Native American Habitation of the area now known as the San Juan Skyway dates back Thousands and Thousands of Years

Ancient Indian Ruins

The Ute Indian tribes were not the first prehistoric Native Americans to inhabit the San Juan Mountains (SJM) and surrounding regions. Evidence of what became named Folsom cultures occupied all of what became Colorado and beyond and lived in the SJM 7,000 to 13,000 years ago. Even the Folsom people may not have been the earliest humans to arrive when there still were retreating glaciers in the SJM. We also know that the Anasazi roamed the SJM as early as 200 B.C. Anasazi arrowheads and pottery have been found throughout the SJM and in nearby valleys. The nomadic Utes appeared around 1300 A.D. Coming from the north, perhaps that’s why the Anasazi decided to exit the region and head south. The Utes inhabited the mountains and vast areas of what became Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Eastern Nevada, Northern New Mexico and Arizona.

The tribal history of the Utes, handed down from generation to generation, says that they lived in what they called “The Shining Mountains” since the beginning of time. The Utes lived off the land establishing a unique relationship with the ecosystem. The Ute people became a loose confederation of tribal units termed bands. Before European contact Ute bands with many different names lived in many parts of the Rockies and Southwest. The Caputa, Mouache and Weenuchiu bands wintered in northwestern New Mexico; the Tabeguache (Uncompahgre) camped near today’s Montrose and Grand Junction; and the Northern Utes would make their winter camps along the White, Green and Colorado Rivers. In the vicinity of the SJM the Weenuchiu occupied the valley of the San Juan River and its northern tributaries in Colorado and Northwestern New Mexico.

Native American Music Festival

As the Utes traveled over a vast area, large bands would break up into smaller ones to make it easier and faster to move from one location to another for food gathering. The Utes only hunted for and gathered what they required for sustenance, never over- harvesting wild plants or game such as elk, deer and antelope. The Utes lived in harmony with their environment. Tribal events and customs celebrated the seasons and Mother Earth. For example, the beginning of spring was the annual Bear Dance. The Bear Dance celebrated rejuvenation of the tribe and a new cycle of life after long cold winters. This ancient dance of the Ute people still continues to be observed by all Ute bands.

Routes that the Utes established over hundreds of years of habitation were used by other Native American tribes and the earliest European explorers. These broad trails found throughout the San Juans were carved out of vegetation by use of the Utes. The Ute Trail became known as the Spanish Trail used by Spanish explorers as early as the fifteenth century when Alvar Nunez Caveza de Vaca (1488-1558) and Juan de Onate (1550-1630) were sent from Spain to explore uninhabited areas of Texas and New Mexico, claiming vast lands for their Spanish rulers. However, not only did Europeans bring their livestock and tools, they also brought smallpox, cholera and other diseases that would decimate the Ute people.  

Spain claimed the San Juans from the time that the area first was visited by Coronado in 1541. In contrast to the Utes, who did not believe that they owned the land, the entire San Juan region was included in Spain’s Province of New Mexico (1598). When Santa Fe was established as the northern capital of the Spanish colonists (1609), they captured Utes and other Native Americans as slave laborers to work in their fields and homes. Around 1637 Ute captives escaping from the Spanish in Santa Fe fled, taking with them Spanish horses. (However, tribal historians tell of the Utes acquiring the horse as early as the 1580s.) Already skilled hunters, the Utes used the horse to become big game hunters and roam further away from their home camps to hunt buffalo. Brave and fierce warriors, the Utes used horses to become even fiercer in defense of their territories.