Man against man, Indian against Anglo

Photo courtesy John M. Motter This was one of the early bars in Pagosa Springs, complete with shiny mirror behind the bartenders. Photo courtesy John M. Motter
This was one of the early bars in Pagosa Springs, complete with shiny mirror behind the bartenders.

The Colorado Western Slope was a scary place to be during the latter half of 1879. Pagosa Country was no exception.

The cause of concern was classic: man against man, this time Indian against Anglo.

Colorado was one of the last places of the United States to be settled and — white man’s version — civilized. Colorado’s settlement was triggered by a gold rush that started in the high mountains west of Denver circa 1859. The search for gold spread south along the Continental Divide until reaching the San Juan Mountains in 1861.

Delayed by the Civil War, the real rush to the San Juans didn’t begin until the late 1860s and early 1870s. Settlement of Pagosa Country began in 1879 when Fort Lewis was built on the banks of the San Juan River and Pagosa Springs sprouted around the Fort. And that fort had been built to address the cause of fear — a threatened Ute uprising.

A short look at the interactions between whites and Indians provides an obvious answer to the source of the friction.

The first treaty between Uncle Sam and the Utes, in general, described all of Colorado west of the Continental Divide as Ute territory.

Additional treaties ensued into the early 1900s. Each treaty took more land away from the Utes. By the time Fort Lewis was established in Pagosa Springs, the Utes were being moved out of the San Juan Mountains onto a 15-mile-wide strip of land stretching along the New Mexico border on the south eastward to the San Juan River near Pagosa Springs.

By 1879, the Ute loss of land ceased to be a shrinkage and bordered on a choke hold. The Utes were mad and the threat of war kept Pagosa settlers close to home. Pagosa oldtimers reported Southern Utes spying on the town from the surrounding hills and the exchange of smoke signals from high point to high point. Plans were made to join together in designated buildings in the event of attack.

The inevitable occurred at Meeker in northern Colorado. Meeker was agency headquarters for the Northern Utes. Nathan Meeker was the Indian agent. He was a well-known frontiersman and the town of Meeker is named for him. The rebelling Utes killed all of the white men on the reservation. They drove a wooden stake through the heart of the agent, pinning him to the ground. All of the agency women were taken captive.

Troops stationed at Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs the previous winter took part in subduing the Northern Utes, but not before suffering great loss.

Company D of the 9th Cavalry, commanded by Capt. Dodge, was on patrol in North Park when the outbreak occurred. Capt. Dodge had commanded Fort Lewis and Company D, a black cavalry outfit in Pagosa Springs the previous winter.

More next week on this confrontation.