Southwest Colorado Historical Markers

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

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Map of Southwest Colorado Historical Markers

Topics (click on a topic to jump to that section)
Beaver Creek Massacre | Buckskin Charlie | Chief Ignacio | Chimney Rock | Ouray | Silver of the San Juans | Sleeping Ute Mountain
Beaver Creek Massacre

Marker Topic: Beaver Creek Massacre
Address: Town Park on US-666, in Dove Creek. N side of road
City: Dove Creek
County: Dolores

Beaver Creek Massacre

Anglo-Ute relations in Colorado reached a low point on June 19, 1885, when a group of cowboys ambushed a peaceful Ute camp on Beaver Creek, twenty miles southeast of here. Racial tensions had never subsided after a bloody 1879 conflict at the Ute agency in northwestern Colorado; ever since, "The Utes must go!" had been white settlers' rallying cry. The cowboys who attacked the Beaver Creek camp took this slogan quite literally, killing at least six and perhaps as many as ten people, women and children among them. The Utes retaliated by murdering a white rancher, and several small skirmishes followed; only the mediation of Indian Agent Charles Stollsteimer prevented further bloodshed. But there was little left to fight over by then: The Utes had lost all but the far southwestern corner of Colorado.

Ancestral Puebloans

Beginning around A.D. 600, Ancestral Puebloans built Colorado's first permanent towns in the canyon country south of here. Hundreds of these settlements sprawled across the desert, with an overall population possibly greater than the region holds today. Two of the larger communities, known to us as Yellow Jacket and Lowry Pueblos, lodged several hundred souls apiece. The residents lived in great houseblocks with scores of rooms, stored their food in stone granaries, built small dams and reservoirs for water storage, and raised corn, beans, and squash in terraced plots. After prospering for hundreds of years, these ancestral peoples left their homes for a variety of reasons including climatic changes, increased warfare, and social upheavals. By 1300 they had left these extraordinary communities empty and silent.

Buckskin Charlie

Marker Topic: Buckskin Charlie
Address: New Mexico State Line. On Ute land. Behind fence, off of dirt forest access road. US-550
City: Ignacio
County: LaPlata

Buckskin Charlie

His real name was Sapiah. Born about 1840, years before permanent settlement had encroached upon Ute lands, he went on to become the chief of the Capote band and eventually succeeded Chief Ouray as the Utes' official treaty negotiator. Of necessity he learned the white man's rules, mastered the white man's tongue, even allowed himself a white man's name: Buckskin Charlie. He impressed U.S. officials with his savvy, playing a difficult hand with enormous skill. But Sapiah only embraced white culture to the extent that it helped the Utes preserve their own. Despite constant pressure to change, he remained a traditional chief, sustaining the customs, dress, and language of his people. Until his death in 1936, Buckskin Charlie was among the leaders who showed how to live a Ute life in a white world.

The Southern Utes

The Utes traditionally lived in seven distinct bands, each with its own territory and leaders. The pressure of white settlement shattered this confederation: the four northern bands were sent to a Utah reservation in 1881, while the three southern bands - the Weenuche, Capote, and Mouache - remained in Colorado. Forced by government policies to take up farming, adopt Christianity, and send their children to English-only boarding schools, the Southern Utes by 1930 were struggling to maintain their identity. But the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 provided new hope. Since then the Southern Utes have established an elected tribal council and developed profitable agriculture, tourism, gaming, and natural gas industries. More important, they have rekindled traditional ceremonies such as the Bear Dance and made great progress toward preserving their language and history.

The Utes

The Utes, Colorado's oldest inhabitants, have lived here at least a thousand years, perhaps forever. Certainly they have been here since the state's recorded history began; the earliest Spanish explorers found them in possession of the Central Rockies in the seventeenth century. They were one of the first tribes to acquire horses, and they used this advantage to broaden their territory and strengthen their claim upon it. By the early eighteenth century the Utes held everything from the Utah deserts to the plains of eastern Colorado. Skilled warriors and formidable defenders, they repelled all intruders until the late 1800s, when the lure of gold and silver brought American settlers in force. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Utes saw their vast domain reduced to two small reservations in Colorado and one in Utah.

