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Song of the Hammer and DrillTHE COLORADO SAN JUANS, 18601914
By Duane A. Smith
UNIVERSITY PRESS OF COLORADOCopyright © 2000 Duane A. Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter One"The Mythical Dorado"
"Go slow," warned William Byers in the Rocky Mountain News, November 9, 1860; "very many of our people are becoming excited on the reported richness and promise of the San Juan mines." The Pike's Peak country's foremost newspaperman went on, "It is evident that there is 'speculation and profit' in the enterprise for a few who are already interested in these new discoveries; but nothing tangible and authentic has reached us of sufficient weight to warrant the rush to that mythical dorado." Thus the bewitching San Juans made their debut on the public scene amid controversy and doubt. Mythical? Only in the sense that men had long dreamed of mineral wealth there, and a very few had already measured that dream against those jagged mountains.
Byers was honestly concerned about the rumors of "great mineral wealth," as a letter the previous month had proclaimed. In 1860, when Colorado was young and mining new, anything seemed possible; that the "gold belt" passing through Boulder, Central City, and California Gulch could extend southwesterly was not inconceivable. Who would argue with the writer who claimed that "in all probability [it] grows richer as one goes in that direction?" Byers would and did. He was concerned about the attempt to enter the "great snowy range" so late in the season; even then the winters in this basically unknown area evoked awe. Byers fretted even more when Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Cañon City each claimed to be the gateway, stealing business and headlines from his Denver. Finally, there remained the possible aftermath, if this turned out to be a hoax, "a hasty, rash and ill-advised venture." Byers knew that the 1859 rush had almost turned out to be just that, and he did not want a repeat performance to blemish Colorado's name (which name the territory did not officially have as yet).
This furor could be traced to Charles Baker, who in August 1860 led a small party into what became known as Baker's Park. By that mysterious, always-buzzing mining camp grapevine, hints of a bonanza spread. Increasingly favorable reports gave only vague notions of location, however. What specifically lured the "restless, adventurous, impecunious" Baker into the heart of the San Juans remains unknown.
Without adequate information, moving toward an unknown destination, the vanguard of miners set out that fall. Newspaper reports from Santa Fe fanned the flames with some specifics. The old village of Abiquiu on the Chama River (a "miserable village" in a "God forsaken land," moaned a Denverite) was the nearest settlement to the San Juans. From it stories originated regarding Indian agent Albert Pfeiffer's tour, during which gold had been found. The news created interest wherever it went. Cañon City, erstwhile gateway, was nearly depopulated, as men left for the "San Wan" mountains. Toward Abiquiu the hopeful journeyed; many wintered there, organizing themselves into companies and making preparations to "pan clean" the snow-locked San Juans.
One Denver party of this period, heading for the "gold land" from Fort Garland, crossed the San Luis Valley aiming for the Uncompahgre River. They made it, despite the snow, and wintered near the future site of Ouray. This group of men nearly starved, being reduced to "very slight" rations before they could work their way out in the spring, sans gold. For them the San Juans held only cold and snow; the gold was still locked in their dreams.
Ore samples and more letters arrived in Denver, forcing Byers to hedge a little and confess frankly that he did not know what to believe. Others were not so hesitant. By mid-January 1861, a weekly express messenger left Denver for Taos, and merchants were moving to supply the expected spring rush.
Finally, Byers found what he was seeking in his attempts to bring order out of the chaos of contradictory rumors: interviews with men who had been there, in a letter from a trusted correspondent. The picture they presented proved discouraging. Byers's sources accused New Mexico traders of fabricating the excitement in order to sell a surplus of merchandise and reverse the dull times settling on that territory. The men who had been there told this tale: after a "desperate effort," they reached deserted Baker's Park, finding there a "large number of prospect holes and several gulches staked off." Their panning proved unrewarding. The best pan produced $2.50 in gold, most only a few flakesscant reward for the hard labor, in a country an "old experienced miner" said did not "look right for gold." Enough was enough; they raced to escape before winter, "the worse used up and most ragged men that I ever saw." These reports should have stopped the rush, but logic has little appeal in a brewing mining excitement.
