Please see our Cowboy History, Mancos Valley, and Town of Mancos pages on this site for further information.
The Utes, a division of the Shoshone, roamed the entire central and western portions of Colorado, parts of eastern Utah, and portions of New Mexico (Grant, 1960:326). They were broken into small family units which struggled for survival as hunters and gatherers using stone weapons. They spent summers in the mountains, and, in the fall, they moved to warmer climates, the southernmost Utes occupying the far southwestern corner of what is now Colorado. They lived in teepees covered with elk hides, and summer shelter was provided by wickiups, pole frames covered with brush. Between 1630 and 1640 the Utes came in contact with the Spanish who were settling lands to the south. They had a relatively peaceful relationship, trading meat and hides for agricultural goods. From the Spaniards the Utes obtained horses, and their way of life changed forever. They were able to hunt buffalo and raid their enemies. With a better supply of food and other necessities family units could now gather in larger groups. They developed seven distinct bands, each with their own leaders, organized into a Ute confederation. From 1630 to 1700 the Utes were at their zenith of strength and glory. They warred with Plains tribes and brought home enemy horses, clothing, pipes, arrows, bows, and camp equipment (Rockwell, 2006:14-18, 31).
The earliest recorded European exploration of the wilderness of southwestern Colorado was by the Rivera Expedition in 1765. This expedition undoubtedly had some contact with the Utes. Then, in 1776, the Dominguez and Escalante Expedition sought an overland route from Santa Fe to California. These two Spanish friars gave names to the Mancos River, as well as to many other rivers and geographic points in southwestern Colorado. A Ute (or “Yuta”) was the first native they encountered on the excursion; he became their guide for a time. Later on that expedition, Dominguez and Escalante encountered many Utes with whom they traded peaceably. However, in the following fifty years there was little more white contact with the Utes except with insignificant Spanish forays and mountain men seeking beaver pelts. Even the military and exploratory expeditions which reached into what is now Colorado did not impact the southern Ute bands directly (Rockwell, 2006:51-62).
When the United States defeated Mexico in 1848 and took over much of the Southwest, Ute destiny changed. Immediately, the U.S. sent envoys to confer with the Utes. In 1849 the first official treaty was negotiated. Although no boundaries were defined, the Utes agreed not to depart from their “accustomed habitat” without permission. Two of the three bands which would eventually be permanent in Colorado – the Capote and the Mouache – camped near the Taos Agency established in 1851 and where the historical figure Kit Carson was an agent for a time. The third band, the Weeminuche, were “highly individualistic” and stayed away from white contact (Rockwell, 206: 64-65).
In 1855 the Utes went on the warpath when permanent settlements were established in the San Luis Valley, but their pursuit resulted in the Utes, desirous of peace, signing another treaty. Gold found in Colorado advanced rapid white settlement. The southern Utes were not among those negotiating the next treaty in 1863. Yet another treaty was negotiated in 1868. Each treaty restricted Ute territory to a greater extent (Rockwell, 2006: 65-72).
In 1870 and 1871 small gold discoveries were made in the San Juan Mountains. As miners encroached upon the designated territory of the southern Utes, a delegation of ten Utes traveled to Washington, D.C. and met with President Grant. Led by Chief Ouray, they pleaded for their lands, but the treaty signed soon after that in 1873 resulted in the Utes ceding most of the San Juan area, including the current Montezuma County were Mancos is located. This treaty reduced southern Ute lands to a strip fifteen miles wide and one hundred miles long along the Colorado-New Mexico border. They were still allowed to hunt outside that area as long as peace prevailed (Rockwell, 2006: 98-99).
It was during this period when the Mancos Valley was first settled. The first permanent white settler came to the valley in 1874. Many homesteads were soon developed, and cattle poured into the area. The Ute Trail from summer to winter camps passed through Mancos (Reddert, 1976:4). Freeman writes, “The Indians resented this encroachment on their domain and time after time ordered the settlers to get out. But the settlers stayed on their homesteads and used diplomacy with the Indians” (Freeman, 2005:28). The natives were given food, and the settlers shared what they had. Although there had been uprisings, including the Meeker Massacre, in other locations and, indeed, a cow was killed or a horse stolen from time to time, the Mancos Valley maintained a peaceful relationship with the Utes (Freeman, 2005: 28-29). That is not to say that the settlers were not wary. To protect one set of cabins, settlers dug a long trench on the edge of a Mancos Valley hill and also dug a pit and filled it with water, covering it with brush, to waylay any approaching natives. The also built a stockade around the school house (Reddert, 1976:3). In the end, there appeared to be no need.
However, Fort Lewis was moved from its location near Pagosa Springs in 1880 to a location southeast of the Mancos Valley for the protection of settlers. It would be abandoned in 1891 and made into a school for southern Utes, an act to which the young Utes did not take kindly (Rockwell, 2005:139-140). The Southern Ute Agency was established in 1877 (Rockwell, 2005:81) at what is now Ignacio.
Yet another treaty was signed in 1880. A reservation for the three bands of southern Utes was to be established on unoccupied lands along the La Plata River in Colorado. Each head of family received 160 acres of agricultural land and additional grazing land with additional land given to single Utes and orphans. Monetary allotments were also continued, as provided under the 1873 treaty. The southern Ute bands basically kept the same area provided in that earlier treaty. However, the other bands were moved out of Colorado into Utah (Rockwell, 2005:166-167).
In 1882 the federal government declared those traditionally Ute lands not designated as reservation to be open to for filing (Ubbelhode, Benson, & Smith, 1982:192).
In 1885 the U.S. government passed an act, putting into action the allotments of the 1880 treaty. Some lands would be held in common, and some would be private allotments. The Capote and Mouache bands accepted their allotments in the fertile, eastern portion of the reservation near Ignacio. Privately owned lands could be sold, and many Utes were eventually encouraged to part with their lands. The isolationist Weeminuche did not accept the allotment system; they moved to the semi-arid western end of the reservation where they would own land in common. A separate agency was established there at Towaoc (Rockwell, 2005:245).
Further history of the Mancos Valley and the Town of Mancos can be found on those pages on this site.
Following are resources which give additional information on the history of the Mancos Valley and its environs:
“Brief History of St. Paul’s: Mancos, Colorado.” Unpublished paper, n.d.
Ellis, Darrel. Come Back to My Valley, Volume Two. Mancos, CO: Fifth Raccoon, 2004.
Ellis, Fern. Come Back to My Valley: Historical Remembrances of Mancos, Colorado. Cortez, CO: Cortez Printers, 1976, reprint 1999.
Freeman, Ira S. A History of Montezuma County. Cheshire, England: Trafford, 2005.
Grant, Bruce. Concise Encyclopedia of the American Indian. Rev. ed. Lorence F. Bjorklund, illus. New York: Wings Books, 1960.
Reddert, Lottie W. Cow Talk: The Memories of George W. Menefee: An Early Day Cattleman of the Southwest. Dolores, CO: Dolores Star, 1976.
Rockwell, Wilson. The Utes: A Forgotten People. Montrose: Western Reflections Publishing, 2006.
Ubbelohde, Carl, Maxine Benson, and Duane A. Smith. A Colorado History. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1982.
Wardrip, Molly K. Montezuma’s Trails of Time. Cortez, CO, 1993.