Though dressed up as a land-reform measure, the 1887 Dawes Act was nothing less than an attempt at cultural genocide. The law sought to destroy the unity of Indian tribes by breaking their reservations into individually owned 160-acre farms, or allotments. The Southern Utes resisted until 1895, when a tribal referendum on the issue passed by just five votes. With sentiment so evenly divided, the Utes decided to split their territory. Those who opposed allotment moved to the western half of the reservation, which remained collectively owned and became known as the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. Allotment proceeded on the Southern Ute Reservation, but the people there remained a tribe, unified despite the splintering of their landhold. Ultimately, the Dawes Act rested on a faulty premise - that Indians should be remade in the white man's image.

Chief Ignacio

Marker Topic: Chief Ignacio
Address: Ute Mountain Tribal Museum at intersection of US-666 & US-160 
City: Towaoc
County: Montezuma

Chief Ignacio

Though known as a man of peace, Chief Ignacio could be forceful - even violent - when necessary. Tribal history states that at age fourteen he killed every member of a rival family to avenge the murder of his father. He was more statesmanlike but no less resolute in the 1870s, when conflict between the Utes and white settlers reached its peak. A savvy negotiator, he gained the respect of U.S. officials during treaty discussions; his testimony before a Senate subcommittee in 1886 helped the Weenuche secure a favorable land settlement, and he thwarted the government's attempt to divide the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation into individual holdings. Ignacio died in 1913, but his leadership helped the Utes preserve dignity and hope in the face of unrelenting change.

Ute Mountain Utes

The Ute Mountain Ute Reservation is home to the Weenuche, one of the seven distinct Ute bands that together ruled the southern Rockies. At its height this confederation stretched across the mountains of present-day Colorado and parts of Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. For most of the year each band stayed within its own province - the Weenuches' domain encompassed the entire San Juan River drainage - but they would meet each other periodically for trade, religious ceremonies, social occasions, and (when necessary) mutual defense. A series of treaties between 1863 and 1880 shattered this centuries-old union; the four northernmost bands were removed to Utah in the "Trip of Sorrow," while the three southern bands - the Weenuche, Mouache, and Capote - occupied two reservations in southwestern Colorado. These lands are all that remain of the Utes' once vast territory.

Ancestral Puebloans

We know southwestern Colorado's ancestral people by their impressive handiwork. Their dwellings, evolving from tiny pithouses to the sprawling cliff manors of Mesa Verde, today inspire wonder; their roads and ditches survive, albeit as faint desert scratches; their ceramic pots and decorative baskets grace museums throughout the Four Corners region. Kivas, pipes, pictographs, petroglyphs, flutes, and other remains hint at the nature of their passions and beliefs, but we still don't know for certain where these prolific builders came from, nor why they left after 1,300 years of residence. Most researchers think they migrated south, blending with local populations to form the modern-day Pueblo cultures of New Mexico and Arizona. Archaeologists continue to accumulate and refine information that might help us to learn the origins and fate of these ancestral Coloradans.

Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park

The thousand-year-old relics of Colorado's ancestral Puebloan civilization lie scattered across the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. The Utes traditionally avoided these sites and whatever spirits might attend them, but in 1961 tribal chief Jack House, recognizing their cultural value and out of respect for the ancestral people, launched a campaign to protect the remains. His efforts led to the creation of Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, 125,000 acres of sandstone cliffs, wooded valleys, and sliver-thin canyons. Within this preserve Ute guides conduct tours to long-lost pithouses, cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, pictographs, roads, kivas, and other antiquities, all of them undisturbed for centuries. The past has never truly departed from this enchanted ground; its spirit is still palpable, resting just beneath the surface of the present.

Chimney Rock

Marker Topic: Chimney Rock/Healing Waters
Address: Pagosa Springs Pulloff, CO-160 west of Pagosa Springs. MP 136/137
City: Pagosa Springs
County: Archuleta

Chimney Rock

Rising from a 90-million-year-old seabed, Chimney Rock's twin towers stand 300 feet above the surrounding mesa. The Europeans who first saw them probably approached from due east, obscuring their view of the westernmost spire. As a result, Spanish explorers (who called the formation La Piedra Parada, or Standing Rock) and later American settlers both described this plural landform with a singular name. The smaller tower went unchristened until the 1920s (long after its presence was known), when an archaeologist finally dubbed it "Companion Rock." That researcher, Jean Jeançon, also discovered the massive Chacoan-style pueblo at its base, but not until the 1970s did excavators fully unearth and stabilize the ruins. Painstakingly reinforced, the crumbling structures may now stand indefinitely, flanked by the eternal heights of Chimney Rock.

