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Pfeiffer fights for the hot springs

Photo courtesy John M. Motter During the pioneer days of logging and sawmilling in Pagosa Country, the workers lived in shanties near the mill. When the nearby trees were cut and gone, the families moved to the next mill site where the tree cutting began anew. Their shanties were often moved by the logging trains.

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
During the pioneer days of logging and sawmilling in Pagosa Country, the workers lived in shanties near the mill. When the nearby trees were cut and gone, the families moved to the next mill site where the tree cutting began anew. Their shanties were often moved by the logging trains.

We continue writing this week about the Pagosa Hot Springs, one of the principal reasons the town of Pagosa Springs is located where it is.

The history of the hot springs is filled with legend as well as fact.

That the hot springs were a source of awe and comfort to the Native Americans is well documented. Even today, people speak of a curse  placed on the owners of the hot springs by the Indians. The reasons for the curse are not mentioned, but when tragedies occur on the property, and they do, believers say, “Didn’t I tell you?”

A legend of uncertain origin, but attributed to the Southern Utes, tells their version of the creation of the hot springs.

According to the legend, a plague fell upon the Utes. They exhausted all of the skills of their medicine men and still people died.

In desperation, a great council was called on the banks of the San Juan River. A gigantic fire was built to carry a message to the gods for help. Around the fire they danced and prayed.

During the night while they slept, on the spot where the fire had burned, a pool of boiling water appeared. The Utes bathed in and drank the waters from the boiling spring and were healed.

Another story, which may well be fact, tells of an 1867 battle between Ute and Navajo for ownership of the springs. Others say the fight took place in 1873.

The tribes, both desirous of owning the hot springs met and skirmished all day long, with neither tribe gaining an advantage. Finally, they decided to settle the contest by selecting one man from each tribe to battle head-to-head.

The Navajos chose a huge brave to fight for them. The Utes chose Col. Albert Pfeiffer, a longtime friend of the Utes and enemy of the Navajo.

Both men, stripped to the waist, armed themselves with Bowie knives and the duel began.

Pfeiffer quickly out-maneuvered his larger opponent and buried his knife up to the hilt in the man’s heart. The Navajos acknowledged defeat and surrendered the hot springs to the Utes.

Many sites have been pointed out as the battle site, including one near a large rock just west of the U.S. 160 bridge across the Piedra River, west of Pagosa Springs.

A monument commemorating the fight was erected by the Colorado Historical Society and remains on the north side of U.S. 160 a few miles west of Pagosa Springs. The site was chosen by daughters of Pfeiffer living in the San Luis Valley. The fight was said to have transpired a few hundred yards south of the monument.

After a colorful career in frontier New Mexico and Colorado, Pfeiffer homestead a ranch located between South Fork and Del Norte on the north side of the Rio Grande River. A historical marker at the ranch site also preserves memories of Pfeiffer.

This story was posted on November 14, 2013.