Pagosa’s Past: Bathing in muddy water

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The first bath house at the Pagosa Bath House was for men only or women only. Never the twain shall meet. The building in the background was a trading post.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

The following story was written by ancestors of the Faye Brown family. Members of this family still live in Pagosa Country.

For some years before permanent settlement was made at Pagosa Springs, people came each summer to take baths in the medicinal springs. Among the first to come over the pass from Del Norte in 1873 was Mrs. M. O. Brown, her young son, Tom Reavis, and her father, Mr. Sallee, for whom they made the perilous journey. Mr. Reavis was blind and also suffered from an aggravated case of rheumatism.

Settlement began around the hot springs by 1878, the year building began on the Army post on the west bank of the river. 

Army Engineer Lt. McCauley visited the fledgling post in 1878 and left this description of the hot springs, including the source of their name “Aside from this, the springs must have always been to the aboriginal inhabitants a place of great resort … since Indian trails from all directions converge thereto. All deeply worn, doubtless in the various pilgrimages made by numerous bands and families … the pipe of peace is said to have had an unusual supremacy … to the main springs, from the boiling appearance of its center. The Utes gave the name Pah-gosa (Pah signifying water, and gosa boiling) which name with corrupted orthography, it still retains.”

McCauley went on to describe Native Americans’ bathing houses. These were the natural cavities found in close proximity to the Great Hot Springs. One in particular, McCauley wrote, at the southern edge of the springs is a point of escape of hot vapor and has been used as a sweat hole, the Indians crouching within and covering themselves with a blanket from above.

According to local tradition, Indians, particularly of the Southern Ute bands, continued to visit the springs regularly until the 1950s. They were supposed to prefer coating themselves with mud mixed with the mineral water rather than bathing in the water only.

This story was posted on October 6, 2020.