Almost providentially, a letter from Baker arrived which described his activities in some detail. According to the discoverer, the gulches and bar diggings were rich, "richer than any mines hitherto discovered to the North-East of them," and of sufficient quantity to give "profitable employment" to all who came. Men had already gone to search the "San Meguil [sic] river and to the Dolores and the Rio de los Mancus [sic]." In early October 1860, Baker and his party reached Abiquiu and immediately started constructing a road over the 175 miles from there to the mines. Before leaving the San Juans, they had organized a mining district and claimed a town site. All these activities were familiar ones on the mining frontier, and Baker's group obviously planned to profit from everyone who came after them. Animas City, over the mountains and to the south of the Park, had already been organized in the river valley, and 300 to 500 men had settled down to wait for spring. Baker predicted that no fewer than 25,000 Americans would be in the region the next year to mine and farm.
Despite his earlier reluctance, even Byers started to capitulate, especially when Denver's rivals got the jump on his beloved city. Was not Denver nearer the Missouri River ports and would not a good road soon be built to the mines? He thought so. Byers refused to succumb completely, though, reminding his readers of other mining stampedes in California, and of the one to Tarryall in 1859, when the stampeders did not stop in Denver on their way back, but "rushed on to the States." God forbid such a humbug should happen again. God, too, was on his way there; the Methodists were even then considering sending a circuit rider to the San Juan mines.
As spring approached, the first stampeders did return with disheartening experiences. One returnee, thinking Baker still might find good diggings, nevertheless bluntly emphasized that the previous reports had been grossly exaggerated. Another claimed Baker said, "I alone know where the best dirt is." While Byers fretted over the continued dribble of reliable news, the men at Abiquiu fared no better. The 300 to 500 at Animas City (if that were not a figment of Baker's imagination) shrank to seventy-five beleaguered residents, who found the cost of living high and the snow deep. Still, the optimistic felt that the coming months would demonstrate the richness of the region.
The change of season brought more exciting news from another quarter: Civil War had broken out back in the states, and it proceeded to push the San Juans out of the headlines. Down in those mountains, which isolation made one of the last places in the continental United States to hear the news of the war, miners moved into the mountains to prove or disprove the golden stories.
Frank Hall, quoting Byers in his History of Colorado, gives one of the best firsthand accounts of what happened; Byers originally acquired the story from Samuel Kellogg. Kellogg, who had helped grubstake Baker, left Denver with his party in December 1860. After enduring inclement weather and arduous travel they reached Abiquiu, where they turned up the Chama River, passed what became Pagosa Springs (a planned town site was staked there), and moved into the Animas Valley. In the party was future Colorado governor Ben Eaton, who, after his experiences, gave up mining and turned to farming, where he made a fortune. He was one of the shrewder ones. The group camped in the Cascade Creek area, while Kellogg and several others went over the mountains to Baker's Park in search of the man who gave the park its name. That much-maligned individual had been at Abiquiu earlier, where he still talked confidently but denied authorship of the stories then circulating. Baker's reputation was not enhanced by his offhand comment that he himself knew little of prospecting and had left it to others in his party. This created bitter feelings toward him and even provoked threats of violence.
Kellogg finally found the men he sought and was taken to the site of the "profitable" diggings, where, somewhat more than a decade hence, Eureka would be established. After several weeks, the best he could doand he was an experienced prospectorwas fifty cents a pan. What a pittance as reward for coming hundreds of miles! Kellogg admitted later that he and the others searched only for gulch or placer gold, knowing nothing about lodes or quartz veins and thereby missing the silver deposits. Another miner there about the same time gave a similar report; he prospected nearby creeks and the discovery site with no success. His estimate of 800 to 1,000 men in the area may be high but illustrates the attraction. He even mentioned that eight or ten families had made it into the park, showing the pioneering spirit of the women. After a few days, he had had enough and departed, but not before hearing rumors that the miners were "talking of bringing Mr. Baker to justice." Baker was not brought to justice, although the first San Juan rush proved to be the humbug Byers, among others, feared.
