Baca County History

by the Plainsman Herald

Tributaries of Baca County by Dr. Bill Stoner

Tributaries of Baca County Colorado

We have all heard the cry: “Two Buttes is Running!” or “Bear Creek is Running!”  When I was a young boy I often wondered how such a little creek in my own neighborhood (Bear Creek) could occasionally usher so much water.  At the time, I was not aware of the tremendous infrastructure that produced the final outcome.  Then I grew up and, among other things, learned about geography (name and location), topography (surface features), and sociology (significant people, places, and events).  Let’s dabble in each of these areas.

Having worked in military intelligence for decades, we became pretty good at understanding geography and in doing so, we became pretty good at reading maps.  It was through this activity for which I developed a fondness for maps, a fondness, which I am sure, I share with many of you.  I recently stumbled across an interesting map of Baca County at our local drug store.  Upon studying it, it became clear that this free map (thanks, Lance; and others) had a great amount of detail regarding the tributaries of the primary waterways in the County.  I had never seen such detail singularly dedicated to water flow.  The first problem was that we needed some highlighting because the waterways were faint.  After etching over a couple streams with a black pen, it became clear that we were looking at a gold mine in the display of how water flows in the County.  Then etching over the entire map using a wide font for the backbone of a creek and a narrower font for their tributaries, the accompanying map was produced.  Using the United States Geological Survey (USGS) maps for naming references (thanks, Mark and Mike), the annotated names were attached for the seven primary playas and 18 creek tributaries in the County.

All the experts agree: There is NO agreement on how waterways are named and only one agency appears to be in charge of maintaining the names (U.S. Board on Geographic Names).  I suspect that most of the original naming came from earlier military activities because the military, when moving west, were assigned surveying responsibilities.  As for named tributaries, it appears as though for a tributary to be named, its length must be beyond some limit; something beyond five miles long.  Even then, being longer than five miles does not assure a name is provided.  As for the “type of waterway” conventions, according to Wikipedia, the waterways may go by the names of stream, brook, creek, arroyo, wash, fork, branch, run, rito, slough or river.  Further complicating the issue is the fact that various authors may refer to the smaller waterways as canal, chanel (one n), branch, crik, rivulet, streamlet, brooklet, runlet, runnel, rundle, rindle, beck, gill, burn, sike, freshet, fresh, millstream, race, tributary, feeder, confluent, effluent, billabong, flow, and course.  This further muddles the notion of having the name connote the type.  Some experts have attempted to distinguish the types based on drainage area (in square miles), but clearly no hard specifications have ever evolved.  This approach is predictably destined to failure because of the tens-of-thousands of waterways in the US (there are 5,564 just in Colorado), the distribution of the drainage statistic would be a continuum the divisions of which would be arbitrary and meaningless.  It basically boils down to: River and Not-River.  As for Baca County, check the Webpage “Probable Playas in Baca County, Colorado” for a good reference for all the backbones of the County (oh-oh, there is another name; playa, if Spanish counts).

The only river in the County is the Cimarron River with its North Fork tributary.  The river flows easterly from its headwaters about 50 miles east of Raton, New Mexico on into the northern panhandle of Oklahoma where it makes a turn and crosses the southeastern tip of Baca County.  The North Fork of the Cimarron River originates in south-central Baca County and flows east exiting southern Baca County, then proceeds north-northeast to right below Ulysses, Kansas where it turns to the southeast heading for the confluence with its larger mate.  The confluence of these two waterways is about halfway between Moscow and Satanta, Kansas just a bit to the northwest of the midpoint.  Note all the Cimarron tributaries on the south-western and south-central part of the County which are feeding the Cimarron River (I count ten).  Baca County significantly contributes to the drainage into the Cimarron River which merges the Arkansas near Tulsa.  In the original writing of this article, I overlooked the waterways in the southwest part of the county.  My only explanation is that the map I was using likewise omitted any comment regarding East and West Carrizo Creek, which merged into North Carrizo Creek, and Cottonwood Creek, which merged with the West branch of the Carrizos.  My sincere apologies to the folks in southwest Baca.  And thanks to Joe for giving me a tour of this beautiful area.

Heading north in Baca County, the next waterway consists of the west side of the Sand Arroyo Creek and the Lone Rock Draw.  The Sand Arroyo Creek has both North and South Fork tributaries while the Lone Rock Draw only has a North Fork tributary.  The Sand Arroyo Creek is the longest creek in Baca County actually starting with its North Fork Creek just barely in Las Animas County to the west and flowing into Stanton County, Kansas to the east.  The Lone Rock Draw is one of the two streams in the County not named creek.  The Sand Arroyo Creek and the Lone Rock Draw have their confluence near some Crane land about seven miles south and six miles east of Springfield.  From this confluence, Sand Arroyo Creek flows out of Baca County into Stanton County where it meets the North Fork of the Cimarron River seven miles south and seven miles west of Ulysses, Kansas.

