(1812 - June 17, 1882)
Charles Autobee came west when he was only 11 or 12 years old. Orphaned when very young and running wild on the streets of St. Louis, he joined a group of trappers heading up the Missouri River in the early 1820s. In the next few years he learned all the rules of survival in the western wilderness, and he himself became known and respected throughout the west by mountain men and Indians alike.
Autobee was at the Pierre's Hole fight between the fur trappers and the Blackfeet. His journeys took him through Idaho and Wyoming and many other western states. Charles was illiterate, but he never drank or gambled.
In the 1830s he found himself in New Mexico, where he became an agent for Simeon Turley, who operated Turley's Mill, a large distillery north of Taos. Autobee became one of the west's first legitimate liquor distributors. Turley's Mill was destroyed and Turley was killed during the Mexican uprising of 1847.
During the rebellion he fought under Ceran St. Vrain. During this time and the years that followed, St. Vrain saw in Autobee the toughness, courage and intelligence that was needed to lead the settlement of huge Vigil and St. Vrain Land Grant in the Arkansas Valley, in what is now Colorado. St. Vrain was anxious to "prove up" on the grant when it came under review by the United States Government.
Autobee was finally convinced to settle this area and in February of 1853 he set out with about 60 pack animals loaded with provisions and equipment, much of it provided by St. Vrain, and 25 men. There was heavy, snow en route and the traveling was slow, but the party reached the confluence of the Arkansas and Huerfano Rivers by late February.
Autobee, who had his choice of the land, selected lowlands along the Huerfano and south of the confluence. The bottomlands along the river were heavily wooded, and the soil was deep and rich. The new settlement was built with permanency in mind, but Indian raids that same year would chase all but Autobee and his wife and workers back to New Mexico and end the short life of the settlements. In October of 1854 Autobee, with his wife Sycamore and some of his workers, was surrounded by Utes west of the settlement. The Indians ordered Autobee to turn over his wife (an Arapahoe) and other Arapahoes. Autobee refused. The battle lasted more than two hours. Autobee was wounded and some of his stock was stolen. But the Indians finally left--without Sycamore, who had fought valiantly beside her husband.
In 1855 Autobee built his permanent residence on the west side of the Huerfano,. Here he had his workers construct several buildings, primarily of adobe and wood, around a large square. This oasis became known far and wide as Autobee Plaza. Within months the "new Huerfano settlement" around Autobee Plaza became the most productive agricultural region in the Territory. Autobee first received Territory then military authorization to operate the ferry across the Arkansas River, anywhere within 7 1/2 miles of the mouth of the Huerfano River. His original ferryboat was so small that a wagon had to be dismantled to be carried across the stream. Nonetheless, business was brisk, as more and more gold hungry immigrants poured into Colorado. A later ferryboat built by the military, was one of the largest in existence, and could carry a fully loaded six-mule team. Autobee had a crew operating the ferry night and day. The cost for a non-military wagon drawn by two animals to cross on the ferry, was one dollar. A four-animal team cost $1.25. Every horse or mule with rider paid 25 cents. One person on foot was 20 cents. Livestock was 10 cents each.
Nearby Fort Reynolds relied on Autobee in many ways. His "saloon" was popular with the soldiers (though not with the officers). In addition to operating the ferry for the military, he also was frequently employed as a guide and scout, generally in forays against marauding Indians.
When a bridge was built across the Arkansas around 1866, most of Autobee's ferry traffic was lost, but the commandant of Fort Reynolds employed Autobee to operate the ferry for the military, exclusively.
During the Indian War of 1868, Autobee and his son, Mariano, served as guides and scouts for a contingent of soldiers sent from Fort Lyon, plus about 100 Mexicans, Indians and half-breeds, to put down the Plains Indians in southern Colorado. The Indians led them a merry chase and the small army became stranded without provisions. Mariano Autobee rescued them by getting through with wagonloads of food and supplies.
From 1870 to 1872 Autobee was employed virtually fulltime by the military as a guide and a scout. Much of his activity involved chasing down horse thieves and other lawbreakers.
Shortly after the Indian troubles subsided on the Colorado Plains the Army abandoned its posts along the Arkansas. Autobee had little to do. In the mid-1870s what land was not farmed by his sons was leased and Autobee lived in near-poverty the last few years of his life.
In 1879, the Colorado General Assembly voted a pension to Charles Autobee. It was not enough even to provide for his simple needs. In 1882, the U.S. Congress received a bill to grant Autobee a pension as an Indian fighter. Before the measure came up for a vote, Autobee died on June 17, 1882, at the age of 70.
Charles Autobee was buried in the St. Vrain Cemetery southeast of the present town of Avondale, CO. The original headstone marking the exact location of his grave was swept away by one of the many floods of the nearby Huerfano River. An elevated memorial headstone was erected in later years for this pioneer who settled and developed southern Colorado.
Information compiled by Steve Grimm