February 26, 2010

Seeking French history -- in Colorado

— Finding French history during a December visit to Colorado was challenging.

Our travel hobby consisting of seeking out French history wherever we take a trip led me to call the San Luis Valley History Museum in Colorado. Indeed, Colorado is the first western state where it's been difficult for me to find French colonial history. Nonetheless, Colorado adventure tales involving the French are evident.

America's western cities like Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Antonio and Sante Fe feature historic events and cathedrals led by French missionaries. This is not the case in Colorado.

Joyce Gun, the San Louis Valley's museum's administrative assistant and researcher, explained how the French did not spend much time in Colorado. Although some French Canadians entered Colorado during the 17th-18th centuries, they didn't stay long. Rather, they remained north of Colorado because of turmoil created by the Spanish, who fought for territorial dominance over the region, says Gun. By 1548, the Spanish were already in the region, which created a lot of problems for French explorers. Therefore, French influence in Colorado is minimal, she says.

French-Canadians, on the other hand, ventured into the region for fur trading and gold prospecting. Traders followed the Old Spanish Trail trade route from Sante Fe into Colorado, but they were frequently detained by the Spanish who held them for questioning. ''Those were turbulent times in Colorado,'' says Gun.

''The Golden Horde,'' a story researched by writer Jack Harlon and published in Cyberwest Magazine by editor Christopher O'Brien, tells a harrowing 1790 French-Canadian Wild West tale about a disastrous fur and gold hunting expedition into Colorado. There are several oral versions of this Wild West tale, but the most popular one involved an expedition of French-Canadians trappers who traveled into Colorado from the Leavenworth, Kansas area. Mystery about this expedition exists to this day.

During their expedition, the group was attacked by other trappers trying to wipe out the competition. During their escape into Western Colorado, the French-Canadians discovered lots of gold at the headwaters of the Gunnison River. Eventually, the local Ute Indians, who were loyal to the Spanish, discovered the French-Canadians. They attacked and killed several of the gold hunters. One or two survivors of the attack buried the gold on Round Mountain during the Ute chase. They created a treasure map to follow when they could return to the area with reinforcements to recover the gold.

Unfortunately, only two of the original expedition party returned to Kansas alive, but they had the treasure map with them on their arrival. One of the two men died shortly after his return, leaving only one witness. His name was LeBlanc.

Several tales exist about what happened to the French-Canadian's gold. Although many attempts were made to retrace the French-Canadian's treasure map, no record exists of the gold being found. O'Brien writes that the family of the last survivor named LeBlanc still retains the rites to the gold if any of the treasure is ever recovered.

Regardless of the turbulent Spanish and French colonial history, Gun says there is an ironic twist in how the San Luis Valley was named. In August of 1779, the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza (1736-1788) entered the San Luis Valley. De Anza named the valley after the saint whose feast day is celebrated in August. St. Louis of France (1226-1270) celebrates his feast day on August 25th. Therefore, de Anza named the valley Sans Luis, after the French saint, says Gun.

In summary, Colorado's French history is likely buried in the Rocky Mountains.

Juliana L'Heureux can be contacted at:

juliana@mainewriter.com

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