To the northeast, the weathered Little Bookcliffs cut across the skyline. To the southeast soars the Grand Mesa, the world's largest flat-topped mountain. The photogenic canyons and monoliths of the Colorado National Monument form a western wall. In between the three natural barriers sprawls Grand Junction. Cut out of the rugged terrain by the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, the valley was also one of the last locales in the lower 48 states to be settled by pioneer Americans.
The region's colorful history stretches much further back in time. A little-known aboriginal civilization known as the Fremont first moved into the area around 200 A.D. Living in pit-houses, eating insects, small animals and the sparse produce from tiny gardens, the mysterious Fremont left western Colorado around 1300 A.D. Roughly 100 years later, the first bands of wandering Utes moved into the region. The various Ute tribes eventually called much of Colorado and Utah home until they were forced onto reservations in 1881. Both groups left behind numerous examples of colorful rock paintings and canyon carvings. Some of the unexplained rock art can still be spotted today.
Until 1821, the Grand Junction area was part of the kingdom of Spain. And during the early and mid-1700s, hardy Spanish and Mexican soldiers, explorers and priests poked and prodded through the region. Some were looking for gold, others seeking new trails to Spanish California. Most were not too successful.
At first, trail-blazing American mountain men weren't very successful either. Hoping to trap valuable beaver or trade with Ute Indians, most of the Americans were kept out of the territory by jealous Spanish officials. However, when western Colorado became part of Mexico in 1821, the mountains were suddenly wide open to trappers, traders and wandering buck-skinners of the U.S.
A few of the same mountain men to first see Colorado's Western Slope later helped guide U.S. Army expeditions and Government Surveying parties through the region. Some of the Old West's best known explorers — Kit Carson, John Charles Fremont and Capt. John Gunnison — all passed through the Grand Junction area in the 1840s and 1850s.
In spite of anti-American Indian politicians, a large part of western Colorado remained Ute territory until September 1881. The region was opened to homesteaders, ranchers and town builders the very day the Utes were being forced out by Army troopers. By the time Kansas politician and real estate developer George Crawford decided the unclaimed Grand Junction area would make a good town site, Denver, Colorado already had a population of 50,000, and Grand Junction was just being born!
Visit Grand Junction's Museum of the West to see historical artifacts firsthand.