the Source of the Arkansas River shall be found to fall North or South of Latitude 42, then the Line shall run from the said Source due South or North, as the case may be, till it meets the said Parallel…”
Aside from the Arkansas, much of the treaty line remains on the U.S. map as state boundaries. Start at the mouth of the Sabine River near Port Arthur, Texas. Follow the Texas-Louisiana boundary up the Sabine until it turns west, and continue north along the state line, just west of the 94th meridian, until you get to the Red River, near Texarkana on the Arkansas-Texas border.
Go west along the Red until you reach the 100th Meridian — that is, follow the eastern Texas border up from the Gulf, and then go up the east side of the Panhandle. But instead of stopping for Oklahoma, continue north along the 100th Meridian until you reach the Arkansas near present-day Dodge City, Kan.
The international border then ran along the Arkansas all the way to its headwaters at Frémont Pass. From Climax, run a line north to the 42nd parallel (today’s northern boundary of California, Nevada, and Utah) all the way to the Pacific.
So there’s the Arkansas as an international border. It was a boundary between the United States and Spain for less than a decade; in 1828, it was officially designated as the border between the United States and the newly independent Mexico.
The next claimant to the south side was the Republic of Texas, which declared its independence of Mexico in 1836. The precise western extent of Texas was never established. Many Texans claimed everything on their side of the Rio Grande, clear to its headwaters in the San Juan mountains of Colorado. To fortify that claim, some Tejanos launched an ill-fated military expedition to Santa Fé with the idea of putting it under the Lone Star. Mexican forces defeated them, and Mexico did not recognize an independent Texas.
This knowledge can make you feel more charitable toward Texas tourists. They’re not invaders; they’re merely pilgrims visiting lost portions of their ancestral homeland. The same might be said of Californians, since the short-lived Bear Flag Republic of 1846 also claimed this territory.
The Texans seized their independence after many famed and bloody battles: the Alamo, Goliad, San Jacinto. But in California, with a show of arrogance and bravado, a small group of American settlers declared their independence in 1846. Unlike the Republic of Texas, the Bear Flag Republic of California never really operated as a nation by issuing currency, negotiating treated, or establishing an army. Instead, the Mexican War was declared in that same year, and the American victors claimed California before the success of its revolt could be decided.
Texas joined the United States in 1845. Given the huge influence of Texans in Washington over the past 40 years, though, it might be more accurate to say that the United States joined Texas.
The Mexican War followed in 1846, and when that was settled with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the U.S. border had moved south to the Rio Grande. Both banks of the Arkansas, from Climax to Fort Smith, were American soil by purchase or conquest.
THE MEXICAN WAR left an internal boundary question: Where did Texas end and New Mexico begin? The current answer arrived with the Compromise of 1850. Our school texts (Eastern Seaboard Standard History) focus on how the compromise attempted a balance between slave and non-slave states in an effort to hold the union together.
Texans, then as now, were an expansive lot, and happily claimed the entire Rio Grande. But the new state of Texas was broke and desperately needed money to pay its creditors and thus a deal was struck as part of the Compromise of 1850.
For $10 million, Texas abandoned its claims to the Rio Grands north of El Paso, and also agreed to cede everything north of the 37th parallel, the top of today’s panhandle. The lost Texas northern realm was apportioned among the American territories of Nebraska, Kansas, Utah, and New Mexico.
If Texas finances had been in better condition 150 years ago, the Lone Star might be fluttering over Santa Fé as well as all Colorado court houses on the south side of the Arkansas.
So the Arkansas River, once an international boundary, isn’t even a state line today. For that matter, except for a few miles near Manzanola, the river doesn’t even divide any counties in Colorado and Kansas where it once separated two nations.
Beyond place names and some cultural patterns, there are few other modern reminders of the days of the Arkansas as an international boundary.
Bent’s Fort, about 100 miles east of the mountains between La Junta and Las Animas, sat where it did, on the American bank of the Arkansas, because the Bent brothers were American citizens and wanted to conduct their trading business under loose American regulations rather than stricter Mexican rules.
Rebuilt in 1976 by the National Park Service, the fort is well worth a visit on one of those days when the mountains seem to be closing in.
Along the way, you’ll pass through Pueblo, which originated about the same time as Bent’s Fort. As a settlement in the 1830s and ’40s, Pueblo was never much of a trade center, but It was a convenient place to hide out if you were wanted by the authorities in either the United States or Mexico.
Just wade across the river, and you were in a different country — thus early-day Pueblo attracted a lot of derelicts, bandits, and similar riff-raff who found the location convenient.
But that’s about the extent of construction inspired by the Arkansas as an international boundary. There were no customs stations (the wagon trains bound west from St. Louis paid their bribes at Santa Fé), and the forts along the border were not military installations.
To this day, though, one quirk of the 1819 boundary is celebrated annually in Breckenridge. Recall that the border went north from the headwaters of the Arkansas, today’s Climax, to the 42nd parallel.
Everything west of that line belonged to Spain. Everything east of the Continental Divide thereabouts belonged to the United States through the Louisiana Purchase.
WHAT, THOUGH, OF THE TERRITORY west of the Divide, but east of that line? About 60 years ago, some amateur scholars decided that this area (eastern Grand County and much of Summit County) was thereby a “No Man’s Land,” never formally annexed to the United States.
That came with a ceremony sponsored by the Breckenridge Women’s Club on Aug. 8, 1936, when Colorado Gov. Ed Johnson accepted the territory for the United States.
With tongue in cheek, Breckenridge retained the right to be independent for three days each year, which explains the “No Man’s Land” festivities up there, as well as its sobriquet of “The Little Kingdom.”
That’s about all the excitement that the old 1819 border has caused since 1848.
But when you gaze across the river, you can remember that the Arkansas was once an international boundary, and that today’s sleepy little mountain towns rest in the wake of a half millennium’s worth of intrigues by popes, kings, generals, presidents, and revolutionaries in distant imperial capitals.
Ed Quillen has wondered about these borders ever since he recovered from a “No Man’s Land” Festival in Breckenridge about 20 years ago. He has also wondered why he never teamed about this school.