Traipsin’, tradin’ and explorin’

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
J.T. Martinez watches closely as hired hands clip the wool from his sheep. It’s possible that Pagosa Springs area pioneers made more money from sheep than from cattle. A sheep provided two incomes: wool and meat. During those early days, sheep herds numbered in the thousands. Martinez was an Archuleta County commissioner, his father a county judge.

Last week in the latest of my series of columns describing the earliest explorers to visit the Pagosa Hot Springs, we featured Capt. John M. Macomb, a topographical engineer with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. I closed with a promise to provide further details written by Macomb. Further research reveals a lot of additional information, but it is all written by the experts who accompanied Macomb.
It’s a lot of information, too much for this short column. A document containing Macomb’s letters to his wife while he was traipsin’ through the Far West is also available. The letters mostly show him to be a devoted husband. And so, this week we’ll move to the next hot springs visitor on our list.
Following Macomb’s 1859 visit, a story circulated suggesting gold could be found in the La Plata Mountains “just a waitin’ fer the pickin’.” As soon as the snow melted the following year, Charles Baker set out from Santa Fe following tracks left by Macomb’s party. After poking around amongst the rocks of the San Juans for most of the summer, Baker and his henchmen returned to Santa Fe with news that, “shor nuf, thar’s gold in them thar hills!”
Not one to overlook an opportunity, Baker platted a road from Abiquiu to Baker’s Park, the new and appropriate name hung on the West’s latest get-rich-quick playground. Baker then chartered a toll road starting in Abiquiu and pretty much following the Old Spanish Trail to Baker’s Park. Not surprisingly, the new toll road was named the “Abiquiu, Pagosa and Baker City Toll Road.”
Before Baker could put a bulge in his pockets with toll road money anticipated from the hordes of prospectors traipsin’ eagerly into Baker’s Park, the Civil War erupted. Most of the able-bodied prospectors returned to fight for the side of their choice. Additionally, nearly all of the regular Army outfits stationed in New Mexico and Colorado returned east and south.
Native Americans waved cheerful goodbyes to the troops marching back to the states. Almost before the sound of creakin’ wagon wheels faded into nothingness, those same well-wishers began appropriating settler and freighter supplies for their personal benefit.
Iron wagon wheels soon metamorphosed into arrow and spear points stashed with surprising regularity in the warriors’ war bags. Settlers scattered here and yon in the Southwest survived this onslaught by keeping one hand on the plowshare and one hand on a loaded firearm. For a long time, the Native American’s future prospects, including life expectancy, outweighed the hopes of the invading whites. Mayhem was the norm for white settlers. Mayhem ended when the Civil War ended. Learn more about the change in next week’s column.

This story was posted on June 18, 2019.