Just west of Pagosa Springs is a small roadside park north of the highway. A bronze plaque set in granite says that more than a century ago Capt. Albert Pfeiffer stripped naked on behalf of Utes in a knife fight with Navajos over ownership of the hot springs. But as with many tales of settling the West, only a portion of that story is true.
In this case, the truth is deeper and more profound than the myth. An examination of historic sources reveals that, indeed, Pfeiffer was an Native American fighter. Yes, he fought Navajos, but not near Pagosa Springs. Instead, he invaded their homeland at Canyon de Chelley and participated in the infamous Long Walk from 1864-1868, which forcibly gathered up 8,000 Navajos and in a scorched-earth campaign, burned their hogans, slaughtered their sheep and goats, poisoned their water wells and chopped down their peach orchards.
But once, in New Mexico, Pfeiffer did fight Native Americans naked. Apaches caught him and his Hispanic wife, Antonita Salinas, at the hot springs area now known as Truth or Consequences. He was there with an escort of six soldiers. Two died. Warriors took his wife captive, and he pursued them, without bothering to put his clothes on and took two arrows in the leg. One point may have been tipped with poison.
It is difficult from the 21st century to try to understand the violence and conflicts at the end of the 19th century as Anglos settled the West and tamed the frontier. Like so many other immigrants from Europe, Dutch-born Albert Pfeiffer, at 22 years of age, came west as a soldier. Like many veterans, Pfeiffer used the 1862 Homestead Act. He died in 1881 at 59 and is buried near Embargo Creek between Del Norte and South Fork, “among the foothills overlooking his beautiful ranch,” said his obituary in the April 16, 1881, San Juan Prospector published in Del Norte.
Pfeiffer is a footnote to Colorado history. He’s known in the San Luis Valley, but the real historic character who oversaw the Navajo Long Walk is remembered as Col. Kit Carson, who used Ute scouts to flush Navajos from deep within their desert canyons. Carson took his orders from Gen. Thomas Carleton who decided to use Civil War volunteers, including Hispano soldiers from New Mexico, to stop Navajo raids.
Contemporary Navajos sometimes blame Carson for the forced brutality of the Long Walk, but it was Carleton who ordered it. Carleton commanded Carson to have his troops shoot any renegade Navajo males they saw. Carson risked court martial but refused.
“The Navajo campaign, led by Pfeiffer’s comrade Kit Carson, is viewed today by many as wanton cruelty, but at the time, Carson and Pfeiffer were considered heroes who had followed orders successfully and sent the troublesome Navajos to captivity at Bosque Redondo,” writes historian Virginia Simmons. She adds, “For his meritorious service, Pfeiffer became a brevet colonel in 1866.”
A decade earlier, he had married his beloved Antonita at Abiquiu, New Mexico. His bride had an expensive wedding dress with yards and yards of heavy white satin that had been hand embroidered. Carson was Indian agent at Taos, and Pfeiffer was Indian agent at Abiquiu in 1858 and 1859. When the couple had a son, Carson became the godfather.
It was June 20, 1863, when Apaches attacked Pfeiffer’s party at the hot springs and took his wife captive. One account says, “Capt. Pfeiffer had just time to seize his rifle and wade across the river in pursuit of the Indians. He struck out without a stitch of clothing on, and the sun blazing hot ... he thought the Indians would not kill his wife immediately ... therefore he made for the fort (Fort McRae) to give the alarm and get reinforcements.”
He was followed and received an arrow through the back that came out his chest and “this wound troubled him for years afterwards.” Pfeiffer’s obituary explains that after the attack he became a military man and “fought in any capacity offered. From the time of the death of his wife he led a roving life.” Antonita never recovered from her wounds. Her husband took to the bottle.
Pfeiffer’s son settled in the San Luis Valley and eventually gave a magnificent beaded buckskin coat to the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte. Three coats may have been hand-crafted – one for Don Luis Montoya, one for Carson and one for Pfeiffer.
I’ve been to Pfeiffer’s grave, and I’ve been to the well-run and always hospitable Rio Grande County Museum to see his hand-embroidered leather coat and to marvel at the twists and turns of history. Trying to find the truth is not an easy task. Sometimes what is erected in bronze and granite is a monument to myth, not fact. The Women’s Civic Club of Pagosa Springs, part of the Colorado Federation of Women’s Clubs, erected the Pfeiffer memorial in 1955 to commemorate how Pfeiffer “won the Pagosa Hot Springs for his Ute friends.”
Pfeiffer lived out his days on a captain’s pension of $20 a month with 17 scars on his body “to show for his valor.” He may have always been a heavy drinker. The San Juan Prospector’s obituary, which I was able to read from a large, bound volume, offered this about Pfeiffer’s life: “Like most soldiers, he never managed to acquire much wealth and has left his financial affairs in a state of embarrassment. Having done good service to his country, he was certainly deserving of a greater pension than he was in receipt of, but such men are seldom appreciated until the country for which they fought has become settled.”
In an added detail, Louise Colville, director of the Rio Grande County Museum, told me, “When you get into the census, he apparently had Indian slaves. The young man he adopted inherited part of his estate.” Pfeiffer’s great-grandson, Charles Elliott, has placed the family’s famous coat on loan.
As for the Navajos, the Long Walk is the seminal event in their history. Disparate bands had been rounded up and forced to go east. When they came back to live among their four sacred mountains, they returned as a federally recognized tribe with the legal recognition of the U.S. Senate and the Treaty of 1868. The boundaries of the Navajo Nation now encompass 17 million acres.
Historians have argued that “the past is a foreign country.” Perhaps. It was certainly a different place 136 years ago in southern Colorado when Pfeiffer died. The train had just come to Durango. The town was being platted. The first houses were going up.
How should we think about the lives of frontiersmen and the moral choices they made? Sometimes all we have to remember the past are photographs, a gravesite on a stony hill and a beaded buckskin coat.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.