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Pagosa Springs played a couple of roles during the first years of Anglo settlement in the San Juans.
One role was that of a stopping point along the southern route to gold mining in the higher mountains near Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, Lake City, Ophir and a lot of mining camps that did not grow into permanent settlements.
Gold was never discovered near Pagosa Springs.
Pagosa Springs was also the first home of Fort Lewis.
The Army fort was needed because the horde of trappers and prospectors rushing into the San Juan Mountains were trespassing on the Southern Ute Reservation. The Utes were understandably upset and the threat of warfare was imminent.
The army’s first step was to send a company of men from Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley to Pagosa Springs with orders to establish a fort.
Troops under the command of 2nd Lt. Alexis R. Paxton marched into Pagosa Springs Oct. 15, 1878. Paxton was a temporary commander. The company commander, Captain Chambers M. Kibbons was on recruiting leave and apparently never reported to Pagosa Springs.
Paxton’s manpower report for October of 1878 showed: present for duty, one officer and 22 enlisted men. Another absent officer was 1st Lt. George A. Cornish who had, “been stationed at Ojo Caliente since September 18, 1877.”
The troops commanded by Paxton were members of the Infantry, Company I, 15th Regiment.
Paxton wasted no time carrying out orders, which called for him to pick out a suitable site and erect temporary quarters as soon as possible. With only 22 men, he accomplished a great deal in a very short time.
A Capt. Hartz arrived on Oct. 28 to take charge of the building program. Hartz’s letter of Oct. 30 described the work done by Paxton and his troops.
In a letter to the commanding officer of Fort Garland, Hartz wrote: “I have the honor to report my arrival here late on the evening of the 28th. I find that Lieut. Paxton has a large hackel or stockade building for dirt roof 110 X 18 feet in the clear two thirds completed, also a building 20 X 30 feet for his own use, as they are nearly finished I will allow him to complete and occupy them. His company will be comfortably housed and the other work can go on without interruption. I will take part of the working force and go on with the cantonment, and the buildings above mentioned can then be used for storehouses, hospital, or other similar purposes, these buildings are in my opinion too near the springs, and on the northern exposure, by crossing the river — a good ford — there is a fine bench about 20 feet above the river with a fine southern exposure, overlooking the river and the springs, it is a little further from water, but in my opinion in every way a more desired location for the cantonment. As soon as the General (Hatch) arrives we will determine the location. In the meantime, I will be getting logs cut, lumber and other materials delivered, and will push the work as hard as men at hand — about 20 in all, and limited facilities will permit.”
More next week from Capt. Hartz describing the founding of Fort Lewis.