Upon returning to Denver, George Gregory emphatically declared that he would rather travel to the Missouri River and back six times than go again to "Animos" City and back once. Baker, he concluded, "was near a maniac as anything I can compare him to ..." He added this interesting bit of information: Baker insisted his friends go "into the country where there was nothing, and as I believe to lead people over the Toll Road which he is interested in, and build up the towns they have located."
Some diehard miners lingered in Baker's Park all summer; eventually they left, too, and everything was abandonedthe Park, Animas City, and the dreams of those who had staked so much on the San Juans. The San Juans suffered a cruel blow from which they did not recover for almost a decade. The rush left scars on the land, broken sluice boxes, deserted cabins, and a host of other odds and ends to mark the presence of men. Nothing had been proven except that Baker's stories were exaggerated; the dream of mineral riches did not die.
The gold fever had failed to pan out for a variety of reasons, the overriding one being a lack of rich diggings. Even if the placers had proven lucrative, the very isolation of the spot and the Indian threat, compounded by the withdrawal of troops because of the Civil War, weighed heavily against immediate development. Shortages of supplies and actual starvation faced those who braved the inhospitable San Juans and their changeable weather. The story would have been the same had the miners recognized the district's silver veins; Colorado was not ready to handle silver smelting.
The key to opening the San Juans, then, as it would be for decades, was transportation; without it little could be accomplished and other districts would overshadow this one. Who can say what motivated individuals to stampede to the San Juans. Public attitude was conducive to this type of hysteria, because all rumors seemed plausible in those intoxicating days. Perhaps the New Mexico merchants had planted stories, based at least partly on firsthand information. Baker's activities enticed others to examine the region, and the hearsay of rich discoveries whetted interest. Always in the background was the speculation, rampant since the Spanish period, that rich mineral deposits existed. The participants paid the price when this classic mining stampede busted, but what a fortune might have been theirs had it been true!
They were not alone in their excitement; similar rumors had motivated the Spanish for more than a century. Juan de Rivera led a party into the La Plata Mountains in 1765 looking for silver, supposedly guided by a Ute who knew where it was to be found. In 1776, while the thirteen colonies struggled for their independence, the Escalante expedition crossed the Animas River south of present Durango and moved west to the La Plata River. Here, on August 9, Escalante recorded in his journal, "They say there are veins and outcroppings of metal.... The opinion formed previously by some persons from the accounts of various Indians and of some citizens of this kingdom that they were silver mines caused the mountain to be called Sierra de la Plata."
There is no doubt that the Spanish mined in the San Juans; early Anglo miners found evidence of ancient workings with tools and equipment. The Spanish left no records, probably to avoid paying the royal fifth to the King's treasury. Undoubtedly they mined some placer pockets, perhaps a little silver ore on a seasonal basis, but the climate, isolation, and Indian pressure precluded any permanence. In the end they left behind Spanish names and legends of lost mines which still entrap the unwary into futile searches.
By the time of the American conquest of New Mexico, trappers had added a few legends of their own to the growing San Juan mystique. In 1859 Lt. John Macomb, whose exploring party skirted the southern San Juans, confessed that the name La Plata seemed to indicate silver had been found, but he could not find any definite knowledge that would justify the title. The editor of the Santa Fe Weekly Gazette of February 5, 1859 was more optimistic; basing his statement on unidentified "considerable observation," he said that New Mexico was full of gold. Rumors, always rumorsthe San Juans were being rumored to death.
