Peak Past: Reflecting On The Treaty That Solidified ‘America’s Mountain’ 200 Years Ago

*Note: This audio essay first aired on KRCC (Colorado Springs’ NPR affiliate, 91.5 FM) on February 18, 2021. The link to the program is here; the audio file and the text from the essay are below.

Robert Frost once wrote, “good fences make good neighbors,” but the fence matters less if both sides agree on where their land ends. This wasn’t an issue with the Native peoples that first roamed the Pikes Peak region. But 200 years ago the border between the U.S. and Spain ran right through what’s now Colorado. 

There wasn’t any GPS, or even many maps then, so there were plenty of arguments over who owned what. 

American Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and Spanish diplomat Luis de Onís signed what’s now known as the Adams-Onís Treaty, which took effect on Feb. 22, 1821. It’s also referred to as the Transcontinental Treaty. The agreement granted Florida to the United States, and set an official boundary between the U.S. and Spain here in the West.

It sets the border as “the River Arkansas…following the Course of the Southern bank of the Arkansas to its source in Latitude.” 

The southern edge of the Arkansas became the boundary. North and east of the river was America; south and west of the river was Spain. 

In modern terms, if you were south of the Arkansas River in Pueblo, you’d have been in Spain. Salida and Buena Vista, you’d have been on the Spanish side, too. 

Leadville’s trickier, because that’s where the Arkansas River’s headwaters are. But I reckon Leadville’s land would’ve been on American soil in 1821, even if it wasn’t to become a city for about another half-century. 

And not one year after the first Americans ascended what would later become Pikes Peak, “America’s Mountain” firmly became an American mountain.

Until our next mountainside chat—be good, be well, and no matter what, climb on.

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