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Mountain life as penciled by One of Joel's sons, Milton Estes in a collection of short stories


Joel Estes 1806-1875 a frontiersman, hunter, fur trader, explorer, gold prospector, mountain man and rancher, Joel was known for having good night vision hunting ability's and good communication skills with Natives.

Joel was the son of Peter Estes born near Richmond, Kentucky, May 25, 1806 then moving to the Missouri frontier with his family around the year 1818. In the spring of 1833 Joel and his Father Peter then age 59 left from Independence, Missouri with Wm Poe, John Sollars, Joseph Gladden, Antione Roubideaux and seventy other traders, trappers and adventures beginning their first trip into Colorado Territory. After a long journey the group arrived in their different places of destination. Joel Estes, Peter Estes, John Sollars and Joseph Gladden went to Santa Fe, New Mexico and learned about recently Found a gold placer deposits in the Ortiz mountains southwest of Santa Fe New Mexico. John Sollars and Joseph Gladden had previous experience with mining in Georgia, the men sold their outfits keeping only what they needed to subsist upon and the group went to the placer mining area where they were doing fairly well until the Mexicans disputed some of their mining claim rights in the area and their water dried up.

They with others who made up a company of 25 miners, independent trappers and hunters began moving north along the eastern base of the Sierra Madre Mountains, spending the winter of 1833 in the Ute Creek New Mexico area, then moving further north again and spending the next winter of 1834 in an area northwest of Denver Colorado. They were having good success in what was called the Black Hill area, but decided to hide some of their equipment and return to Missouri after the natives had become increasingly menacing.

Joel worked freighting goods between Liberty, Missouri and Joseph Roubideaux's Trading post that later became the town of St Joseph Missouri. Joel then made two trips west and back, one trip into the California gold rush area in 1849 with his son Hardin, age 21 and Joesph Hiatt age 23. Joesph Hiatt is reported to have returned from the 1849 California trip with 9 pounds of Gold according to the Hiatt family History. Joel made another trip to Oregon with Hardin in 1855 but the trip was said to be uneventful. In 1859 at age 53 Joel decided to move the family west from Missouri into Colorado Territory. Joel found and improved a trail up into the Estes Park Valley where he built a cabin and lived there with his family from the years 1859-1866. Joel was becoming more interested in the ranching business during his time in the Estes Park Valley and moved cattle into the Colfax County, New Mexico area in order to have a milder climate and a wider range for the cattle. Joel was buried a few miles south of Raton, New Mexico on private Ranch land December 31 1875.


About the 15th of October, 1859, Joel Estes, Sr., with his son Milton, traveled to the head of Little Thompson Creek., Colorado, near Long's Peak on a hunting and exploring trip. While on this expedition we discovered what is now known as Estes Park, named after my father Joel Estes, Sr. It is now over forty years since the writer first saw the Park and it is just as fresh in memory as though it happened yesterday. I shall never forget my first sight of the Park. We stood on the mountain looking down at the head waters of Little Thompson Creek, where the Park spread out for us. No words can describe our surprise, wonder and joy at beholding such an unexpected sight. It looked like a low valley with a silver streak or thread winding its way through the tall grass, down through the valley and disappearing around a hill among the pine trees. This silver thread was Big Thompson Creek. It was a grand sight and a great surprise. We did not know what we had found. Father supposed it was North Park for that was the only park we had ever heard of in this part of the Rockies. He soon gave up that idea when we looked around in the Park for a few days, and saw no signs that white men had ever been there before us. There were signs that Indians had been there at some time, however, for we found lodge poles in two different places. How long before, we could not determine.

Joel Estes

Joel Estes


We never saw any Indians while we lived in the Park, nor as we made trips to and from the Platte River ranch to the Park. The nearest the Indians ever came to us was when the Utes made a raid on St. Vrains River, near where Lyons now stands. That was about 1865, as near as I can now remember. The Indians passed near the north side of the Park as they returned over the mountains to their own country, We were monarchs of all we surveyed, mountains, valleys and streams. There was absolutely nothing to dispute our sway. We had a little world all to ourselves. There was no end to the game, for great band of elk, big flocks of mountain sheep and deer were everywhere. On further exploration in the Park, we found the streams or creeks were filled with mountain trout, speckled beauties. The Park was a paradise for the hunter. Father was carried away with the find, for he was a great lover of hunting and fishing.


