History in Focus: The new tourism
Fort Davy Crockett was one of the few trading posts on the West Slope during the fur trapping era. Many famous trappers, guides, and explorers spent time at the fort and mentioned it in their journals and letters.
Unfortunately, its exact location is inexplicably lost to history, but perhaps this historical mystery could be the start of a new style of tourism economy.
Built as a trading post by trappers Phil Thompson, William Craig, and Pruett Sinclair somewhere around 1836-1837 it was named in memory of Davy Crockett after his death at the Alamo. It quickly became a gathering point in Brown’s Hole for trappers, Indians, and explorers.
One observer of the fort, Dr. F.A. Wislizenus, arrived in 1839. Situated along the north shore of the Green River a few miles upstream from the Lodore Canyon, Wislizenus was not impressed with the simple one-story cottonwood adobe structure and wrote, “…the whole establishment appeared somewhat poverty-stricken, for which reason it is also known to the trappers as Fort Misery.” (Kouris, p.7)
Yet, Fort Davy Crockett hosted some of the most famous men of the era such as Jim Bridger and Joe Meek. In 1840, Kit Carson worked as a meat hunter for the fort (Pfertsh, Colorado Encyclopedia).
By 1840, beaver trapping was at an end and the fort was soon abandoned. In 1844, John C. Fremont, guided by Kit Carson, camped across the Green River and he noted the old fort was already crumbling and falling apart. (USFWS, Cultural Resource Program).
Over time, all vestiges of the fort disappeared. Depending on its actual location, it’s possible the Green River changed course and washed it away. Or, the cottonwood logs may have been carted off by later ranchers and settlers. It’s difficult to say why its location was erased from the land.
In 1959, the Steamboat Pilot reported the fort’s rediscovery. According to the July 30 article, Frank Willis, former foreman of the Two Bar ranch and husband of Anne Basset, was directed to the site by Sam Bassett, patriarch of the famed Bassett clan. With confidence it stated, “…the location of the fort has been determined.” In turn, the Moffat County Commissioners dedicated a commemorative plaque on a large sandstone rock near today’s Lodore Hall.
In 1976, the National Park Service Preservation Division surveyed site 5MF605 located upriver from Lodore Hall. Artifacts connected to the fur trading era were discovered and a National Register of Historic Places nomination form stated, “…based on surface artifacts, this site may very well be the site of Fort Davy Crockett…” (USFWS, Region 6 Cultural Resources, 2004). The site was examined several times but no firm evidence was discovered.
In December of 2004, the Department of Anthropology at Fort Lewis College determined site 5MF605 was not Fort Davy Crockett. Through subsurface and magnetic testing, the study did not find substantial artifacts such as glass, nails, wagon parts, adobe chinking, or chimney rocks from the fur trapping era.
Perhaps we could use this mystery to kickstart a new approach to history tourism! We are at ground zero for one of the most powerful and enduring images of American history – the fur trapper. Our community could leverage this powerful image into a yearly “Find the Fort” festival. History geeks in the congested urban jungles could travel to our wide open deserts, pony up a few thousand dollars, and fulfill their dreams of doing real historical field research under the strict direction of trained archeologists…and fill our hotels and restaurants while enjoying concerts, history symposiums, cowboy poetry readings and sipping on local craft beer.
Think of the Great American Horse Drive, Whittle the Wood, Area 51 minus the aliens, and Harrison Ford searching for the Ark of the Covenant…all rolled into one. Our high desert calls out to those who love the romance of our history and the inherent mystery of our arid, tough, and spiritual landscape.
Even if the fort is ever located, we could rebuild it. Heck, the original was just a bunch of old cottonwoods. Around this reconstructed fort a cast of historical actors could bring to life the ghosts of Bridger, Carson, and Fremont to rekindle their stories on the very ground they once trod….and this famous era of yore could come to life for a new generation under the mesmerizing star-filled skies of Brown’s Hole.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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