La Plata County covers 1,700 square miles in southwest Colorado. It is named for the La Plata River and La Plata Mountains, both of which are named for the Spanish word for “silver.” La Plata County is bordered to the north by San Juan County, to the east by Hinsdale and Archuleta counties, to the south by the state of New Mexico, to the west by Montezuma County, and to the northwest by Dolores County.
La Plata County has a population of 53,989. Durango, the county seat, was a major supply, processing, and shipping depot for mines in the San Juan Mountains in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Today, the town is a popular tourist destination and has a population of 17,557. Just south of Durango and covering the southern third of the county are the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Reservations, the only tribal reservations in Colorado. US Route 160 is the county’s major east–west highway, linking Bayfield in the east, Durango, and Mancos in Montezuma County to the west. US Route 550 is the major north–south highway, running from San Juan County in the north, through Durango, and into New Mexico.
Three major rivers flow southward through La Plata County from the San Juan Mountains: the La Plata River in the west, the Animas in the middle, and the Los Piños in the east. The La Plata River exits the mountains near the community of Mayday, flows past the small town of Hesperus, and runs along State Highway 140 through the county’s sparsely populated western flank. The Animas River runs out of San Juan County to the north, through Durango, and is shadowed by US Route 550 all the way to New Mexico. The Los Piños River flows out of the San Juans in northeastern La Plata County and runs through the towns of Bayfield and Ignacio before it runs into New Mexico.
Ancestral Pueblo peoples occupied the area near present-day Durango by the mid-eighth century. They were part of a larger pattern of Ancestral Puebloan settlement spanning from southeastern Utah to the Animas River Valley. About 4,500 people lived in the region, mostly in hamlets of one or two households. As in the Mesa Verde region to the west, Ancestral Puebloan occupation of the La Plata County area ended with a massive southward migration around AD 1300.
By AD 1500, the La Plata County area was occupied by two bands of Utes—the Weenuche, or “long time ago people,” and the Capote, whose name may have come from the Spanish word for “cloak” or “cape.” 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. The Weenuche in the La Plata County area moved with the seasons, following game into the high country during the summer and wintering along the lower stretches of the three rivers. The Utes used many trails on their seasonal journeys throughout southwest Colorado—for instance, the route now known as the Old Ute Trail connected the sites of present-day Ignacio, Hesperus, and Towaoc.
By the early seventeenth century, the northern frontier of New Spain pressed up against the lands of the Weenuche, Capote, and Muache Utes in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. 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 the Utes, who were already accustomed to ranging across vast territories, to cover even more ground in search of trade or larger populations of game such as buffalo.
In July 1765, the Spanish explorer Juan Rivera reached the Los Piños River and stumbled across ancient Pueblo buildings, which the Spaniards thought contained evidence of gold casting. They trekked on to the Animas River near present-day Durango, where a Ute guide named Wolfskin had promised to meet them but failed to show up. From there, Rivera headed north into the mountains to search for silver but found none. On the way back to New Mexico, Rivera’s party found Wolfskin camping along the La Plata River near present-day Hesperus. The guide led the party into the mountains on a brief and unsuccessful search for silver. In the fall, Rivera crossed the La Plata County area again, and with the help of various Ute tribes he was able to reach the Colorado River.
Rivera and his expedition carved out a route for future traders and explorers, such as the friars Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio 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. In October a punishing blizzard forced them to head back to Santa Fé.
The Spanish era of La Plata County history ended when Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War (1846–48), the area became US territory.
The ruggedness of the San Juan Mountains kept most Anglo-Americans out of the La Plata County area until 1860. That year, a prospecting party led by Charles Baker arrived in the upper Animas River valley and found several small gold deposits near present-day Silverton. Just before the winter storms hit, the party followed the river down to the area north of present-day Durango and set up a small village called Animas City.
By 1861, when the US government organized the Colorado Territory, news of Baker’s find had spread across the Rockies. In April Baker and several hundred other prospectors returned to the gold-bearing ground along the upper Animas, now referred to as Baker’s Park. But the miners had ascended too soon, and as the weather worsened, they were forced to quickly stake claims and head back to Animas City. They returned in May, but by June it was evident that there wasn’t as much gold as Baker originally thought. Meanwhile, the Utes had expressed their displeasure at the recent white incursion by burning Animas City to the ground.
