The History of Bent County

by Charles W. Bowman

Chapter I


Bent County ca. 1880Following the thirty-fifth parallel westward across the continent, the traveler is directed to notice that, at the intersection of his route with the 102d degree of longitude, he is about to enter the region which now bears and is likely to retain the name of Bent County. Finding himself on the banks of the Arkansas River, he may diverge from his original path and follow its sinuous meanderings for perhaps three miles further when he will pass within the Colorado and Bent County lines. Sixty miles to the north, twenty-four to the south, and one hundred and ten westward will comprise the dimension of the county, making an area of 9,500 square miles. The Arkansas, the vital artery of the county, will be found traversing it from west to east a little below the middle; its principal tributary, and second in importance, the Purgatoire River, flowing northeastward from the Raton Mountains, and emptying into the first named about midway of the county. Smaller tributaries of the Arkansas from the south, beginning at the eastern border, are Two Butte Creek, so named from Twin Mountains standing out in the plain forty miles from its mouth, at the base of which it runs: Granada, Wolf, Clay, Mud, Caddo and Rule Creeks, east of the Purgatoire; Crooked Arroya, Timpas Creek and Apishapa River, west. Most of these rise beyond the southern line of the county, and with the exception of Granada, Wolf and Clay, have considerable timber about their sources and for some distance along their banks. Plum Creek, a tributary of Two Butte, has some fine bodies of cottonwood. The Purgatoire, with its tributary caņons, is also wooded, making a pretty continuous belt of timber ten to fifteen miles wide along the southern border from Apishapa to Two Butte Creek. The streams mentioned head in a broken and mountainous country, and all of their valleys, with numerous tributary arroyas take the form of caņons with precipitous rocks on either hand. This rocky and broken region adjacent to the streams and caņons is timbered with a scrubby, white cedar. On the banks of the streams are found the cottonwood, box-elder and willow, with occasionally an undergrowth of plum, mountain currant and wild grape. Crossing to the north side of the Arkansas at the Apishapa and traveling eastward, water-courses are met in the following order: Bob Creek, fifteen miles long, taking its rise at Antelope Springs; Horse Creek, having for tributaries Breckenridge, Pond and Steele's Fork, all heading on the divide, and timbered about their sources with pine; Adobe, or Coffee Creek, forty miles long, marked by a few scattering cottonwoods; Limestone, ten miles long, with a few cottonwoods; Graveyard Arroya, ten miles long, with a few cottonwoods, so named because near its mouth was located a military burying ground; lastly, Big Sandy, which heads north of Horse Creek, flows eastward, enters the county about midway of its northern line and bearing southward reaches the Arkansas thirty miles from the eastern boundary of the county. A peculiarity of all the streams in the county, excepting the Arkansas and Purgatoire, is that before reaching the river their waters are absorbed by their sandy beds. In many of them there will be found at intervals ponds or holes where the water comes to the surface. It is usually fresh and appears to have current. Near the heads of the larger ones, such as Two Butte, Big Sandy and Apishapa, the water will be found running continuously on the surface. The smaller ones, in some cases, have only a spring at their heads, with a water-hole or two below, while the remainder of the bed appears as dry as the surrounding plains. In the rainy season these harmless and quiescent arroyas often wake to dangerous life. The rainfalls are characteristically sudden, frequently taking the form popularly described as a "cloud-burst"; the streams draining a large area, are quick bank-full, and the water descends in a wave, sweeping away crops, stock, buildings and even the unsuspecting camper who have sought a night's repose amid the tempting verdure of its banks.
   In a country where mineral springs are not the rule, Bent County would be considered fortunate. Several are already well known within her borders and others will probably be indicated in the future. No scientific analysis has yet been made, so that the possible value of their waters may be even greater than is now supposed. The best known is the Iron Spring, situated on the Timpas, thirty-two miles from its mouth, the waters of which compare favorably with those of the Iron Ute at Manitou. Another fine spring, affording a cold, delicious iron water, is found in Spring bottom, north side of the Arkansas, ten miles from the western county line. At the mouth of Baker caņon, fifteen miles up the Purgatoire, is a spring reputed to be beneficial in diseases of the kidneys. Its diuretic effects are very marked. Further up the Purgatoire, in Schell Caņon, is found an alum spring, and at various places near alum is found in crystal form. A fourth spring is reported in Caddo Creek, twenty miles from its mouth, the general character of whose waters has not been ascertained, but no doubt exists of their medicinal properties.
Along the Purgatoire River   The superficial appearance of Bent County is that of a grassy plain. Geologically, its surface would be classed as belonging to the cretaceous formation. Gray, brown and red sandstone are abundant, as also gypsum and chalk. The gray sandstone measures crop out along the Arkansas, the red and brown along the Purgatoire. The Arkansas Valley or bottom averages perhaps one and a half miles in width the entire length of the county. It is described by a series of low bluffs on the south side, known as the "sand hills," and on the north side by alternating banks of whitish clay and ledges of rocks. The surface of the county, whether bottom or upland, produces a short but nutritious grass, the gramma predominating on the uplands. On some choice tracts along the rivers are taller varieties, some of it seed-bearing, which, when cut and cured, is superior hay. These native grasses are peculiar, not alone in being able to survive the long summers with little or no rain, beneath the blazing rays of the sun, but in retaining the glutinous form all their rich properties through the winter, thus affording feed for countless numbers of wild and domestic animals. Originally, and up to 1872, large herds of buffalo grazed upon them, supplemented by antelope even more numerous. The latter are still found in considerable numbers, but the chief occupants of the plains are cattle, sheep and horses, vast herds of which subsist the year round without other sustenance than that provided by the generous hand of nature.
   The soil for the most part is a sandy loam of alluvial origin. Its fertility is proven by the native vegetation seen along the banks of streams and in low bottoms where the necessary moisture is supplied. Experiments in farming in these valleys during the last twenty-five years show that, by the processes peculiar to arid counties, generous crops can be produced.
   Mammoth specimens of petrified trees have been found along the banks of Two Butte Creek, supposed to be of the pine. Samples exhibited to the writer have the appearance of agate. Large trees, it is said, are to be seen lying on the surface, broken into sections from five to ten feet long, all of adamantine hardness, but most of the remains are buried in the soil and may be seen cropping out along the banks. In the same vicinity there was picked up a few years ago a chunk of amber-colored resinous substance of the consistency of horn, which, upon trial, readily ignited and burned. The finder was unable to give it a name, but the conclusion seems reasonable that it was gum-copal, a deposit made by these same ancient pine trees.
   A curiosity, whether natural or not remains to be seen, is found on the Purgatoire, twenty miles from its mouth. It consists of a life-size picture of a cinnamon bear delineated on the face of the cliff. History nor tradition has been able to give the date of its appearance, or a date when it was not there. The Indians testify that it was there when they came to the country. A common theory with the whites is that it is a photograph made by the lightning of an opportune moment as bruin was passing, and while the face of the rock under some atmospheric condition was sensitized. Others argue more plausibly that it is the work of some Indian artist. It is at least a curiosity, well deserving a visit from the tourist.

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