Exploring Pagosa Country: Who was first?

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Early day Hispanic settlers “bend an elbow” in a Lumberton, N.M., en salón de billar.

Pregunto? Who were the first explorers of Pagosa Country? If you read Spanish, perhaps the first word in this sentence gave you a clue to the answer. Hispaños from Spain, Mexico and New Mexico were la primera. Of course, I must include the caveat that we are only talking about non-Native Americans at this time.
Having lived most of the last 18 years in Dulce, N.M., on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, I learned when I say “first” in this part of the country concerning history, the correct answer is almost always Native American.
Anyway, Juan Maria Antonio de Rivera, a young man from Mexico, led a small party of compañeros on the first exploratory trip through Pagosa Country. The San Juan Mountains are named for this explorer.
Before we focus on Rivera, I need to point out that a large number of stories usually colored by searches for lost treasure and including Treasure Mountain and the Rio Grande Pyramid are fun to read, but not included in documented history. Among these stories are descriptions of expeditions from New Orleans, Canada and from Hispanic sources south of the current U.S. border.
Now, back to Rivera.
New Mexico Gov. Vélez Cachupìn, after making peace with the Utes of Western Colorado, chose Rivera to make two expeditions in 1765, the first of a series of expeditions in Western Colorado. The first began in June. Rivera and his cohorts traveled north from Abiquiu, N.M., to Piedra Parada, Spanish for Standing Rock, but now known as Chimney Rock, a well-known landmark near Pagosa Springs. From there, the party explored southwestern Colorado, naming the region’s rivers and other geographical features: the Navajo, San Juan, Piedra, Piños (Pine), Florida, Animas and Dolores rivers, appellations appearing for the first time. Near the Animas, they were supposed to meet a Ute who would show them the way to silver deposits in the La Plata Mountains west of today’s Durango. At first, the man was nowhere to be found, but he later met with the party and conducted an unsuccessful search for silver.
Rivera’s second expedition began in the fall of 1865 with the goal of crossing the Colorado River and investigating rumors of a bearded people living on the other side in the legendary region of Teguayo. During this expedition, Rivera left behind one of the oldest inscriptions in the western United States, carving his name into a cliff face in Roubideau Canyon southwest of present day Delta. Continued next week.