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Tempers flared when miners crossed Indian country

We continue from last week.

In 1874, E.H. Ruffner from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported, “The consequences of war with the powerful and intelligent tribe occupying the entire mountain region of Colorado could not fail to be dire. Of undoubted courage, possessed of all modern improvements in fire-arms and with the secure fastnesses of the mountains to fall back on, the tribe could well put on a bold front in making their demands — demands undoubtedly just, as being the only fulfillment of a solemn treaty. The Indian Bureau, with justice, requested that the miners be kept out of the limits of the reservation, and the request was granted. Orders were issued to the military authorities to send such force as would be necessary, and to clear the district by a certain time. To do this it became requisite to know where the reservation extended.”

The Brunot agreement, signed in 1874, legalized mining in the San Juan Mountains, but did not make things easier with the Indians. It created a strange, U-shaped reservation surrounding the Telluride-Silverton-Lake City-Ouray mining areas. Passage to the mining areas, except from the east, required the whites to cross Indian lands. In addition, the Utes claimed they had not intended for the whites to settle on the ceded land; they were only to mine and leave. Tensions were further heightened by late or not-delivered-at-all government rations and payments for the ceded lands.

Adding fuel to the fire, prospectors regarded the agreement as opening the door for them and they hiked into the San Juan Mountains in ever increasing numbers.

In 1874, a toll road was built from Del Norte to Lake City. Another toll road connected Lake City with Silverton. Otto Mears’ roads from Saguache delivered more gold and silver miners to the San Juans entering from the east.

More miners flocked from New Mexico along the Old Spanish Trail. Many of them crossed the reservation and tempers flared.

Most of the mining country was too high in a climate that precluded growing fruits and vegetables. Still, the miners had to eat. And so, many of the gold hunters quit digging in the mountains and started plowing at lower elevations. Homesteaders settled downstream on the Pine, Animas, Florida and Los Pinos rivers, where they raised grain, vegetables and beef for the hungry miners.

This story was posted on June 19, 2014.