Pioneer times on the East Fork: Old Joe Mann

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The hides shown in this photograph were trapped by the Chapson family shortly after the beginning of the 19th century in the mountains surrounding the east and west forks of the San Juan River. The family is shown in company with the results of their work.

This week our column will focus on some of the families who lived and worked on the East Fork of the San Juan River during pioneer times. Many of them ended up living in Pagosa Springs.

Remember, much of our information is being supplied from an environmental impact study of the East Fork conducted in 1985. The study included archaeologists, geologists and other experts plus John Motter as historian. The only remaining intact building was the Joe Mann cabin. Evidence of other cabins remained in the form of piles of logs and a variety of artifacts made of glass, metal, etc.

The experts had the ability to comb through the remnants and identify much of the refuse as to function and date. In addition, old-timers had known some of those residents and were able to assist with the reconstruction of the East Fork history. In addition to the identification of several prehistoric sites which were studied, settler cabin sites included the Joe Mann cabin and supporting ranch buildings, the Lane cabin with supporting buildings on Lane Creek, a cabin site on Silver Creek and a cluster of six or eight old buildings clustered near the Quartz Creek juncture with the East Fork San Juan River.

The study did not look at the remains of the old town of Elwood, the second Old Joe Mann cabin and buildings connected with the Black Diamond gold mine on Elwood Pass or the McCormick cabin in the big timber area east of Elwood Pass. These latter remains are not located in the proposed ski area that triggered the environmental impact study.

I know we wrote about Old Joe Mann a few weeks ago in the Oct. 17 issue, but this time we’ll include the results of archaeological dissection of the remaining buildings at the Joe Mann cabin site. This cabin is located on the north side of the road where the river valley opens up after leaving the box canyon.

Several of the more recent owners of that property who lived in the Joe Mann cabin while tending their property in the valley had significantly modified the building, presumably seeking comfort. The changes were sufficient to remove any chance of the old building being placed on the National Register of historic buildings.

Nevertheless, in certain parts of the old building and in outbuildings, logs cut and peeled with a broad ax were examined and dated between 1880 and 1890. That finding coupled with the history of the area and of Old Joe Mann recorded in local newspapers seems to reasonably support a conclusion that Old Joe Mann built the original building during that time frame.

Mann’s name as a resident of San Juan country appeared in an 1880 New Mexico Territorial census. His homestead patent was granted in 1901. A land survey of the area was completed by W.W. Allen by August of 1881. Land patents applied for along the East Fork probably precipitated the survey. Allen’s map showed “Menn’s (sic) cabin” as homestead entry 1237. Its location agrees with the patent granted in 1901. Mann was a bachelor and an enigma. He was apparently involved in most of the events taking place during the early days of East Fork history. He died in 1912 and was buried in the garden of an aspen cabin and outbuildings on Elwood Pass.

The following obituary for Josiah Mann appeared in the Pagosa Springs Sun: “Died Sunday, August 4 at old Elwood mining camp, Joseph (sic) Mann, of dropsy and old age sterility, being as near as we can learn 86 years of age. Joseph (sic) Mann was one of the old pioneers of the west, spending nearly half a century in the mining regions of Colorado. Generous hearted, hospitable Old Joe, whither, wherever it is, may you enjoy that peace and prosperity that was denied you in your later years.

“Old Joe was interred on his little garden plot near Elwood where he had already marked the spot some weeks before his death.” — Aug. 9, 1912. More next week on Joe Mann and the East Fork pioneers.