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Mitchell Ranch in Cortez told secrets of a lost civilization

Early Montezuma County residents share history of the ancients

Editor’s note: This article was reprinted from Silver World Newspaper Oct 5, 1878, Hinsdale County.

Our intention in coming back to Bradford’s ranch on the Mancos, was to get a supply of provisions we had left there and to make a new start in the unknown country, the Montezuma Valley. Accordingly, after a day’s rest, we again started with the intention of making Mitchell’s ranch, the only ground under cultivation in the large valley, the same night.

To give my readers an idea as to the immense valley we were about to visit, I would state that it is 70 miles long, and averages about 40 miles in width. In its center rises the great Ute Peak, surrounded by foothills, a lone mountain in the midst of a far plain. The Ute Mountain is the winter resort of the Utes and lies just within their reservation. There is an abundance of game in its foothills, such as bear, deer and birds of all kinds.

As long as our road lay in the Mancos valley, everything was beautiful, fine ranches on both sides of the road, but when we had gone about 6 miles, our road turned to the right, and almost immediately we were among alkali foothills and sagebrush. After awhile, we came to a small forest of scrub oaks, which afforded a grateful view from arid hills and valley. At last we passed through a small gorge and were at the borders of the beautiful Montezuma Valley. The large plain stretched for miles before our eye, here and there piñon and scrub oak trees in small groups, and away off to the south the great Ute Mountain.

We rode until nearly six o’clock in a southeasterly direction, until our eyes were gladdened by the sight of Mitchell’s house, the only habitation we had seen since leaving the Mancos. We received a hearty welcome from this brave frontiersman and his wife, and during our entire visit we received a great many acts of kindness at their hands. Green corn, new potatoes, beets from the garden and morning and evening a large pan of fresh milk. They also put a large comfortable house at our disposal, and in every way were kind and hospitable. We found here two enthusiasts on the subject of the ruin.

Mr. Peter Scurtz, who has lived in Utah and Colorado 40 years and is a perfect encyclopedia as to dates and traditions of the ruins and the ancient Aztecs. The Ute Indians look upon this venerable old man as God, or one of his prophets and believe him to possess the power of making them sick or well. This superstition is of great service to him as he roams unmolested among the Indians.

It proved also of great service to the other enthusiast, above alluded to namely, Mr. Mitchell, the owner of the ranch. When he first settled here, his family and himself were several times molested and ill-treated by Red Jacket’s band of renegade Utes. but after Peter Scurtzwent and had a powwow with them over on the Ute Mountain, they disturbed our kind hosts no more. We received a great deal of information from these two pioneers in regard to the surrounding country.

The Montezuma Valley has no living stream of water in its entire length and breadth, and it has only been the incessant rains that have enabled Mr. Mitchell to raise his fine crops.

There is a very praise-worthy movement on foot to turn the Dolores River into the valley, and if it is successful this whole immense tract of land will blossom like the rose, for better soil for farming does not exist. There are five springs of good water in the valley, yet they afford no great amount of water for irrigation purposes.

This whole valley was cultivated once upon a time and very highly cultivated. The arroyos were dammed up, the springs walled in, and when the dry season arrived, these pent-up waters were let out on the plain by the Aztec husbandmen.

I found large stones and at regular distances apart throughout the valley, evidently to show to whom the land belonged. At one place an immense arroya was converted into a reservoir, by a large wall, part of which is still standing, and at each end of this wall was a round fort with inside and outside walls, evidentially put there to protect the water supply.

There is a large fort that overlooks and guards the spring on Mitchell’s ranch, and the spring itself is deepened and walled, and could be effectually defended.

On the ranch and near the house is a large vein of coal, and in this coal vein mining has been done and that at a period of long time ago.

Regular sloping ground is broken, and large amounts must have been used by the ancients. No wonder that they used coal, for everywhere in this valley, on the Mancos and on the Animas, are large veins of the finest coal lying open, perfectly accessible, easy to work and everywhere, Not only coal, but large beds of the very finest fire clay are found here in the valley.

Everywhere in the neighborhood of Mitchell’s ranch are the remains of buildings, large and small, the stone of which they are built all dressed and laid in cement, with exactness surprising.

There is one town that covers hundreds of acres of ground and which could have contained thousands of inhabitants. Several smaller towns surround this big one on all sides, and everything denotes an immense population. The graveyards are simply enormous, and every grave has its head and footstones. We excavated two of the graves but found only bone ashes and charcoal, which leads one to the belief that the ancients burnt their dead.

Mr. Mitchell in plowing came across the bones of a man and woman, buried facing the east, as do all graves. Great quantities of arrow heads and pottery were found here, also a string of beads were collected, one by one, from an ant hill.

The morning of the third day we began retracing our steps, sorry to leave this country and to leave the kind hospitalities of the ranch.

We arrived that night at our old camp on the Mancos, loaded up next morning and started on. We passed the La Plata River and camped just outside of Animas City.

The next day, we bought supplies. We found a great many (black) cavalry soldiers here under Gen. Hatch, who are here to inspire fear in the (Natives,) which they effectually do. This night we made our former camp at Macfee’s ranch, the next night Silverton and next night found us safe and sound in Lake City. We had a fine trip.

Note: This article was taken from American Antiquity, Vol. VIII, July 1942: Lewis Henry Morgan visited the home of Henry L. Mitchell at the head of McElmo Canyon in 1878. Mr. Morgan stated the house was located at the head of McElmo canyon and about 10 miles down the Montezuma Valley.

Permission to reprint articles given by Carol Dennison Harless, a descendant of the Mitchell family. June Head, historian of the Montezuma County Historical Society, can be reached at 970-565-3880 for comments.