Pagosa’s Past: Entering Ute Country

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    Photo courtesy John M. Motter
    This is a pre-1900 photo of three pioneer O’Neal ladies who were part of a family that drove a herd of longhorn steers from Texas to Pagosa Country.

    By John M. Motter
    PREVIEW Columnist

    The Spanish government tried to prevent unauthorized trade with the Utes. Spanish frontiersmen living in remote frontier outposts such as Abiquiu tended to ignore their government’s ban on trading with Indians. The Utes and other frontier Indians had been trading with each other long before the Europeans entered North America. Taos was reputed to be a great trading center among the Indians before the first Hispanic set foot in New Mexico. 

    The eastern stretch of The Old Spanish Trail served as a trade route between the New Mexico settlements and the Utes of Southern Colorado and Utah. Abiquiu was a favored place for Utes to winter.

    Annual caravans of Spanish traders, authorized and unauthorized, entered Ute Country. Indian captives, male and female, were sold as slaves to wealthy Mexican dons for a great profit. Often, these slaves had been captured during warfare between tribes and sold to Spanish traders who valued them above furs. A large antelope or deer hide was worth two pesos, a horse worth three pesos. A common soldier earned 15 pesos a month and a common laborer was paid one peso a day. A slave woman was worth eight horses.

    Most Indian slaves worked on farms or became house servants. Some worked in Hispanic mines, often as slaves. 

    The ownership of horses changed many aspects of Ute culture. Mounted, they were able to kill large numbers of bison on the plains and carry the meat and hides home. They could raid enemy villages and retreat in a hurry. They lived in larger groups with stronger central organization and leadership. Utes were probably the first western Indians to own large numbers of horses.

    Except for changes brought on by the acquisition of horses and trade with the Spanish, Ute life remained relatively unchanged until the Mexican/American War of 1846-1848. The Ute was safe and secure in his mountain homeland. Occasional bands of Spanish traders penetrated their mountain fastness. Some of these may have lived with Utes.

    For a time shortly after 1820, American and French Canadian fur trappers and traders penetrated Ute Country. The trappers traded with the Utes, lived in Ute villages, married Ute women and trapped beaver in Ute Mountain Country. They did not attempt to claim ownership of the land.

    Americans entering New Mexico following the Mexican American War were different. They wanted ownership of the land.