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Tracking the Rio Grande River

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Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted October 1, 2011

Rio Grande River Road

On January 30, 1807, Zebulon Pike stood on the banks of the Rio Grande River and declared he had found the Red River. One website stated he was hopelessly lost but making good time. In reality, his entire group was starving, suffering from frostbite, and otherwise fighting off the grim reaper. On the other hand, they are believed to be the first Americans to see that valley.

Zebulon Pike was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. His mission was to explore the new lands acquired from France by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. At the time he found the Rio Grande, he was looking for the border of that purchase, which was defined as the Red River.

Pike built a stockade near the river and sent scouts to find Santa Fe. When they returned they were escorted by a small Spanish army that informed Pike he was a long way from the Red River and trespassing on lands owned by imperial Spain. His tattered band of soldiers was escorted back into their own country.

Those same lands became the property of Mexico in 1821. They took it away from Spain in a war that lasted several years. Fifteen years later, Texas became its own nation and claimed all the land between the boundary of the United States and the Rio Grande River. In 1836, the Rio Grande River became the boundary between the Republic of Texas and Mexico.

Texas joined the United States in 1845. That established the Rio Grande River as the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. Mexico contested the annexation of Texas into the U.S., which resulted in the Mexican American War. It was a short war ending in 1848.

During that war, the U.S. conquered the entire country of Mexico and even occupied Mexico City. If any other country had done that, Mexico would have become owned by the victor. The U.S. has never taken over lands it conquered in war. Instead we gave Mexico its country back and paid them $18 million dollars for the lands Mexico claimed north of the current border between the two countries. Our inflation calculator calls that a half trillion dollars in today’s money.

Lone Writer and Happy Jack had been following the Rio Grande all the way from Stony Pass with the intention of tracking it to the New Mexico border. In the October issue of this magazine, they followed the river to Creede. They left that town on a sunny Colorado morning following the river by using Highway 149. It passed through Wagon Wheel Gap.

Wagon Wheel Gap was explored in 1848 by railroad scouts looking for a possible route into the newly-acquired territory. They were welcomed by a ferocious winter storm. Ten people in the expedition died.

In 1863, another group found an abandoned wagon wheel in the gap. It has been known as Wagon Wheel Gap since that discovery. In the early 1900s, a hotel was built at the site of a hot springs near the gap. The hotel became a stop on the newly-built railroad. Today, it is simply a rest stop with a historic marker.

When Lone Writer and Happy Jack arrived in Alamosa, Colorado, they spent a few minutes in the visitor center and learned the city was first established as a railroad town in 1878. That would be 71 years after Zebulon Pike’s troop crossed the river near there. The Rio Grande River flows around the north side of town and then takes off across wide-open country toward New Mexico.

Following the river out of town begins on gravel roads through farms and ranches. The road passes through one community that has some characteristics of a ghost town. TopoUSA calls it Lasauses. There is a building that looks like a church and has a lone grave planted outside its front door. There are some other buildings that appear to be occupied and some that do not. We were unable to find any information about the town.

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