History of Durango



12,000 – 8000 yrs B.C.

8000 B.P. to A.D. 1

AD 1 – 600
Formative- Anasazi

17th Century
Ute and Navajo


by Ross S. Curtis, Durango Archaeological Consultants

The Durango area is rich in natural resources, and the presence of abundant water, fertile soil, and a variety of plant and animal resources has made it an ideal area for human occupation going back almost 10,000 years. The area has played host to Paleo-Indian big game hunters, Archaic hunters and gatherers, Anasazi farmers, nomadic Utes, Spanish explorers, trappers and traders, miners, homesteaders, and others with a variety of dreams. People have been drawn to the area for it’s natural beauty, and for it’s economic opportunities. Through the efforts of archaeologists, historians, and others it has been possible chart the prehistoric and historic development of the area, and see what effects man has had on the land. By examining the history and prehistory of the area, we can see what has happened in the past, and this can help us to see where we may be going in the future. By knowing what has happened before us, we can better plan and manage our future.

The first evidence for human occupation in the Durango area is limited remains of Paleo- Indian big game hunting peoples represented primarily by isolated projectile points (ca. 12,000-8000 years BC). This period is generally accepted as the first occupation of the American Southwest, and is characterized by a mobile lifestyle following herds of bison and doing additional hunting and gathering activities. Other areas of Colorado such as the San Luis Valley of Eastern Colorado were more heavily occupied during this period and contain sites with numerous artifacts and cultural features. Similar sites with substantial cultural remains from the Paleo-Indian Period have not been found in the Durango Area, but the presence of isolated projectile points from the area indicates a limited occupation during the period, and there could be more substantial sites present. To date the projectile points have been confined primarily to the Plano Period of approximately 8000 years BP, but a Clovis style projectile point(8,000-10,00 BP) was recently found south of Durango above the Animas River indicating earlier groups were present in the general area.

Sites attributed to the various stages of the later Archaic Period (8000 BP To AD 1) are more numerous in the Durango area. The generalized hunting and gathering economy of the Archaic Period, involved a mobile lifestyle where wild plants were harvested, and animals were hunted in seasonal rounds. Site types attributed to the Archaic Period include stone tool material procurement areas, stone toll manufacturing and reduction areas, open camps defined by flaked stone scatters with no architecture but occasional surface features such as hearths, and rock shelters. Sites were probably occupied for a short time, although rock shelters were used on a more regular basis. Archaic sites frequently occur at a variety of different elevations and varied environmental settings. There are a substantial numbers of Middle and Late Archaic sites, and fewer Early Archaic sites from the Durango area.

By the end of the Archaic Period (1000-B.C-A.D. 1) it appears that sites become more permanent with the addition of structures such as shallow pit houses. These more permanent sites may be related to the introduction of agriculture to the Four Corners Region and the integration of domesticated plants to the subsistence rounds. The adoption of agriculture and the resulting pattern of less mobility and more permanent sites is generally associated with the later Anasazi Basketmaker II Period (AD 1-600), but there are indications that the pattern may have begun even earlier in the Late Archaic Period.

 By AD 1 agriculture in the form of domesticated plants were introduced to the economy of the prehistoric inhabitants of the Four Corners Region, and other cultural changes occurred which have been previously attributed to the Formative Period. In the Durango area, this is expressed as the beginning of the well known Anasazi Tradition. The first identifiable period associated with this tradition is the Basketmaker II Period (A.D.1-600). Basketmaker II sites are defined by the presence of small pit house villages of 1-4 shallow, round-to-oval shaped structures; the presence of corn and other domesticated plants; the use of storage pits, and the absence of ceramic artifacts. This period represents the first well defined farming period in the region.

Early archaeological investigations in the Durango area in the 1930s by Helen Sloan Daniels, Zeke Flora, and Earl Morris defined the Basketmaker II occupation in the area based on excavations near the fairgrounds, Crestview, and in the Falls Creek area north of Durango. These excavations showed pithouse village sites with permanence, domesticated plants, and a lack of ceramics. Later studies in the Durango area have further defined the nature of the Basketmaker II occupation through excavations in the Bodo Area as part of the Uranium Mill Tailings Removal Project, and extensive survey in Ridges Basin as part of the proposed Animas La Plata Project. Basketmaker II sites excavated in the Durango area date mostly from the period of AD 1-400 (based on tree ring and carbon 14 dates), but there are a few sites that are dated to the later half of the period (A.D 400-600). Basketmaker II development in the Durango area appears to coincide with a cycle of increased and then decreased effective moisture (rainfall) beginning in AD 100 and ending between A. D. 250-300. I appears that during this period the Durango area was a good place to be a farmer.

