Traipsin’, tradin’ and explorin’


I’ve been writing about early explorers in Pagosa Country. One of the earliest of those risk-takers gives us a description of the Pagosa Hot Springs in its virgin state before settlers moved in and rearranged the countryside.
In 1859, Army Capt. John M. Macomb was given the chore of putting together a task force to explore and map a route connecting New Mexico with Utah and California. Macomb’s endeavor had a two-fold purpose.
In the first place, a war, called the “Mormon War” by historians, threatened the peace between Mormon settlers in Utah and other frontiersmen wanting to live in or pass through what was to become the Beehive State. The Army needed a way, a fast way, maybe you could call it a war path, to reach the Salt Lake City area with troops in case people started shooting an unacceptable number of lethal holes in each other.
Secondly, the U.S. didn’t know much about this part of the continent they had recently inherited. And so, Macomb, who was a topographical engineer, assembled a team of scientists and mapmakers, loaded up the pack mules, got his men settled into their horses’ saddles, and left Santa Fe in June of 1859 clippity-clompin’ north and west through northwestern New Mexico, southwestern Colorado, and parts of Utah and Arizona.
Macomb leaves us the following description of the Pagosa Hot Springs:
“In the upper part of this valley is the Pagosa, one of the most remarkable hot springs on the continent, well known, even famous, among the Indian tribes, but up to the time of our visit never having been seen by the whites.
“It can scarcely be doubted that in future years it will become a place of celebrated resort, both for those who reside in the surrounding country and for wonder-hunting health-seeking travelers from other lands.”
Motter’s note: This is an appropriate time to point out that in claiming to be the first white man to see the springs, Macomb was not historically accurate. Fur trappers had visited the springs regularly since the 1820s. In addition, others using the Old Spanish Trail starting with Rivera in 1765 undoubtedly saw the springs. Since a good number of the trappers were illiterate and knew they were trespassing, they left little in writing to draw attention to their whereabouts.
Nevertheless, we are indebted to Macomb because he left the first in-depth, scientific description of the hot springs, Among his crew were skilled draftsmen who left us illustrations of the spring and surrounding San Juan River Valley including Chimney Rock. His detailed description will be in next week’s column.