Bookmark and Share

Early settlements in the San Juans

Welch Nossaman, with two friends, built what were said to be the first cabins in Pagosa Springs, probably during 1876.

The cabins were burned by a Ute leader identified by Welch as Colorow Ignacio. Colorow’s parting words to Welch amounted to, “You leave, I’m staying here.”

Colorow’s words and actions were consistent with the Ute attitude towards whites beginning with the first attempt by New Mexicans to settle in Colorado, especially in the San Luis Valley, during the early 1850s. The Utes tolerated the newcomers as long as their presence was temporary. That meant the New Mexicans were permitted to drive flocks of sheep northward for summer grazing. The Utes permitted the grazing in the San Luis Valley and also in northern New Mexico in the Tierra Amarilla area and perhaps in the Blanco/Farmington areas as well. If the sheepherders attempted to build cabins, however, the Utes burned the cabins, ensuring a return trip home for the pastores.

A number of historic changes had transpired in San Juan Country by the time Nossaman attempted permanent settlement in Pagosa Springs. In order to facilitate settlement in the San Luis Valley, the U.S. Army had build a fort called Fort Garland on the eastern rim of the Valley. The new fort facilitated permanent Hispanic settlement in the San Luis Valley soon followed by Anglo settlement as well. The earliest settlements were near present-day San Luis, Conejos, La Loma, Saguache, and perhaps others.

Also, perhaps by 1860, Hispanics were starting permanent communities in the Tierra Amarilla area some 60 miles south of Pagosa Springs. Again, U.S. military force made the settlements there possible. Some Hispanics may also, by 1870, have settled permanently from Largo Cañon down the San Juan River to the area we know as Farmington.

The principal lure to settlement in the San Juans — the early pioneers referred to a vast sweep of land including the San Luis Valley, all of the San Juan Mountains, and even much of the Gunnison River Valley north of the San Juans, as the San Juan Country — was gold discovered near today’s Silverton in 1860. Prospectors began to swarm into the San Juan Mountains, some from the north from the direction of Leadville and Denver, and others from the south by way of Santa Fe and Abiquiu.

Soon the carnage of the War Between the States erupted. Consequently, most of the soldiers and a goodly number of the able-bodied men from the Rocky Mountains, including San Juan Country, traveled east to do their part in the war effort.

Not until the war was over did prospecting in the San Juans resume with renewed and enhanced effort. Mining camps sprang up in numerous locations especially along the Animas River stretching upstream from Silverton to today’s Lake City.

In the Southern San Juans, gold in copious quantities was discovered near Summitville by 1870. That community, the highest mining camp in the United States flourished for a number of years. And that community, some 40 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs, was the destination which lured Welch Nossaman and his friends westward from Pella, Iowa.

Keep in mind that the first cabin in Pagosa Springs was probably built in 1876 and permanent settlement did not take hold in Pagosa Springs until 1877.

And so, Pagosa Springs was surrounded by settled communities, but was not yet, itself, settled. It was an interesting stopping point along the road connecting Abiquiu with the mining camps in the San Juans.