area history

Freight wagons on the Santa Fe Trail, circa late 19th century.
Photo courtesy A.R. Mitchell Museum.

A Brief History

The first permanent residents arrived in the area about a thousand years ago, building substantial stone foundations for homes that were probably made of hides, stone walls, and windbreaks. These settlers left stone rings, sometimes called tepee rings, scattered throughout the region. One can be seen at Trinidad Lake State Park.

Early humans also left an abundance of petroglyphs and artifacts in the surrounding region. Many artifacts can be seen at the Louden-Henritze Archaeology Museum. Guided tours take visitors to petroglyphs in the nearby canyons.

Trinidad itself began as a trading center on the Santa Fe Trail. A large grove of cottonwood trees along the Purgatoire River, near downtown Trinidad, was a favorite resting place for weary travelers. It was here that they recovered from the difficult journey from Bent’s Fort and gathered strength for the even more difficult passage over Raton Pass and into New Mexico Territory. The town later continued to grow as a hub for large ranching operations and as a railroad town. Immigrants from many nations came to Trinidad to work the rich coal mines.

Trinidad’s history includes Bat Masterson, who was marshal for a time in the 1880s. He was considered to be a good lawman when not pursuing his favorite pastime of gambling. Wyatt Earp drove the stage between Trinidad and Box Springs, New Mexico. Kit Carson had many adventures in the area. Cathay Williams was the only woman known to have served as a Buffalo Soldier, African-American units of the Cavalry. She changed her name to William Cathay, dressed like a man, and joined the Buffalo Soldiers in 1866. After her discharge, she lived in Trinidad and area towns. The feisty Mother Jones came to town to support the coal miners in their efforts to gain fair wages and working conditions. She was put in jail for her trouble. In 1935, Will Rogers stopped in Trinidad long enough to observe, “Trinidad, Colorado, has enough coal to melt the North Pole until it runs.”

The town has many beloved local characters who made major contributions to the art, architecture, and historic preservation of the town. The A.R. Mitchell Museum, Trinidad History Museum, and local Carnegie Public Library offer a wealth of exhibits and information. A Walk Through the History of Trinidad, available at the Carnegie Public Library and the Trinidad History Museum bookstore, offers a self-guided tour of downtown architecture along with many Trinidad tales.

The Trinidad State Welcome Center at 309 Nevada offers free brochures on Trinidad’s landmarks, the unique geology of the region, and other aspects of Trinidad’s history.

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Last Modified 2/2/17