The largest of the pueblos at Chimney Rock was constructed in A.D. 1076, probably by migrants from Chaco Canyon (located ninety miles south of here in present-day New Mexico). Built at some distance from the area's older settlements (some of which dated to about A.D. 750), this stone-and-timber pueblo employed typical Chacoan-style architecture. What brought the colonists so far afield? Worship, perhaps. The site may have been a religious shrine, with an all-male priestly caste attending to the mesa's double steeples (possibly revered as War Gods). Others suggest that the Chacoans used this as a lunar observatory, or as a site to harvest timber to supplement their homeland's depleted forest resources. Whatever its purpose, the pueblo complex didn't last long; it burned in A.D. 1125 and was abandoned, never to be rebuilt.

Pagosa Springs

Capt. John Macomb's 1859 wanderings in the San Juan Mountains brought him to one of the sacred Ute places - Pagosa, translated today as "healing waters." His reverent descriptions of the hot springs attracted a trickle of white visitors whose presence the Utes tolerated in summertime but prohibited in winter, when the tribe gathered here. The United States acquired the land from the Utes via the 1873 Brunôt Treaty, and settlers soon came to Pagosa Springs - first farmers, ranchers, and miners, then loggers beginning in the 1890s. But the springs themselves remained the town's foundation. The first public bathhouse, built in 1881, was a godsend to hardworking frontier folk; pleasure seekers and convalescents have been drawn here ever since, soothing body and spirit in these ancient healing waters.

The Old Spanish Trail

The Old Spanish Trail was neither entirely Spanish nor particularly old. But the name seemed to fit this rugged road, which passed about thirty miles south of here as it stretched from Santa Fe to California. Franciscan pathfinders Dominguez and Escalante forged the trail's eastern half in 1776, reaching Utah before turning back; American trapper Jedediah Smith blazed the western segment in 1826 and launched a new trading era. For the next two decades the Old Spanish Trail served as a commercial highway, ferrying blankets, furs, mules, and other goods over 1,200 crooked, desolate miles. But California's 1849 gold rush spelled doom for the Old Spanish Trail, whose rigors daunted all but the most seasoned travelers. The pack trains moved north to the Oregon Trail, leaving this hardscrabble highway virtually abandoned.

John Macomb

Ordered to chart a military road between Santa Fe and Utah, Capt. John Macomb led a scout team along the Old Spanish Trail in July 1859. By then ten years defunct, the highway proved unsuitable for the Army's purposes, so the expedition turned north in search of easier going. A Ute trail brought the party to Pagosa's hot springs, of which Macomb gushed: "There is scarcely a more beautiful place on the face of the earth." This was perhaps the happiest day of the journey; for though they did get through to Utah, the explorers failed to establish a usable thoroughfare. It was nonetheless a worthwhile expedition, yielding the first geologic descriptions of the Colorado Plateau and filling in one more blank in the map of North America.

Ouray and Chipeta/Utes

Marker Topic: Ouray and Chipeta/Utes
Address: Ute Indian Museum, US-550, CHS Property 
City: Montrose
County: Montrose

Ouray (1833-1880)

Ouray, or the "Arrow," was born in 1833 near Taos, New Mexico, of a Jicarilla Apache father and a Tabaguache Ute mother. As a child, he was adopted by a Mexican family and raised in the Spanish language and Roman Catholicism. Not until his late teens did Ouray fully enter into the life of his mother's people. Yet, so great was his renown as a warrior that by the mid-1860s he was chief of the Tabeguache Utes, and the United States regarded him as the leader of the Ute Nation. Multicultured - and a man of great wisdom, determination, and courage, Ouray fought to preserve the very soul of his people - a cause he lived and died for.


She was born a Kiowa Apache but raised a Tabeguache Ute. In 1859, she married Ouray, and the two of them became inseparable. Photographs of Chipeta reveal a woman who appears utterly serene and at peace with herself. The historical record speaks of her dignity, her devotion to husband and family, and her attention to the needs of others. Like Ouray, she apparently moved easily among whites, who spoke glowingly of her beauty and "queenly" demeanor. When Ouray died in 1880, Chipeta was forced to leave the farm and take up life with other Tabeguache Utes on the bleak reservation lands of eastern Utah, where she died in 1924. Her remains were moved here to the farm she loved.

