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When Opportunity Knocked on Saguache’s Door

Article by Virginia Simmons

Local History – May 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE WORD AMBITION is defined as “an eager and sometimes inordinate desire for something, as preferment, honor, superiority, power, fame, wealth, etc .,” according to Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary.

Otto Mears was the quintessence of ambition, and when opportunity knocked on Saguache’s gate, this bundle of energy was on hand, already holding the key to open the door. The West’s history is not so hard to understand when one looks at parallels in the ways people responded yesterday and today to dreams of prosperity. Doubters might compare modern economic-development projects and their enterprising promoters to their kin in early Saguache when the chance of relocating an Indian agency came along; it was a lot like acquiring a correctional facility or a big land development today.

The arrival of the Los Piños Indian Agency gave Saguache a big boost — just when the town was getting started. Joining earlier Hispanic pioneers in the neighborhood, the town’s founders arrived in 1866. One particularly energetic individual among several in Saguache was Otto Mears, a person who as a boy could have been the model for Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick.

Born in Russia to Jewish parents, Mears was orphaned early in life, but he was enterprising enough to make his way alone in America as a young peddler of newspapers. He was a veteran from a company of California Volunteers, a merchant’s employee in Santa Fé and Conejos, and a sometime partner of Lafayette Head in milling in Conejos. By the time he arrived in Saguache, the sharp-eyed Mears had seen a lot and learned how to survive in territorial New Mexico and Colorado.

Mears learned about frontier life in bustling Conejos, which was a center for trade with travelers, the military at Fort Garland, Spanish-speaking neighbors, and the Native Americans who congregated around the Conejos Indian Agency, where Head was agent. During this period, Mears became adept in Spanish — the lingua franca of the area — and in the Ute language, which would be highly useful in future dealings with Indians, government officials, customers, and anyone else with an interest in the area.

With others from the southern part of the San Luis Valley, Mears moved to the budding agricultural settlement of Saguache, where he was a merchant and miller, but politics in the infant Saguache County also proved a profitable sideline.

Most people in the area were raising livestock and crops to sell to Fort Garland, the mining camps of the Upper Arkansas Valley, and Denver. They also traded with Ute Indians who came over Cochetopa and Poncha passes with tanned hides and dried deer meat to exchange for flour, horses, metal pots, or whatever else might be had. So William Godfroy, the Conejos Agency’s clerk, came to Saguache in 1867 to keep track of Head’s “wards.”

Meanwhile, Mears was soon encouraging local enterprises to build a wagon road across Poncha Pass to transport products to the mines around California Gulch and, of course, to collect tolls. But as Mears and everyone else could see, Indians were in the way of the full potential of Western expansion and the economic opportunities it would bring.

AFTER THE CIVIL WAR was laid to rest, the federal government set its sights on moving Plains Indians and other tribes in the West to reservations. Delegations of various tribes were taken to Washington to negotiate treaties for this purpose, and, thanks to his familiarity with many Utes and their language, Mears went along to Washington in 1868 when one of these treaties was negotiated and signed. By its terms, Colorado’s Ute Indians were assigned to a large reservation, mostly west of the Continental Divide.

At this meeting in Washington, President Andrew Johnson designated a Ute, Ouray, to be head man and spokesperson for all Ute Indians in Colorado, plus those who wandered in and out of northern New Mexico. Ouray’s greatest recommendations for this function were that he was a good orator and that he could speak Spanish well after spending his childhood and youth among the local people of Abiquiz and Taos. Ouray had also picked up some English, in which he was less fluent, but — contrary to popular myth — he could neither read nor write. Probably acquainted earlier at Conejos, after 1868 Mears and Ouray formed a mutually beneficial alliance that would last until Ouray’s death more than a decade later.

According to the terms of the Treaty of 1868, two agencies were to serve Colorado’s Utes, one on the White River in northwestern Colorado and the other on a Los Piños River in southern Colorado. The reservation’s eastern boundary was the not-yet-surveyed 107th meridian. As is often related in Colorado histories, the location for the Los Piños Indian Agency was placed on a creek that previously had no name but was christened “Los Piños Creek” to fulfill the treaty’s terms. Actually a few miles east of the 107th meridian, the agency site was a very long way north or northeast of the range occupied by most Utes in southern Colorado, but it was fairly convenient for Ouray’s Tabeguache Band who wintered in the Uncompahgre Valley and traveled throughout Colorado, primarily in the central and south-central portions.


