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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Frontier in Transition A History of Southwestern Colorado

The history of southwestern Colorado is based on the use and development of minerals and, later, agricultural lands. Because the region was isolated by the Rockies, development by European settlers did not occur until late in Colorado's history. The first recorded European visitors were Spanish explorers of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776. The little group only passed through and failed to leave any physical evidence of themselves. Later, during the early nineteenth century, fur trappers crisscrossed the San Juans in search of the elusive beaver. Antoine Robidoux established the first fur fort on the western slope along the Gunnison River, but by 1840 it was gone.

The second thrust of European penetration was by U. S. Army explorers. First, John C. Fremont, "the Pathfinder", attempted to cross the San Juans in search of a rail route to the Pacific. These efforts were dismal failures. The next try at a Pacific rail route came in 1853 when John W. Gunnison surveyed over Cochetopa Pass, through the Black Canyon and into Utah, where he lost his life in an Indian raid. The Gunnison route was discarded as impractical at the time, yet in 1880, the Denver and Rio Grande used the identical survey for its mainline to Salt Lake City.

The first mineral seekers were "overflow" from the 1859 Gold Rush along the Front Range. In 1860, Charles Baker discovered gold along the Animas River and a modest rush occurred. However, due to a lack of minerals, the venture was abandoned. The Ute Indians, occupants of the lands in question, also discouraged miners. The question of the Utes was key to southwestern Colorado's development. As long as the Utes controlled land and access to the area, Europeans were kept out. However, a series of treaties eroded Ute hold while more and more settlers trespassed the San Juans. By 1873, the Utes under the leadership of Chief Ouray, had surrendered most of their lands. Nevertheless, Europeans along the Front Range wanted full access to the San Juans. Their opportunity to displace the Utes came in 1879 when the White River Reservation Utes rose in rebellion and killed agent Nathan Meeker. The citizens of Denver cried "the Utes must go"; and by 1881 they were removed to reservations in Utah and far southwestern Colorado.

The removal of the Utes opened southwestern Colorado to European settlement  and the region blossomed. Mining, of course, was the prime motivator. The 1870's had seen a renaissance of the mining industry in the San Juans. New techniques of ore recovery provided the stimulus for further development of the dormant mines of the 1860's.

The mining industry, among others, suffered from the lack of rail transportation. In the early 1880's, the first railroads reached the San Juans, the Gunnison Valley. With cheap transportation available, the mineral industry boomed. Mills were erected to process the various ores that were pouring from the mines of the San Juans. Towns such as Lake City, Telluride, Durango and many others developed as supply centers for the mines. With the advent of mining and rail transportation in southwestern Colorado, agriculture became an important facet for the region. Miners needed food and as the mines played out  farmers and settlers began to take up the bottom lands along the valleys. The Gunnison, the Uncompahgre, the Dolores, the San Miguel, and other valleys provided the fertile lands for farming. Farmers not only supplied the mining communities but also exported goods. The cattle industry, born of Indian agency days, prospered in lush mountain pastures. Conflicts arose over the use of public grazing lands but both cattlemen and sheepmen eventually came to use the range together.

Date of Report: March 27, 2013
Number of Pages: 219
Order Number: G1315
Price: $5.95

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