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  • Peter McGuire

How Homesteading Transformed America: Steamboat Springs part 3 of 6

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

Of all the springs, perhaps the bath spring was the one most enjoyed. This spring was not discovered for more than a year after Pa had preempted his claim. The family was still living at Hot Sulphur Springs, but in late summer of 1875 made a camping trip to Bear River to see where their new home would be. They were accompanied by John and Annie Crawford, Pa’s brother and sister-in-law, from Sedalia, Missouri. While Pa was hunting deer on the sagebrush slopes at the foot of Storm Mountain on August 1, he followed a game trail down a hill to a small creek and blundered into a bubbling spring in the middle of the stream. The water was hot but not hot enough to scald his horse. Pa thought it would be just right for bathing. Hurrying to camp, he hitched up the team and brought Maggie and the children and John and Annie to take a bath.

The only other spring that had heretofore been used for bathing was the bubbling sulphur spring at the opposite end of the valley. When Pa had discovered that spring the previous summer, it had already been hollowed out and rocks laid around it, an indication that Indians or mountain men had used it. It was only tepid. The spring at the east end of the valley was 103° F, and the flow later proved to be 225 gallons per minute. - Lulita Crawford

What is today a major tourist town with a population of around 15,000 started as a single log cabin built by one man in the spring of 1874. Its downtown runs along the Yampa valley, consisting of twelve numbered streets from the Old Town Hot Springs to the Sulphur and Soda Springs. Across Lincoln Avenue, you can visit the Iron Spring, or the Crawford Spring as it was known to the Crawfords. Across the Yampa, you will find the train depot, the Black Sulphur spring, and the Steamboat Spring.

Strangely, when I visited, the Black Sulphur spring was milky white color. Apparently, it alternates color as the sulfur in the water interacts with the air and surrounding soil. Many mineral springs give off an odor, described politely as eggs and impolitely as rancid farts. To describe it as farts wouldn’t be wrong. It is the result of sulfur-reducing bacteria eating the sulfur and excreting hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous, corrosive, flammable, invisible gas. Just as an environment predominantly of hydrogen sulfide would kill us in minutes, the oxygen environment we call air quickly dissolves the bodies of sulfur-feasting bacteria. That is why we associate this smell with rot, sewers, swamps, and the end of our own digestive tracts. They like to be warm, mobile, and safe from oxygen. This kind of organism ruled the planet for a billion and a half years before bacteria that draw energy from the sun via photosynthesis, cyanobacteria, farted our current, oxygen-rich atmosphere into existence. As the environment became toxic, the aerobic bacteria retreated underwater, underground, and inside more complex organisms. Seams of underground water are perfect for their purposes. Their gas byproduct is harmless to us in open-air environments, although it is known to rapidly strip the paint off houses in Steamboat Springs. It is one of the many underground gasses that kill miners and fuel underground explosions. There is even a small cave in the hills of Steamboat Springs lined with a unique form of life that creates “snottites”, stalactites that hang and wobble like snot. They have only been found in one other cave, in Mexico, and apparently require hydrogen sulfide to survive.

The smell so blankets the Northwest end of Steamboat Springs that locals refer to the area as “Fart Park.” I can only imagine what it’s like working in the library that now adjoins the Sulphur Springs and getting a big whiff of that every day as you come into work. Even with the wonders of modern AC, the scent still pervades the inside of the library. It is only a fraction of what visitors would have smelled, lodging in the 100-room hotel in the summertime when breezes through open windows created the only cooling.

This is also the spot where James Crawford staked his claim, to the annoyance of the 150 or so Ute who lived, grazed, hunted, and farmed the valley in the summertime. When James carved his claim notice into the aspen near the Steamboat Geyser, in 1874, he found a Ute encampment and a bath around the bubbling sulphur spring. In the hills nearby, he also found a collapsed cabin and a yoke that a tree had grown around. The yoke was always a bit of a mystery because no one was known to have brought oxen or wagons into the valley before the Crawfords’ arrival. In 1949, the Denver Post ran a short feature mentioning it and received a letter from a man in Wisconsin who said his father had perhaps become lost in the valley in 1849 on his way to California. Fastidious local historians have found diary entries from a half dozen or so white visitors who remarked on the springs and the Sulphur Cave. Crawford did something none of them had: he staked a claim in accordance with the Homestead Act of 1862.

