Affairs concerning the settlement of Pagosa Country during the 1870s were a bit confusing and subject to change. The discovery of gold at various places in the San Juans starting in 1861 was a blessing for some and the beginning of the end of a lifestyle for others.
Following the conclusion of the Civil War, an uncounted number of prospectors grabbed pick and shovel and headed into the as then largely unexplored San Juans. Mining communities popped up near Lake City, Ouray, Silverton, and many communities long gone and long forgotten, such as the former La Plata County seat of Parrot City. That’s the blessing side if you were looking for a way to get rich quick.
The catch was, by treaty if not because of first occupancy, the San Juan Mountains belonged to the Southern Ute Indians. Who were these mountain people? One U.S. Army general at the time described them as well-armed and very capable of using those weapons.
And, so, the Army surveyed the mountains in preparation for possible war. At the same time, negotiators, military and civilian, parlayed with the Utes while the prospectors continued to dig and uncover pay dirt. Some of those negotiations were conducted at Pagosa Springs, which had no gold, but was a major entry point for miners headed into the mountains.
Finally, an agreement was reached in 1873. It is still remembered as the Brunot Treaty. In its earliest stages, this treaty was vastly different than the final version approved by Congress. After a series of meetings, the negotiators approved a reservation located on the headwaters of the Piedra, San Juan, Blanco and Navajo rivers. The agency headquarters was to be on the Navajo River not far from present-day Chromo.
With this agreement in mind, the Army, with Gen. Hatch, who had been involved in the negotiations, planned a fort to be located at Pagosa Springs. Because a fort and reservation headquarters meant jobs for civilians, civilians showed up in Pagosa Springs, circa 1876, 1877 and 1878, and squatted on 6 square miles allotted to the Army on which to build a fort.
When the first Army troops showed up armed with hammers and saws ready to build what became Fort Lewis, they were greeted by a fledgling town with a post office and several bars. What more could they want?
Then, to complicate matters, Congress failed to approve the recently approved treaty. The final treaty relegated the Ute Reservation to a narrow, 15 miles from north to south, strip of land. The southwest corner of this land was where Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado touch. The western boundary was between Utah and Colorado, the southern boundary between New Mexico and Colorado, the northern boundary 15 miles north and parallel with the New Mexico and Colorado boundary, and the eastern boundary a 15-mile-long, north-south line just west of Pagosa Springs.