We’ve been quoting from a newspaper account of a July 3, 1879, shooting confrontation between well-armed Southern Ute Indians from Ignacio and some cowboys at a branding roundup on the La Plata River not far from Mancos.
Similar confrontations were not unusual at that time in Pagosa Country.
Truthfully, the settlers were nervous. Their homes were scattered and husbands often had to be away from home. Bands of Indians—Ute, Navajo, and Jicarilla Apache depending on where you lived in the Four Corners area, still roamed the country. They dressed in buckskins and feathers and even if not armed with a modern rifle, invariably carried a bow with arrows and a knife.
Many stories were told by pioneer mothers in the area of Indians stopping at the house and demanding coffee or flour or sugar or other goodies, all while the husband was working away from home. It seemed to make good sense to comply with the demands and most mothers did.
Even with the threat of war hanging in the air, the settlers mostly went about business as usual. If war seemed especially imminent, families gathered together in central locations, usually the larger communities. In Pagosa Springs the families might have felt more secure because of the presence of Fort Lewis in town in 1879. In any case they continued to build, as this letter in the La Plata Miner confirms.
“Since I came here about a month ago there have been over forty buildings put up and ten more now going up.”
By July 19, 1879, the Chama and Navajo Wagon Road opened with Frank Broad as one of the proprietors of the road and President of the Park View and Fort Garland Freight Road Company. (Motter’s note: Park View was formed by a Chicago land company which sold lots just north of the Hispanic community of Los Ojos. Most of the buyers were of Scandinavian origin. Park View sort of inhaled the Los Ojos name, but the community did not do well and most of its settlers moved away. A few years ago Los Ojos succeeded in reclaiming its original name.) The road was a continuation of the Archuleta Toll Road and with that formed the shortest route between Alamosa and Pagosa Springs. And finally, J.J. Jefferson of the Silverton and Pagosa Springs stage line had been in Silverton during July.
As summer melded into fall, Indian unrest begun as a whisper, gathered momentum, and finally exploded in a bloody tragedy at the White River Agency near Meeker, Colorado. Before the flames of war died down, Ute Indians dealt the U.S. Army one its most costly defeats.
In a two-pronged assault, White River Utes attacked the Meeker Agency, killing Agent Nathan Meeker and all of the other men at the Agency and taking several white women including some of Meeker’s family captive. Meeker had anticipated trouble for some time and had been begging for help, which was on its way from Wyoming.
The Utes launched their second attack against the army column hurrying from Wyoming to Meeker’s rescue. Commanded by Major Thomas T. Thornburg and comprised of one infantry company, three cavalry units, and an eight-wagon supply train, the rescuers were pinned down by Ute rifle fire shortly after crossing Milk Creek, about 30 miles north of the Agency.