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Living at Big Bend during the 1880s

Editor’s note: Part 2 of Mrs. S.O. Morton recounting of life on the Big Bend will be continued in The Journal on Nov. 3. These excerpts are from article published in “Volume I, Great Sage Plain to Timberline,” published by the Montezuma County Historical Society. My husband and a friend, Mr. Kingsbury, wanted to travel westward from the San Luis area of Costilla County to seek a home far over the mountain range and called the New Country. Little was known of the resources, but it was said to be a good cattle country with well-watered acres of good land for grazing, good agricultural land, and well-timbered.

This seemed desirable to our party, so we took two of our boys and left our home for this new and untried country not far from Rico, meaning rich in metal, another lure for mankind searching for the means whereby he could better conditions for himself and his family. The other children were left in the good care of our son Walter. On our westerly drive, we met others like ourselves, for the mining fever catches many.

We can readily pass over the inconveniences experienced in camp life, but our appetites increased with daily travel. Each day gave us new courage as we passed from Alamosa and the San Luis Valley. We met railroad crews busy in surveying what is said to be a new line to this country. This was encouraging. As we passed on, crossing the Florida and Pine Rivers, we met the Charles Johnson family, who, with a small store, smith shop and other conveniences, catered to the wants of the stockmen in surrounding country. We continued on to the Animas River and a little town called Animas City. We heard of Durango, said to be the terminal of the railroad, but the point about a mile distant gave no evidence of a stopping place, only a little unoccupied cabin that marked what might be considered the starting town site.

Moving out slowly westward day by day, we reached the Big Bend of the Dolores River, passing Mancos, a small settlement with a store kept by George Bauer. We now were 20 miles from the Dolores, the river of sorrow.

This reached, we camped for a while, met Mr. Billy May, a ranchman of the Bend. Only with the Red men did he find companionship. This was not always agreeable with the Indians as they claimed this country part of their hunting ground.

But summer days were passing, and we bought 40 acres of ground on the hillside from Mr. May, laid the foundation for a store upon the corner of Mr. May’s land next to our forty acres. To me it did not look like a favorable location for a home. I thought too of our children needing school privileges, the inconvenience of building and no railroad. It seemed to me to be the jumping off place.

But for a short while, we wandered over the hills and forded the waters of this section as far as Rico, the new mining camp, where each month more of the shining metal was brought to the surface.

We left our two boys, and Mr. Kingsbury camped upon the banks of the river for a couple of days. I rode a pack saddle, fording the streams some 20 times, but my horse was sure-footed. Wet with the foamy spray of the rapid river, we had no trail to follow. Sometimes, we found no feed for our horses but that tied to our saddlebags. We camped for the night one-half mile from what was called the town of Rico.

The first night, Mr. Morton left me for a short stay in the town. I was glad to hear his voice as he found our campfire, and he called “Hello!” This was surely camping in the wilderness.

Another day, and we were ready to return to our late camp with the strong urge to leave the mountains as the summer rains were already threatening, and loved ones eagerly waiting our return after four months of this roaming about.

Our children and folks at home were more than glad to see us. We were expecting to return in the early spring, but the following two years that country was in the throes of warfare with the Indians. Dick May joined his brother Billy May, and he with several others bit the dust at the hands of the Indians. This put a stop to our going to the Big Bend to make our home. For two years, we waited for the flag of peace.

In 1882, we again felt encouraged. My husband had purchased the 40 acres from Billy May. We sold much from our home, chartered a car with what was needful for our family, and with a good team of horses, a few cows, etc., we left for our expectant home at the Big Bend of the Dolores River.

A few weeks and we were among what we called the early settlers. The railroad had not yet reached the town site of Durango. The small settlement in anticipation of the new road and 50 miles from the Dolores River was not more than a trading point for those needing supplies and for the men working mines in the La Plata Mountains.

We were told we were just ahead of the railroad, and this railroad was to continue on to the Big Bend of the Dolores. That year we would surely hear the whistle of the iron horse. But such was in the future. The following 10 years we waited for railroad transportation.

On our way between Durango and Dolores, we overtook others who were expecting to settle there – the Phelps family and the Wilburs. They had relatives living up Lost Canyon awaiting their arrival.

A few miles, and we landed at what is known as Dolores, pitched out tents, unloaded, and tried to feel at home. We found the Brumley brothers located across the river, and the Crumleys ranching five miles up the river and several stockmen located along the river.

This was the second of July, 1882.

June Head, historian, can be reached for questions, comments or corrections at 970-565-3880.

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