Frontier in Transition: A History of Southwestern Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 10)
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The Permanent Settlement of Southwest Colorado

Following the Ute removal in 1881, publicists of the day hailed southwestern Colorado as a place of great promise, an area once sealed off by a mountain barrier that held potential reward for both mining and pastoral endeavors. Parks and fertile valleys such as those found in the Gunnison country and along the Uncompahgre River were described as new lands that would provide homes for thousands. [1] Once the Utes were on their way, by September, 1881, and even before Congress officially opened the lands for filing in June, 1882, a rush began to this new frontier by home-seekers, prospectors, farmers, ranchers, and townsite promoters. [2]

The settlement of lands opened by the Ute removal saw several stages of typical frontier development telescoped into a few years. Cattlemen, sheepmen, farmers, and fruit growers all swarmed into the region together. Almost at once, railroads were built, altering the usual pattern of evolution by providing an early connection with the rest of Colorado and the Nation. Rapid urban growth, considered to be a characteristic of the mining frontier, appeared quickly in those valleys that were opened to agricultural settlement in 1882. This development brought schools, churches, libraries, and cultural attributes generally associated with well established communities. These refinements came to the west in due course, but on the recently surrendered Ute Reservation lands, the process took little more than five years. [3]

In southwestern Colorado, as in the rest of the state, government meant a stable and legal environment for speculative business and commercial interests. Into the region came townsite promoters and irrigation companies. Designed principally to secure sites for the establishment of towns and supply centers, they provided rudimentary regulation of water, mining, and timber claims for the newly arrived settlers. The early forms of municipal governments in such towns as Delta and Montrose, quickly gave rise to county organizations. By 1889, just seven years after the opening of the vacated Ute lands, the present county boundaries in southwestern Colorado were established. In 1883, Gunnison County was reduced to its present dimensions when Mesa, Delta, and Montrose Counties were formed from its western half. In the same year, a new county, Uncompahgre, was created from the eastern portion of Ouray County, and from a part of the old Gunnison County, but three days after its formation, its name was changed to Ouray County, and the name of former Ouray County was changed to San Miguel. In 1885 and 1889, the respective counties of Archuleta and Montezuma were created. [4]

During the 1880's, after the economic Panic of 1873 had passed, money was again available, and the new mining camps demanded faster means of transportation. Colorado's "golden age" of railroad building ensued. Suddenly there was a new kind of boom town, the railroad town. No better indication of development and prosperity could be found than in railroad construction during the 1880's and 1890's, and no where did such activity take place with as much energy as it did in southwestern Colorado.

The years from 1881, to the turn of the century marked a major transition period in southwestern Colorado's history. Previously an isolated region dependent almost solely on the development of its mineral resources, the area, during these years, began to exhibit signs of economic self-sufficiency. The entrance of agriculture, ranching, fruit growing, modern communications, and railroad transportation in the last two decades of the nineteenth century promoted a diversified and more permanent period of development.

Montrose District map of the Otto Mears' Toll Roads, illustrating: the major cities connected by road construction, and the major roads. (click on image for a PDF version)

While the majority of ceded Ute territory on the western slope underwent rapid Anglo settlement during the 1880's, over 700,000 acres of southwestern Colorado remained the domain of three bands of Southern Ute Indians. Although dissimilar to the Anglo experience in southwestern Colorado, the history of the Weeminuche, Capote, and Mouache bands, after 1881, is an important chapter in the larger drama of permanent settlement in the region.

