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The early days of Montezuma County: abundance and scarcity

Editor’s note: The following was read by Mrs. A. W. Dillon at the Pioneers’ Reunion on Sept. 4, 1908.The glint of gold first lured the prospector with the pick, shovel and pan strapped on the back of his faithful burro to the deep canyons and snow-clad summits of the La Plata Mountains. Next came the cowboy, and the abundant grass and water looked good to him, and he concluded to stay. He took up a ranch and went to raising cattle. After this came more cowboys, and soon a small settlement was established on the Mancos and Dolores rivers.

Life in these remote settlements was no long unbroken dream of happiness, for the summers were short, the winters long, and snow became very deep, which caused considerable hardship sometimes in securing necessary supplies. The Indians resented the encroachment of their domain and made more or less trouble.

The first settlement on the Mancos was made in 1874 by Dick Giles, John Merritt, H.M. Smith, John McIntyre, James Clemmons, Ebenezer Root, James Ratcliff and Peter Holmes. Although in 1873 John Moss made a treaty with the Indians, they allowed him land 25 miles square in which to carry on mining. A post office was established at McIntyre’s – now the Cheeley place – in 1874. The mail being brought from Parrot City on horseback in summer and on snowshoes in winter. Previous to this, the settlers took turns in going after the mails. In the fall of 1878, Manse Reid, Lou Paquin, Pat O’Donnell, Major Sheets. Mr. Gregor and Wylie Grabeal came into the county with a herd of cattle, which marked the beginning of the very extensive cattle industry. In the winter of ’79, the mail carrier froze to death in Thompson Park within a short distance of the Caviness house.

The nearest railroad was Alamosa, from which place the settlers brought their supplies by wagon and pack horse. The Mancos and Bear Creek hills still have evidence of the manner in which the pioneer overcame difference in traveling. With the advent of the iron horse into Durango in ’81, we thought we were indeed becoming quite cosmopolitan, though many a hard ride lay between us and our supplies.

Land taken up and improvements began at this time. The year 1880 was by the following persons: Giles Smith, Kramer, Bergebrand Wisecarver, Morefield, Clemmons, White, Sheek, Whitlock and McIntyre. The first school was taught by Miss Lizzie Allen of Parrott City. She was only a girl of 18 but did herself and Mancos credit, the first of the term was taught in a cabin on the Root place, but before three months were up, the people had built a log schoolhouse that was used for school and all public gatherings until ’87.

In 1881 came the first store, and the town of Mancos was partly laid out. George Bauer established the first bank in ’84, the business being carried on in the store building.

The first sawmill, owned and incorporated by H.F. Morgan in 1880, was situated on Cherry Creek. From there, he went to Durango, but in ’82, he moved his mill to Lost Cañon, where he operated for a number of years.

The first Sunday school was conducted by Mrs. Wetherill in ’81, and this for a time was the only social gathering except occasionally a dance. After a while, that chief source of recreation and knowledge in newly fledged communities – the Lyceum – was organized, and the eloquence and oratory of the time was duly appreciated.

The first death to occur was that of Dick Giles on the Menefee ranch, the first wedding was that of Mr. Ratcliff and Ms. McGeouch, the first white child born was William Menefee, the first ordained minister who conducted services at Mancos was Rev. Howard, whom many of you know. He preached his first sermon at the home of Mrs. Sheek in the early ’80s.

Ed Caldwell and Clark Brittan owned and ran a threshing machine during the fall of ’81, the grain was standing in the field in October on the Sheek place when about a foot of snow fell, causing great consternation to the owner. Mr. Caldwell thought winter had surely come, but the snow soon melted and no harm was done.

The first settlement on the Dolores was made by William, Dick and George May in 1877 though previous to these locations had been made by H.F. Morgan, T.W. Wattles and Ben Ford, who later abandoned their claims. In ’79, a number of others came among whom were Denby, Bean, Hess, Crumley and the Giorgetta brothers. Mr. Burch joined these in ’80. A post office was established in ’80 with Billy May as postmaster. The first election was held at the Crumley ranch in ’80. O.D. Pyle was elected justice of the peace, a position that he held continuously for 25 years or until his death.

The first school was taught by Miss Lulu Swink at the “Old Bend” in a log house that was built to serve both as a temple of learning and a place to dance.

The first minister to look after the spiritual welfare was George Burnett, who swapped horses through the week and preached the gospel on Sunday.

The Kuhlman brothers and Cal House located their ranches in ’79. At that time the nearest land office was in Lake City. Grandpa Johnson settled on his ranch in the summer of ’81, and at Christmas time his family arrived, accompanied by Mr. MacCwaig, who established the first blacksmith shop. W.H. Brumley came in ’82, and J.H. a year later. Down on the lower Dolores, several families settled in ’82 and ’83. Settling on the lower Dolores were J.S. Trimble, G. P. Moore, A. W. Dillon and Mate Dickins.

George Moore was noted for his quick trips to Durango and back with his old mules. Jim Trimble was a famous shot, and one year he bought a new wagon with money obtained from hawk and coyote scalps, upon which there was a bounty.

The first wedding was that of Antone Giorgetta and his blooming, red-cheeked bride, and the first child born was Emma Denby. William Darrow put in a store in ’84, and sold out to Bauer in ’86, who in turn sold out to Harris brothers in ’87.

The settlers along the Dolores and Mancos rivers have reason to remember the winter of ’83-’84 – known as the winter of deep snow. The railroad was blocked for three months, and the snow was so deep over the big hill and on the La Plata divide that travel could only be accomplished by snowshoes. Bacon, sugar, tea and coffee gave out, and even salt became very scarce. Venison likewise was hardly fit to eat, and ammunition scarce. A.W. Dillon made a trip to Durango on snowshoes only to find that there was nothing there but canned goods. He did, however, bring back some tobacco, which cheered up some of the discouraged ones.

Now the saddest chapters of our history. From the time the settlers first came in, the Indians had from time to time ordered them away and finally went to drifting away their horses and killing their cattle. On the first day of May 1881, John Thurman, Dick May and Byron Smith were murdered, and the cabin burned at Thurman and Willis’ ranch near the Colorado and Utah line, now known as Monument. Mr. Thurman was in charge of a large band of fine horses owned by himself and J.H. Alderson. Willis was in the cattle business, and Mr. May had gone to the camp, taking Smith with him to purchase horses. The news of the killing reached Mancos the next day, and a rider was sent on to Fort Lewis. On the third, a group of men whom were C.H. Goodman, C.A. Frink, A.W. Puett, M.W. Reid, George and William May, brothers of one of the murdered men. George Phelps, Mike O’Donnell, Ben Quick and others whose names we did not learn went out and buried the bodies of Thurman and May but could not find the body of Smith, nor has it ever been found. On the 24th of May, Willis and others, in attempting to round up their stock in the vicinity of the burned cabin, were fired on by the same Indians. A force was then organized in the Sierra LaSalle Mountains, and a fight ensued in which 10 white men were killed and also some Indians, but there was no way of knowing how many of the latter.

Melvin and Willis were killed in this fight. Cal House, Hi Barber and Mrs. Willis went out and brought their bodies in and buried them. Melvin’s grave is on the hill near the House ranch, and Willis was buried at Mancos. In ’83, they burned the cabin belonging to Dan Williams and fired on him. No deaths occurred in ’83, but they still stole horses and killed cattle.

Call June Head, of Montezuma County Historical Society, at 970-565-3880 for comments.