For the past few weeks we’ve been writing about the settler/Indian relationship with each other in pioneer Pagosa Springs during the late 1870s. We reported some weeks back how the Utes burned what probably were the first cabins built near the Pagosa Hot Springs. Those cabins were built by Welch Nossaman and a couple of his friends in 1876.
The Ute action was not surprising. The homes of the earliest settlers in the San Luis Valley, Hispanics from New Mexico, were burned prior to the building of Fort Garland on the far side of the valley.
Fort Garland was built in 1858 following a series of battles in the San Luis Valley against mixed Ute/Jicarilla groups.
Nearer to Pagosa Springs in the Chama River Valley, specifically in the area we now know as Tierra Amarilla, Spanish sheepherders from Abiquiu had been grazing their flocks since before 1820, that is, before Mexico won independence from Spain. Again, the Utes followed the same policy as in the San Luis Valley. They allowed the herders to feed their sheep and camp through the summer, but they did not allow them to erect permanent buildings or settle down permanently.
Not until the U.S. took over New Mexico did the Utes allow permanent settlement in the T.A. area. Those first settlers came as part of the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant circa 1860. In 1866, an Army camp was established near Los Ojos, one of the Tierra Amarilla community of settlements. Camp Lowell was changed to Fort Plummer, which closed in 1866. The buildings remained in used until 1872 as an Agency headquarters and rations center for Ute and Jicarilla Apaches. The original officers quarters for Fort Plummer complete with five-feet thick adobe walls remains near the fish hatchery adjacent to Los Ojos.
The next Army post in the San Juans was Camp Lewis, the name soon changed to Fort Lewis. Fort Lewis was built starting in the fall of 1878 on the bank of the San Juan River opposite the Great Pagosa Hot Spring. Fort Lewis College in Durango is a direct offspring of the original Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs.
Pagosa pioneer Daisy Opdyke Fitzhugh leaves us the following description of soldier activity at Fort Lewis.
“When Garfield was elected in 1880 the soldiers wanted to celebrate. They had a small cannon at the fort (a mountain howitzer — Motter) which they placed on the river bank, pointing it up the river; they loaded it with tin cans loaded with pebbles. They came over and asked my mother if she would let me fire the cannon. (I was thirteen years old at that time.) She was afraid I would get hurt, but they promised her that there that there was no danger so I fired the cannon and such a report you never heard! I was deaf for a week, but at least I fired the cannon for Garfield.”