Despite the Ute Treaty of 1880, disputes over the use and occupation of the land on and in the vicinity of the Southern Ute Reservation persisted. Trespass and theft perpetrated by Anglo settlers and Utes alike, in the years after 1882, made for tension between the two cultures. In 1885, stockmen using the country north of Dolores townsite had difficulties with the Indians of the region, whom they accused of butchering their cattle. The affair reached a climax in June of that year, when the stockmen murdered eleven Indians in what was known as the Beaver Massacre. Acting on the threat of Ute retaliation, a number of cattlemen banded together at Narraguinnep Spring, west of Dolores, and constructed "Narraguinnep Fort" for their mutual protection. [5]

As a result of incidents like that of the Beaver Massacre, several Congressional bills were introduced, in the years from 1886 to 1894, which called for the removal of all Southern Ute bands from Colorado to San Juan County, Utah. Opposition to these measures from the citizens of Utah, led to a legislative agreement which located the Southern Utes on their former reservation land in southwestern Colorado. The Hunter Act, passed in 1895, provided for the distribution of individual land allotments to Ute families, and when all had been given land, special status for the reservation was to be removed. Land not taken by the Utes was then to be opened to general homesteading. Before the Hunter Act could be implemented however, the Utes had to agree to its terms. Approval by the Utes was forthcoming, but only by a slim majority. The Mouache and Capote bands were generally in favor of the bill; the Weeminuche however, voted unanimously against the legislation. Opposition stemmed from complications surrounding the 1888 Congressional bill calling for Ute relocation in San Juan County, Utah. The Weeminuche approved this measure along with the proposed reservation site, and actually moved into Utah in 1888. The bill did not pass a Congressional vote however, and officials from the Southern Ute Agency were forced to bring the Weeminuche back into Colorado. The band refused to return to the old agency grounds, and they established a camp on the western end of the Southern Ute Reservation. These actions began the separation of the three bands of Southern Utes into two groups. Implementation of the Hunter Act of 1895 recognized this tribal separation. The Mouache and Capote bands were located on the eastern portion of the former reservation, while the Weeminuche band retained the western end. After the turn of the century the two units became known as the Ute Mountain Reservation, residence of the Weeminuche band, and the Southern Ute Reservation, home of the Mouache and Capote bands. By the late 1890's, the final provisions of the Hunter Act had been implemented, allotments had been given to the Capotes and Mouaches, and a reservation was established for the Weeminuches. In following the terms of the Act, President William McKinley, on May 4, 1899, signed a proclamation opening 523,079 acres of the old reservation to Anglo-American settlement.

The first years of the twentieth century were times of difficult transition for the Utes of southwestern Colorado. Their former way of life and accustomed habitat was gone, and they found the change to agricultural subsistence totally alien. They did only what they had to do to keep their meager crops alive, working only as long as the need existed. Gradually however, the Ute adapted to their new way of life. By 1915, advances had been made in farming. Over 2,000 acres were planted in alfalfa, wheat, oats, beans, and potatoes on the Southern Ute Reservation, and by the 1920's, the Mouaches and Capotes had begun to raise sheep. By 1932, the flocks had grown considerably and were allowed to graze on forest reserve land at a nominal cost per head.

By the terms of the Wheeler-Howard (Indian Reorganization) Act of June, 1934, the Capote and Mouache bands officially adopted the name, Southern Ute Tribe. The intent of the Act was to provide self-government, a greater degree of management of Indian resources, and responsibility for the agency's future. The Act halted further allotments of land to individual Indians, limited land sales of deceased Indians except to the tribe, and returned any surplus lands to the agency's ownership. The emphasis was to be on the tribe rather than on the individual. Accordingly, the Southern Utes drew up a Constitution and By-Laws, which when ratified, authorized a chairperson and a council of six members to conduct tribal affairs. In 1937, 222,012 acres of land were returned to the Southern Utes. [6]

Despite the many years of difficult adjustment to a permanent way of life and the loss of much of their cultural heritage, by 1940 the Utes exhibited signs of a successful transition to an agricultural-oriented society. The territory under their ownership was making a substantial contribution to the economy of the region, and in more recent times, gas, oil, timber, and grazing leases on reservation land, combined with tourist dollars, have added to the self-sufficiency and permanence of the Ute people in southwestern Colorado.

The most dramatic development in the use and occupation of southwestern Colorado, during the twenty years after 1881, occurred in those areas vacated by the Utes. The establishment of permanent settlements in this expanded frontier region was aided, to some extent, by the existence of already developed towns in the surrounding regions. Mining centers, such as Lake City, Gunnison, Silverton, Ouray, and others, provided supplies and served as way stations for those interested in pioneering the former Ute territory. From the more established areas and towns and travelling on existent roads, settlers rapidly moved into the promising new frontier region.

