High hopes and hot water


I closed last week’s column with the important news in 1878 that the Army was getting ready to build a fort at Pagosa Springs. Why an Army fort at such a remote location? Answer: As in much of the Far West in those times, forts were built with the idea of keeping peace between the Native Indians and whites. Pagosa Springs was no different.
Whites had broken all of their promises to stay out of southwestern Colorado, especially the high San Juan Mountains where gold had been discovered. Knowing the Southern Utes were well-armed and ready to do what the Army wouldn’t, drive the whites out with force of arms, the Army decided to build Fort Lewis in what became the town of Pagosa Springs in 1878.
During the same year, Army Engineer Lt. C.A.H. McCauley visited the fledgling post and left the following description of the hot springs: “The springs must have always been to the aboriginal inhabitants a place of great resort … since Indian trails from all directions converge thereto, all deeply worn, doubtless in the various pilgrimages made by numerous bands and families … the pipe of peace is said here to have had an unusual supremacy … to the main springs, from the boiling appearance of its center, the Utes gave the name Pah-gosa (Pah signifying water and gosa boiling) which name with corrupted orthography, it still retains.”
Motter’s note: I have a Ute Indian/English dictionary which says Pagosa means stinking waters … I like my interpretation of orthography better.
McCauley went on to describe “Red Men’s bathing houses.” These were the natural cavities found in close proximity to the Great Hot Springs.
“One in particular,” McCauley wrote, “at the southern edge of the springs is a point of escape of hot vapor and has been used as a sweat hole, the Indians crouching within and covering themselves with a blanket from above.”
According to local tradition, Indians, particularly of the Southern Ute bands, continued use of the springs regularly until the 1950s. They preferred covering themselves with the mud as opposed to merely bathing in the water.
What did the hot springs look like in 1878? Next week, we will again rely on the report of McCauley who was there and saw it with his own eyes.