Following the collapse of the 18601861 rush, only a few small parties ventured into the San Juans. Scant success rewarded their efforts. The determined Baker returned in 1867, after serving in the Confederate Army, only to be either killed by Indians or his companions. The Utes were granted the whole area in 1868 as part of their reservation, further compounding the difficulties. In the words of Colorado historian Frank Fossett, the San Juans remained "terra incognita," as did almost all of the Western Slope. Others besides Baker kept faith. Joel Whitney, a tireless mining booster, predicted in mid-decade that silver and gold would be found en masse in the La Platas and San Juans, echoing what the first territorial governor, William Gilpin, had said earlier. More significantly, Randolph Marcy, Inspector General of the Army, on a tour of New Mexico and the Ute country, wrote in August 1867, "It is said that there are rich gold mines in the La Plata Mountains near the Animas River, and that they cannot be worked without protection of troops as the Utes who range west of the locality are hostile."
As the decade closed, the San Juans generated renewed interest. In 1869 prospectors reached the Mancos and Dolores river valleys, several working at the site of future Rico. The next year the Dolores river valley and Baker's Park were prospected. Special Agent William Arny, while visiting Colorado Indians in 1870, passed through the Animas Valley and on May 25 jotted in his journal, "On this stream are good placer gold diggings and in the mountains above are rich gold and silver quartz deposits." Even before leaving Abiquiu, he knew of three parties that had been turned back, and he talked to others who had been repulsed by the Utes. Arny sent a letter to the miners on the Dolores warning them that the Utes objected to settlements, although they were agreeable to allowing prospecting. That concession was a fatal mistake, if they wished to retain their land. Arny wisely recommended cultivating "peaceable relations" and noted in his journal that some arrangements should be made with the Utes about selling the mineral land. It was either that or remove the miners; conflict would inevitably occur if both groups remained.
In his report Arny reported that about 200 miners had been on the Ute reservation, and 274 claims had been filed on gold and silver lodes. To support his statement he included a map of the San Miguel district on the Dolores River, plus the names of claims and owners. Regrettably, the Indian Bureau ignored the situation, which in turn allowed tension to heighten.
For the prospector and miner of the 1870s circumstances had changed from those of 18601861. Colorado's transportation had improved; the railroad reached Denver in 1870 and better roads stretched into the mountains. After ten years of mining, experience and maturity replaced enthusiasm, and smelting had attained a much more scientific basis. The territorial economy had matured to the point that it could more easily support isolated communities, and Anglo settlement had reached the San Luis Valley just to the east of the San Juans.
These pioneer San Juaners did not stop to consider such improvementsthey were trying to stake a claim on the "mother lode." Glittering profits tempted them to overlook the Ute threat. Gold lured them in, but silver soon caught their fancy. Colorado was entering its silver decade, a decade which would see it become the primary silver producer in the United States. The San Juans helped make this possible. Initially, however, gold stirred expectationsgold found in the streams and in a few mines. The pioneers came, staked claims, and agreed to district boundaries and enough mining laws to create some extralegal order out of their trespassing on Ute land.
Again, as in 1860, rumors spread, this time with less rapidity but more truth. A helter-skelter stampede did not develop, mostly because of the Ute barrier. The Indian Bureau tried to stem the tide, denying permission to mine on the reservation and dampening enthusiasm where it could; it might as well have shouted into the wind. By 1872 no bureaucracy fiat had proved effective. The territorial press was appalled at such efforts, dismissing completely any justification there might be. The editors of the Daily Central City Register, April 19, 1870, deplored the concept: "So desirable a region ... the occupation of the mines would drive out and destroy the game, and we suppose this precarious means of support must be preserved for a few savages, to the prevention of their own civilization and the impeding of the development and progress of the American people." When this type of argument gathered momentum, the Utes were doomed. More encouraging from the miners' point of view was the fact that the Utes did not restrict their movements to any serious degree. Of course, there were not many whites yet.
Excerpted from Song of the Hammer and Drill by Duane A. Smith Copyright © 2000 by Duane A. Smith. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY PRESS OF COLORADO. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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