From Lake City, in August of 1881, Enos Hotchkiss, best-known for his discovery of the Golden Fleece Mine and the development of Lake City, along with Samuel Wade journeyed on to the Ute Reservation. After looking over the Uncompahgre River, the North Fork of the Gunnison River, and the Grand (Colorado) River valleys, they returned to Lake City very much enthused about the country they had seen. [7] Determining the region along the North Fork of the Gunnison River fine fruit country, they returned there that September, carrying with them several fruit trees. By June, 1882, the townsites of Hotchkiss and Paonia had been established, orchards planted, and irrigation ditches constructed. Post Offices were secured within the boundaries of Hotchkiss' and Wade's respective homesteads. Both towns, in the years that followed, became important centers of southwestern Colorado's fruit industry.

Less than a month after the Utes had been removed to Utah, George A. Crawford, "the father of Grand Junction", purchased squatter rights from W. O. Stephens located at the juncture of the Uncompahgre and Gunnison Rivers. [8] Crawford's interest in the area led to the organization of the Uncompahgre Town Company. Associated with Crawford in this venture were M. C. Vandeventer and three officials of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, whose participation foretold the importance of the expanding railroad for the proposed townsite. In December, 1881, Samuel Wade, the founder of Paonia, platted the townsite of Delta, and by April of 1883, the town had about 250 permanent residents. Unlike the neighboring town of Paonia, which developed exclusively around the fruit industry, Delta had no single industry upon which it was dependent. By the spring of 1882, less than a year from when it was laid out, Delta's strategic location as a railroad stop quickly promoted the town as a focal point for a variety of economic interests in the area. Farms and orchards, taken up along the Uncompahgre River and on California and Garnet mesas south of the townsite, found a market and supply center in Delta. Cattlemen ran their herds during the summer months on Grand Mesa, bringing them into town for shipment to Denver. Until the railroad reached Paonia and Hotchkiss in 1902, Delta was the shipping point for North Fork produce. [9] Based on the approximately 200,000 acres of arable land along the Uncompahgre River, the establishment of Delta in 1881 quickly led to the development of another important settlement in the valley.

In the late fall of 1881, Joseph Selig came from the mining camp of Ruby to locate a townsite in the Uncompahgre valley. Finding attractive sites at Grand Junction and Delta already staked out by George Crawford, he travelled up the valley twenty-one miles to a point where he decided to lay out a town. Selig, along with O. D. Loutsenhizer, S. A. Culbertson, A. Pumphrey, and John Baird, located the Montrose townsite in January, 1882, and had it platted in February of that year. [10] As was the case with Delta, the growth of Montrose was tied directly to the coming of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. At first, the town was a sprawl of log shanties but by the summer of 1882, Montrose took on the appearance of a neatly laid-out town with wide streets and frame houses. Otto Mears put up $6,000 to build a hotel; businessmen commenced construction of substantial stores, and fourteen saloon owners took out licenses to operate. The town's role as a distribution point for nearby farms, ranches, and orchards was assured. [11] Montrose profited, as well, from its proximity to the mines at Ouray and surrounding areas. Until 1887, when the Denver and Rio Grande reached Ouray, Montrose served as the supply point and freighting center for that district. The benefits of railroad transportation and access to prosperous mining centers, fundamental to the growth of Montrose, also contributed to the development of the Durango townsite in the Animas River Valley.