Virtually since arrival, white Americans demanded more and more land from the occupants of the Americas. Each time they did, the bloody and acrimonious debate arose as to whether that land should allow slavery or not. Beyond the enormous moral implications, the debate also concerned whether the land would be colonized by large landholders and corporations as was common in the South or by small landholders, romantically called “yeoman farmers” in Jefferson’s tradition. The vision that many northerners had for rural parts of the country was self-employed individuals constantly improving the land and reaping the benefits of those improvements in a perpetual act of civilizing a wild continent. Notably, neither side of this debate cared much about the well-being of the Indians they found legal levers to dispossess each year. Especially as white Americans crossed the Appalachians into the Great Plain, the semi-nomadic lifestyle of American Indians was good enough reason to build houses and farms on their hunting and grazing land.

As several experiments in peacefully deciding the slavery question failed, the United States annexed a third of Mexico, including its most resource-rich areas, as it struggled to rebuild from its protracted and bloody war of independence from Spain. Significant American communities in California were staunchly anti-slavery, while settlers in Texas, who had precipitated the Mexican-American War, did so explicitly to expand slavery, which Mexico had abolished. An attempt to deal with the crisis allowed white settlers in Kansas to vote on whether the state should allow slavery, which turned into a proxy civil war. A new political party swept the 1860 election: a party avowed to ending barbarity in the south and in the west. In 1861, the south seceded, which allowed Republicans to initiate their plan to end slavery by force. In 1862, with only northern and border states in congress, they passed the Homestead Act.

Any American could claim 160 acres of land, including women and former slaves, if they made their claim properly and “improved” the land, which usually meant building a house and a farm (no matter how small). The entire process took seven years, minus the time a man served in active duty, which about a tenth of Northerners did by the end of the Civil War. It exempted immigrants and anyone who had taken up arms as rebels, so, southerners. The North had claimed the West and created a method for legally colonizing it.

Legally, here, is a broad term. In light of the new “finders keepers” rule, Americans boldly colonized lands that belonged to Indian nations, knowing that before long, the land would become American by treaty. After all, land in the Americas had always worked on a finders-keepers basis for Europeans. Again and again, “sooners” were proved correct. If they could illegally hold the land against the Indians, they would eventually come to legally own it. And, increasingly, they found federal military support for their efforts. Again, keep in mind that this was land that American Indians lived and grazed on. But because they moved around, they often returned to find their favorite spots, even their holy grounds, occupied continuously by hostile whites. When they fought back, they were in breach of treaties and further removed, where the process was repeated later in life or by the next generation.

Of course, homesteaders didn’t see themselves as ravenous conquerers. People in the moment don’t think like historians appraising their motives from afar. Everyone wants a better life for themselves and their families, and that’s exactly what the Homestead Act harnessed into a colonizing force. These were not well-armed military contingents carving out swathes of a map. These were ambitious young men and poor families looking for a decent, if difficult, living.

Steamboat Springs

James Crawford enlisted in the Union Army with the Missouri State Militia Cavalry when he was 16 and served for three years, time he would take off his homestead claim. When he was 20, the Civil War ended, he married, bought a farm, and had three children. Seven years later, he toured Colorado with Robert Steele, who had been the Governor of the Territory of Jefferson, an extra-large version Colorado proposed by the settlers and miners of the area. Steele, a vocal supporter of the south in the civil war, lost his position when Republicans in D.C. incorporated the territory as Colorado in 1861. A decade later, he was apparently giving tours.

Even at this stage, James had a clear idea of his mission. He wrote in his diary, “All that I saw looked good and from that time forward I was determined to go in and ‘possess’ the country.”

He reacted to the smells. “The water is well saturated with sulphur and it continues to the present time to attract the attention of the olfactories.”

And he fell in love with the place. “I said to Richardson, “This is the place for me. Let’s take up the ground now, come back as soon as we can and make a start.”

James built his claim cabin, and headed back to Missouri, satisfied that the valley would soon be his. The next year, he sold the farm, packed up the family, and headed west with two wagons and a few friends headed for Denver. Finally, 1876, the Crawford family brought their wagons over the Rabbit Ears Pass into the Yampa Valley. It’s also the year that the Colorado territory became a state.

