By John M. Motter
In the early days when white and Hispanic settlers first started exploring San Juan Country in search of gold, the Southern Utes they found living there tolerated the invasion. They figured the white man would look around for a bit trying to find gold, trap a few beaver hides, then go back to from whence they came.
They soon learned to their sorrow that “white man speak with forked tongue.”
The white man started building more and more houses. Soon the housing communities grew into towns, which grew into cities surrounded by farms. He soon replaced the almost limitless herds of buffalo with cattle and plowed and planted the land, defying the original inhabitants to trespass on his newly acquired fiefdom.
Conflict was inevitable and the whites soon called on the Army to “help us protect our land.”
One of the promises the U.S. agreed to while signing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo ending the Mexican/American War was to protect the Hispanic population in what was soon to become the southwestern part of the United States from the various tribes of Native Americans living across the area.
Troops needed forts and forts attracted settlers. For example, Pagosa Springs started out as Fort Lewis, created to protect settlers around the hot springs from the Southern Utes.
Fort Massachusetts was the first regular Army post in Colorado. Erected in 1852, under the direction of Kit Carson, it was located a few miles southwest of where the Fort Garland Museum stands today on the west bank of Utah Creek.
Troops from Fort Massachusetts fought in the 1854-55 wars against combined Southern Ute and Jicarilla Apache warriors. The Army soon learned that the first Fort Massachusetts was nearly impossible to defend because the enemy could climb nearby hills, getting above the walls and shooting the soldiers they were looking down on. The newly moved post was called Fort Garland and manned until 1883. The first troops stationed in Pagosa Springs marched over from Fort Garland.
Settlement in the San Luis Valley was, at best, tenuous until these forts were built. Another post on the border of Pagosa Country was established Nov. 6, 1866, near today’s Tierra Amarilla in New Mexico. At first, this outpost was called Camp Plummer. On July 13, 1868, its name was changed to Fort Lowell. Fort Lowell was closed July 29, 1869.
Relations between the invading whites and the Utes followed a precedent repeated frequently across the North American continent: encroachment by the whites, battles, incidents, the Army called in, treaties, land set aside for the Indians, more encroachments, more incidents, more Army interventions and more treaties.