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Racial conflicts, violence taint early Pagosa politics

In the Nov. 29 column, we started talking about the family of Pagosa Country pioneer Jose Benedito Martinez.

This particular Martinez family, along with the Archuleta family for whom the county was named, were well-to-do and influential in county politics during the formative years. They were also leaders of an early Hispanic faction that battled with the Anglo settlers for control of the county.

Hispanics tended to settle in the southern part of the county, especially in the Edith/Montezuma area and along the San Juan River where it bordered New Mexico. It seems these settlers, led by the Archuleta/Martinez influence, were trying to make Edith, instead of Pagosa Springs, the county seat.

A number of contested early county elections ended up in the Colorado Supreme Court. There were fights, shootings, grand jury inquiries and, at one time, Pinkerton frontier detective Charles Siringo was called in to investigate the conflict.

The first obvious evidence of this conflict reared its head during the first public election of county officers, Archuleta County was formed in 1885 and its first county officers were appointed by the Colorado governor to serve until an election could be held.

That first election resulted in the seating of Jose Benedito Martinez, J. P. Archuleta and C. D. Scase.  Scase was married to an Hispanic woman and was regarded by the Anglos as a member of the “Archuleta combine.”

These new commissioners were sworn into office in January of 1887.

The Del Norte Prospector carried the following story about that election: “The people will learn that the greatest Hot Spring resort in the United States has a large element of people who usurp the power of the law and deter public officials from the faithful performance of their duties … On the third of the month Commissioners Martinez, Archuleta, and Skase (Scase) met to transact the business of a regular meeting. An armed mob entered the place and compelled the commissioners to disband and leave the work of their regular quarterly meeting. They demanded the resignation of the commissioners and it is stated under threat to burn the house of Skase, he tendered his resignation. The other commissioners refused to resign … We understand the people opposing the commissioners have called a special meeting for the election of three commissioners, which is certainly illegal.”

What happened was a group of armed men entered the commissioners’ meeting led by E.T. Walker carrying a hat box filled with a hangman’s noose. Their intentions were obvious and scary.

Scase’s house did get burned. The commissioners did not meet again until fall when a grand jury meeting in Durango declared the extra election illegal and returned the initially-elected commissioners to power.

It is said that on the night Scase’s house on San Juan Street was burned  that a group of Anglos and Hispanics wielding clubs met on the swinging bridge across the San Juan River and battled it out. The Hispanics retreated to the abandoned barracks on the west side of the river and the Anglos burned Scase’s house located on San Juan Street on the east side of the river.

More next week on the Martinez family and the bitter battle for control of Archuleta County politics.

This story was posted on December 13, 2012.