Next in line heading north is Bear Creek.  But, it is difficult to talk about Bear Creek without also talking about Horse Creek.  Some people might be offended by the notion that Horse Creek is just the North Fork of Bear Creek; so, we will talk about them separately.  Bear Creek has named tributaries of Plum Creek and Cat Creek flowing into Bear Creek in the Springfield area, and Dry Creek which merges with Bear Creek near Walsh.  In the northeast corner of the County, there are two creeks which merge with Bear Creek just over the Kansas line: these are Buffalo Creek and Beaty Creek. From those confluences, Bear Creek then continues northeast and used to run into the Arkansas River just eight miles southwest of Lakin, Kansas (thanks, Michael), but, recent decades have it filling a floodplain between Lakin and Ulysis.

As for Horse Creek, in some references, it is referred to as South Horse Creek because there is another Horse Creek to the north of us but still in Colorado.  Our Horse Creek also has North and South Forks originating to the west of Highway 287 with their confluence on some Chenoweth land about three miles east of 287 and two miles south of Highway 116.  Horse Creek has three named tributaries called Sand Creek, Little Horse Creek, and Antelope Creek.  Finally, Horse Creek merges with Bear Creek on the Mundell ranch about three miles above or north of Highway 160 and about seven miles west of the Kansas line.  A most remarkable and conspicuous feature distinguishing Bear and Horse Creeks are displayed on the Google Earth Map in the Mundell area: Horse Creek has ten-times as many trees as what Bear Creek has.  Does anyone have an explanation for this dichotomy (and I do not want to hear any Johnny Appleseed stories)?

The answer to my boyhood question of “how come so much water” stems from the fact that the drainage area for Bear Creek is around 600 square miles in a county of only 2600 square miles.  That is, 23% of the County land mass feeds rainwater into Bear Creek and it grows to over 40% when you combine with the drainage area from Horse Creek – 40% of the County is dumping on the Mundell’s when it rains hard in the west and central Baca County.  I have seen Bear Creek running when it was not raining in Walsh, and now I know why.  This actually happens most often because the creek keeps flowing for many hours if not a couple days after it has stopped raining

The northeast corner of the County is finished by noting the presence of a couple of apparently unnamed creeks one flowing into Prowers County and the other flowing into Stanton County, Kansas, plus the very beginnings of Little Bear Creek.  These beginnings become more sizeable when flowing into Prowers County then into Stanton County, then into Hamilton County where it runs into, can you believe this, a creek called North Bear Creek, 13 miles south and four miles west of Syracuse, Kansas.

Finally, to the northwest, we have Two Butte Creek.  No, I did not misspell it; according to the USGS (and other sources), there is no pluralizing “s” in the spelling of the creek while there is an “s” in the spelling of the Reservoir, the Town, the Hill and the Wildlife Area.  Clearly, two different bureaucracies were at work here.  I initially thought all the maps were derived from the USGS source, but now it is becoming clear that some of those derivations are not directly from the USGS. Unfortunately, the map that started all this off (published by Mass Marketing Incorporated, Ohio) spells the creek with an “s” as some others do.  Personally, I would trust the accuracy of the USGS beyond that of a commercial enterprise trying to make a buck.  To make matters worse, a professor from the Colorado School of Mines, who was well-versed in geology, when traveling in our area was told that the hill is called Two Buttes.  The professor dryly responded: “It is not a butte and there are not two of them.”  Oh well.  After the reservoir, the creek flows northeast through Prowers County and merges with the Arkansas River a few miles southwest of Holly.  The creeks which are tributaries flowing into Two Butte Creek in Baca County unambiguously include Freezeout Creek from the south side of the backbone, then Maverick Creek and Snake Arroyo (the other stream not named creek) from the north side.  The waterway that has me stumped is Cottonwood Creek.  I cannot tell if, due to some database quantization issue with the map, whether Cottonwood Creek flows into Two Butte Creek or away from it into Bent County; there is just no display of a link between Cottonwood Creek and Two Butte Creek.  The USGS map in this area is likewise difficult to read.  The elevation data does not resolve the issue.  Maybe some Wilson folk with land in this area can help us out: Does Cottonwood Creek flow into or away from Two Butte Creek?  I guess I could go and check it out, but I have no idea on how to get there; do you?  Will my car do or do I need a tractor to get there? Any help would be appreciated.  And, when is the next time it is going to rain up there?  It would be helpful if it were raining to see which way the water is flowing.  Note that if this creek does flow into Two Butte Creek, then it would be the second creek with the Cottonwood name.  Do you remember where the other one is?


