Pagosa’s Past: Here comes the cavalry

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Pagosa Pioneer Buck O’Neal had a good reputation for fishing skills. This photo of Buck (man on the left) is proof. Buck’s trout was taken from the downtown San Juan River.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

We’ve been writing about a fledgling Pagosa Springs that was just beginning to grow. In the pioneer West before anybody with a nickel and good credit owned a car and there was a gas station on every corner, railroads were a requisite.

Gen. William Palmer’s Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was building narrow gauge tracks into the San Juan Mountains preparing to haul in supplies from Denver and haul out gold, copper, lead and lumber to the burgeoning Colorado population centers east of the Continental Divide stretching from Boulder in the north southward through Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

With the railroad already just 27 miles south of Pagosa Springs, Pagosa Country’s pioneers were certain the railroad would soon blow its whistle and toot its horn in the town. 1887 Pagosa Springs had a lot to offer. Gold had been discovered in “them thar” hills.

The Army was building Fort Lewis at Pagosa Springs to be manned by Company D, Ninth Cavalry, possibly to be a supply staging area for the frontier military that was marching around the southwest hoping to intimidate Southern Ute, Jicarilla Apache, Navajo and, yep, some Commanche Indians who were beginning to physically manifest displeasure with uninvited white eyes stomping through their centuries-old homelands.

In northwestern Colorado, the Northern Utes demonstrated how intimidated they were in 1879 at the Meeker Indian Agency by killing Indian Agent Nathan Meeker and his 10 male employees and taking the women and children of the agency hostage.

Fortunately for the whites, Company D, Ninth Cavalry was close at hand and capable enough with their scowls and weapons to intimidate the Utes. The Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs ultimately became Durango’s Fort Lewis College, which offers Native Americans tuition-free education.

It should be noted that the Ninth and 10th cavalries were two black cavalry units who enforced U.S. Indian policies in the pioneer West. Company D spent some time in Pagosa Springs.