FIFTY-FIVE MILES of rough travel lay between the agency site and Saguache, but a major advantage was that the agency was as close as possible to Saguache’s stores, farms, ranches, mills, and to the crude Cochetopa Pass wagon road that passed through Saguache. At the time, this hamlet had no rivals. With money and labor found among Mears’s neighbors, transportation to the agency improved a little with construction of a new toll road over what is now called Old Cochetopa Pass.

What is perhaps not so well known is that there was, not far from Conejos, a Rio de Los Piños in Conejos County. Although this river and its lush valley, which was a popular Indian camping ground, was east of the Continental Divide, it seems logical that Lafayette Head might have hoped that the new agency would be placed there, where it would have remained an asset to Conejos’s merchants and millers, the more southerly Ute Indians, and Head himself, of course. If not this stream, at least the Los Piños River of southwestern Colorado. Head spluttered in Santa Fé’s press about the fact that the agency had been placed on a stream that did not even bear the specified name and he blamed Colorado Territory’s congressmen in Washington for this sleight of hand. Yet by reading between the lines, one might conclude that Mears, his cohorts in Saguache, and perhaps some Tabeguaches had encouraged the manipulation that moved the agency farther north.

The reception given the new agency by many Ute Indians, though, was ambiguous if not downright hostile. When temporary agent Second Lieutenant Calvin Speer, accompanied by Godfroy and others, including Mears, traveled to the site to begin construction, they were intercepted by about eight hundred Indians in war paint, who, after Mrs. Godfroy had fainted in fright, revealed that they were just joking. Later, Ute Indians from remote parts of the territory showed their genuine dislike of the agency’s location by shunning it and visiting other agencies in northern New Mexico.

NEVER ONE to miss an opportunity, Mears quickly acquired the contract for delivering rations to the new agency, which opened for business in 1869. To fulfill his contract, Mears purchased large quantities of provisions from farmers not only in the immediate neighborhood of Saguache but also around the Rio Grande. The diary of John Lawrence, published by the Saguache County Museum, offers many details that show how Mears and the agricultural community profited from this commerce — even though it is hard to believe that Ute Indians had an appetite for some of the foodstuffs, such as wagon loads of turnips. Potatoes were better, and flour — sometimes fit for consumption and sometimes not — was a staple.

Complaints about the quantity and quality of rations had been frequent at Conejos previously, and one can assume that they continued at Los Piños. Agencies often received the bottom of the barrel, material that was old and/or spoiled, with better products being sold to the military or to markets in towns and cities. Beef cattle also offered contractors inviting opportunities for unethical practices, profits from which were destined for the pockets of scalawags like Colorado Territory’s Governor Edward McCook and his relatives.

An often-told tale also has Otto Mears holding back fifty good head of cattle, intended for the agency herd at Gunnison, and substituting hides from others to account for the missing animals. No admirer of Mears, Lawrence also described four hundred head in another delivery as being “the poorest, scrubbiest and ordinariest Texas cattle that ever passed through the territory.” The Indians refused to accept them. Besides the fact that this herd was of inferior quality, it should be noted that contracts stated that no Texas cattle were permitted in deliveries to the Utes. Graft and outright fraud were so common at Indian agencies everywhere that one commissioner of Indian Affairs in the 1870s demanded that flour be inspected by agents and, if necessary, that samples be sent to his Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office in Washington.

[Chief Ouray and Otto Mears]

HUMANITARIAN CONCERN normally was so uncommon among BIA functionaries that the commissioner’s extraordinary demands require an explanation. A reform movement in the East had gained enough strength in the 1860s that, beginning with Grant’s administration, otherwise notable for abuse of the spoils system and general political corruption, a Board of Indian Commissioners, composed of reformers, began to oversee expenditures and to guide policies of Indian Affairs in the Interior Department. During the existence of this commission in the next dozen years, the BIA in Washington was controlled by prosperous Eastern gentlemen of Protestant persuasion and reform politics.

One of their first moves was to assign agencies to various Protestant denominations. As a result, the Los Piños Indian Agency fell under the aegis of the Unitarian Church, an organization whose liberal views were strong but whose experience with Indian missions was nonexistent. This church assigned a particularly inept Bostonian, Jabez Trask, to be Los Piños’s first permanent agent.

Trask was soon at odds with his Ute Indians and with local people at Saguache who sided with them. The agent’s quirky personality and especially his self-righteousness, isolated him literally and figuratively both from Utes and from Saguache’s residents, as he shut himself up in his quarters at the agency to avoid physical harm. When the miserably unhappy Trask was replaced by Governor McCook’s brother-in-law, Charles Adams (a German Catholic), it was learned that Trask had not used a sizable amount of money that was available to him for purchasing rations and other supplies.