Baker and about 600 other disenchanted miners left later that year. White Coloradans did not return to the San Juans for almost a decade, and in the meantime, southwest Colorado became part of a 12-million-acre reservation for the Utes via the Treaty of 1868. In 1870, however, a prospecting party led by Adnah French, Dempsey Reese, and Miles T. Johnson sought to follow up on the Baker discovery and reoccupied Animas City. Instead of merely panning for gold in the streams of Baker’s Park, the party pursued the mother vein within the mountains. Within weeks they had found it and set up the Little Giant Mine. As with Baker’s discovery, more miners followed, and by 1872, multiple operations were pulling some $30,000 in gold and silver ore out of the San Juans.
The new mining operations complicated enforcement of the 1868 treaty, which had banned all whites from the Ute reservation in western Colorado. Fearing another Animas City–type episode, miners in the area of today’s San Juan County called for the US government to negotiate a new treaty with the Native Americans. In the 1873 Brunot Agreement the Utes ceded 3.5 million acres of the San Juan Mountains to the United States in exchange for annual payments of $25,000. The cession left a narrow strip of land at the southern end of the state for the Weenuche, Capote, and Muache Utes. This land became the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. In 1877 an Indian agency—where the Ute people went to receive money and supplies from the government—was established on the Los Piños River near the present site of Ignacio.
The Brunot Agreement and mining settlements in the San Juans paved the way for the establishment of La Plata County in 1874. Originally, La Plata County occupied an area about four times its current size in the southwest corner of Colorado; the northern half became San Juan County in 1876 and the western portion of the southern half became Montezuma County in 1889.
Animas City and Durango
Animas City was formally reestablished south of its original location in 1874–75, populated by homesteaders. The town had about 3,000 residents by the time it incorporated in 1878. Anticipating the arrival of William Jackson Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, Animas City hiked up its land prices. But instead of building his line there, Palmer established his own town, Durango, to the south of Animas City on September 13, 1880.
As with Colorado Springs, Palmer had Durango completely mapped out in his head before his railroad arrived. He set up a smelter to process the ore that his railroad would ship south from the mines of San Juan County as well as coal mines to fuel the smelter and a hotel to accommodate what would surely be a huge number of visitors. By December 1880, only a few months after it was established, the city had a population of 2,500. Always attuned to his cities’ recreational needs, Palmer also included two parks in Durango’s design and made sure to promote his rail line to Silverton as a tourist attraction when it opened in 1882.
A devastating fire in 1889, an economic downturn caused by a crash in silver prices in 1893, and a strike at the local smelter in 1899 all tested Durango’s resolve, but the city recovered and had a population of 3,400 by 1900. The smelter was still the largest employer in town. Though it consisted mostly of northern European and Anglo-Protestants or Anglo-Catholics, the county population was becoming more diverse. Immigrants from Austria and Italy began arriving in greater numbers after 1880. Census takers in 1900 recorded seventeen African Americans in Durango but overlooked a thriving community of Hispano coal miners, teamsters, and smelter workers.
Changes on Ute Reservation
Despite Palmer’s vision for a clean, respectable metropolis, all was not orderly and beautiful in Durango’s early days. On June 23, 1882, for instance, convicted murderer George Woods was hanged in public. Palmer also did not ask permission before setting up construction camps and laying railroad tracks through the Southern Ute Reservation, which angered the Utes.
Many Durango residents made it clear that they wanted the Southern Ute bands removed to New Mexico, just as the Northern Ute bands had been forced into Utah. To build their case, whites in La Plata County falsely accused the Native Americans of stealing cattle and other crimes. Nevertheless, there was some friendly interaction between Utes and Durango’s white population. The Ute leader Buckskin Charley (Sapiah), for instance, always received a warm welcome in the city and decried Ute violence against white residents.
Despite the occasional friendly encounter, tension continued to mount between the Utes and Anglo-Americans. In 1880 Fort Lewis was moved from Pagosa Springs to Hesperus to help keep the peace between whites and Native Americans. In 1881, fed up with what it saw as the government’s attempts to accommodate the Utes, the Durango Democrat called for a local militia of “cowboys, miners and pioneers” to “march against” the Utes and “not return until . . . the tribe has been annihilated.” Despite the paper’s racist rancor, no such militia was raised.
The federal government did eventually coerce the Utes onto a smaller reservation. In 1887 Congress passed the Dawes Act, which required that Native American land be divided into individual plots. In 1895 the government greatly reduced the size of the Southern Ute Reservation and Congress passed the Hunter Act, which imposed the terms of the Dawes Act on the Southern Ute bands. Southern Colorado’s Utes reacted to the act in different ways. The Weenuche rejected the allotment and chose to manage their land collectively, as they had always done. The Weenuche under Chief Ignacio moved to the western part of the newly formed Consolidated (Southern) Ute Reservation, and their land became the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. Meanwhile, by 1906, many members of the Capote and Muache bands accepted the individual allotments and remained on the Southern Ute Reservation, which now occupies 1,059 square miles from eastern Montezuma County to central Archuleta County.
