LA VETA — October 8, 1866. Dear General, I wrote to you by Colonel Pfeiffen and as I predicted the Indians made an attack, but sooner than I expected, they were on us in about three hours after I wrote you… In a few minutes they had my herd of horses, 19 or 20 in number, and moved off at their leisure… Yesterday morning they attacked the Badito – – took all the stock from that place and cleaned everything from that to the head of the Huerfano in the way of stock, and every description of movable property – – also killed a German and a Mexican, took as captives Mrs. McClure and her four children…” So wrote John M. Francisco nearly 150 years ago from his fortified trading post on the upper Cucharas River. He went on to say, “Everything is being loaded up at this place and will move this evening… We have neither arms nor ammunition sufficient to make a show of defiance.” Whether the occupants of the fort actually moved, or where they moved to is unknown. The General to whom the letter was addressed was none other than Francisco’s
old friend Kit Carson, who was commandant of Fort Garland where the nearest point of safety could be found. The Indians referred to were the Moache Utes under Kaniache and their allies the Jicarilla Apaches (there are many spellings of Moache and Kaniache, but we will use these). It is said Kaniache had gone on a rampage after his son had been killed by white settlers earlier in the year in the Purgatory Valley. His band also had suffered from the “gift” of blankets issued as rations by the Army, and which were infected with deadly smallpox. The government was trying to lure the Moache onto a reservation and turn them into farmers. These were very unhappy Indians. The Utes were at the time settled on their agency surrounding Lucien Maxwell’s ranch at Cimarron, New Mexico. They had run of the Maxwell Grant consisting of plains and mountains in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, but they enjoyed the occasional raid on the Navajos to the west and the Kiowas to the east to steal horses and slaves. Kaniache was one of the so-called renegade Indians who refused to attend the Army’s periodic parlays to discuss the oft-promised rations, cash, land and other benefits not often delivered. In fact, Kaniache’s depredations in southern Colorado led the Army to order a fort built in the Cucharas Valley to protect the military road between Forts Union and Garland, the mail and the settlers whose numbers were swelling. Cavalry troops from Fort Union arrived near Francisco’s fort on the Cucharas in August 1866 with the intention of building a military fort or cantonment. During much of the next month. most of the soldiers were involved with chasing the Utes around the plains north of Trinidad instead of building. General Sherman visited the fort site in late September and ordered the soldiers to abandon the area and move to Fort Garland, where Chief Ouray with his friendly Tabeguache Utes were camped. The troops were still in the Cucharas Valley in early October when the Moache moved in. They began to chase the Indians with 75 volunteers from Las Animas County, who, it was noted, looked a lot like Utes, being mounted on ponies and dressed in buckskins and leggings with blankets over their shoulders. While these men were trying to catch up with Kaniache, the rest of the soldiers moved on to Fort Garland, leaving Francisco and the settlers without protection. As a result, as soon as the troops arrived at Fort Garland, they were told to re-cross the mountains and chase Kaniache through the upper Huerfano Valley. Carson and Ouray convinced Kaniache and his band to return to their agency at Maxwell’s and collect their annuities. Kaniache agreed, turned the McClure family over to the authorities, and returned to Cimarron. This was not the first time Francisco and his fort had encountered Kaniache. Back in 1863 these same Moache surrounded the fort when just 20 men were there working. The men locked themselves into the fortification, manned the parapets and began shooting. The Utes, outside, helped themselves to whatever food they could find, stole some cattle and destroyed some crops. Hiram Vasquez, one of the original builders of the fort and a savvy outdoorsman, mounted a mule and rode all the way to Fort Lyons on the Arkansas for assistance (Fort Garland had sent most of its troops to New Mexico to fight the Confederates). By the time Vasquez and the cavalry returned to save the day, Francisco had convinced Kaniache that the whites did not need to exit their fort because they had food, water and shelter to last for weeks. On this occasion, too, the Utes left the valley by way of the Huerfano, where they raided ranches all the up the valley to Mosca Pass. Nor was 1866 the last time Francisco met Kaniache and his men. Throughout most of June 1873 Kaniache and about 50 lodges of his people camped around the fort, and claimed they would be staying all summer. The settlers, and by then there were many, were startled to hear the Utes “claiming the country as their own”, were offended by the whites’ “trespassing” and so driving off their stock. Kaniache moved off for a while, but within a week or so was back. His people, according to the settlers, were letting their ponies roam, trampling and devouring the crops of hay and oats. These were very unhappy settlers. The Indians had the nerve to call them the trespassers! Imagine! Most of the settlers had sent their women and children to the shelter of the fort, and many of the men stayed there to protect them. They lived, they said, under constant dread of “some kind of outbreak.” Many of the families had lost much of their livestock to the Indians, who either killed it or ran it off. Homes had been burned and a woman was raped. This time, however, the men in the fort were better prepared than in 1866. A volunteer army of sorts was formed, with officers, “50 guns with Cartridge boxes and 50 rounds each”, as well as handguns, was organized and stationed around the fort. The result of this stand-off was another meeting of Ouray and Kaniache. The latter finally agreed to go to the Southern Ute Reservation on the western slope. There, Ouray died in 1880, and a few months later, Kaniache was struck, literally, by lightning. Francisco never again had to deal with the Indians after 1873. Instead, in 1876, he had to deal with waves of white settlers, coming to settle, coming to work for the railroad, coming to gamble, to promote, to prostitute, swindle, debauch, murder and otherwise “civilize” the newly incorporated Town of La Veta. One wonders if he ever wished the Indians would come back.