One must speculate how much Trask’s failure to keep the wheels of commerce turning inspired the opposition of Mears and other entrepreneurs. In contrast, Adams had a remarkable ability to get along with everyone, especially with Mears and Ouray, and this triumvirate held the reins at Los Piños for a short period.

But another change came when news reports about the arrest of accused cannibal Alferd Packer alerted the Unitarian Church to the fact that the current Los Piños agent was not from their own flock. As a result, a Unitarian pastor took over as agent.

A new development of paramount importance in Colorado Territory, ultimately changing the Indian agency’s strategic location near Saguache, was mining in the San Juan Mountains. Along with illegal prospecting and mining on the Ute reservation in the early 1870s, there came increasingly loud demands that Ute Indians should be removed from the mining region of southwestern Colorado.

The prospect of striking it rich — either with minerals or through commerce — was so great that the loss of an Indian agency became quite acceptable to Saguache’s populace, including Mears. When Felix Brunot, a member of the Board of Indian Commission, arrived at Los Piños Indian Agency to discuss a cession of mining land in the San Juans, a crowd of local folks joined hundreds of officials and military personnel on the scene. When a second council was required to get the job done, the presence of local spectators was limited, but the ever-indispensable Mears was there, and it was his suggestion to give Ouray an annual “salary” of a thousand dollars that finally broke the stalemate.

With the Brunot Agreement the San Juan Cession was approved, and the Los Piños Indian Agency was to be moved. The Ute Indians of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico were to have agencies on the Uncompahgre and on the Los Piños Rivers, the river of the latter name being in what is now La Plata County.

IT SHOULD COME as no surprise that Mears then got a contract to help move the Los Piños Indian Agency from its original location to the Uncompahgre Valley. He also had the mail contract to that point and continued to deliver rations. Mears, however, was on his way to bigger things as a founder of Lake City, on land that was formerly part of the Ute reservation, and as a toll road builder in the mining country.

Saguache businesses, farms, and ranches continued to enjoy prosperity, thanks to Colorado’s mining boom, but now other towns, roads, and forms of transportation competed. Gunnison sprouted at a point closer to Lake City as well as to the agency in the Uncompahgre Valley. Del Norte boomed as a supply point on the Rio Grande, and the Denver and Rio Grande Railway headed westward across the mountains even farther south. Front Range cities captured Leadville’s trade and transportation needs. But no railroad ever came to Saguache, a serious handicap.

Wherever mines opened in the San Juans, however, Otto Mears was to be found, hacking out his toll roads, opening stores, publishing newspapers, acting as agent for the Denver and Rio Grande, and finally constructing his own narrow-gauged railroads, too. Mears’s biographer, Michael David Kaplan, details the multifarious activities of the ubiquitous little man.

AFTER THE MEEKER MASSACRE and the death of Ouray, when both the Tabeguache Utes and the White River Utes were removed to Utah, Mears still was on the scene at negotiations in Washington and bribing — with the princely sum of two dollars each — Southern and Tabeguache Utes to endorse the Ute removal agreement. He was on the special commission that turned down the relocation site for Tabeguaches, identified in the agreement, at today’s Grand Junction and chose instead a new home for them in Utah’s scablands. Mears even got the contract to build their first agency buildings there. When he showed up in Utah to deliver seven hundred dollars owed by the federal government to Ouray’s widow Chipeta as compensation for her fine farm in the Uncompahgre Valley, however, he was forced to flee in the night to avoid being killed by a leader of Chipeta’s band.

Refraining from further good deeds on behalf of Ute Indians, Mears left Saguache and continued to build roads in the San Juan mining country. When he turned to narrow-gauge railroads, his first was built south from Montrose through Ouray’s and Chipeta’s former farm. As a result of his industry, Mears became acclaimed in Colorado history as “Pathfinder of the San Juan.” He also branched out in an ill-fated railroading venture on the East Coast and in the construction of Colorado’s capitol building in Denver, but he never failed to answer any door whenever he heard opportunity knocking until, at last, he retired in Pasadena, California.

A century and a half later, this Horatio Alger story might have ended in a gated community at Palm Springs — and with a second trophy home overlooking the green at Beaver Creek — for Mears’s single-minded ambition to achieve success is recognizable, then and now.

Virginia McConnell Simmons is author of The Ute Indians of Utah, Colorado and New Mexico (University Press of Colorado, 2000), The San Luis Valley: Land of the Six-Armed Cross, The Upper Arkansas: A Mountain River Valley, Bayou Salado: The Story of South Park, and numerous other books and articles.