I’ll let Lulita narrate from here. Lulita was the granddaughter of James and his wife, Margaret, but she refers to them as Ma and Pa here. Most of her stories are told secondhand from her mother’s perspective, so it often feels like we’re listening to Lulie, Lulita’s mother and James’ daughter.

The only town they saw was a collection of about a hundred tepees on the sagebrush mesa north of Soda Creek and twenty-five or thirty more south of the river about where the depot now stands.

Those tepees housed many of the same Ute Indians the Crawfords had known in Middle Park. Most of the Indians belonged to Yarmonite’s [pronounced “Yarmony”] friendly band, but among them were a few restless young braves, and the renegades Colorow and Piah and others. Almost before Jack and Jim, the mules, had brought the wagon to a stop, some of the squaws came calling, happy to renew their biscuit-and-sugar friendship with Ma.

The Crawfords had expected to occupy Pa’s claim cabin, which he had started on his exploratory trip and roofed the next April with the help of Lute Carlton. (See Maggie By My Side.) But they found the cabin already occupied by a stranger named Caleb C. Clements. Caleb had a stock of goods to trade to the Utes and was doing such a good business that he did not want to move. He was abiding by unwritten frontier law which gave anyone the privilege of taking shelter in a vacant cabin and using what he needed as long as he filled the wood box when he left and washed the dishes, if there were any dishes.

Pa did not hurry Caleb. “There’s room enough for us all,” he said.

We can see the complex relationships of colonization forming. The Ute were no fools. They could see the imminent threat to their rights and way of life. Lulita notes later in her account, “Even here on Bear River the Crawfords were never entirely free from fear of attack. Though Yarmonite had so far been able to control his braves, a few were openly hostile. With long fingers they scratched in the ground and threatened, ‘Utes’ dirt. Big Jim go back!’”

I had to do some digging to get to the bottom of the question of whether this settlement was legal under U.S. law or if it was a sooner settlement in like Oklahoma, the Dakotas, and earlier in Colorado history. In this case, the treaty in place was the Ute Treaty of 1868, and it specifies that the eastern border of Ute land was the 170th meridian and the north border was between the White and Yampa rivers. Steamboat is on the north bank of the Yampa river and at the 169th meridian, which means the land was open for settlement under the treaty, just very close to the Ute reservation.

That said, most Ute groups did not take the treaty seriously. For one, the group that signed it, led by Chief Ouray, did not have the authority to negotiate for all Ute groups. The U.S. was well-versed in dealing with American Indian customs at this point, so they used gift-giving like the lavish trips they took Ouray on and Presidential Medals (Medals coined for Indian chiefs that claimed to be very prestigious when, in fact, most Americans had never heard of them) to negotiate uneven treaties. Perhaps most importantly, though, the payments promised from the U.S. in the Ute Treaty rarely arrived, so most Ute considered the treaty to be voided anyway.

But, despite the distrust of the white settlers, the Ute appreciated support and friendship, like we all do. These colonizers provided food that doesn’t grow in the Rockies, like sugar, and specialized, cast-iron tools, not to mention access to wider markets. To a certain extent, it was mutually beneficial to allow a few colonizers in. Besides which, the Ute knew they had limited options. Having accepted unequal treaties at gunpoint, they wanted to avoid bringing down the fury of the federal military again.

We can see how high tensions were in this episode just months after the family’s arrival. Keep in mind that this is the narration of a direct descendant writing in 1977 in Denver. She has a rather rosy view of colonization and infantilizing view of American Indians, despite her attempts at progressivism.

On the morning of the Fourth the Indians were the first to arrive. As curious as children, they squatted about the pole and the cabin. When Mike Farley and the Harrison brothers had ridden in, they, together with Pa and Ma, Lulie, Logan, and John, marched down the gentle slope to the flag pole with considerable formality, Pa leading the way and carrying the large flag. There he and Ma unfolded the bunting so all could admire the red and white stripes and the blue field in one corner. In that field were 37 stars….

