An army expedition visits the hot springs


We’ve been writing for several weeks about the Pagosa hot springs, possibly the only reason the town of Pagosa Springs was created.

The first description we have of the Pagosa hot springs was written by Capt. John M. Macomb, a topographical engineer for the U. S. Army. Macomb commanded an expedition that visited the hot springs in 1859.

Following the visit, Macomb prophesied, “In the upper part of this valley is the Pagosa, one of the most remarkable hot springs on the continent, well known, even famous, among the Indian tribes, but up to the time of our visit never having been seen by whites.

“It can scarcely be doubted that in future years it will become a celebrated place of  resort, both for those who reside in the surrounding country and for wonder-hunting, health-seeking travelers from other lands.”

Macomb’s claim that white men had never before seen the Pagosa hot springs was not accurate. Hispanic explorers from New Mexico had seen the hot springs as early as 1865, maybe earlier.

The earliest visit of record to the area was made by Juan Maria Rivera in 1865, but he did not describe the hot springs. His name is the source for the name of the San Juan Mountains, known by those early Hispanic explorers as the Las Grullas Mountains, meaning cranes.

It is also well known that several parties of fur trappers set their beaver traps along the San Juan River during the 1820-1850 trapping era. There can be little doubt that some of those trappers laid eyes on the springs.

It is also true that, by 1821, perhaps earlier, Hispanics from New Mexico were following a trading route between Abiquiu, N.M., and southern California known as the Old Spanish Trail.

While that trail crossed the San Juan River at Carracas, a few miles downstream from the springs, it would be surprising if some of those traders with their Native American guides did not take a look at the springs.

Nevertheless, Macomb’s visit was sanctioned by the government and was docmented by an extensive report with drawings of many features.

He had a number of experts in his party. The purpose of his expedition, just a few years after the U.S. took over New Mexico Territory following the Mexican American War, was to find a railroad route through the Rocky Mountains to connect the eastern part of the growing nation with the Pacific Coast. By 1859, California and Oregon were already states.

More next week on Capt. Macomb’s visit to the Pagosa hot springs.