Trapping and trading come to Pagosa Country


Fur trappers started working the waters of Pagosa Country circa 1820.

The first trappers, appropriately called the Taos trappers because they worked out of Taos, entered New Mexico and this part of the West about the same time traders driving great Conestoga wagons pulled by oxen traveled the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri outposts and Santa Fe.

As long as Spain controlled New Mexico, they discouraged any contact with the United States. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, the people in New Mexico were eager to trade for the various items carried along the Santa Fe Trail. Formerly, what goods they obtained came from Mexico via a long, dirty and dangerous trail, sometimes called the “El Jornado del Muerte” or “90 Miles of Hell” in southern New Mexico.

With the traders came the trappers, snagging beaver pelts used to make stylish top hats for European gentlemen. The beaver trapping industry was already flourishing in the northern mountains of what were to become the United States.

New Mexican settlers moved into the San Luis Valley starting in the 1840s. In 1859, Americans stampeded into the San Juan Mountains by 1860.

Suddenly, the Utes were no longer safe in their old mountain homeland. No longer could these hunting-gathering people make a living. Conflict followed. Settlements in the San Luis Valley and the embryonic town of Pueblo were attacked. Cabins were burned.

Conflicts between the invading hordes of miners and settlers on the one hand, and Utes on the other, created a need for the U. S. Army to restore peace.

Army troops were already encamped in New Mexico as a result of the Mexican-American War. Since one of the conditions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago settling that war was that the United States would protect New Mexicans from the Indians, the Army was soon involved in numerous actions against the Navajo, Apache and Ute people in northern New Mexico. Forts were built in New Mexico and the San Luis Valley.

Fort Massachusetts was the first regular Army post in Colorado. Erected in 1852, it was erected a few miles south of where Fort Garland Museum stands today on the west bank of Utah Creek. Troops from Fort Garland fought in the 1854-1855 wars against combined Jicarilla Apache/Ute war parties. Fort Massachusetts proved to be hard to defend and was moved in 1858, the name changed to Fort Garland.

Settlement in the San Luis Valley was at best tenuous until these forts were built. Although the Utes tolerated visits to their lands, they resisted settlement by burning permanent buildings.

Another Army post closer to Pagosa Country was built at Tierra Amarilla, N.M., in 1869. More on this subject next week.