Hot springs, hot water and high hopes

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
If you think the San Juan River looked wicked and roily when it reached flood stage a few weeks ago, you should have seen it in 1911, the year of “The Great Flood.” This photo showing houses being swept downstream should give you an idea of the damage done. Every bridge in the county washed out and two lives were claimed.

We’ve been writing about the sundry and various claims used by Pagosa Country pioneers in an effort to obtain title to the Great Pagosa Hot Springs. Complicating the whole picture was the series of events leading to settlement of the Upper San Juan Country.
In the first place, the whole country was controlled by the Southern Utes. Hoping to placate the Utes and create stability in the area, a series of meetings was held. One of these, called the Brunot Treaty in 1873-1874, reduced Ute land to a 40-mile north-to-south strip running west to east from the Four Corners corner and the border of Utah Territory to the San Juan River. Somehow, as a result of this treaty, the springs ended up belonging to the federal government.
The federal government set aside 6 square miles for Fort Lewis with the springs as epicenter. Onto this 6-square-mile swatch of government land arrived a cadre of settlers, businessmen and folks seeking title to the springs.
The feds sorted things out thusly. Rutherford B. Hayes, the president of the United States, took charge. In May of 1877 by presidential proclamation, he reserved 1 square mile as a townsite with the main hot spring as the center point.
According to Army Lt. C.A.H. McCauley, at a grand council held by the Ute Commission, a group of leading Colorado citizens chosen to negotiate with the Southern Utes, the Utes expressed their wish to Commission Chairman Gen. Edward Hatch that the “Great Father in Washington retain possession of the place so that all persons, whether whites or Indians, might visit it, and when sick come there and be healed, firmly believing its waters to be a panacea for all diseases or afflictions.”
If there was fraud as McCauley alleges, it has never been exposed to the light of day. Maj. Henry Foote, a capitalist with considerable property in Del Norte, had on March 22,1875, placed a 40-acre claim on the spring using Valentine Scrip and designating the hot springs as center of his claim.
James L. Byers, John Conover, and Dr. A.C. Van Duyn, on Oct. 4, 1875, claimed 40 more acres with Valentine Scrip directly south of Foote’s 40 acres.
More on this subject next week.

This story was posted on August 18, 2019.