Trail’s End – Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock in southwestern Colorado Photos courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

Sacred to Native Americans, now a national monument

For thousands of years, Chimney Rock was not only a landmark to the Anasazi and Pueblo Indians, but a spiritual place as well. Today, it is known as a landmark by travelers along Colorado Highway 160 in the southern part of the state. Thanks to the American Antiquities Act of 1906, Chimney Rock is now a national monument.

Archeologists have determined that between A.D. 925 and 1125, the Anasazi and Pueblo Indians occupied the land surrounding Chimney Rock. It was here they built their homes, evidenced by the original settlements, including two excavated villages. Nearby is the Chacoan Great House. And here lies the mystery of what happened to the Anasazi and Pueblo Indians.

As the 12th century dawned, strange tribal bands from the south slowly invaded the people of Chimney Rock. They came from an area known as the Chaco Canyon, in today’s state of New Mexico. Whether these people came to conquer or live in peace, evidence shows they did stay and settle in the area. At the ridge of the mesa near Chimney Rock, the thousand-year-old dwelling known as the Chaco Great House sits in majestic wonder. Conversely, an equally ancient stone lookout stands above the Great House, which archeologists have determined to be of Anuses origin. Nearby is a large kiva, also of Anasazi origin.

From this site, one can see the spectacular panoramic view of the Piedra River Valley to the southwest where the river flows a 1,000 feet below, to the San Juan Mountain range to the northeast. The most impressive view, however, is that of the two 300-foot stone pinnacles, Companion Rock and Chimney Rock.

It is the pinnacles that hold the spiritual connection to the Native Americans, as well as a fascination to scientists and astronomers. For it is here the first occupants of this land set their lunar calendar. It is a phenomenon that occurs regularly every 18.6 years. During the winter months, the moon rises in precise measurement between the two pillars of Chimney Rock.

By A.D. 1300 the Ute tribes called this land their home. While there is ongoing discussion between historians and archeologists as to when the Utes actually dominated the area, it is generally believed the Ute ancestry is that of the Anasazi people. According to Ute legend, they have always occupied the land. The Utes led a somewhat meager life in this isolated area until they acquired the horse sometime between A.D 1300 and A.D. 1650. With mobility, they were able to hunt successfully, thus, within the culture of the Ute tribe, the horse became the most important possession. The Utes became skilled horsemen, developing their raiding and fighting abilities as the Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes began migrating into Ute country. The Utes defended their homelands against all intruders, with great force.

By the late 18th century, the Utes were divided into separate tribes known as the Seven Nations. Of those seven tribes, including the Mouache, Capote, Uncompahgre, Grand River Utes, Yampa and Uintah tribes, the Weeminuche band of Utes became known as the “Southern Tribe.” The Weeminuche Utes occupied the valley of the San Juan and Piedra rivers, including the sacred area of Chimney Rock. It is here that the Weeminuche Ute tribe, under Chief Ignacio, and the Capote and Moache Bands, under the leadership of Ouray and Buckskin Charlie, fought to retain their sacred land and their way of life, as encroachment of the white men increased with Manifest Destiny.

A keen, observant man, Ouray understood the extreme differences between the Indian and white man. Learning the politics of the white man and knowing the traditions of the Ute Indian, Ouray knew the Utes might win the battle, but never the war. As chief of the Ute Mountain Tribe, Ouray chose the diplomatic approach, rather than a war with the white man.

On March 2, 1868, he struck a deal with his friend Kit Carson, a Government Indian agent. The Kit Carson Treaty gave some 6 million acres of land to the Utes. In return, Ouray and his people were guaranteed, “no one would pass over the remaining Ute land.”

Ute Indians cross the Los Pinos River in the land of the Chimney Rock.

Gold had been discovered in the Colorado Ute Territory and the government pushed the Indians aside, once again. Soon thereafter, Ouray found himself explaining to his people why they must leave their land. The Ute Mountain Indians were moved to reservations by the United States government. The Utes for their part had dealt in good faith. Now they were confined to a reservation.

The Ute Mountain Indian reservation stretched from the Four Corners area, east to Pagosa Springs, approximately 110 miles. From the New Mexico border north, the distance was roughly 20 miles; a mere strip of the original land. Yet they retained the sacred land of Chimney Rock. In the summer of 1880, once again the white man attempted to take more land from the Weeminuche Ute Indians. This was the climate of the changing world for the Ute tribe. Chief Ouray and his wife, Chipeta, worked to negotiate once again with the white man at the Southern Ute agency at Ignacio. Their intent was noble, but the mission ended in tragedy.

Chief Ouray fell deathly ill and lay in his tipi near death. With his beloved wife at his side, he expressed his wishes for his people and asked Buckskin Charlie to be noble in leading the future of the Ute tribe. Buckskin Charlie, humbled by the request, honored his mentor to the best of his ability. He would spend the rest of his life serving his people with peaceful actions and negotiations with the government. It can be said that no overt actions or depredations against the white population were ever committed by his authority. Through his leadership, Buckskin Charlie maintained the sacred ownership of the Ute land and the Chimney Rock area. Today, both Chiefs Ouray and Buckskin Charlie are buried at the cemetery in Ignacio, just miles from Chimney Rock.

On Sept. 21, President Obama designated the historic sandstone landmark of Chimney Rock, as well as the surrounding 4,700 acres, as a National Historic Monument in a ceremony in Durango.

“This will insure that the archaeological area of Chimney Rock is around for another thousand years,” said Denise Ryan, director of public lands policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which was one of the many groups, including Colorado congressmen, that lobbied to establish the national monument.

Chimney Rock Archaeological Area is located approximately 43 miles from Durango and 17 miles from Pagosa Springs along U.S. highway 160.

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