By John M. Motter
In 1859, thousands of Americans stampeded into the Denver area. The Pikes Peak gold rush was on.
Many of the prospectors looking for gold in Colorado followed a trail westward pioneered by Old Bill Williams along the north side of the Arkansas River. As the trail moved into Colorado Territory, Pikes Peak reared its pointed peak 14,150 feet into the rarified atmosphere of the Rocky Mountains. The gold hunters knew they were nearing their destination when they saw Pikes Peak.
Also, as the trail followed the Arkansas River into Colorado a branch of the trail became known as The Old Santa Fe Trail. It turned in a southwesterly direction and clip-clopped across New Mexico Territory into Taos and Santa Fe. Taos had long been a favored destination of the early beaver trappers.
No matter whether following the trails to Colorado gold country or to Santa Fe, those early frontiersmen were traipsing on land claimed by Native Americans. Utes used all of the trails while searching for grub to feed their families. They were not happy to watch white hunters decimate the plains bison and in other ways mess with their homeland.
It didn’t take long for the whites to call on U.S. troops to protect them from the Utes. The Civil War had just ended and the U.S. had lots of troops, especially cavalry. The troops didn’t mind being paid by Uncle Sam while they rode around out west shooting buffalo and searching for gold.
Troops lived in forts with their families when they weren’t chasing Indians or buffalo. Pagosa Springs started as an Army fort called Fort Lewis.
Fort Massachusetts was the first regular Army post in Colorado. Erected in 1852, it straddled an old trail used by Native Americans and Hispanics to travel from Taos to settlements in the Denver area.
It was located southwest of where the Fort Garland Museum stands today, on the west bank of Utah Creek. Troops from Fort Massachusetts fought in the 1854-1855 wars with the combined Ute and Jicarilla Indian tribes.
When the Army learned that Fort Massachusetts was nearly indefensible in its first location, it was moved in 1858 to a location without nearby hills for the natives to use as launching pads for their spears and arrows. Called Fort Garland, the new post was manned until 1883.
Settlement in the San Luis Valley was, at best, tenuous until forts were built.
Next week, we’ll continue writing about early forts and settlements across the San Juans east from Pagosa Springs in the San Luis Valley.