What contact did the first white settlers in Pagosa Country have with their new neighbors, the Southern Ute Indians?
By the 1880s, most of the Utes were settled in and around Ignacio and south of the Cortez area. Even so, they hunted, fished, visited the Pagosa Hot Springs, and in other ways were not strangers throughout their former environs.
Ray Armstrong, whose family moved to Pagosa Junction in 1902, recalled seeing the Utes in 1902. “We used to buy ponies from the Utes for maybe five dollars,” he said. “One day I rode from Pagosa Junction in the direction of Juanita. While crossing a hill I heard gunfire and shouting. When I topped the hill it looked like a war below. The Utes, with their tee pees, were across the river firing at some Mexicans, who were firing back.”
Early pioneers left many stories of Indians stopping by their homes. For the women it was scary if the man of the house was not home. Most of the stories I know about came from pioneers living along the Navajo River or along the old wagon road between the Piedra River crossing and what is now Bayfield. And invariably, the story mentioned a request for flour or coffee or sugar or at least some kind of food.
During the March 1878 Meeker Massacre in northwest Colorado, Ute scouts reportedly kept watchful eyes on Fort Lewis and Pagosa Springs from the surrounding hillsides.
A dispute over Ute hay meadows in Taylor Canyon southwest of town made things lively for a while. Ute hunting parties on the upper Piedra, San Juan, and Navajo rivers alarmed the settlers there. At the same time, the Town of Pagosa Springs welcomed the Utes to Fourth of July celebrations. The Utes camped in the vicinity of the Great Pagosa Hot Springs and took part in the horse races. Indian craftsmen sold their wares to whites, even as Indian dancers exhibited their age-old dances.
The names of several Ute leaders were household words. Ouray was the most famous. Ouray grew up near Taos, N.M., and learned to speak Ute, Jicarilla Apache, Spanish and English. Ouray is a misspelling of the Spanish word ure which means arrow. Ure’s father was Jicarilla Apache. He was later adopted by the Tabaguache band of Utes who lived north of the San Juan Mountains near Uncomphagre Mesa. Because of his knowledge of several frontier languages and his leadership role among the Native Americans frequenting the region, Ouray was chosen by the Whites as an intermediary between his people and the U.S. settlers.