San Juan National Forest
Besides changes to the Utes, there were land management changes. President Theodore Roosevelt created the San Juan National Forest in 1905, with Durango as its headquarters. The forest’s first rangers were charged with monitoring sheep and cattle grazing, a task that required them to balance the priority of conserving the natural environment with respecting the livelihood of ranchers. For example, Ray C. Montgomery, a forest ranger who served north of Durango from 1915–20, once wrote that “the time of the small sawmill man or the poor Mexican with a little bunch of sheep is as important and as valuable to him as ours is to us.” Today, the San Juan National Forest covers 1.8 million acres, including the northern half of La Plata County.
Agriculture, Depression, and Recovery
In the first few decades of the twentieth century, the La Plata County economy also underwent a large-scale transition. As the stressful work of the San Juan National Forest rangers suggests, sheep and cattle ranching had been an important part of the county economy since its founding. But those early ranchers, as well as early farmers, mostly supplied the mining industry, the backbone of the county economy. But as mining declined after the turn of the century, La Plata County farmers put some 360,000 additional acres into cultivation by 1925. National prices did not hold up, however, and residents of rural La Plata County struggled to get by. The Great Depression of the 1930s, punctuated by the closure of the Durango smelter in 1930, exacerbated their economic plight. Some ranchers had their sheep repossessed by the banks, while others, such as Mary Petty and her husband, managed to hold on to their herds.
New Deal projects such as the infrastructure work of the Works Progress Administration, public lands work by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a dam on the Los Piños River helped lift the county out of the Depression. In addition, during World War II, the US government secretly used the Durango smelter to produce uranium for the Manhattan Project, its clandestine nuclear bomb program. Durango residents were not told of the project until after the military dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
In the decades after being shouldered aside by Palmer and his railroad in 1880, the small town of Animas City fought its southern neighbor for railroad rights-of-way and water rights until it finally merged with Durango in 1948. Today, the town is home to the Animas Museum, which resides in an old schoolhouse.
Fort Lewis College
Like the county’s people, land, and cities, Fort Lewis also underwent multiple changes in the twentieth century. The fort had been decommissioned in 1891 and served as an off-reservation boarding school for Native Americans until 1911. That year it was transformed into an agricultural and mechanical school with both Indian and white students. The school became a two-year college in the 1930s and moved to its present location in Durango in 1956. Fort Lewis College began awarding four-year bachelor’s degrees in 1964.
Utes in the Twentieth Century
The twentieth century also brought changes to La Plata County’s Ute population. The combined population of the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute tribes stood at just 813 in 1930, but by 2000, it had grown to more than 9,500. With 695 members, the Southern Ute Tribe was the most numerous in La Plata County.
In the early decades of the century, outbreaks of diseases such as tuberculosis, venereal disease, Spanish flu, and measles were common. The importance and proficiency of Muache and Capote medicine men declined with the introduction of Western Medicine, and many Weenuches remained skeptical of white health care facilities. Muache and Capote patients regularly visited a new hospital that opened in Ignacio in 1933.
Ute leadership underwent a transition in 1936. John Miller, the successor to the Weenuche chief Ignacio, died in 1936 along with the Muache chief Buckskin Charley. The passage of these leaders, together with the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934, led to a new age of government for the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes. The Ute Mountain Ute leadership fiercely resisted the IRA at first, but by 1940, both tribes had approved constitutions and elected tribal councils.
Since the early 1990s, the Southern Ute tribe has expanded its on- and off-reservation economic activities to include oil and gas developments, casinos, and support of local nonprofit organizations.
Today, the Southern Ute Tribe is the largest employer in La Plata County, furnishing 1,500 jobs. The Sky Ute Lodge and Casino in Ignacio opened in 2008 and provides between 400 and 450 jobs. Other major employment sectors include health care—Mercy Medical provides 625 jobs—and education, including the Durango School District and Fort Lewis College. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad remains a prominent tourist attraction, as does the city’s historic downtown district.
Agriculture also continues to play an important role in La Plata County. The county is ranked third in the state in the number of horses, donkeys, and mules. Some 11,600 head of cattle and 700 sheep are raised in the county. The county is also home to 4,253 bee colonies, the second largest in the state, although the beekeeping business has recently been stung by the nationwide epidemic of colony collapse disorder.