Pagosa’s Past: A brief history of the Jicarilla homeland

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Dr. Mary Fisher was obviously an animal lover as evidenced by this photo of her bear, Pickles. Can you guess what her pet’s favorite snack was?

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

We continue writing about the first Hispanic explorers/settlers in Pagosa Country and their relationship with the Jicarilla Apache Indians they found living in this area. 

Spaniards found Jicarillas north of Taos with agricultural tendencies living on rancherias. Still, hunting was their main way of putting food on the table.

Two events took place which greatly affected the Jicarillas. Beginning in the late 1600s, Comanche Indians began moving from the Great Basin into the Jicarilla homelands in northeastern New Mexico.

At the same time, French traders from the upper Mississippi River established contact with the Plains Indians. The Comanches acquired guns from the French, while the Spanish prohibited the Apaches from having guns. As a result, the better-armed Comanches drove the Jicarillas close to the foothills and mountains of eastern New Mexico by the middle 1700s. At this time, the Southern Utes joined the Comanches in their raids against the Jicarilla.

The Faraon Apaches living in south central New Mexico raided Spanish and Pueblo Indian settlements of northeastern New Mexico and hit the Jicarilla hard. In order to defend themselves better, the Hispanics struck a pact with the Jicarillas, who from time to time after this were used as auxiliaries by the Spanish forces.

The Jicarillas took a fearful beating from the Comanches and were quite willing to serve as a buffer between the Spanish settlements to the west and the French and Comanches on the north and east in exchange for armed assistance from the Spanish. The Jicarilla way of life was little affected by this arrangement. They did accept Christianity into their native religion and Spanish words were added to the Jicarilla vocabulary.

A sort of uneasy peace prevailed for the Jicarilla until the Mexican government, between 1821 and 1846, awarded eight private land grants and five town grants on Jicarilla land. For the Jicarilla, this meant the beginning of losing sacred lands. Dispossessed, they began to raid more frequently and ultimately clashed with the U.S. Army.