Pagosa's Past: Pioneers and Ute Indians

2021/02/OT-022521-AAAAbarley-300x210.jpg Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Back around 1900, horsepower was measured by counting how many horses were hooked up to the wagon. Two horses were considered a team. It was important that the two members of the team were matched in size, strength and disposition or the driver might lose control. The teams on these hay wagons in this photo are matched pairs. While a teenage boy growing up in Oregon circa 1950, I earned money for school clothes by riding wagons such as these and spreading out the load of hay with a pitchfork while I tromped it down so the rancher could get a bigger load.

By John M. Motter

PREVIEW Columnist

We’ve been writing about the relationship between native Ute Indians and European settlers pre-1850 in the Rocky Mountains. By 1868, after a series of unsuccessful treaties and negotiations, the federal government reevaluated its entire western Indian policy. 

It decided to set aside two large reservations west of the Mississippi River. Indians, including the Utes, were required to live on these two large reservations. Indians were no longer considered separate, sovereign nations. Rather, they were recognized as domestic, dependent people subject to the laws of the United States. As a result of the treaty, the Utes lost about one-third of their total land base.

Two agencies for the Utes were to be established in Colorado. The first was to be in northern Colorado and the second was to be near Cochetopa Pass. The attempt to establish the agency near Cochetopa Pass failed because the Utes refused to move and the Army didn’t have the strength to force them to move.

By 1870, the whites were not to be denied. Gold-hungry miners in serious numbers were moving into the San Juan Mountains, the heart of Ute country. The treaties of 1864 and 1868 were meant to keep the whites out, but they ignored both treaties. Everybody on the frontier, whether white or Indian, demanded government protection.

In a document known as the Brunot Agreement signed by the U.S. president in 1874, the Utes ceded the ore-rich mountain tops of the San Juans and retained the lowlands north, south and west of the mountaintops. It was a strange, U-shaped piece of land and created an unworkable access problem for the miners. They had to cross the reservation to reach the mining country.

Both miners and Utes misunderstood the reservation boundaries and the terms of the agreement creating those boundaries. Miners crossed reservation lands freely and set up permanent camps in mining country.

The Utes cried foul, insisting they had ceded only the right to mine, not the right to settle or build permanently. The storm clouds of war loomed on the horizon.