Dolores County is a sparsely populated county in southwestern Colorado, named for the river that flows from the San Juan Mountains on its eastern flank. It covers 1,068 square miles and is bordered to the north by San Miguel County, to the east by San Juan County, to the southeast by La Plata County, to the south by Montezuma County, and to the west by the state of Utah. From its source in the mountainous eastern edge of the county, the Dolores River flows south along State Highway 145 into Montezuma County, into McPhee Reservoir, and then back north into western Dolores County through Dolores Canyon.
Dove Creek, the county seat, is located west of Dolores Canyon along US Route 491. The town has a population of 689, about one-third of the county’s total population of 1,978. Rico, a historic mining town, has a population of 265 and is located in southeastern Dolores County. The county’s geography ranges from tall mountain peaks, such as Mt. Wilson, San Miguel Peak, and Blackhawk Mountain, to flattop mountains such as Lone Mesa, canyons cut by the Dolores River and its tributaries, and the sagebrush-covered Colorado Plateau in the west.
Around AD 600, Ancestral Puebloans settled the western Dolores County area as part of a larger stretch of settlements across the Colorado Plateau. They built blocks of houses and stone granaries that stored harvests of corn, beans, and squash, some of which were farmed in terraces and irrigated by water artificially diverted from streams. Some of the largest communities supported hundreds of residents. By 1300, however, a combination of environmental and social turmoil forced them to abandon the area.
By 1500 southwest Colorado was frequented by several bands of Utes, predominantly the Weenuche, the “long time ago people.” The Utes lived off the natural wealth of Colorado’s mountains and river valleys, hunting elk, deer, jackrabbit, and other game. They also gathered a wide assortment of wild berries and roots, including the versatile yucca root. By 1680 the Utes had obtained horses from the Spanish, an acquisition that augmented their nomadic lifestyles and allowed them to organize buffalo hunts on the plains.
By the early seventeenth century the northern frontier of New Spain pressed up against the lands of the Weenuche and other Utes in southwestern Colorado. The Utes’ relationship with the Spaniards was one of alternate raiding and trading, and as early as 1640 they had acquired horses from the Spanish. The animals allowed them to cover even more ground in search of trade or larger populations of game, such as buffalo.
Official exploration of the Dolores County area would not come until the expedition of Juan de Rivera in 1765. Rivera’s mission was to have Utes lead him to a crossing of the Colorado River and investigate rumors of silver deposits in the mountains. He got as far as the Dolores River, where he was told by the Utes not to proceed any farther until cooler weather prevailed in the fall.
In the fall Rivera returned to the Dolores River, where the Utes again attempted to divert him. Rivera soon realized that the Utes were simply trying to keep the Spanish from advancing farther into their territory, and he eventually convinced them to take him north to the Colorado. His mission complete, Rivera returned to Santa Fé in November 1765.
Rivera and his expedition carved out a route for future traders and explorers, such as the friars Silvestre Escalante and Francisco Dominguez. In July 1776 the friars were dispatched to find an overland passage from Santa Fé to Monterey, California. After following Rivera’s old route through present-day Archuleta, La Plata, Montezuma, Dolores, and San Miguel Counties, Dominguez and Escalante pushed northeast into the Gunnison Valley and then northwest into Utah, where they ran into a punishing blizzard and were forced to turn back.
The Spanish era of Dolores County’s history came to an end when Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821. The rugged, little-known area remained the dominion of the Utes for decades. This did not immediately change after it became US territory in 1848 following the Mexican-American War.
Rico and County Establishment
Fur trappers plied the area around present-day Rico during the 1830s, but white Americans did not arrive until decades later, when a prospecting party led by a Colonel Nash found gold in 1866. Two years later the Dolores County area became part of a 16 million-acre Ute reservation via the Treaty of 1868. A second mining party arrived in the Rico area in 1869, but the Utes drove away many of these early miners and kept whites out of the area until 1873, when the Brunot Agreement transferred some 3.5 million acres of the San Juan Mountains to the United States.
Miners flooded into the newly opened lands, and the Pioneer Mining District was established near present-day Rico in 1876. Rico was incorporated in 1879 after silver deposits were found on Blackhawk and Telescope Mountains to the east. Among the town’s first businesses was the Pioneer Hotel and Restaurant.
When Colorado joined the Union in 1876, the Dolores County area was first part of a larger San Juan County, then Ouray County, until it was carved out of the southern half of then-Ouray County in 1881. That year the prospector David Swickhimer founded the Enterprise Mine on Telescope Mountain, though he did not strike the profitable Enterprise Lode until 1887. The Rio Grande Southern Railroad arrived in 1891, furthering the town’s boom period. The next year Rico boasted a population of about 5,000. Rico served as the county seat from 1893 to 1946, when it relinquished the title to a more populous Dove Creek.
Mining was not the only profitable enterprise in the early days of Dolores County. Miners had to be fed, and the rich grass of the Dolores River valley provided excellent fodder for cattle-raising. Ranchers such as the Kuhlman brothers, who operated near Rico, brought in Longhorn and Shorthorn steer from Texas during the 1870s and 1880s.
The Weenuche and other Ute bands in southern Colorado had been residing on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation since the mid-1870s, but the federal government’s failure to provide the supplies promised in the Brunot Agreement and previous treaties often led them off the reservation to secure their food supply. In southwest Colorado this brought them into conflict with white ranchers, who often falsely accused the Utes of cattle theft and other depredations. The Utes did occasionally kill cattle, but mostly they simply used traditional hunting grounds and campsites. Confrontations between white cattlemen and Utes sometimes turned violent, as demonstrated in 1885 when white ranchers killed six Utes at a traditional Ute camp along Beaver Creek. A historic marker detailing the Beaver Creek Massacre stands near the town of Dove Creek.
World War I veterans first homesteaded the Dove Creek area in the late 1910s. The land was covered in sagebrush and was extremely difficult to clear. One of the first settlers, Dan Hunter (a.k.a. “Sagebrush Dan”), set up a successful pinto bean farm, as well as a high school, water and power utilities, and a newspaper. The homesteaders continued the Ancestral Puebloan tradition of growing pinto beans, for which the local soil and climate were perfectly suited.
The town was host to emigrants fleeing the Dust Bowl on the plains during the 1930s, as well as miners participating in the Western Slope uranium boom in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Dove Creek’s 1940 population of 418 had grown to 986 by 1960. Agriculture remained the lifeblood for local residents through these population shifts. Beans from Dove Creek farms fed soldiers overseas during World War II, and in the 1980s at least one local bean supplier claimed to provide seeds originally found at Ancestral Puebloan sites.
Today the town of Rico is mainly home to outdoor enthusiasts and workers from Telluride. Volunteers established the Rico Historical Museum in 2008. Dove Creek is home to Adobe Milling, which sells a variety of beans, chilies, salsas, and other elements of Southwestern cuisine. Dolores County is one of the state’s top producers of dry edible beans and its ranchers raise about 3,600 head of cattle.