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Cold nights on the banks of the San Juan

We’ve been writing about the difficulties faced by the U.S. Army when Fort Lewis was being established in Pagosa Springs late in 1878.

Sufficient barracks and buildings were erected to house the officer staff and infantry. Company D of the Ninth Cavalry Regiment were housed in tents a stone’s throw away from the San Juan River.

I regret to guess that the Army probably thought that tents for the Ninth Cavalry were acceptable. You see, the troops in the Ninth Cavalry were African Americans; called “Buffalo Soldiers” by Indians they helped subdue in the American West. The Buffalo Soldiers are pretty well recognized today for their many accomplishments. That wasn’t true in 1878 and they weren’t treated as equals bytheir white comrades.

Sometimes, the Army wasn’t that smart, either. The fur-trapping mountain men who opened up the West for Anglos were quick to learn that the coldest place to camp was on the banks of a river. Consequently, mountain men camped some distance from the river, making it easier to keep warm.

The poor victims of Army recruitment who camped on the bank of the San Juan River that first winter had only recently enrolled from comparatively balmy southern states. Did I mention the temperature in Pagosa Springs that first winter dropped to a frigid minus 40 degrees?

Still, the worst problem the Army faced that first winter was obtaining feed for horse and man. To solve the horse-feed problem, the Army sent as many of the equines as they could to Animas City, where hay and grain were available. The plan for feeding the men was to establish a regular horse and wagon supply route from Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley to Camp Lewis in Pagosa Springs. The Army expected those supply wagons to cross the South San Juan Mountains, then more likely called the Conejos Range, by way of Elwood Pass. Another option was newly opened Cumbres Pass.

The final route actually used was dictated by weather and was much longer. The supply wagons had to go south on the east side of the mountains to Ojo Caliente in New Mexico, then north through Tierra Amarillla to Pagosa Springs, a considerably greater distance.

Concerning the shipment of supplies, the following letter from Fort Garland Dec. 31, was received at Camp Lewis Jan. 15, 1879.

“To the commanding officer, Camp Lewis, Colo., Sir: Wagon master Whitney’s train of two wagons loaded with supplies for your command leaves this Post tomorrow morning. With this train you will receive it is believed, with what subsistence stores you have on hand, are amply sufficient supply for your command and up to June 30, 1879.

“The shipment of officer’s sales have not been as large as wished, for want of transportation.

“As this is probably the last trip of this train to your post before spring, a careful selection of the most needed stores has been made and the train loaded with the same.

The Ordinance Stores of “D” Co., 9” Cav. have been unavoidably left with other stores for future shipment.” (Letter to be continued next week.)