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COLORADO

A General History Of Colorado

A GENERAL HISTORY OF THE SAN JUAN MOUNTAINS OF COLORADO


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1870 proved to be a turning point in the mining history of the San Juans. During that year, the San Juan Mountains were invaded by hundreds of prospectors and miners. Gus Begole (one of the early pioneers of the Dolores River country), John Echols, Dempsey Reese, and Pony Whitmore discovered the Nigger Baby and Dolores lodes (later called the Yellow Jacket and Aztec) near Rico. Later that summer, Robert Darling staked several claims in the same area, near Silver Creek. Another party of prospectors led by Calvin Jackson discovered the Little Giant and Mountaineer lodes near Baker's Park. And in June of that year, William and James L. Wightman, E. Baker, J. Carry French, Sylvester Reese, and William Boran located several rich veins in the Summitville district, southwest of Del Norte.

In 1872, the San Juans were again inundated by a wave of prospectors and miners. That summer, George Howard and R.J. McNutt discovered the rich Sunnyside, Washington, and Belle Creole veins near Lake Emma at the head of Eureka Gulch. Their description of the massive outcrop of the Sunnyside vein as it stretched across the meadow near Lake Emma takes the reader's breath away. (This invasion of Ute Indian hunting grounds had not gone unnoticed. Fortunately for the miners, a treaty with the Utes was concluded in 1873 which opened up the San Juans to white settlement. This was the famous Brunot Treaty of 1873.)


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The winter of 1873-1874 witnessed one of the most bizarre events in the history of the San Juans. That winter, a group of six prospectors (including Israel Swan, George "California" Noon, Frank Miller, James Humphreys, Shannon Wilson Bell, and Alferd Packer) plunged into the mountains west of Lake City, Colorado. Several weeks later, Alferd Packer showed up at the Los Pinos Agency, located near the Uncompahgre River. He was alone but in relatively good shape. Ute chief Ouray instantly became suspicious when he saw how fat Packer was. When pieces of human flesh were found along the trail by an Indian guide, Packer was promptly detained. It didn't help matters much when Packer was caught with some personal possessions belonging to the missing men. Packer finally broke down and admitted that his companions had died one-by-one and that the survivors had eaten the bodies. Packer claimed that he had been forced to kill Shannon Bell in self-defense before finally making his way back to the Agency. The bodies of the missing men were found near the west foot of Slumgullion Pass, not far from present-day Lake City. One of the men had been shot; the other four had sustained crushing blows to the head. Packer was eventually jailed in Gunnison, Colorado but was soon paroled. Alferd Packer, Colorado's famous cannibal, passed away in 1907.

In 1874, the Hayden expedition began to map the rich country ceded by the Utes. (The Haden Mineral Survey included geographer Henry Gannett and the famous photographer William Henry Jackson. Another illustrious member of the Survey was the geologist Albert Charles Peale, great-grandson of Charles Wilson Peale. The Peales had a special connection with Colorado's mountains. Charles Wilson Peale's son, Titian Peale, was a member of Stephen Long's 1820 expedition to the Colorado Rockies.) The Hayden expedition arrived at Lake Cristobal in July of 1874. By October 19th, they were back in Denver, having surveyed the rugged country near Engineer Pass and Mineral Point.

Four years later, in 1878, the Leadville-inspired "carbonate craze" hit the San Juan Mountains. The discovery of rich silver-bearing carbonate ore in the Phoenix, Yellow Jacket, and Atlantic Cable prospects near Rico, Colorado produced a flurry of excitement. Rico was called "the New Leadville". The following year, three important silver strikes were made in the Rico area. Rich silver ore was discovered on Nigger Baby Hill (so-named for its abundant manganese deposits), Telescope Mountain, and Newman Hill (famous for its rich blanket deposits of silver-bearing galena, cerussite, and anglesite).

In the fall of 1879, an event occurred which eventually resulted in the complete removal of the Ute Indians from the San Juan area. On September 29, 1879, Nathan Meeker (Indian agent to the White River Utes) and 9 employees of the Agency were massacred by hostile Ute Indians. In addition, three white women were captured. Although the female captives were eventually rescued, the entire Ute nation was forced to pay for these hostile acts. By 1881, most of the Utes were on their new reservation in Utah.


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Four years later, in 1878, the Leadville-inspired "carbonate craze" hit the San Juan Mountains. The discovery of rich silver-bearing carbonate ore in the Phoenix, Yellow Jacket, and Atlantic Cable prospects near Rico, Colorado produced a flurry of excitement. Rico was called "the New Leadville". The following year, three important silver strikes were made in the Rico area. Rich silver ore was discovered on Nigger Baby Hill (so-named for its abundant manganese deposits), Telescope Mountain, and Newman Hill (famous for its rich blanket deposits of silver-bearing galena, cerussite, and anglesite).

In the fall of 1879, an event occurred which eventually resulted in the complete removal of the Ute Indians from the San Juan area. On September 29, 1879, Nathan Meeker (Indian agent to the White River Utes) and 9 employees of the Agency were massacred by hostile Ute Indians. In addition, three white women were captured. Although the female captives were eventually rescued, the entire Ute nation was forced to pay for these hostile acts. By 1881, most of the Utes were on their new reservation in Utah.


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By the turn of the century, the mining industry had left its mark on the San Juans. The landscape was dotted with mining camps, prospect pits, and old tunnels - most of them abandoned. Today, not much is changed. The San Juans have essentially remained a backwater region of the Rocky Mountains (much like the Cripple Creek area and New Mexico's Gila Wilderness). The same forces of nature that defeated Fremont (i.e. severe winters and rugged topography) have kept these mountains essentially pristine.

 
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