Last week we attempted to establish the historic context of the San Juan Mountains at the time Pagosa Springs started in late 1877, early 1878. We pointed out that prospecting had been going on in the San Juan Mountains since the 1860s. Several towns in the San Luis Valley, such as La Loma, Conejos, San Luis and Saguache, certainly a few others, were established by 1870.
We neglected to mention settlement closer to home, specifically in the Tierra Amarilla area, starting about 1860, a good 17 or 18 years before Pagosa Springs started.
I don’t think settlement started in the Farmington area until after mining took hold up the Animas River in the San Juan Mountains. I think settlement of the Farmington area started in the early or mid-1870s. Cattlemen and people raising crops for the miners launched the Farmington-area settlements.
Settlement of the Tierra Amarilla area started before gold was uncovered in the San Juans. As early as 1820, when New Mexico was still under the thumb of Mexico, a group of New Mexico citizens applied for a land grant in the TA area.
Already by that time, Hispanic settlers from the Abiquiu area were grazing sheep in the TA area. From what I hear, the Utes allowed them to graze sheep in the summer, but would not allow them to build cabins or do anything else that looked like permanent settlement.
After Mexico secured autonomy from Spain, more attempts were made to obtain a land grant in the TA area. Finally, such a commitment was made circa 1860 and the settlers came year around. Several communities sprang up in the TA area, including Los Ojos, Ensenada, Los Brazos, Los Blancos and a couple of others south of Los Ojos. The community we know today as Tierra Amarilla was known as Las Nutrias in those days. Tierra Amarilla, in the plural, referred to the entire region.
One of the prominent early settlers with business in Tierra Amarilla and in Los Ojos was Thomas Burns. Burns spoke Spanish fluently and had a Spanish wife. He is also accused of being in collusion with Santa Fe lawyer Thomas Catron, who at one time owned more land than anyone else in the United States. Catron headed the infamous Catron ring in Santa Fe which specialized in separating Hispanic land grant recipients from their property.
Catron succeeded in gaining control of most of the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant, which stretched from Tierra Amarilla to the Navajo River in Archuleta County. If you look through the land records of Archuleta County circa 1890/1900, you’ll find more entries credited to Thomas Catron than anyone else, remnants of the Tierra Amarilla Grant in the Navajo drainage in Archuleta County.
In any case, the TA area was well established by the time Fort Lewis was started in Pagosa Springs. Much of the hay and grain for the Fort Lewis horses and mules was purchased from Burns.
Burns, incidentally, started a bank in Ignacio and later in Durango known as Burns National Bank.
The point of all of this is that the nearest shopping center for the first settlers on the south and western sides of the San Juan Mountains was the Tierra Amarilla area.