When it was determined that General William Jackson Palmer's Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, in the process of building westward from Chama, New Mexico to Silverton, would follow the Animas River to its destination, a party of railroad officials came in to the area to locate suitable sites for the company's operations. Failing to come to terms with homesteaders holding lands adjacent to Animas City, at that time a flourishing town of about 2,500 inhabitants; William A. Bell made arrangements with several individuals to file claims along the Animas River about one and one-half miles below the town. On September 13, 1880, the Durango town site was staked out. By December of that year, the population numbered between 2,500 and 3,000 people, many coming from Animas City. Approximately five hundred buildings were soon erected. [12] In April of the following year, Durango was incorporated, and only a few months later the railroad arrived. The completion of trackage to Silverton in July, 1882, not only bolstered that mining camp's economy, but assured Durango's role as the major distribution point for the entire San Juan mining district. In 1882, the construction of the New York and San Juan Smelter, by General William J. Palmer and made feasible by the discovery of large coal deposits in the area, strengthened Durango's ties with the southwestern Colorado mining region, fast making it an economic center in the State. Durango was by the mid-1880's, not only a mining center, but was also established as the chief shipping point for the rich farming areas along the Animas River and for the cattle ranches in the mountains and plateaus to the west.

The first permanent Anglo-American settlers to enter the Montezuma Valley, along the Mancos River, came in the mid-1870's to use the region as a winter grazing range for cattle, and by 1881, much of that land had been taken up as homesteads. [13] Ten years later, the Rio Grande Southern Railroad connected the Mancos townsite with Durango, and provided an outlet for its growing cattle industry. Stimulated by the addition of rail transportation Mancos was incorporated on December 24, 1894. The Mancos River valley, attractive primarily to ranchers and to a lesser degree to itinerant prospectors, also appealed to the expansionistic Mormon community in Utah.

The development of the Webber community, just to the south of Mancos, was unique in that the area was settled exclusively by Mormons. Leaving from Cedar City, Utah in 1879, eighty Mormon wagons travelled eastward to find a suitable area for agricultural endeavors and permanent settlement. In 1880, Joseph Stanford Smith, left the main party, ventured up McElmo Canyon in western Montezuma County, and came to the Mancos settlement. Finding attractive land south of the community, Smith located a homestead and returned to the main Mormon encampment at Bluff City, Utah with reports of the possibilities for settlement in the Montezuma Valley. In 1882, about seventy families accompanied Smith back to his homestead on which the Webber community was established. This early settlement prospered and has survived to the present.

While permanent settlement was underway in the Mancos River Valley, similar development took place slightly to the north and west along the Dolores River. Most settlers in the Dolores River country came by way of Mancos, bringing herds of cattle via the Montezuma Valley from Texas and New Mexico. Settlers also came by way of the Animas River Valley, and a few drifted in from the booming Rico mining camp. Homesteaded land along the Dolores River, primarily at the "Big Bend" of the river, was the center of a growing cattle industry. As was the case with Mancos, the coming of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad in 1891, gave impetus to growth and permanence in the Dolores River Valley. As soon as it was apparent that this road would be built, John and Andrew Harris with Judge Adair Wilson acquired the Sherman Phillips homestead and laid out the Dolores townsite. By 1897, Dolores had a population of about two hundred; three years later it was incorporated, and was fast becoming the trade center and focal point of the Dolores country's cattle industry.

The settlement of Cortez in 1886, directly west of Mancos and southwest from Dolores, was associated with the development of the Montezuma Valley irrigation project. Fundamental to town development and agriculture in the region, the projected diversion of water from the Dolores River to the upper Montezuma Valley, brought many families to the area. Following completion of an irrigation canal in 1899, Cortez (incorporated in 1902) became a center for fruit growing and general agriculture. [14]

During the early period of settlement in the Montezuma Valley, ranching predominated the economic life of most of its people. Over-grazing of sparse pasture, however, led to a depletion of that valuable resource, and many directed their attention to agriculture and fruit growing. The Montezuma Valley Irrigation Project, was instrumental in facilitating this diversification and development during the twentieth century. [15]

