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Looking Back: The early days and life of Montezuma County

Editor’s note: The following column is based on excerpts from a manuscript by Dora Pederson that was read at a Women’s Club Meeting in 1934.By The Montezuma County Historical Society

Prospectors and trappers following the streams found their way into the La Plata Mountains. They founded a settlement known as Parrott City. With this little town as a base, small parties of them followed the headwaters of the Mancos and the Dolores rivers. They explored and eventually formed the first settlements in what is now Montezuma County in these river valleys.

In 1874, a small party of men located in the Mancos River Valley. One of the men, John Merritt, erected the first house, a log cabin, ever built in Montezuma County. This served as the headquarters of the Moss Expedition, which accompanied by a reporter from an Eastern newspaper, was among the first to explore and bring before the public the new world-famous Mesa Verde ruins.

This same year, a post office was established in the home of another early settler known by the name McIntyre. At the same time, the nearest railroad station was at Alamosa. The mail was taken from there to Parrot City by stage coach and from there to McIntyre on horseback in the summer and on snowshoes in the winter. This was also a long, hazardous trip at that time. A few years after the establishment of the McIntyre, a mail carrier froze to death in Thompson Park.

The first permanent settlement on the Dolores river was made in 1877 by Williams, Dick and George May. Locations had been made previously to this date but abandoned. In 1880, a post office was established on the May ranch with Billy May as postmaster. By this date, a number of settlers were already located on the Dolores, and others were rapidly following them. Charles Johnson, known as Grandpa Johnson to everyone, located at the present site of McPhee in 1881. Mr. Johnson specialized in raising fine saddle horses.

In 1881, the railroad was extended to Durango, from whence George Bauer packed a few staples in the way of groceries on burros to the present site of Mancos, establishing the first store in Montezuma County. In 1884, he established the first bank in the same building. The first school, a three months’ term, was taught in Mancos by Miss Lizzie Allen, a girl of 16 from Parrott City. This school was taught in a log cabin heated by a large box stove. Pupils, whose ages ranged from tots of 4 and 5 to young men and women nearly 20, furnished their own seats and desks, homemade of course, and their own textbooks consisting of any textbooks they were fortunate enough to secure.

The first birth, death and wedding occurred in the Mancos neighborhood.


Passing on to the Dolores section, we find that the first store put in during 1884 at a point a few miles below the present town of Dolores and known as Big Bend, was established. A little town grew up there. In the year 1892, the railroad reached the present site of the Dolores, and the people of Big Bend and most of their houses also moved and located there. I shall mention a couple of other outstanding events in the early history of Montezuma County and then pass on to the history of, to us, the most interesting part of the county, our home, the Montezuma Valley. In the fall of 1881 Ed Caldwell and Clark Brittan owned and operated a horse power threshing machine. In 1882, a sawmill was established in Lost Canyon by Mr. H.P. Morgan.

In the Montezuma Valley about the year 1884 or 1885 Mr. Simon located a ranch in the Lakeview area. This was the first permanent home in the valley. It has been told the story about the erection of the dwelling. According to pioneer custom Mr. Simon assembled his building material, then invited all who could come to a picnic dinner and help lay up the house. The guests consisted mainly of young men, mostly cowboys. One of the young waitresses, being quite enamored with one of the cowboys served him so frequently and generously with a tempting delicacy that the supply ran out long before the supply could go around. The other young men, offended at this show of favoritism, got up and left, and the housebuilding was indefinitely postponed.


The first town in Montezuma Valley was situated about 2 miles south of Cortez, across McElmo and known as Toltec. This little town was soon abandoned for Cortez, which was properly surveyed and laid out as a townsite in 1886 with Mr. William Blake, now living in Cortez, acting as assistant surveyor.

About 1876, cattlemen attracted by the grass and the timber for shelter drove down vast herds of cattle in to the valley.

It is said that one of the pioneers, Pat O’Donnell, purchased the stock for his herd in the Blue Mountains at the rate of $1 per head, laying the foundation for the large cattle business, which made him a wealthy man.

After two unsuccessful attempts to get water into the valley, a successful survey was made which resulted in 1888 to water being poured in the valley through the tunnel and the Big Cut. Mr. William Blake became our first ditch superintendent where he served in this capacity until 1910 when he resigned to enter the government service.


Settlers thronged into the country. The herds of cattle were driven out to the other ranges many of the westward into the region we now designate as the Dry Lands. The country had now become so thickly settled that in 1888 the present county of Montezuma was formed with Cortez as the county seat. Schools were established and churches built. The day of the real pioneer was over. It seems particularly fitting that in days of hardship and doing without, we should pause and remember the hardships endured by those who first led the way. The little stores with limited capital obliged to bring all their supplies by freight wagon over primitive roads were frequently without what we term necessities especially in winter.

Coal oil, tea, sugar, salt, etc., were sometimes hard to get, and worst of all, they sometimes ran out of tobacco. Well-known drugs and a few patent medicines were carried by the stores. When sickness came, the demand far exceeded the supply. The nearest competent physician was in Durango and could only be summoned by due extremity.

An uncle of mine made the trip from almost 4 miles east of Cortez to Durango in December 1889 through snow and mud and succeeded to returning with a doctor in 24 hours, thereby saving the life of a young mother for whose benefit the trip was made.

The pioneers, however, made good use of all-natural reserves. Most homes were equipped with fireplaces, which served as a source of light as well as heat. The old timers believe sagebrush tea to be a panacea for all ails.

Several Indian massacres occurred in the early history of this country so that the fear of Indians always hung like a pall over the settlers. The last trouble with the Indians occurred in 1886. Her husband was killed, but Mrs. Genthner, wounded, escaped with a two children. The Indians burned the house to the ground.

Let us honor the pioneers. Many of those have gone West over the Great Divide. May we follow the trail they blazed.

June Head, historian of Montezuma County Historical Society, can be contacted at 565-3880 for comments.