Ouray and Chipeta's Farm

Ouray and Chipeta settled here in the Uncompahgre Valley sometime in the 1860s. When the Los Pinos Agency moved to this valley in 1875, Ouray was already working a 500-acre farm, and living in a six-room adobe house, located one-quarter mile north of this point. This Ouray and Chipeta filled with chairs, iron beds, silverware and china, a piano, and they even hired a Hispanic servant, who answered the ring of a silver bell and drove a fancy carriage. All this was in the vain hope that by showing government officials Utes were capable of adapting white ways, their people might escape reservation life and retain their Western Slope homeland.

The Utes

The mountain country of present Colorado and Utah was home to the Ute Indians for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Loosely divided into seven bands, the Utes called themselves the Nuche, or The People. Spaniards called them Yutas, while their great enemies, the Cheyennes, knew them as Black People. In the early 1600s, they were among the first native peoples to acquire horses from the Spanish - and life changed radically. Mounted on their swift ponies, the Utes enjoyed fabulous wealth, for now buffalo - once so hard to kill - were easy prey. Prosperous, mobile, and adaptable to new technologies, the Utes successfully defended their mountain homeland against all intruders for three hundred years.

An Abundant Earth

The bountiful food resources of the Uncompahgre Valley normally allowed the Tabeguache Utes a life free from hunger. Elk and deer ranged through the valley in profusion, as did antelope, mountain sheep, beaver, sage hens, and ducks and geese - all were hunted. The valley was also rich in berries, roots, nuts, and seeds, which provided a welcome and necessary supplement to a meat-heavy diet. Berries were either eaten when picked or dried in the sun and stored for winter consumption. Yampa (or wild carrots), sunflower seeds, and pinon nuts were prized foods, too. Finally, buffalo were hunted on the great plains east of the mountains, a risky venture but one that changed Ute life.

Silver of the San Juans

Marker Topic: Silver of the San Juans
Address: Pulloff - follow CO-149 into town look for sign just S of curve that leads onto Main Street
City: Lake City
County: Hinsdale
Marker Text:

The Silver of the San Juans

Here in the San Juan Mountains, it was long believed the gleaming metal - silver - could be found in abundance. Spanish explorers came in search of silver in 1765 and again in 1776. About a hundred years later, prospectors found both silver and gold. Lured by glowing articles in the Lake City Silver World, eastern investors soon built smelters and began operating the largest mines - the Golden Fleece and the Ute and Ulay. But by the mid-1880s, the high costs of hard-rock mining and the low grade of the ore forced many mines and smelters to close. Then came the collapse of the silver market in 1893 and an end to silver mining in the San Juans.

The Mountain People

This land once belonged to the Utes - "the mountain people" - who hunted and lived here for generations. Their footpaths wound over the slopes and through the valleys. But in 1858, gold was found near present-day Denver, and the rush to the Rockies was on. No part of Colorado Territory - not even the San Juan stronghold of the Utes - was too distant or isolated for the fortune-hunting prospectors. Finally, white pressure led to the Brunot Agreement of 1873, in which the Utes ceded the San Juans. As the snows melted the following spring, workers began building the first road into the area. Eager prospectors followed on the workers' heels, traveling down the road as it was cleared through the wilderness.

Roads Into the Mountains

You are traveling the Silver Thread Byway, which traces the first roads through the San Juan Mountains. In 1874, the Saguaches and San Juan Wagon Toll Road was built into this high valley. The following summer, the Antelope Pak and Lake City Toll Road snaked over windswept Slumgullion Gulch - 11,000 feet high. Soon twelve freight wagons a day rumbled into Lake City. Passengers arrived in Concord stagecoaches drawn by teams of six matched horses. Said one passenger, "A trip on one of those coaches was something to be remembered." Within a few years, toll roads defying the imagination linked the far-flung mining camps of the San Juans. Like the Silver Thread Byway, many of the old roads and Ute Indian trails are part of today's state highway system.

Otto Mears, Pathfinder of the San Juans

Otto Mears began life in Russia in 1840. Orphaned at the age of four, he was shunted among family members until he found himself alone in San Francisco. He was eleven years old. He survived by scouting out odd jobs. After a stint in the Union Army, he made his way to Colorado. Here he decided to build roads that would 'unlock the riches" of the San Juans. "He had a natural gift for roadbuilding," said one pioneer. "Going to the top of a divide he determined where he could lay out his road." Between 1867 and 1886, Mears built 450 miles of toll roads, thus making it possible for generations of people to live and work in the San Juan Mountains.

