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Our View: In honor of La Plata County’s 150th birthday

Andy Gulliford

In winter, I cross-country ski up La Plata Canyon in the La Plata Mountains beside the La Plata River. I also live in La Plata County and this year our county has its 150th birthday.

It’s hard to imagine our county 150 years ago. The rivers, mountains and mesas were all the same, but Durango did not yet exist. The train had not arrived. Silverton boomed to the north and stalwart citizens, as well as a few horse thieves and robbers, used the Animas Toll Road to make their way to the bustling mining town. Locally, Animas City grew along the west side of the Animas River. The problem was that all of these cabins, shacks, and mining prospects had been built on Ute land. No one had clear legal title to anything.

The Ute Indian Treaty of 1868 gave the Ute nation the western third of Colorado territory. The Utes signed it. The U.S. Senate signed it, but contrary to provisions in the treaty, which specified keeping white people off Ute land, prospectors crowded in. After all, in 1776, the Franciscan priests and explorers Dominguez and Escalante had traveled through our area and their mapmaker Don Diego de Miera y Pacheco had labeled the La Plata Mountains and the La Plata River after the Spanish word for silver. Prospectors could not be kept out because the U.S. Army made no effort to restrain them.

“One hundred fifty years ago, this was Ute territory. But once gold and silver were discovered, the Utes didn’t stand a chance,” explains Susan Jones, collections manager at the Animas Museum. “The territorial government had to find a way to protect the miners and prospectors that came flooding in, and La Plata County was born.”

Diplomat Felix Brunot arrived in 1873 to establish a new treaty with the Utes to secure the mountains for mining in a legal document known as the Brunot Cession. My Ute students in history classes at Fort Lewis College tell me the Brunot Cession has been misinterpreted. Their elders argue that the Utes had agreed to sell the tops of the mountains where there was no game to hunt in winter, but not the valleys lower down, not the townsite of what would become Durango.

Still, the cession has held and almost all of the southern part of La Plata County has become private property. We have much to thank the Utes for including the northern part of La Plata County, which is largely national forest. Less than two decades after the Brunot agreement, Congress passed the Timber Reserve Act in 1891, allowing the president to set aside forest land from the public domain. President Theodore Roosevelt changed forest reserves into national forests and he established the San Juan National Forest as one of the first. Now at close to 1.8 million acres, the San Juan National Forest, once the lands of the Muache, Capote and Weeminuche bands, is forever public land.

As we celebrate La Plata County’s 150th birthday this year, we need to acknowledge the history of everyone who has lived here: from the prehistoric Basketmakers with their sites in Fall Creek and Ridges Basin, to the Utes, and also those first pioneers arriving on the heels of the Hayden Survey, whose Colorado mapmakers in 1874 had a base camp near La Plata Canyon where I ski.

We have a La Plata County Historical Society documenting our history and a La Plata County Historical Commission recommending historic sites for the La Plata County Historic Register.

Some politicians across the nation seek to ignore difficult historical truths. Texas textbooks gloss over slavery. In Florida, politicians have attacked the teaching of Black history.

In Utah, the state Legislature voted to ban university offices that focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Here in La Plata County, for our 150th birthday, we’ll share our diversity. We’ll discuss our multiethnic past, and we will have no hidden histories.

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.