Pagosa Springs, Colorado in the early 1890's. Colorado Historical Society

In the upper San Juan River Valley, Pagosa Springs attracted its first settlers as early as 1876. People came with intentions to mine, farm, engage their efforts in the cattle industry, or seek the supposed curative powers of the nearby mineral hot springs. Fort Lewis, established in 1878, was the dominant economic and social center in the area during its two year existence in Pagosa Springs. In 1880, the post was removed to a site five miles southwest of Durango. The growth of Pagosa Springs after the removal of Fort Lewis was unique in the respect that the United States government set aside one square mile surrounding the Pagosa Hot Springs as a townsite, platted the ground in 1883, and in 1885, sold lots to the highest bidders. Pagosa Springs prospered in the 1880's as a stage stop, health spa, center for sheep and cattle raising, and the headquarters of a small logging industry. Charles Loucks and E. T. Walker, who came to the region in 1879, built the town's first saw mill. Early logging activity produced largely for a limited, local market, the only exception being the Denver and Rio Grande's demand for railroad ties. [16] Despite Pagosa Springs' numerous attractions, real development would come only after October 13, 1900, when the Rio Grande Pagosa and Northern Railroad laid its tracks into the town.

As was the case in the southwestern Colorado region during the 1880's and 1890's, securing railroad transportation and the ability to supply the mining centers and developing agricultural areas meant prosperity and a degree of permanence. The growth of such towns as Dallas, Ridgway, and Portland on the upper Uncompahgre River, and Placerville on the San Miguel River came from their proximity to the activity of the nearby mines. Portland, founded by Enos and Preston Hotchkiss, gained its importance from the fact of its being the chief seat of trade for the "park" and the only available farm land adjacent to the San Juan mines. Ridgway, by the mid-1890's became the most prosperous little town between Montrose and Ouray due to its being a junction town for freight and passenger traffic on the Telluride branch of the Denver and Rio Grande and the terminus for the Rio Grande Southern. Placerville in this early period served as a general supply point for the Paradox Valley as well as a shipping point for ore, cattle, and sheep. [17]

Settlement in the Paradox Valley in western Montrose County occurred prior to the Ute removal. Thomas Goshorn and Riley Watson in 1877, and then Frank Steele and Prescott Stevens in 1879, coming from Utah, entered the area of West Paradox with intentions of grazing cattle. Their success, and the Ute removal brought other ranchers to the area in 1880 and 1881. Cattle raising, the principal industry of the early West Paradox Valley pioneers, was supported by small-scale agricultural production. Montrose provided an early market and shipping point for Paradox ranchers, but in 1890, the Rio Grande Southern's Placerville station replaced it not only as a cattle depot, but for the importation of agricultural goods as well. The discovery of the Cashin copper mine in 1895 created "boom-like" growth in the hitherto ranching area of the Paradox Valley. During the period from 1899 to 1908, the town of Bedrock was founded in close proximity to the mine; the first general store was built on the site in 1898. The Paradox townsite, at this time the only other trading center in the West Paradox Valley, consisted of little more than a general store. [18] Pioneer conditions lasted in this region for many years while much of southwestern Colorado developed more rapidly toward modernization. Improved irrigation, provided by the Buckeye Reservoir, west of the Paradox Valley on Geyser Creek, and the discoveries of carnotite ore in the early twentieth century would account for much of the development in this rugged plateau region.

Permanent settlements in southwestern Colorado during the two decades prior to the turn of the century took place in numerous regions and were motivated by a variety of reasons. One particular western Montrose County settlement in the San Miguel River Valley however, grew out of a unique set of interests. In February, 1894, during a period of economic depression, the Colorado Cooperative Company was incorporated. From its inception, it was to be a utopian enterprise, where "equality and service, rather than greed and competition, were the bases of conduct". The goal of the company's Denver organizers was to locate sufficient land on which to establish a cooperative community, and to which an irrigation ditch could be constructed. The establishment of a colony on 20,000 acres in Tabeguache Park (First Park), five miles above Naturita, was accomplished in three stages.