The Indians began to withdraw, muttering among themselves. No doubt they had observed flags waving at forts and agencies and were suspicious that new restraints were about to be put upon them. Pa sought to assure them that here on Bear River the flag would watch over both red men and white. Having fought under that banner three years in the struggle to preserve the Union, his feeling for it was deep. His earnestness spoke better than his attempted use of sign language or the few Indian words he knew, and soon the Utes gathered close again.

Lulita fails to note that James had in fact claimed the valley for the United States. He had staked a claim by carving into an aspen tree beside the Steamboat Geyser in 1874.

But for all their cultural differences, these were two groups of people surviving in the same landscape. The Crawfords lived very similarly to the Ute. They ate roots, foraged berries, hunted, and set up their farm. They gave gifts and helped each other.

There was good feeling at Steamboat Springs after the flag raising. The Ute braves sometimes helped Pa bring in his horses. The squaws gave Ma wild raspberries on big, clean thimbleberry leaves, and showed her how to dig Yampa roots and pound them into meal to thicken soup or gravy. Charlie Yarmonite, the chief’s son, and Logan hunted chipmunks together, with bows the chief made for them, using sharpened sticks for arrows.

Be aware that the term “squaw” is offensive because of its association with “war wives,” indigenous women who were forced into sexual slavery and prostitution over the protracted “Indian Wars”. When Lulita used it in the 70’s, she simply meant American Indian wives and mothers. It appears that the Ute accepted the Crawfords and accepted them into their gift-giving exchange, if sometimes forcefully.

Ma and Lulie did not stay in the cabin all the time. Nearly every day they went fishing, escorted by a dog or two and whatever wild pets they had—perhaps a calf elk and a sandhill crane. In season they picked wild fruit. If there was anyone to visit, they went visiting. They learned never to wait dinner and to stretch a meal to feed however many unexpected guests appeared.

The frequent Ute visits also made it clear that they were not ceding their own claim to the valley. It’s also worth noting that for all the friendship expressed between the Crawfords and the Ute, tension never lay far behind. One reason the Ute accepted white settlement was access to hard alcohol. Some of the more aggressive men, including the anti-settlement Chief Colorow, were known to get drunk on whiskey and threaten scalpings. He once scalped Lulie’s doll, and in an incident at a homestead down the river, he and his friends held down a young woman in her house and acted out scalping her. She wasn’t hurt but it was obviously a violation and a threat.

The Ute were prepared to fight for the valley and had already fought for it, at least once in Yarmonite’s lifetime. Several fields of arrowheads attested to earlier battles.

“Yahmonite told Mr. Crawford that the battle occurred when he was…about 6 or 8 years old… indicating that the battle took place in about 1816 or 1817…

The Arapahoes took position on a hill just at the bend of the river. At this point they were enabled to shoot into the Ute tepees, thereby annoying-, doubtless injuring, the squaws and papooses. The Utes sought temporary forts in positions so as to direct the arrows of the enemies away from their camp. The battle lasted three days. It became evident to the Utes that they were getting the worst of it and the third day, under cover of the darkness they all moved down the river.”

The Ute thought the Crawfords were crazy when they declined to leave the mountain valley as winter set in.

When the cold season approached, the Utes warned of big snow and migrated with the deer to lower sand and cedar country to the west. Pa hardly knew what to expect, but he laid in provisions and drove most of his stock to Burns’ Hole, a sheltered valley some fifty miles south of Steamboat Springs and known to Indians and mountain men. He kept one milk cow, a white one named Lil, and a couple of horses, depending for feed on a small stack of native hay he had cut by hand.

Their fellow white settlers appeared to feel the same, as one winter was often enough to convince them to seek a more connected and developed place to live. Other farms and cabins dotted the nearby rivers but none was destined to become a town like Steamboat Springs. Crawford, unlike many of his peers, had little interest in striking it rich with mineral claims. The Yampa Valley was not known to have gold or silver, although coal mining became a major industry. Crawford instead cared about ranching, farming, and building a town. But none of it would have been possible if not for Meeker.

Years have a way of melting into each other. Sometimes even the people who witnessed an event cannot be sure exactly when it took place and they may differ as to just what took place. But there are certain indisputable pillars of remembrance.

One such pillar is September 29, 1879, a day that changed the lives of Utes and white settlers of the Colorado Rockies forever.

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