Now that we have covered the geography of the waterways, let’s look at the most interesting topography.  Probably the most striking feature provided by this presentation is the topographical property of “division.”  Living in Colorado, we are familiar with the notion of the “Continental Divide”; that imaginary line that separates the east and west sides of, not only the State of Colorado but the entire continent of the United States from Canada to Mexico.  Similarly, we have what I will call the Baca County Divides.  For example, imagine a line drawn on this map that separates the tips of the tributaries flowing into the south side of the Two Butte Creek backbone and the tips of the tributaries flowing into the Horse Creek backbone from the north, and then on down south to Bear Creek.  Those “tips of the tributaries” are sometimes less than a mile apart.  Similarly, a County Divide exists between Horse Creek and Bear Creek until we get to the Mundell node; then between Bear Creek and Lone Rock Draw/Sand Arroyo Creek; another in the interior between Lone Rock Draw and the North Fork of the Sand Arroyo Creek; and finally, between the Cimarron flows and everything above or to the north of them.  The physical principle that governs the direction of water flow is “the path of least resistance” which is not just at a specific tipping point, but may draw a tipping line dozens of miles long and, remarkably, appears fairly straight in these cases.  Their straightness is probably a consequence of the allusion that we have some wiggle room within which our minds tend to straighten the lines out (our brains tend to favor order over chaos).  The lines could even become surfaces depending on the selected unit of measurement and its scale (inches, feet, yards, 10 yards, 100 feet, furlongs, etc.)  Thus, the County Divides appear heavily structured or smooth while the “things being divided” are extremely erratic between the Divides.

Even the Divides have some interesting properties.  I can see three Divides meeting in just about the same place near where Joyce and Eddie Ming live on Road CC a couple miles east of the County’s west boundary.  Joyce and Eddie are within a stone’s throw of tributaries contributing to Two Butte Creek, Bear Creek, Lone Rock Draw and Sand Arroyo Creek.  This is a very unique location (well, okay, maybe within one of Hayden Brooks’ rocket launches if not a stone’s throw; in any case, very close).  The only waterways missing are Horse Creek and the Cimarron. Everything meets near Joyce and Eddie’s place which, according to the USGS elevation data, is very close to an elevation marker at 5,215 feet (1591 meters, the highest elevation in the surrounding area).

The final interesting topographical property is what I have labeled as “Islands.”  No, these waterways are not named Island; I am just referring to them as Islands because they appear as isolated networks not leading anywhere (like an island in the ocean).  There are two of them shown on the map: the first is between the Lone Rock Draw and the Sand Arroyo Creek on the west-central side of the County (seven miles south of Springfield spanning both the west and east sides of Highway 287); and the second is between the Sand Arroyo Creek and the North Fork of the Cimarron River on the east side of the County (smack between the east-west Roads X and Z about five miles west of the Kansas line).  It is not clear what has caused these isolated peculiarities: are they deep or shallow; is it just quantization of the USGS data source; or what?  Maybe some Wallace or Neill folks can comment to further enlighten our understanding of these waterways on the west Island or the McCall, Bryan, Smith or Hume folks on the east Island.  The path of least resistance means that the water has to flow somewhere.  It has been suggested that maybe the water goes underground, thus flowing into an aquifer somewhere, or enters a flat area temporarily becoming like a lake until the water has enough time to seep in. We need more than an amateur topographer like myself to figure this one out.

Geography, topography and now sociology.  These waterways in our County are not dormant, they are not just lying there; they are a physical part of our society.  The number of significant events for which they were involved would fill books and has already done so.  Babies born; couples married; people dying sometimes actually on a creek.  The mind randomly wanders: parties held; timed horse races run from atop Two Buttes hill to Pritchett; theatrical plays rehearsed and performed upon a creek; fishing Turks; goose hunting with one shot or a box full; water skiing the reservoir; a couple of Dr.’s snow skiing down the rocky slope; fairs and rodeos held after parades; Saturday night dances held for the entire family with a snort or two in the pickup at intermission; great teachers producing science fair winners and coaches producing state champions including a Triple Crown; ditching school to hunt geese on Turk’s pond then paying 30 days of detention; staging a fake killing at a high school dance which was not so funny when a mother fainted; the social events are unending.  The cattle rounded up, doctored, branded, fed and watered; creeks cut to make water holes for range cattle regardless of the shouts and cries from Kansas; cattle shipped by train to Kansas City with a ride and snooze in the caboose; crops harvested using horses or donkeys and men on up to million-dollar machines nowadays with autopilots; broomcorn produced and Indian-cut, marketed and shipped; a store in Walsh selling more Mennen’s After Shave Lotion than any other store in the US to be distilled by the Cherokee broomcorn harvesters to make spirits; onions weeded over acres by hoe; work crews fed and bedded; Charlie shooting that almost seven-foot mountain lion; the creeks have seen it all. Then railroads arriving, thriving and declining; a dam built with just men and animals; outlaws, gunslingers and bank robbers passing through; stock markets have fallen and depressions survived; towns moved; cemeteries opened then closed; wars fought and won but some only fought; leaders assassinated; landing on the moon; towers crumbling; shocked and awed, and all this is relatively recently.  Our lives and our society thrives in, around and on the creeks.

