Pagosa’s Past: A look at the Southern Utes

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
This photo shows Pagosa Springs circa 1890 with the hot springs bath house in the foreground and the town with the Fort Lewis officers’ quarters in the background. All that remains of the Fort Lewis buildings is one of the four buildings used as officers’ quarters.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

Pagosa is a Ute Indian word meaning “stinking waters.” It is appropriate that Pagosa Country was named by and for the Ute Indians. When Spanish explorers first entered Pagosa Country, they soon became acquainted with the Ute Indians.

The Utes were a mountain people who roamed all over the Colorado Rockies, northern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona and the eastern half of Utah. The word Utah is probably derived from the Spanish word Yutah, the name given these people by early Spanish scribes. They called themselves Nuche, meaning “The People.” 

Their language is Uto-Aztecan. They share language similarities with the Shoshonean branch of North American Indians, along with the Paiute, Chemehuevi, Hopi, Comanche and Bannock tribes.

Scholars do not agree on the date the Utes first entered Colorado or where they might have come from. The language suggests they might have come from the Valley of Mexico or the Aztecs there might have come from the mountains of Colorado.

Although the many bands of Utes shared a common language and other cultural and physical similarities, they had many differences. They lived in widely scattered localities with a plethora of environments. The length of seasons varied, winters were more or less severe, and diets were adjusted according to the availability of plant and animal life. Each band adapted to their specific environment.

The names the invading whites applied to the Ute bands differed down through the years. Sometimes the spelling of the names changed. Early white visitors had trouble distinguishing members of one tribe from members of other tribes. They had trouble knowing where the Utes they were talking to lived and if those Utes had agreed with the treaty terms other Utes had agreed to. No hard and fast boundaries surrounded the Ute homeland.

Thus, the constant movement and intermingling of tribes was the source of considerable confusion. Following is a list of tribal names and homelands as our first settlers knew them.

The Moache Utes lived in the San Luis Valley of Colorado during the summer and wintered in the Taos-Cimarron area of New Mexico during the winter. The Capote Utes summered in the Upper San Juan River Valley and wintered near Abiquiu in New Mexico’s Chama River Valley.

The Weminuche Utes summered west of Capote in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. During the winter, they moved south to the Puerco River south and west of Abiquiu.