A brief history of the Pawnee Buttes

by Wayne Carlson

Brush, Colo.

For most people, the word Colorado conjures up images of towering peaks, mountain vistas, hills covered by golden aspen and magnificent blue spruce, with meandering streams full of native trout. Big game animals such as deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats are available for photographers and hunters.

World-class ski areas beckon during the wintertime. These sites have attracted a population of millions and tourists by the hundreds of thousands. Hordes of people must be tolerated if one is to participate in the activities these physical features make possible.

But, way out on the steppes of eastern Colorado, near the tiny towns of Grover, New Raymer, and Stoneham, there is “another Colorado.” There are incredible vistas out here, too, and an array of wildlife that is almost beyond belief. A person can go through an entire day of hiking, climbing, birdwatching, and exploring and not see more than a dozen other people. Out near where a small, unobtrusive white post marks the intersection of the borders of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska, there is a place James Michener called “Rattlesnake Buttes” in his landmark novel, “Centennial.” About 70 to 90 million years ago, during the Mesozoic Era, a vast, shallow Inland Sea covered what is today eastern Colorado. In stark contrast to today, the climate was tropical and the vegetation was lush. Huge amounts of sand and gravel were deposited into and around this great body of water, which later became sandstone and siltstone.

About 5 million years ago, the entire area was uplifted thousands of feet. The relentless agents of erosion, particularly wind and water, began their transformation. Most of the material has been removed. A few land forms were preserved because they were topped by caprocks of harder sandstone and conglomerates. Two of these eventually became known as Pawnee Buttes.

During Historic times, the Pawnee Buttes region was the home of huge herds of grazing animals ” including bison, which depended on the native grasses and were hunted by tribes of nomadic Native Americans including the Cheyennes, Arapahos, Pawnees, and sometimes Apaches, Comanches, and Shoshones.

About 1850, fur trapper and trader Elbridge Gerry became the first permanent white settler in the area when he built a dwelling on Crow Creek, near what is now Briggsdale. He trapped beaver and other native fur-bearers, hunted buffalo, and managed to survive a primitive existence. In 1861, John Wesley Iliff started the first cattle camp in the area. He purchased $40,000 worth of cattle from Charles Goodnight of Texas and drove them into Colorado over what eventually became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. By 1877, Iliff was the biggest cattleman in Colorado. Other enterprising persons, including Jared Brush, also took advantage of the free or inexpensive native grasses to establish their cattle empires.

In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act. The Act gave 160 acres (later changed to 320 acres) of free land to any person who could “prove up.” Hundreds of people flocked into eastern Colorado. The terms of this Act included building a dwelling, cultivating at least part of the claim, and actually living on the land for a minimum of five years. The first person to file for title to his claim in the area was Soren Nelson (nicknamed “Pawnee Buttes” Nelson) in 1894.

Between 1866-1897, hundreds of thousands of Texas longhorns were driven along the historic Texas-Montana Trail that passed the proximity of Pawnee Buttes on the way to Pine Bluffs, Wyo., and Miles City, Mont. The invention of barbed wire and the increased numbers of homesteaders in the area brought an end to this practice during the late 1890s.

The railroad was gradually extended into Pawnee Buttes country during the later years of the 19th century. The Union Pacific built across southwestern Nebraska in 1866 and, in 1887, a branch line of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy was extended to Cheyenne, Wyo. The buffalo population was decimated.

The terrible winter of 1886-1887 resulted in the deaths of an estimated 10,000 cattle and the economic ruin of many ranchers. lt was followed by a drought from 1888-1905. Many homesteaders gave up and went elsewhere looking for a more hospitable environment. The years 1905-1918 were generally good, with above average rains and few extreme storms. Homesteaders flocked into the area. The towns of Grover, Keota, and Briggsdale boomed. In 1918 Keota reached its peak of 140 residents, with a hotel, stores, churches, and other establishments.

In 1918, at the end of World War I, many residents fell victim to the flu epidemic that ravaged much of the world. The decade of the ’20s brought drought and grasshoppers as frequent visitors. Then 1929 brought the Great Depression, a time of claim jumping, cattle rustling and even murder. By the mid-’30s the population of northeastern Weld County had dwindled from 600 families to 64.

The area was desperately in need of help. That help came at least partially from the Federal Government. In 1933-1934, the Work Project Administration (WPA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA) moved to render assistance. The Soil Conservation Service purchased marginal farmlands and began a program to reclaim the decimated lands.

In 1954, the National Forest Service took control. Fences were torn down, windmills were erected, catch basins were dug, and much of the land was replanted in native grasses. In 1960, Pawnee National Grassland was established as a multiple use area. It included 21 producing oil and natural gas wells, grazing, and recreation. Twelve Minuteman missile silos were established on the Grasslands.

Today, it is one of 20 National Grasslands administered by the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It includes 193,000 acres of public land in two units. Ranchers lease back all but 413 of these acres. The Forest Service is dedicated to multiple-use management of renewable resources such as water, forage, wildlife, and recreation. The Forest Service determines, with public involvement, the best combination of uses to insure the productivity of the land and the quality of the environment for present and future generations.

Today, Pawnee National Grasslands is a major tourist attraction. It is an excellent example of a short grass prairie. The area receives an annual average of 12 to 15 inches of moisture, but amounts vary greatly from year to year. The semi-arid environment makes it difficult to believe that immediately underneath is the Ogallala Aquifer, North America’s largest aquifer. Pawnee National Grasslands is rich in native wildlife, including pronghorns, mule deer, coyotes, badgers, mice, rats, rabbits, horned lizards, and snakes (including the prairie rattler.)

Since 1962, there have been 296 bird species documented, including the prairie falcon, red tail hawk, golden eagle, mountain plover, burrowing owl, loggerhead shrike, and lark bunting (Colorado’s state bird). Several dirt roads wind their way to the Pawnee Buttes trailhead parking lot. There is an overlook of the Buttes off to the north of the parking lot, from which one can get a great panoramic view of the Buttes. The trail to the buttes is about a mile and a quarter and is in excellent shape. Horses are allowed on the trail ” vehicles are not.

The western butte stretches to an elevation of 5,375 and rises 300 feet from its base. There are incredible vistas and many opportunities to hike and explore. This is one of the main places in northeastern Colorado where you can hike, take photographs, or just sit and listen to the silence and imagine what it was like before the intrusion of Europeans. It is well worth your time to check it out.