After the original parties of communalists outgrew their initial encampment near Naturita, they moved eastward to the junction of Cottonwood Creek and the San Miguel River. Twenty members of the company established the Pinon townsite in 1896, and began construction of the colony's irrigation ditch. A saw mill was erected in Cottonwood Canyon up from Pinon, to supply wood for town buildings, homes, and the irrigation flumes. Excess wood, used for making crates, was sold to Uncompahgre Valley fruit growers. [19] By 1901, fifty buildings had been erected at Pinon, and work on the fifteen-mile irrigation canal had proceeded to about the half-way mark. In 1903, the "Cottonwood Trestle" was built. One hundred eight feet at its highest point and eight hundred forty feet in length, the trestle, at that time, was the world's tallest and longest irrigation flume. In the spring of 1904, with the irrigation ditch completed, the Colorado Cooperative Company began its third and final stage of settlement. Picking up the Pinon townsite, approximately 240 colonialists moved to their previously established townsite in Tabeguache Park, which was soon named Nucla. [20] Despite internal crises, the expulsion of dissident members, and a relaxation of earlier ideals, the Nucla community survived, becoming one of the few successful colony efforts in Colorado's history.

Photograph of the Pinon townsite on the San Miguel River, looking south. Colorado Historical Society

The opening of the entire southwestern Colorado region to a large spectrum of economic interests and occupation after 1881, prompted rapid development and permanent settlement. A diversified economy, newer forms of communication and better transportation, while still in their infant stages, laid the foundation for development in the twentieth century. Railroad transportation, the most important factor in this growth, fostered not only agriculture, fruit growing, and ranching, but also accounted for significant advances in mining, the region's first and principal industry.

Chapter VII: Notes

1. Robert G. Athearn, The Coloradans (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976), p. 137.

2. Carl Ubbelohde, Maxine Benson, and Duane Smith, A Colorado History (Boulder: Pruett Press, 1976), p. 188.

3. Athearn, op. cit., p. 139.

4. LeRoy R. Hafen, "The Counties of Colorado: A History of Their Creation and the Origin of Their Names", Colorado Magazine (VIII, No. 2, March, 1931), pp. 48-60.

5. Avon Denham, "Narraguinnep Fort", Colorado Magazine (XIX, No. 2, March, 1942), p. 78.

6. For a concise and informative history of the Southern Utes in Colorado after 1881, see: Robert Delaney, The Southern Ute People (Phoenix: Indian Tribal Series, 1974), pp. 66-79.

7. Ezra Wade, "Early Days at Paonia", Colorado Magazine (IV, 1927), p. 66.

8. Wilbur Fisk Stone, History of Colorado, Vol. I (Denver: S. J. Clarke and Co., 1918), p. 154.

See also: Ubbelohde, op. cit., p. 189.

9. Wilson Rockwell, Uncompahgre Country (Denver: Sage Books, 1965), pp. 38-52.

10. Stone, op. cit., p. 154.

See also: Rockwell, op. cit., pp. 64, 68.

11. Athearn, op. cit., p. 138.

12. Mary Ayers, "The Founding of Durango, Colorado", Colorado Magazine (VIII, No.3, May, 1930), pp. 85-86.

See also: Robert Athearn, The Rebel of the Rockies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p. 104.

13. LeRoy R. Hafen, Colorado; A Story of the State and Its People (Denver: The Old West Publishing Co., Inc., 1948), p. 265.

14. A factual, detailed, and localized treatment of Montezuma County's development, both in early and more contemporary times is offered in Ira Freeman's, A History of Montezuma County, Colorado (Boulder: Johnson Publishing Co., 1953). For a discussion of the Webber community, Mancos, Cortez, and Dolores, see pages 37, 58-68, 209-305.

15. Hafen, Colorado: A Story of the State and Its People, p. 265.

16. For an excellent history, complete with many fine illustrations of railroad operations in and around Pagosa Springs, see: Gordon Chappell, Logging Along the Denver and Rio Grande (Golden, Colorado: Colorado Railroad Museum, 1971), p. 27.

17. Sidney Jocknick, Early Days on the Western Slope of Colorado (Denver: The Carson-Harper Co., 1913), pp. 150-151.

18. Rockwell, op. cit., pp. 122-123, 135, 183-188.

19. Ellen Peterson, "Origins of the Town of Nucla", Colorado Magazine (XXVI, No. 4, October, 1949), p. 253.

20. Duane Mercer, "The Colorado Cooperative Company, 1894-1904", Colorado Magazine (XLIV, No. 2, Fall, 1967), pp. 299-303.

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008