One fall and winter the writer killed one hundred head of elk, besides other game, such as mountain sheep, deer and antelope. We dressed many skins for clothing which we made and wore. We must have looked like real Robinson Crusoes, but we were warm and comfortable. It was impossible to wear out the clothes, made from the skins of the wild game, so when we tired of one suit, we made a new one. By this time we had made a trail to Denver, where we sold many dressed skins and many hind-quarters of deer, elk and sheep. Much of the gold was not made into coins, so they sometimes weighed out gold dust to us in exchange. The nearest ranch to us was on upper St. Vrains River, about twenty-five miles distance over a rough trail. Very few hunters and trappers found their way to the Park. Several different parties tried to find the trail, but did not succeed, for we alone had blazed the trail, and knew the way into and out of the Park. One day while out on a hunting trip, the writer came upon a band of elk and with them was a large moose. He had come down over the range from the north country and was herding with the elk. Since elk were common I picked out Mr. Moose for my game. He was a fine, large animal and the first and only moose that had ever been killed so far south.


William N. Byers of Denver, Colorado, with Prof. Perry, Prof. Velia and George Nickols found the trail, after hunting several days for it on the St. Vrains River. They finally landed in the Park on September 22, 1864. They were on an exploring trip and bound for the top of Long's Peak. My youngest brother, Joel, Jr., about sixteen years old, piloted the party up to the foot of the mountain, then returned home. In a few days the party of explorers came back to the house, very hungry and very tired. They had succeeded in reaching the tip of Long's Peak. The writer was away from home when they returned, so they stopped over a few days at father's house, to rest, before returning to Denver. At this time Joel Estes, Jr., was the fisherman for the family and he was kept busy fishing for the party during their stay. After the Byers party had rested and filled up on mountain trout, they returned to Denver. William N. Byers was the Founder and Editor of the Rocky Mountain New. On his return to Denver, he wrote up their trip in his paper, calling the Park, Estes Park, thus naming it for my father, Joel Estes, Sr., the discoverer and settler. The papers bearing this record are on file in the State Historical Society Library, Denver, Colorado.


In those days we put up all the hay we needed with a common scythe. We did not need much hay until the Winter of 1864-65, which was very hard and cold. A two and a half foot snow fell in November, drifted badly and lay on the ground until spring. When our hay ran out, we had to move the stock down to the foot hills. We dug through great snow drifts, going down until we found some bare ground where there was grass, then the stock did well. Before and after this year, the stock always did well in the Park, and came through the winter fat enough for beef. The road to the Park was rough, although we worked on it a great deal at odd times. The present stage road to the Park from Lyons, runs nearly on the old trail we made in early days. Of course in some places the road had to be changed; where we went over the mountain, the road now has been made around it, to avoid the hill. The same old mountains, hills, valleys and streams are still there, but no wild game. The grass which formerly covered the Park, now only grows where it is fenced. There are good roads now all through the Park and plenty of good Hotels. It does not look natural to me, for I well remember the game, hunting and fishing as it was in early day when we had everything our own way.


Our correspondence with the outside world at this time was limited; at first it took a letter thirty days to get to Denver from Missouri River points; we went to Denver about once every two months, so if we received a letter three months after it was written, it was on time and was fresh news to us. Some of our letters were received a year after they were written, but we thought nothing of that. After the stage was put on to Denver from the Missouri River, we were right in the swim and we then received plenty of mail But as a rule frontiersmen did not bother much about mail, for they had become accustomed to doing without it. Some old hunters and trappers never used the mail, they never sent or received any word from the outside world. Time and progress have changed all that, but such was the life in the far west.


The guns that we used in those days were muzzle loading rifles. My old gun, that I used in the Park is now in the Historical Department at the Capitol Building, Denver Colorado, and it can be seen there any time. It was one of the two guns that were first carried into the Park. We could not shoot very fast, but my old gun did good execution, whenever it went off something had to drop. This gun was made at a country blacksmith shop in Andrew County, Missouri, by Jack Callahan in February, 1859. It was made especially to go to Pikes Peak, as Colorado was then called,. I used it a good many years for it was a very necessary companion during the Winter of 1859. I depended on that gun for my meals that Winter, and lived on meats for weeks at a time,. Game was so plentiful that we could not suffer for anything to eat or to wear, for that matter; we made our clothing out of skins,. From head to foot I was clothed in skins of the game which my old gun brought down. I called the gun Knock em stiff, It was rightly named, for it had killed the beaver that made my cap, the elk that made my coat, the antelope for my over skirt, the deer for my pants, moccasins and gloves.


We named all the mountains and streams; but they were renamed after we moved out of the Park, except the Gulch at the east of the Park, called Muggins Gulch, and Sheep Rock, which we shall mention again. Muggins Gulch was named for George Hearst, whose nickname was Muggins. He was given this name by Dan Gant, who with a man called Sowers, had some cattle in the Park, and Muggins was their herder. Muggins built a cabin at the head of the Gulch, so he could watch the cattle, lest any should try to leave and go back to the valley.


