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We’ve been writing from an overview of Pagosa Country history as we describe why the town of Pagosa Springs was established at that particular time and place.
We’ve explained how white prospectors invaded the region because of its wealth of precious metals. We’ve pointed out that the prospectors and miners were trespassing on Ute land because that’s where the ores were. Understandably, the Utes were outraged. In response, the U.S. built an Army Post called Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs, hoping to intimidate the Utes while a solution was worked out.
In the process, Congress rejected the first solution, which was a reservation covering the eastern portion of what is now Archuleta County with a headquarters on the Navajo River. In quick succession, a Ute revolt occurred in Meeker that resulted in the deaths of several whites. A new treaty, called the Brunot Treaty, was approved in 1873 that granted the Southern Utes a reservation stretching northward 15 miles from the New Mexico/Colorado border and eastward from the Utah border to within a few miles of Pagosa Springs.
The new reservation had headquarters at Ignacio for the Moache and Capote Southern Ute bands and at Tawaoc for the Weminuche band. In this atmosphere of mining frenzy by whites trying to placate the Utes, the Town of Pagosa Springs was born. Fort Lewis was first established at Pagosa Springs in 1878, then moved to the center of the new reservation at Hesperus, where it remained until the 1890s.
Still, many of the settlers in San Juan Country pushed for removal of the Southern Utes to Utah or any place else that would allow the whites to claim the prime Ute land.
At the same time, forces were in effect across the nation with the goal of forcing Native Americans to assimilate within the white culture. Laws were passed banning Native Americans from practicing their traditional religion or speaking their native languages. A strong push was made to force them into agricultural pursuits to earn a living. Despite white conviction that they were offering the Native Americans a better life, the Native Americans were not convinced. Their attitude might be summarized by a quote from a Ute leader, who, while gazing at a potato held in the palm of his hand, said, “G—damn the potato!”
Meanwhile, again on a national scale, a law was passed encouraging Native Americans to homestead lands in the same fashion as whites. Before the law was applied to particular tribes, they were allowed to vote “yea” or “nay.” Most of the western tribes approved the concept … popularly called owning land in severalty. Nationwide, the concept decimated the reservations of those tribes which approved.
In Pagosa Country, the Southern Utes at Ignacio approved the concept, the Weminuche at Tawaoc turned it down. The result, as we see looking from today’s pedestal, is the Ignacio Utes have lost most of their reservation, the Utes at Tawaoc have retained theirs.
The loss of land occurred because, after all of the Utes who wanted a “homestead” were identified; the remaining land was opened to non-Indians for homesteading. In our area, most of the land from Arboles to the La Plata River was claimed by white homesteaders.