Hot water, hot springs and high hopes

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Many an adventure took place at these springs. During pioneer days, cowboys and Indians celebrated July 4th by staging winner-take-all horse races near the springs. The springs’ surroundings were dotted with tepees.

It has been well documented that before the white man shouldered his way into Pagosa Country, the Great Pagosa Hot Springs were a source of awe to the resident native Americans. A legend of uncertain origin, but attributed to the Southern Ute Indians, is passed down with the folklore of Pagosa Country.
The legend tells of the origin of the Springs and adds to the aura of mystery surrounding the Springs to this day. Even now, when folks exchange stories about the Springs, voices get softer, more secretive, and sentences begin with “Did you know … ?” Everyone leans closer to the storyteller, hands cupped behind ears so as to not miss a word, and the mystery begins to unfold.
According to the Ute legend, a perplexing plague fell upon their people. They exhausted all of the skills of their medicine men, to no avail. Tribal members continued to drop dead. Drum beats thundered in desperation throughout the night, reaching the ears of large numbers of Utes, who abandoned buffalo hunting and other life skills and padded silently across the mountains to Pagosa Country, where they planted tepees on the banks of the San Juan River near the Springs.
A council of the greatest chiefs squatted in a ring around the Great Hot Spring, smoking pipes of peace as their guttural voices lifted heaven-ward, begging help from the ethereal gods.
Finally, after blackened pipes had rounded the circle many times, it was decided to build a gigantic fire accenting the desperate, upward cry for help. Around the roaring fire they danced and prayed. During the night while they slept on the spot where the fire had raged, a pool of boiling water appeared.
The grateful Utes bathed in and drank the water from the boiling spring and were healed.
Another story, which may well be fact, tells of a battle between Ute and Navajo for ownership of the Spring. Some say the fight took place in 1867. Others say it was in 1873. The tribes, both desirous of owning the Springs, met and skirmished all day long with neither side gaining advantage. Finally, they settled the bitter fracas by choosing one man from each tribe and having the two, armed with knives, confront each other. The winner’s tribe would own the springs.
Who won? Read next week’s column and you’ll know.

This story was posted on September 29, 2019.