The history of southwestern Colorado is based on the use and development of minerals and, later, agricultural lands. Because the region was isolated by the Rockies, development by European settlers did not occur until late in Colorado's history. The first recorded European visitors were Spanish explorers of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776. The little group only passed through and failed to leave any physical evidence of themselves. Later, during the early nineteenth century, fur trappers criss-crossed the San Juans in search of the elusive beaver. Antoine Robidoux established the first fur fort on the western slope along the Gunnison River, but by 1840 it was gone.
The second thrust of European penetration was by U. S. Army explorers. First, John C. Fremont, "the Pathfinder", attempted to cross the San Juans in search of a rail route to the Pacific. These efforts were dismal failures. The next try at a Pacific rail route came in 1853 when John W. Gunnison surveyed over Cochetopa Pass, through the Black Canyon and on into Utah, where he lost his life in an Indian raid. The Gunnison route was discarded as impractical at the time, yet in 1880, the Denver and Rio Grande used the identical survey for its mainline to Salt Lake City, Utah.
The first mineral seekers were "overflow" from the 1859 Gold Rush along the Front Range. In 1860, Charles Baker discovered gold along the Animas River in the San Juans and a modest rush occurred. However, due to a lack of minerals, the venture was abandoned. The Ute Indians, occupants of the lands in question, also discouraged miners. The question of the Utes was key to southwestern Colorado's development. As long as the Ute Indians controlled land and access to the area, Europeans were kept out. However, a series of treaties, culminating in the 1873 Brunot Treaty, eroded Ute hold while more and more settlers trespassed the San Juans. By 1873, the Utes under the leadership of Chief Ouray, had surrendered most of their lands. Nevertheless, Europeans along the Front Range wanted full access to the San Juans.
Their opportunity to displace the Utes came in 1879 when the White River Reservation Utes rose in rebellion and killed agent Nathan Meeker. The citizens of Denver cried "the Utes must go"; and by 1881 they were removed to reservations in Utah and far southwestern Colorado.
The removal of the Utes opened southwestern Colorado to European settlement and the region blossomed. Mining, of course, was the prime motivator. The mid-1870's had seen a renaissance of the mining industry in the San Juans. New techniques of ore recovery provided the stimulus for further development of the dormant mines of the 1860's.
The mining industry, among others, suffered from the lack of rail transportation. In the early 1880's, the first railroads reached the San Juans, the Gunnison Valley, and the Uncompahgre region. With cheap transportation available, the mineral industry boomed. Mills were erected to process the various ores that were pouring from the mines of the San Juans. Towns such as Lake City, Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, Durango and many others developed as supply centers for the mines.
With the advent of mining and rail transportation in southwestern Colorado, agriculture became an important facet for the region. Miners needed food and as the mines played out (or the many disappointed miners left the mountains for other places) farmers and settlers began to take up the bottom lands along the valleys. The Gunnison, the Uncompahgre, the Dolores, the San Miguel, and other valleys provided the fertile lands for farming. Farmers not only supplied the mining communities but also exported goods. The cattle industry, born of Indian agency days, prospered in lush mountain pastures. Conflicts arose over the use of public grazing lands by sheepmen, but both cattlemen and sheepmen eventually came to use the range together.
In addition to staple food production, specialized crops such as sugar beets, potatoes, fruits (apples, pears, etc.) were grown along the North Fork of the Gunnison and in the Uncompahgre Valley. These crops were enhanced in the early 1900's with the development of irrigation projects such as the Gunnison Tunnel Project.
In addition to agriculture and precious minerals, the area experienced a minerals boom in the Paradox Valley at the turn of the century when carnotite ore (uranium) was discovered. For several decades, this valley provided much of the world's uranium, radium, vanadium, and other semi-precious minerals.
In addition to this small mineral boom in far western Colorado, the creation of several national forests at the turn of the century greatly modified the developmental patterns of the area. Millions of acres of federal lands were "withdrawn" from unmanaged use and from 1900 on, the citizens of the southwest corner realized that the days of open homesteading and uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources were over. The conflicts that arose from these federal actions were never really resolved and remain a matter of debate today.
The history of southwestern Colorado, while short compared to other parts of the state, is nevertheless one that inspires tales of glory and inhumanity. Alfred Packer, the infamous cannibal, once performed his gory deeds in the snowy San Juans; General William J. Palmer built his railroads here; while Otto Mears constructed hundreds of miles of toll roads throughout the region. These, and thousands of others, lent their hands to the history of the San Juans and its development.
In this narrative, based on both primary and secondary materials carefully researched, Paul O'Rourke has, for the first time, provided the general reader as well as the professional historian, the story of southwestern Colorado. A comprehensive view of this area is now available. The trials and tribulations of the first pioneers are now well detailed.
Frederic J. Athearn
Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008