‘Big Rains’ and unease put Dolores valley on edge in 1880s

The ranch belonging to Charlie and Mary Johnson ranch at Big Bend of the Dolores River about 1883. The land is now covered by McPhee Lake. Enlargephoto

Montezuma County Historical Society

The ranch belonging to Charlie and Mary Johnson ranch at Big Bend of the Dolores River about 1883. The land is now covered by McPhee Lake.

I came to the Dolores River with my parents July 11, 1881. Durango was then less than a year old, and Montezuma Valley was La Plata County.

We camped all night on the old Phelps ranch in Lost Canon where the round-up was being held. The river valley was pretty well settled. Besides the many men which you always find in a new country, there were eleven women. Isaac Denby, a settler, was shot and killed by Owen Bean a few days after our arrival.

The fall of ’81, Grandpa Johnson and family moved here from Pine River, bringing with them hundreds of cattle and horses. Mr. Johnson’s family spent the winter in a log cabin and the next summer built the adobe house which was still standing in 1909 on the old place. The new house was the largest and strongest on the river and was built where the canyon had widened out so that the approach of the Indians could be seen. When the rumor of another Indian raid was brought to the people they came to Mr. Johnson’s. No Indians came so the people went back home.

In the fall of ’82 Ben Quick was thrown from a horse and had his hand injured. Dr. Fields of Mancos was sent for, but it was too late as blood poison had set in which caused his death. Mr. Quick was the first person buried in the Dolores Cemetery.

The first ranch in Montezuma Valley was taken up by John Brewer, followed by William Woolley and Louis C. Simon. Mr. Brewer attempted to dig an artesian well but was not successful so abandoned his homestead.

The first silver wedding anniversary celebrated in the valley was that of Mr. and Mrs. Louis Simon. (This was in Totten Lake area). Among the guests were Mr. and Mrs. D. H. Sayler and family. While the Saylers were gone the Indians went through their house and took everything they wanted, including every article of food. Mr. Sayler’s family returned to the Mr. Simon’s where they spent the night and then went on to Durango.

There were very few if any pigs on the river and none in the valley, so one of the ranchers made arrangements with a man on the La Plata who had pigs for sale, to bring the pigs to Durango and leave them in the care of the proprietor of a short order restaurant who was to give the money for the pigs. There were to be three pigs and each was to weight ten pounds and cost $10 each. But when the pigs were brought home, the three only weighed about ten pounds. So he had paid about $3.00 a pound for his pigs.

The first lumber used in the building of our County Seat was hauled here by Nick Krone and Matt Hammond. It was on Christmas Day, 1886. The roads were not laid out as well as they are now and the town site was not very plain. They found it was very hard to locate our present thriving County Seat.

The road going to Rico was not very good either. It is said it crossed the Dolores River 56 times; the distance (presumably by that road) was only fifty miles. The winter of ’84 is known as the winter of the "Big Snow" when it snowed sixteen days and nights continuously, completely blockading the passes through mountains. Ask our worthy citizen J.P. Akin. He knows because he was coming to the “Sunny Montezuma” and was blockaded on Cumbres Range twenty–one days and had to stay there until the road was opened. The old timers reckon time as before or after the ‘high water’ of ’84. But now we can say the year of the “Big Rains”.

The Indians were always a source of uneasiness. When we came here the people were still talking about the killing of Dick May, John Thurman and Byron Smith. Mr. Thurman and J. H. Anderson owned a band of the horses. Mr. May and Mr. Smith went out to buy horses. The news was taken to Mancos, and a party of men sent out and buried Thurman and May. Mr. Smith’s body was never found unless a skeleton recently found in a draw near a spring on the other side of Monument was his. The same year, Willis and Melvin were killed in the Sierra La Sal Mountains. Cal House, Hi Barber and Mrs. Willis went out and found their bodies and brought them in for burial.

In 1882 there was no one killed, but Dan Williams’s cabin on the Dolores was burned and the Indians fired at him. In ’83 there were many horses and cattle killed and driven off but no persons were killed or injured. In ’84, Hank Sharp and Dolph Lusk, while driving cattle, were fired at by the Indians. Sharp was lightly wounded, and Lusk’s horse was killed and he himself was reported dead. Sharp rescued him, however, managed to get him on his own horse, and took him to a place of safety. He was severely injured and was taken to Fort Lewis for medical attention. A company of soldiers was sent after the Indians, but nothing was accomplished. Washing a scout and ‘Roudy’ Wilson a cowboy who accompanied the expedition were killed.

Part 2 of Mrs. Matt Hammond’s article will be published October 7th. Part 2 will mention the killing of Mr. Genthner of the Lakeview area. This article and other pioneer stories have been published in “Great Sage Plain to Timberline – our Pioneer History”. The books are available for purchase.June Head, Historian of the Montezuma County Historical Society may be reached for questions, corrections or comments at 970-565-3880.