Going back a ways in time, a significant era in the history of the County involving the creeks was the 1820 to 1880 period of the Santa Fe Trail.  This well-renowned trail actually has three branches which traveled through Baca County.  The so-called Cimarron Shortcut (or Cimarron Dry Route) closely parallels the Cimarron River to the southeast of the County (it was a shortcut but with a deadly lack of water across southwestern Kansas); then there was the Aubry Cutoff which actually traveled through Walsh before Walsh was Walsh and it connected with the Cimarron Shortcut at Upper Cimarron Spring in the Oklahoma panhandle; and finally the Grenada-Fort Union branch which cuts through the northwest corner of the County loosely following the Two Butte Creek then moving down closely paralleling the Freezeout Creek, then into Las Animas County heading for New Mexico.  According to our local expert, Lolly Ming, this route was called the Grenada-Fort Union Military Freight Route and it saw more freight move down it than either the main Mountain Route or the Cimarron Route.  Hopefully, Lolly will edify us with part of her remarkable knowledge of this area and period.

I have read three historian’s accounts of the following events occurring on Two Butte Creek.  The three descriptions are fairly consistent but the most complete and the one I like best is by George Bird Grinnell in his book The Fighting Cheyennes.  I will paraphrase his version.  Some Kiowa Indians approached some young Cheyenne warriors and told the young warriors that they wanted to make peace among tribes living in this area.  These tribes were the Comanche, Kiowa and what was called the Prairie Apache (not the Arizona Apache) from the south and the Cheyenne and Arapahoe from the north.  The Utes were hated by everyone so they were not invited.  The young warriors said they could not make such a decision and would have to take the offer to their chiefs.  Upon doing so, the Cheyenne chiefs said they could only let their Dog Soldiers, who were the most fearsome Cheyenne Warrior Tribe, make such a decision.  The Dog Soldiers eventually said “Yes, we want to make peace with our lifelong enemies.”  Men from the five tribes met on Two Butte Creek to hold council and agree to the peace offering which has never been broken.  This meeting was accompanied with a lot of Indian ceremonies as, apparently, bad feelings among the tribes had to be healed including the wiping out of an entire warrior tribe (the Cheyenne Bow Strings for which the Kiowa still had the scalps of the Bow String warriors) and the recovery of some Sacred Arrows lost by the Cheyenne to the Kiowa.  The Sacred Arrows were used by the Cheyenne to perform War Ceremonies.  These events were in the years 1838-1840 and it is not real clear where on Two Butte Creek the gathering occurred other than it was at a place known to have large piles of trees and driftwood as the result of a massive flood.  Occurring before the creek was named, the Cheyenne called the Two Butte Creek meeting place “Piles of Driftwood” and the author mentions that the “wood still lies heaped up in great piles.”  The book was first published in 1923 which was around 84 years after the meeting.  (Could remnants of the piles have lasted another 100 years into our period; a total of 180-to-190 years?  I have a tree near my home on Bear Creek that was washed up in the flood of 1951 and, now, 64 years later, the tree is barely showing signs of deterioration.) One description of the meeting place puts it over by Kim which is certainly a part of our society if not a part of the County, but another description leaves it uncertain as to exactly where the meeting occurred.  After agreeing to peace among the tribes, another celebration for all members of the five tribes (women, children, elderly, dogs and all) was held on the Arkansas River near Bent’s Fort.  This celebration was an exchanging of gifts and feasting which lasted many days.  The southern tribes brought more than a thousand horses to exchange for gifts.

If you note the years of these events (1838-40) plus the years of the early freight trains moving through the area (1820-80), I think what was happening is that the Indians were thinking that it is unwise of them to be fighting among themselves when a much larger enemy was just over the eastern horizon.  The white man was coming by the thousands and perhaps the tribes should band together to meet the invasion.  There is no confirmation of this theory; just my thoughts.

Bless our great County.  If you would like to make comments to either answer some of the questions or simply clarify any matter, please do not hesitate to contact me (; 719-324-5622)

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