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Drill time at Fort Lewis

We continue to write about the difficulties faced by the Army when they established Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs in 1878/1879.

In an April 15, 1879, letter, Capt. Dodge, commander of the fort and also commander of Co. D, 9th Cavalry, commented: “I have the honor to recommend that the cavalry horses of Co. “D” 9 Cav. Be returned to this post.”

Dodge continued in the next paragraph, “I make this recommendation only because there now seems to be a favorable opportunity for drill, and as a majority of the men of “D” Co. are recruits, they are greatly in need of it, especially if they are to be ordered into the field during the coming summer.”

Recruit training was different during those times than it is today. There were no boot camps. Company officers went into the highways and byways of the nation and recruited new men. They then trained the new men at whatever fort or post the men were assigned to.

Dodge had recruited most of his command in southern states during the fall of 1878. His first task had been to get his new recruits to Pagosa Springs, where Fort Lewis was being built. Not long after Company D arrived, however, heavy snow and bitter cold hit Pagosa Springs. No forage was available for the animals, so they were transferred to Animas City, located on what is now the northern part of Durango.

The Fort Lewis parade grounds at Pagosa Springs were located approximately in the center of today’s Block 21, the main downtown business block. Surrounding the parade grounds were quarters housing the enlisted men and officers. Of course, the town had not been surveyed yet, so nobody even knew the land the fort was built on would become downtown Pagosa Springs.

Training would include drills on marching in formation on foot, marching in formation on horseback, battle tactics, and learning to use the rifles and pistols.

It’s hard to imagine, but the air above Pagosa Springs was, at that time, filled with the commands of officers drilling troops. Those of us who have served time in the military know what that sounds like.

I’m not sure where the firing range was, but have been told it was in the vicinity of Lewis Street. During target practice, the guns were aimed at the hill just north of Lewis Street. I think the proper name for that hill is Mesa Heights, even if we did call it Snob Hill just a few years ago. Mesa Heights was one of the first post WW-II subdivisions in Pagosa Springs. Most of the community leaders and merchants had homes there, hence the name Snob Hill.

Getting back to training of the Co. D, 9th Cavalry recruits, I am sure there were rides and drills in other nearby areas.

Capt. Dodge’s warning that the troops needed training in order to be ready to go into the field when summer arrived proved to be fortuitous. During 1879, Colorado newspapers commented extensively about the great deal of unrest among the Utes of Colorado. Soon, Capt. Dodge and his black cavalry unit were ordered to Fort Garland and from there to patrol duty in North Park. They ended up taking part in the bitter fighting connected with the Meeker Massacre and one of the troops won a Congressional Medal of Honor in that fracas.