In the wilderness of Western Colorado, near the confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre rivers, an outpost was constructed in 1828 to connect trade between California and northern Mexico. The only other Europeans to have stepped foot on this ground were those in the Dominguez-Escalante expedition which had passed through the area some forty years earlier. The spot Antoine Robidoux chose to build his post on rested in the depths of Ute Indian territory. It was named Fort Uncompahgre and it became the first vital stop on the Old Spanish Trail that would move goods between Santa Fe and Los Angeles and helped to forge the face of the west.
The Utes actually encouraged the presence of the fort in their territory because they were able to trade for goods, including firearms. Not much is known about the actual layout or construction of the original fort but accounts indicate that there were 15 or more Mexicans employed at the fort who were responsible for trading, trapping, and raising their own food. The location was important because it connected many trails that ran north out of the San Juan River Basin. But by 1841, several developments, including the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, caused the fur trade market to change abruptly.
The native Utes, having no real understanding of the economics of this type of trade, felt that they were being cheated by the Mexicans and hostilities soon broke out near Taos and Santa Fe before spreading into Colorado. Eventually, Fort Uncompahgre was attacked and every Mexican worker there was killed. They spared the life of one American visitor and the Utes gave him a message to relay to Robidoux.They wanted Robidoux to know that the fort and its goods were left intact as their fight was with Mexico, not the French or the Americans. However, Roubidoux never returned, for fear that it was a trap, and two years later the fort was destroyed.
The Utes were soon systematically removed from the Western Slope, perpetuated by a series of treaties that forced them into smaller territories. Public opinion was swayed through justification and fear after the Meeker Massacre and, by 1880, the area was open for settlement. The town known as Uncompahgre sprang up not far from the ruins of the fort. Soon after, in 1882, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad arrived in the area and the town’s name was eventually changed to Delta. As the city and the surrounding county took shape and grew over the years, the exact location of the old fort was lost forever to the ever-changing river bottom.
In 1990, a replica of Fort Uncompahgre was constructed upriver from its presumed original location. The City of Delta provided the land for the project in Confluence Park. Although there was no way to know of the exact construction, it is likely that it resembled Robidoux’s other outpost, Fort Unitah, in eastern Utah. Modeling the reconstruction after Fort Unitah and taking into consideration various other components that would have been necessary to sustain several workers, an impressive replica was built. Fort Uncompahgre presents a realistic and intricate depiction of life as it would have been in the mid 1800s and the grounds include a trappers cabin, a functioning adobe oven, known as a horno, a cocina (or kitchen), a blacksmith’s shop, and a trade room. Additionally, there are quarters for the laborers and pens and corrals for livestock, as well as a heritage garden.
The last few years have been very lively at Fort Uncompahgre. There has been revived interest in the project from locals and tourists alike, and several programs and events now occur at the fort. The School Tour program offers local elementary age children demonstrations in tomahawk throwing, hide scraping, and fire starting with flint. A kids summer program is also in the works. Other events include re-enactments, an artist camp, a Mexican Heritage Celebration, and Saturday Trade Day during the local Deltarado Days celebration.
One of the most well attended and anticipated events is Christmas at the Fort. Occurring just after the annual Parade of Lights in Delta each December, the fort comes alive while historical interpreters portray Christmastime as it was celebrated in the 1930s. Local Spanish Folk singers provide music in the authentic setting where candles and lanterns are lit and piles of furs fill the room. Demonstrations on cleaning, loading, and firing the American Long Rifle are presented. Traditional Mexican cocoa is served and the blacksmith will fire up his forge.
The fort has recently partnered with the local National Forest Service office who now operates a public service office from the location. Visitors to the area are treated with a fun, historic atmosphere when they visit the office for area maps or information and locals are likewise exposed to all the fort has to offer when obtaining Christmas Tree permits or updates on road closures.
Visit Fort Uncompahgre during Deltarado Days and step back in time for a bit. On Saturday, July 27, from 10 am to 4 pm, the annual Trade Day will bring folks from all over to participate in a modern-day flea market that’s hosted in an authentic trading post setting from the mid 19th century. The fort is a realistic recreation of a time long gone but not forgotten. Tribes and trappers, mountain men and travelers all met here to exchange furs, guns, knives, and beads and to obtain much-needed replenishments of food stores. The time of the mountain men and their tenuous peace with the surrounding Native Americans is preserved here for you to experience first hand. It’s an all-ages history lesson of the very best kind.