Metropolis of the San Juans

Gold strike in the San Juans! Word spread like wildfire that summer of 1874, and the following spring prospectors crowded into this high mountain valley. They pitched tents and erected log cabins with dirt floors and sod roofs. In August 1875 the town of Lake City, named for nearby Lake San Cristobal, was formed. As more and more families arrived, log cabins gave way to sturdy frame and brick homes. Soon general stores, hardware stores, barbershops, saloons, and hotels lined Silver Street. A school, library, opera house, and six churches sprang up. Within three years, boosters claimed the town had grown to 2,000 residents. The rough mining camp had become a full-fledged town - a gateway to the San Juans.

The Question of the Moment

From the mountain fastness of the San Juans, early settlers took a lively interest in current events. In the fall election of 1877, the "question of the moment" was whether Colorado women should be given the vote. Suffragist Susan B. Anthony toured the young state, urging Coloradans to vote yes. When she arrived in Lake City, so many packed the courthouse where she was to speak that she could not get to the rostrum. She delivered her speech outdoors where the Silver World reported, "People stood for two hours in the cold night air and listened with rapt attention." Nevertheless, a few weeks later Lake City joined the rest of the state to vote against women's suffrage. Not until 1893 would the women of Colorado gain the right to vote.

Sleeping Ute Mountain

Marker Topic: Sleeping Ute Mountain
Address: Sleeping Ute Rest Area, US-160
City: Cortez
County: Montezuma

Sleeping Ute Mountain

Sprawling ten miles across the highlands west of here, Sleeping Ute Mountain comprises no fewer than seven separate peaks - and at least as many legends. According to one, the mountain took shape eons ago when a giant warrior was wounded during a cataclysmic battle. He lay on his back and fell asleep; his blood turned to water, and his blankets began to change from green in summer to white in winter. Visible from one hundred miles away, this landmark has guided travelers for centuries. Some believe the Sleeping Ute will rise one day and bring glory to his people; but even in slumber he inspires hope - a cultural and spiritual focus for the Utes.


M.J. Mack, a water engineer for the Montezuma Valley Water Supply Company, laid out Cortez in 1886 on land owned by company manager and co-owner James W. Hanna. Unfortunately, he neglected to identify a source for drinking water; residents had to haul it in by the keg until 1890, when a ditch line from the Dolores River finally opened. Farmers and ranchers trickled in over the next fifty years. Though mining increased the area's population from the mid-1870s, after World War II uranium, vanadium, coal, and natural gas reserves brought a new wave of settlers. In the 1980s tourism emerged as a major industry. Ringed by Mesa Verde national Park, Hovenweep National Monument, the Anasazi Heritage Center, and Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Cortez today proclaims itself the "archaeological capital of the United States."

Four Corners
Ancient Valley Cultures

Their homes may now be less visible than the cliff dwellings of their Mesa Verde neighbors, but the ancient farmers of southwestern Colorado were far more numerous. By the twelfth century perhaps 12,000 people tilled the green canyons and plateaus of the Montezuma Valley, raising beans, squash, and corn. They lived in underground structures and, later, masonry pueblos; and they crafted fine stone tools, elegant pottery, and intricate baskets. Then, for several reasons - perhaps a long period of drought, perhaps the threat of hostile neighbors, perhaps depletion of natural resources - they left their villages around AD 1300. Archaeologists believe many of them migrated south, establishing new settlements, or joining existing ones, that gave rise to modern-day Pueblo culture.

The Four Corners

The term "Four Corners" dates to 1868, when new territorial demarcations created America's lone quad-state conjunction. But nations intersected here hundreds of years before those boundaries were drawn. In the seventeenth century the four cornerstones were the Spanish, the Utes, the Navajos, and the Apaches; descendants of all are still here today. With its severe climate and rugged terrain, the Four Corners region possesses a powerful mystique; as recently as the 1870s portions of the area had never been seen by non-Indians. Though mining, tourism, and agriculture all left their mark here during the twentieth century, the Four Corners remains imbued with a sense of the eternal. It is one of North America's most spectacular places, a land of unparalleled beauty and a rich cultural history.

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