When prospectors first started exploring the San Juans for gold during the 1860s, they bumped into the Ute Indians. The Utes were unhappy because the prospectors were trespassing on land that belonged to them. Confrontations naturally occurred and the prospectors and first settlers demanded that the government send in soldiers to protect them.
The geography of San Juan country was little understood by the U.S. Army or the public in general. The few maps available were largely distorted and inaccurate. As friction between Anglos and Indians increased, it became apparent that a new treaty was needed and that the Army needed a plan in the event of all-out war.
Consequently, a series of government surveys began in 1873. Lt. E.H. Ruffner of the Army Corps of Engineers directed most of these surveys. Ruffner was stationed at Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley. Before his work was finished, Ruffner parties surveyed the route from Del Norte to Lake City and on to Silverton, the East Fork of the San Juan route across Elwood Pass, Cumbres Pass and most of the passes in between.
Ruffner made the following report in 1874:
“The origin of the reconnaissance was the disturbed relations between the Ute Indians and the miners of the so-called San Juan District. This district was reported as embracing claims located on the Animas River, and on the Lake Fork of the Grand River (now the Colorado River). These districts, formerly opened and abandoned, had become again the centers of wild speculation, and prospectors were reported as rushing there from all quarters. To the Ute Indians, occupying a consolidated reservation indefinitely large and embracing certainly one portion of the field and possibly all, the prospect of a wild flood of white men occupying their land without regard to their guaranteed rights was anything but pleasant, and they protested against the invasion. An attempt was made in the summer of 1872, to secure a cession from them on the disputed territory. It was a failure, however, and when the rush of miners in the spring of 1873 promised to be greater than usual, the remonstrances of the Utes grew to threats during the winter, and they firmly said the miners must leave or war would follow.”
More next week from Ruffner.