During the Summer of 1865, the first sermon was preached in my fathers house, by the Rev. Richardson of Denver, who with his wife and a party of five, came into the Park on a camping trip, The Richardson party numbered seven, the Estes family (big and little) numbered ten, so seventeen people were present to hear the first sermon. Mrs. Richardson and her friend were the first women who had nerve enough to tackle the mountain trail. After staying several days at the Estes ranch, living on mountain trout, fresh milk and butter, which my mother provided, and enjoying the wild beauty of the mountain scenery, they returned with their party to Denver. The women of our families, my mother, sister and wife, cheerfully shared with us the rugged life of the pioneer. With dutch-ovens, iron kettles hanging over open fire places, they cooked food that could not be surpassed. No modern methods could equal the splendid meals of wild game, hot biscuits, berries, cream, etc., that they prepared.


Among our pets was a black mare, and a mule, that came to the house every day to get a drink of buttermilk. The dogs and a pet elk, lived on milk; it was amusing to see the elk, trying to keep the dogs and chickens from drinking the milk. We finally sold the elk to a Denver man, who wanted him for a zoo or park. Several years afterward, I saw the elk in Pueblo in a park, and he had grown to be a fine animal. He was a beauty. There were four hunters in the family, Father, Jasper, Marion and the writer. Joel, Jr., the youngest boy, was the fisherman of the family. It was his duty to drive up the cows, look after the horses and catch the fish the family used. The trout was the finest I ever ate. We found trout at the head of the small streams, as high up as the timber line, on the snowy range, where the snow was perpetual. The largest trout that any of the family caught, weighed three and one-half pounds. That was considered a large mountain trout, for the size of the stream, as high up in the mountains as the Park was.


By this time the Park was becoming known somewhat to the outside world as a fine place for camping, hunting and fishing. In the summer time several parties came up to the Park, but very few knew how to catch mountain trout. One man, an old acquaintance, said he could catch trout just like he caught cat fish back east. He baited his hook with meat, put a lead sinker on his line, and set his fishing rod in the ground on the bank, near the water, and tossed his hook into the stream. Then he sat down to see what the fish would do. He fished a half day and caught nothing. He found that trout would not notice anything under the water. We fished with grass-hoppers or with artificial flies, which we made; and we would change the flies, until we found the color that suited the fish. Then they would bite as fast as we could pull them out. We kept the fly on top of the water and kept it moving, and the fish would jump after the fly. These fish had never been disturbed by fish hooks before, so it was a regular paradise for the fisherman in these days at the Park. In the winter the streams froze solid; then we cut holes in the ice, and caught a few fish that way.


There was a rocky mound which we called Sheep Rock about one hundred and fifty feet high. There was a crevice or seam running from the bottom to the top, on the north side of the rock, by which the sheep could climb to the top of the rock, single file. On the top of Sheep Rock there was a large basin which filled with water when it rained. In winter or during the hunting season, there was not much water in the basin. The sheep used the rock for a place of safety; after feeding they would climb to the top of the rock and lie down to rest. But we always knew when a flock was on the rock, by seeing one lone sheep standing guard on top, on the rim of the rock. He would be looking out for danger, while the other sheep were in the basin. That was the way father first discovered that the rock was a retreat for the sheep; so he named it Sheep Rock. When the sheep were in the basin, you could not see them from the ground, but they would walk up to the brow or edge of the rock, to look at us; and we would pick them off. When they fell outward, which they often did, the fall mashed them to a jelly. On the west side, where they nearly always fell, the rock was perpendicular. That rock was the cause of the mountain sheep, except a few stragglers, being exterminated in the Park. When we saw a flock of sheep within a mile or two of the Sheep Rock, we had a trained dog that we set on them, and they would strike straight for the Sheep Rock, then we would get the whole flock.


One evening Marion went out to drive the milk cows into the corral and he passed by a place where a dead cow lay. He always carried a large bull whip when he went after the cows. A large mountain lion rose up within a short distance of him, and began to switch his long tail on the ground like a cat when she is going to jump on a mouse. Marion began to walk backwards and keeping his eye on the lion and swinging his big whip, cracking it, making it pop like a pistol shot. The lion followed so fast after him as to come nearly in reach of his whip, which was about twenty feet long. Finally the lion stopped, and Marion ran for the cabin, and got his hunting rifle and returned to the place he left the lion; but the lion had made good his escape into the brush or among the rocks. The lion was probably watching around the carcass of the cow to catch and kill something to eat; for a lion would not eat anything that had died. They like to do their own killing; however, a lion would occasionally eat a deer that a hunter had killed.


