In Delta, Colorado, Fort Uncompahgre is an amazingly-accurate replica of an 1800’s trade fort that brings to life a unique time in Western history.
Fort Uncompahgre is tucked just off the main street at the entrance to the Confluence Park project in Delta, a small town known for the historic murals that grace nearly every building in town. The fort is a living history museum where costumed interpreters recreate activities of the fort’s heyday.
The fort compound is surrounded by a rough-hewn cottonwood pole fence. Because this fort was built as a trading post, it wasn’t necessary to have huge defensive walls like many military forts. We pass by a heritage garden filled with plants that would have been grown when the fort was thriving such as herbs and pumpkins. The low-profile buildings are made to look like they’re made from adobe and they seem to blend into the red-gold landscape.
We’re met by Ken Reyher, a historian dressed in a costume a Mexican trader would have typically worn, complete with wide-brimmed straw hat and flamboyant neck scarf. He tells us when Fort Uncompahgre was originally established in 1828, only about 500 non-Indians lived west of the Mississippi and most of them were trappers or traders. Forts like Uncompaghre, he says, were built for trading between local Indians and traders. Reyer should know. He’s authored five books on local Colorado history.
Furs for Cloth, Blankets, Guns, and Booze
Our guide tells us that the area’s native Ute people hunted beavers and other animals. They’d bring furs into the fort and trade for goods such as cloth, needles, ribbons, blankets, and metal knives and axes. In one building, there’s a large display these trade items as well as abalone beads from California and ceramic beads from Europe that were popular with native peoples. The clerk responsible for such a store would have been one of the few educated workers at the fort. He often lived in a small room at the back of the store and was responsible for keeping track of the books and trade inventory.
The trade clerk was an important figure in the fort’s life. The other 15-20 fort workers, most of them Mexicans, did some trapping, prepared hides and skins and bundled fur packs for shipping. As we poke our heads into small, cramped spaces, we realize most of those who lived at Fort Uncompaghre lived in cramped, primitive, and certainly less private accommodations than the fort’s trade clerk.
Non-native traders had a huge influence on Indian populations, including those here in Colorado. They introduced items like copper cookware, iron arrowheads, and rifles, which could cost as much as $3,000 for a single gun. They also brought sugar, chewing tobacco, and cheap alcohol. Of course, the trades weren’t always fair. The traders often sold five cents worth of alcohol to the Indians for $5-8 worth of animal skins.
One display shows stacks of beaver pelts and other animal skins. Reyher says packs would hold 60-80 pounds of beaver skins, worth about $800. One mule could carry about $2400 worth of skins from here to places like Santa Fe, a journey of 300 miles.
We follow Reyher to a lean-to where a blacksmith’s fire roars and huge billows and anvils. This is the blacksmith and carpenter’s shop. Back in the 1800’s, there were no hardware or big box stores where you could pick up a new wheel or axel. Blacksmiths played a central role making items for the fort and keeping trade goods flowing.
Fort Uncompahgre didn’t last long. In 1843, hostilities broke out and the Ute Indians killed all the fort’s Mexican employees. Two years later, the Utes burned the fort to the ground.
The fort is open to visitors May-September and, at about $4 per person, is a real bargain. It will give you a glimpse at a true and little known part of Western history.