As increasing numbers of settlers and miners occupied the southwest corner of Colorado, including the San Juan Mountains, during the 1870s, tension between the newcomers and the Southern Utes also increased.
War seemed imminent. Negotiations between the antagonists focused on defining a reservation with boundaries that both sides would agree on. Actually, settlement boundaries agreeable to both sides had been established earlier, only to be ignored when trespassing white prospectors discovered gold on the reservation lands. The first Ute reservation boundaries included all of the Colorado Territory west of the Continental Divide.
Gold-hungry miners soon ignored those boundaries and the Utes agreed to a smaller reservation, including land in the southwest corner of the state. Then, in 1861, gold was found in the San Juan Mountains. The eruption of the Civil War at about the same time diverted traffic from the San Juans until that war was settled.
When peace returned to the nation, miners returned to the San Juans and tension resumed between the Utes and the U.S. The Army had done some exploring in the San Juan region with Macomb’s 1859 expedition. When war threatened, the Army seriously examined the region with an eye toward building a fort and finding the best routes for troop travel.
Meanwhile, another reservation treaty was enacted, allowing mining in a horseshoe-shaped area in the high San Juan Mountains. The new reservation lines didn’t work either, and so negotiations resumed, part of them in Pagosa Springs. A new reservation located at the headwaters of the Piedra, San Juan, Blanco and Navajo rivers was agreed upon by the negotiating parties, but turned down by Congress.
Congress finally approved a Southern Ute Reservation that started on the Utah border and stretched eastward almost to Pagosa Springs. The southern boundary of the new reservation was the Colorado/New Mexico border and the northern boundary was a line paralleling the southern boundary, but 15 miles north of the New Mexico border.
Even with the new reservation, peace did not come because the whites and Hispanics continued to trespass. And so, the Army erected a fort in Pagosa Springs with construction starting in the fall of 1878. More next week on the beginnings of Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs.