Traipsin’, tradin’ and explorin’: Who was first?

    Photo courtesy John M. Motter
    Welch Nossaman was among the first settlers in Pagosa Springs. In his life story written by Larry Masco, it is said he built the first house in Pagosa Springs, a log cabin downtown on the north side of the San Juan River. The same source says Nossaman was confronted by Southern Ute Chief Colorow who said, “You vamoose. Me camp here.” When Nossaman saw the size of Colorow’s heavily armed escort, he hurriedly “vamoosed.”

    We’re talking about Juan Maria Antonio de Rivera, a man sent by the governor of New Mexico in 1765 to explore the vast, unknown wilderness of southwestern Colorado, a suspected El Dorado harboring gold. The Hispaños feared that French trappers invading the West from Canada would beat them to the punch and claim the land and all of its riches.
    On his first trip, as we revealed last week, Rivera explored the southwestern corner of Colorado but found no gold. On his second trip, he reached as far as today’s Gunnison River and westward into Utah.
    Little is known about this explorer who disdained fear and exercised “mucho bravado” by traipsing fearlessly among the Ute, Paiute, Navajo and Apache Indians living in the land he explored. He certainly succeeded in establishing ownership of this bountiful and potentially rich domain for his Hispanic sponsors, at least until the brash, upstart nation known as the United States took over.
    Rivera’s family was in New Mexico before the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, which temporarily drove the Hispanics out of New Mexico. He was 27 years old when he set up headquarters in Abiquiu in Northern New Mexico from which to lead expeditions into Colorado. New Mexico Gov. Cachupin, who commissioned Rivera for this task, did not refer to him as captain or Don Rivera in the traditional fashion of the day, suggesting that Rivera was neither military nor of high birth or a member of the colony’s more favored elite class.
    His second expedition began in the fall of 1765 with the goal of crossing the Colorado River — known as the Grand River until 1926. He did not reach the Colorado River, but found the Gunnison River and camped in the Uncompahgre Valley, where the Utes told him the route to the Colorado River was too dangerous. From this point, Rivera returned to New Mexico and disappears from historic view.