The second well documented period of Formative or Anasazi occupation in the Four Corners region is the Basketmaker III Period (AD 600-750). This period represents an elaboration of the sedentary agricultural patterns (permanent habitation sites with storage features and domesticated plants) established during the Basketmaker II Period. Sites attributed to this period include habitations with one or more pit houses along with associated storage facilities and refuse. The pithouses are generally large (ca. 5 m diameter) with a depth of one to two meters. A hallmark of the period was the introduction of pottery into the material culture of the Anasazi. This pottery is generally plain gray, with some simple painted decoration. The Basketmaker III Period is well represented in the Four Corners Region in such places as Cortez and Dove Creek, but only the later half of the period (AD 700-750) is represented in the sites previously dated in Durango at Falls Creek, Bodo Canyon, and a few other areas. The terraces above the Animas River in Crestview and near the La Plata County Fairgrounds were areas used by Anasazi farmers during this period.

The Anasazi Pueblo I Period (AD 750-900) represent the first period in which substantial surface architecture is present. Slab lined adobe surface rooms are found in association with pit houses. Distinct site structure can be identified during this period with pit houses surrounded by adobe rooms, and associated trash middens often located to the south. Some large sites have been identified that contain many rooms and associated pit houses. The Anasazi continued to practice agriculture, and many of the larger sites are found in areas between an elevation of 6200-7200 ft where optimal dry farming rainfall occurs.

In the Durango area, the late Basketmaker III to Pueblo I transition appears to represent the height of the Anasazi or Formative Period occupation. There are many sites dated to this period in the Ridges Basin and Bodo areas. The sites vary from large aggregated villages with many pit houses and surface rooms, to small hamlets containing a single pithouse and a few rooms. By the end of the Pueblo I Period it appears that the Durango area is abandoned by the Anasazi. It has been suggested that climatic fluctuations and unreliable rainfall patterns may have made the area a poor place for farming, resulting in a movement of the population to more favorable areas such as Montezuma County, Colorado or Northwest New Mexico.

The final florescence of the Formative or Anasazi occupation of the Four Corners area is the Pueblo II (AD 900-1100) and Pueblo III (AD 1100-1300) Periods. This period is manifest in the large aggregated sites of several hundred masonry rooms and kivas found at Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, Yellow Jacket, and all across the Great Sage Plain of Montezuma County. There is very little evidence of late Anasazi occupation in the Durango area, with only a few temporary sites found. An anomaly during this period is the substantial late Anasazi site found at Chimney Rock which may represent a regional trade center.

Occasional occurrences of cultural remains attributed to late Formative Stage Anasazi (Pueblo II and Pueblo III) peoples have also been identified in the San Juan Mountains. These sites are defined by Anasazi ceramics in association with Late Prehistoric style projectile points, and often thought to represent seasonal resource procurement activities. These remains may also indicate possible trade relationships between Anasazi groups and existing indigenous or local mountain groups. Their may have been indigenous mountain groups, contemporaneous with the Anasazi, that practiced what was essentially an Archaic-type hunter and gatherer lifestyle during the Formative Period (ca. A.D 1-1300).

Ute and Navajo
Following an apparent hiatus of occupation in the area, there is the appearance of Ute groups in the area by the 17th Century. The Utes may have been present as early as the 13th or 14th Centuries, but no sites have been located in southwest Colorado that date securely to this early period. The early Ute occupation was a nomadic hunting and gathering life way similar to that of the Archaic groups. Late Prehistoric sites attributed to Numic and Athabascan groups (Ute and Navajo) occur in southwest Colorado at a variety of elevations and environmental settings. They are defined by particular architecture (wickiups), distinct plain grey pottery, and unique projectile point types. These Late Prehistoric sites are often found in association with or near Archaic site locations, indicating a similar use of resources.

The lifestyle of the Ute changed dramatically in the 17th and 18th Centuries with the introduction of the horse. The horse increased the mobility of the Ute who became traders and raiders. In general, Ute sites of any time period are rare in West Central Colorado, and this may partially have to do with the fact that early Ute sites look quite similar to Archaic occupations.

Through as series of treaties with the United States Government, the Utes lost most of their lands to anglo settlers and miners beginning in the mid-1800s. After this the Utes were confined to reservations in southern Colorado and northern Utah. During the reservation period the Utes raised livestock, and did some farming. Near the turn-of-the-century, the Utes from southern Colorado split into two separate groups with the Southern Ute settling in the area around Ignacio, and the Ute Mountain Utes settling south of Cortez at Towaoc.


The history of the Durango area is limited prior to the mid-19th century when there were only occasional forays of Anglo-Europeans into southwest Colorado for trapping, trading, and exploring. During this period the southwest corner of Colorado was the territory of the Ute Indians, and few individuals ventured into the area. The Spanish were the first to explore the area in the 17th century with an expedition by Dominguez and Escalante. Little is known of this early exploration, but The Old Spanish Trail was used as an early route through the area up until mid-1800s. The historic settlement of southwest Colorado really began in earnest with the lure of mineral wealth on the western frontier beginning in the mid-19th Century.

