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The ranch at Big Bend, and trouble with builders and Native Americans

The ranch of Charlie and Mary Johnson on the Dolores River, about 1883. The ranch is now covered by McPhee Reservoir.

Editor’s note: This article is based on Anna Florence Robison’s interview with Hattie Johnson Porter of Dolores on March 26, 1934.By Montezuma County Historical Society

My father, Charles Johnson, was born in New York in about 1823 or 1824. Indians killed his father before his birth. My father lived in Wisconsin, in Iowa and in Nebraska before he came to Colorado. With his family, he lived for several years at the foot of the Greenhorn Mountains about 30 miles southwest of Pueblo near what is now Rye. Then he moved on to Los Pinos and had the Pine River post office near present Bayfield. He furnished cattle for the Indians on a government contract for so many per week delivered, and he made good money at it. We had thoroughbred Hereford cattle and fine racehorses from Kentucky. Once, some thieves stole some of his racers, and he and his son went after them and got the horses back. One of the horses was injured too badly to be taken home to Pine River and had to be left in the care of a rancher. All the racers were not used to such hard treatment as they had from the horse thieves during the pursuit were bedraggled and out of condition.

After my father had the store and post office at Pine River for several years, he wanted to move on. Grass was getting scarce for there were too many cattle and horses in proportion to the size of the range. He came over to the Dolores Valley and bought land for a ranch from Billy May. He also took up land. Then he put a great many improvements on his new place. There was a 14- or 15-room adobe brick house built for him by some men from Durango. It was painted brick color on the outside, and the bricks outlined with white so that it appeared like a building of regulation brick. It was canvassed and papered on the inside and very comfortable indeed. But the builders had not put a stone foundation under it as they should have done. For that reason, we never planted flowers or shrubbery of any sort against the house wall. When we left the house in charge of a caretaker in later years, flowers were planted against the walls, and disintegration began with the necessary watering. It progressed until the house fell many years before such a thing should have happened. The big stone barn, built by the same men, was also defective in its construction and fell in later years before the site was converted into the present McPhee Reservoir.

The stone barn with its windows high along the sides was somewhat fortress-like. It also was situated so that no one could approach very near without being seen. For that reason, when the Indians had killed Genthner and the word came to the people along the river, they gathered at our place to defend themselves against the attack they feared and expected. We were returning from a funeral of a man killed as a result of a fall from a horse. The funeral was at the old graveyard. We were driving along and saw a horseman riding toward us in high excitement. We knew instinctively that something was wrong, though we denied it to one another. He told us we’d better get home quickly because the Indians had risen and were killing everyone.

When we reached our ranch, the yard was full of people cooking and making camp. We had a large basement under our house and did our cooking there in summer. Mrs. George Moore was in the basement cooking tin after tin of biscuits. She was preparing for a siege. She said they thought they had better feed the men before the Indians came as there might not be time later.

There were people sleeping all over the yard for the next two or three days. But no Indians appeared, and the neighbors went home again.

The Indian affair at Beaver was not a thing to talk of in those days. Fear of the Indians and fear of the action of the government on the part of those connected with it played a part in keeping it out of conversation. Fear of the Indians greatly influenced even those of us who had no connection with the unfortunate affair. Tales of the dead Indians out there was very distressing. The Indians themselves finally came up and buried them, I believe. For a long while, they were afraid themselves to go near the spot.

This was an isolated country in those days. We came here in December of 1880. My married brother, Charles, was living in a little house below us a short distance, and we could not visit freely for fear of being shot by Indians. The May of 1881 was rather a fearsome time for Dick May, our neighbor up the river. Thurman and Smith were killed then. My brother Charles was not very well one day and quite ill the next. He had really been ill only a few hours when he died on May 16, 1881. There had not even been time to send for a doctor before he was gone. I feel sure that it was appendicitis, but we had no idea at the time what the nature of his illness might be. Mother worried and worried over it. She thought she could be reconciled if only she could know what Charles died of. Worry made her so ill that Father took a wagon when Charles had been dead three or four weeks and went to Durango to get two doctors to perform an autopsy. He brought the two doctors, and the men took up my brother for the examination. They examined him and gave as their verdict that he had died of pneumonia. That satisfied Mother and set her mind at rest. But the rest of us had our doubts for we had not much confidence in the doctors in question. The autopsy fee was $1,000.

Jim Douglas, foaled in 1878, broke a world record on June 26, 1886, at Washington Park in Chicago.

We ran horses and cattle. My father used to take his racehorses east each summer, and sometimes he made money on it, and sometimes it was not profitable. He would take his horses to such places as Saratoga, Coney Island and Sheep’s Head Bay. He had all the horse racing paraphernalia imaginable. Once Mother and I went on to Chicago, where he was training his horses and accompanied him to Saratoga and Sheep’s Head Bay and elsewhere. We had a grand time that summer. There was plenty of money with which to enjoy ourselves. I used to bet on the races. If I lost, I went to Father for more money so that I could go on betting.

My father died in 1904 at a ripe old age. He had eight children, six of whom were girls. My brother Sam had a ranch below McPhee and ran cattle until his death about nine years ago. Charles had died many years ago as mentioned above. One of my sisters was the mother of Arthur Waldron, whose widow became County Clerk and Recorder of Montezuma County.

June Head is historian of the Montezuma County Historical Society. She can be reached for comments at 565-3880.

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