While hunting one day, father killed a fine deer and hung it up in a tree to keep the wild animals from eating it, until he could return the next day with a horse and take it home. We were in the habit of doing this. When he returned the next day to get his deer, Behold! The deer was not there. On examining the ground he discovered the tracks of a large lion and by following the tracks about three hundred yards, he came to a big pile of sticks beside a fallen tree. He removed the sticks and there was his deer. The lion had made one meal on it, and covered it up for a future meal. The strange part of the whole affair was, the lion had picked up the deer, and carried it the three hundred yards, without dragging it on the ground. The deer must have weighed seventy-five pounds, which showed the strength of the lion's jaws. Lions were very hard to trap or poison for they would not eat meat, that they had not killed. They are very cunning; to illustrate, one day the writer went out hunting after a fresh snow had fallen and came upon the tracks of a lion. They were so fresh, I followed the foot prints some distance, in hopes of getting a shot at him. He finally turned into some rocks where his tracks were lost; so I quit following him, and followed some elk tracks. As I came back in the evening, I saw the lion's tracks had been following on my trail. He had followed me a long way, and had evidently been watching me all the time from his hiding place, among the rocks.


The strangest and most exciting experience, during my hunting in the Park, occurred in April, 1864, when I killed a whole band of thirteen deer, at one time, with a muzzle loading rifle northwest of the house. The house stood near where the Post Office was later located. On the north side of the Park, there stands a smooth looking, rocky mountain, with a small canyon running a short distance into the mountain. After a few hundred yards the canyon comes to a sudden stop. There were a few pine trees near the mouth of the canyon, a small band of deer was feeding at the mouth of the canyon, and when the deer saw me they ran into the canyon. I followed very cautiously, staying about one hundred yards behind the deer, for I knew they could not escape. Of course they had to stop because of the steep walls of the canyon; they could get out only by the same way they went in,. I knew well not to get too close to them for they would make a break rand run by me. So when within about a hundred yards of them I got behind a big rock and commenced shooting one deer at a time. The echo of the shot in the canyon puzzled the deer, they did not know where the noise came from. (for there was the shot, the echo and the re-echo.) They would start to run one way and the sound would re-echo and they would run back again. They kept jumping around, but were too bewildered to run in any certain direction. I kept out of their sight and shot as fast as I could reload my gun. Finally they started to run out the way they came in,. I stepped out in sight and they ran back again,. The next shot wounded a large one, and in his pain he made a break for liberty running by me. I tried to stop him, but in vain. He looked wildly at me and would have run over me, had I not gotten quickly out of his way. He ran about two hundred yards down the canyon and dropped. The rest of them started to follow the wounded deer. I waved my hat and hollowed at them, which so frightened them, that they again ran back into the canyon. Then I kept reloading and shooting until the last one was killed. The last one that was shot came running down the canyon, and dropped within a few feet from where I was standing. After resting awhile from the excitement I then made my way back to the ranch, hitched up a team of horses and went back for my game, which made a big load for the team. I have often thought of that wonderful days hunt.

Bear hunt in the Night

Father had built a corral in the rear of the house, the fence joining the house. There had been some sheep corraled there for some time, during the night, in order to protect them from the wolves and other wild animals; for the herders could take care of them during the day. At this time there was a young man staying at father's house who was ill with the mountain fever. From a camp near by two boys came to sit up part of the night with the sick man; they would then go back to their camp to sleep. One night when leaving the house to return to their camp they passed the corral, and a large bear jumped out of the corral with a sheep. The boys ran back to the house and got guns. Joel Estes Jr. joined them and they went out after Mr. Bruin. The bear had gone about eighty yards, and they all three shot at him at the same time; one of the shots struck the bear and crippled him. He got away in the dark. They hunted around for him and finally jumped him again. All three fired but did not succeed in bringing him down. By this time father and Marion had joined in the hunt. Father understood shooting a rifle after night and the first shot he took at the bear shot him through the heart. The boys were still afraid to go up to him in the dark for fear he might still be alive. After shooting another volley into him they went up to him and found that he was as big as an ox.

When And Why We Left The Park

After the severe winter of 1864-65 we decided to move out of the Park. We needed a milder climate and a wider range for the cattle for we wanted to engage in stock raising on a larger scale. Father sold the Park with all his right, title and intrest in the same and in consideration of a yoke of oxen. Micheal Hollinbeck and a man whose name we never knew, but who went by the name of "Buck" made the purchase. In those days many men were never called by their right name. I have known men for years by some nickname only. So on April 15, 1866 we left the Park.

Joel Estes Colorado Territory Exploration 1833-1834