In spring of 1860 Charles Baker and a prospecting party explored the mountains around Silverton, and reported gold found. A camp was established at Bakers Park near Silverton, and additional miners rushed to the area to explore. Placer gold recovery techniques were not sufficient, and the party broke up with some individuals moving south to the Animas Valley. The first Animas City was established near modern day Rockwood in 1861. With the outbreak of the Civil War many of the party members returned to the east, and fought in the Confederate Army. The historic development of southwest Colorado was slow until the Brunot Treaty of 1873 removed the Utes from the mountains and opened up the area for increased mineral prospecting, full scale mining, and settlement of surrounding areas to support the mining.

Mining activities increased dramatically in the 1870’s, with development of lode mining techniques, and the beginning of large capital investment in the mining of the San Juan Mountains. Placer mining techniques had characterized early attempts to extract the rich mineral wealth of the San Juan Mountains, but most of the rich veins were deep within the mountains and required extensive tunneling, and ore processing. Mountain communities such as Rico, Ophir, Telluride, and Silverton were founded during this period. By the late 1870s and early 1880s surrounding areas became developed as the need to supply the mining communities, created a market for agricultural products, livestock, timber, and other goods. Animas City in present day north Durango, was one of these early communities settled in the late 1870s.

The coming of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in 1881 provided a means by which goods could be economically moved between the mountain mining communities and supply towns such as Durango and Dolores. Durango was established in 1880 as the railhead for the new line. William Palmer was the main developer of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, hoping to corner the market for transporting ore in the region. As part of his business endeavors he initiated the development of a smelting facility in Durango to process the ore, and in 1880 the New York Smelting Company was born. In addition to the smelting works, Palmer and his associates purchased a limestone quarry, and several coal mines near Durango. The town of Durango developed rapidly in the 1880s as did many “boom towns’ on the western mining frontier. Many of Durango’s early buildings were simple wood frame structures, and in 1889 a disastrous fire broke out that leveled most of the downtown area. When the town was rebuilt, many of the buildings were made of stone and brick, which is one reason the downtown area has endured so well into the present time.

By the turn-of-the-century rural areas surrounding Durango became the focus of livestock raising and agriculture, and some mountain areas were used for harvesting timber and summer range for sheep and cattle. In 1905 the San Juan National Forest was created under the authorization of President Theodore Roosevelt. This marked the transition from an economy based on mining to a more diversified economic base that included timber harvesting, ranching, farming, and mining at a much diminished rate. By the 1910s, the market for silver and gold had declined, many of the larger loads had played out, and much of the mining activity in the San Juan Mountains declined dramatically.

From the 1910’s to the 1930s the economy of the Durango area was focused primarily on agriculture, ranching, and logging with the beginnings of a tourist economy as travelers began to discover the area as a vacation destination. In the 1930s during the Great Depression the Durango area suffered many of the same economic hardships facing the rest of the country. The Civilian Conservation Corps was busy in the area during this period working on a variety of projects including construction of the stone grandstand and walls of the La Plata County fairgrounds. Like many other parts of the country during World War II, the Durango area contributed to the war effort in the 1940s through agriculture, ranching, and some mining. The 1950s in Durango marked the beginning of another “boom cycle” as mining of uranium and oil exploration in the region increased. The Durango Smelter was refitted for processing of uranium ore, and there was a flurry of building in the community to house the smelter workers, and the workers who supported the burgeoning natural gas industry. During the “boom” of the 1950s, Fort Lewis College was moved from south of Hesperus where it had been a two year agricultural school to it’s present location in 1956. With it’s relocation, the college changed to a four year liberal arts curriculum. In the 1960s Purgatory Ski resort was developed north of Durango. The presence of the ski resort and Fort Lewis College has added additional elements to the local economy and helped to develop the tourist economy of the area. From the 1970s to present the area has gone through a series of economic ups and downs as Durango’s setting has continued to draw people for recreation and the healthy quality of life found the Rocky Mountains.


Ross Curtis, M.A., Owner of Durango Archeological Consultants – Historical archeology, historic artifact analysis, historic research and small scale archeological studies.

Photos courtesy of the La Plata County Historical Society



Additional Sources for Information


For additional information on the history and prehistory of the Durango area visit the La Plata County Historical Society’s Animas Museum located at 31st Street and West 2nd Avenue (970)-259-2402.



Durango Public Library
1188 2nd Avenue (970)-385-2970

Fort Lewis College Center for Southwest Studies
1000 Rim Drive (970)-247-7456

Several good histories of the Durango area are available that can be purchased through local book sellers or other sources. A few specific sources are noted below:


Rocky Mountain Boom Town
by Duane A. Smith. University Press of Colorado, Niwot 1980

A Pictorial History of Durango
by Duane A. Smith.

Pioneers of the San Juan Country
by Sarah Platt Decker Chapter NSDAR. Reprinted in 1995 by Family History Publishers
Bountiful, Utah