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Early Spanish explorations of San Juan Country

We’re launching a series of columns describing the adventures of Welch Nossaman, likely the first white man to build a cabin in Pagosa Springs. Before delving into Nossaman’s pioneer efforts in detail, it seems appropriate to set the stage. What was going on in Colorado and San Juan Country to make people want to settle here?

Last week we talked about rich gold deposits discovered in the San Juans, including the mining camp at Summitville. It was to Summitville that Welch first came in 1876, inspired by the promise of gold.

It is well for the serious imbiber in Pagosa Country history to know that, while Welch was coming into a veritable wilderness, San Juan Country was certainly not a totally unknown wilderness to the outside world.

As early as 1765, Juan Maria Rivera and other adventurers from New Mexico had already visited what we know as San Juan Country and Archuleta County. Many historians believe the San Juan Mountains received their name from the first name of that early trader. It is known that the Southern San Juan Mountains were formerly called Las Grullas, the Cranes, by the Spanish. Some of Rivera’s written records have been discovered during recent years. It is believed he was on a mission to open up trading routes with the Ute Indians. It is also easy to believe that rumors of mineral wealth had reached the Hispanic settlers of New Mexico. It could well be that Rivera had one eye open for any evidence of precious metals in these daunting mountains.

There may have been other Hispanics trading with the Indians in Four Corners Country before Rivera. We’ll probably never know because Spanish policy forbade their citizens from trading with Indians unless they first obtained an official permit. Obviously, anyone trading without a permit was not going to return home and write a report.

In any case, so far as we know now, Juan Maria Rivera was the first. Just a few short years later, a pair of Franciscan fathers using guides who had been with Rivera attempted a journey from Santa Fe to what we know today as San Francisco. Their mission was to find and establish a trail connecting Spanish settlements in New Mexico with Spanish settlements on the West Coast in California.

The Fathers Dominguez and Escalante traveled up the Rio Grande from Santa Fe to that river’s junction with the Chama River. They then followed the Chama River to Abiquiu, at that time Spain’s northernmost outpost in Nuevo Mexico. From Abiquiu, the party continued northward along the Chama River to El Vado—the Crossing—crossed the river there then continued past Horse Lake—Laguna de Caballo—on today’s Jicarilla Apache Reservation and crossed the reservation until reaching the San Juan River—el Rio del Navajó at that time. They crossed the San Juan into Archuleta County, followed that stream westward to its junction with the Piedra, then cut across to strike the Dolores River somewhere near present-day Dolores. From there they moved north to today’s Rangely, Colorado, at which point they turned west. Their westward journey took them to about Provo, Utah, from which they circled home by a southerly route that crossed northeastern Arizona. Some years passed before the route from Santa Fe to California, known as the Old Spanish Trail, was completed.

More next week on the early exploration of San Juan Country prior to the coming of Welch Nossaman in 1876.