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Forts to protect the ‘San Jons’

We’ve been writing about Pagosa Springs circa 1878, 1879, 1880. What a different place it was during those years!

The Four Corners area was far from being an unexplored wilderness, even in 1860. Gold had been discovered at Baker’s Park, now Silverton, as early as 1860.

In those days the “San Jons” was a name applied to an immense area, roughly stretching from the Gunnison River on the north into Northern New Mexico on the south, and from the Blue Mountains of Utah on the west eastward into the San Luis Valley including a smattering of Hispanic settlements on the eastern side of the San Juan Mountains.

In 1860, the San Juan Mountains were part of the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. That ownership didn’t deter prospectors from swarming into the mountains looking for their personal El Dorado. A small community with log cabins was started along the Animas River a few miles above today’s Durango.

Then, along came the War Between the States and a majority of the able-bodied men, including San Juan Country prospectors, went east to fight for the side of their choice. A few men probably remained in the San Juans but we know little about them.

Following cessation of the Civil War, during the late 1860s and early 1870s, prospectors returned to the San Juans. Gold and silver were found at a number of places and communities sprouted around the better finds. A number of those early settlements have disappeared, but a few still remain. Among those remaining are Silverton, Ouray, Lake City, Saguache, Del Norte, and Conejos. Del Norte was not a mining town, but served as a gateway to those miners and settlers entering the San Juans from the east by crossing the San Luis Valley. By 1879, a branch of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad had reached Garland City, a small community adjacent to Fort Garland on the eastern side of the San Luis Valley. Settlers coming to the San Jons could ride the train to Garland City, then pack by horse, mule, or oxen into the San Juans.

Of course, a great deal of this Anglo intercourse amounted to invasion of Ute territory, especially in the core San Juan area. The Army had already fought several battles with Southern Ute and Jicarilla Apaches in the San Luis Valley during the early 1850s. Conflict between Indian and white at that time led to establishment of Fort Massachusetts in 1852 on the eastern side of the San Luis Valley. Because of the terrain it sat on, Fort Massachusetts was not defensible. Consequently the fort was moved a short distance and renamed Fort Garland in 1858. Frontiersman Kit Carson commanded Fort Garland in 1866.

By the mid-1870s, white transgression into the San Juans convinced Army leaders that armed conflict with the resentful Utes was imminent. It was therefore decided to build Fort Lewis, originally a sub-post of Fort Garland, in Pagosa Springs and construction began in the fall of 1878. The planting of Fort Garland launched the beginning of Pagosa Springs as a town, probably in the fall of 1877 and spring of 1878.