Hot water, hot springs and high hopes

2019/10/oldtimer-AAAAbarley-300x210.jpg Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Back in the days before gasoline or diesel engines did most of the farm work, teams of horses, mules or oxen did the sweating, as shown in this photo where a crew near Edith, Colo., is harvesting rye. The rye was used to feed the livestock, especially the horses.

One of the best-loved stories buried in Pagosa Country history tells of a knife fight between Albert Pfeiffer and a huge Navajo brave for ownership of the Great Pagosa Hot Springs.

Just to set the stage for this story, our readers should know that in the days before white settlement of Pagosa Country, the Hot Springs were considered “Big Medicine” by Indian tribes living in the southwest. Among the best known of the tribes who left moccasin prints here were the Navajo, Southern Utes and Jicarilla Apaches.

Our story took place circa 1870 when well-known frontiersman Kit Carson served as Indian agent for those tribes. During his last years, Carson lived with the last of his wives in Taos. He had a compadre, also a well-known frontiersman and Indian fighter, Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer spent his final years near South Fork on the other side of Wolf Creek Pass from Pagosa Springs. A historic marker sits in front of his home near South Fork.

And so, let the story begin.

The curtain opens a few miles west of Pagosa Springs where a band of Navajo and a band of Southern Utes made camp while they argued about ownership of the Hot Springs. A stone marker on the east side of U.S. 160 identifies the location where today’s story took place.

Finally, the tribal leaders chosen to negotiate the problem agreed on a solution. Instead of fighting a bloody battle which would claim the lives of many warriors, each tribe would choose a man and the two would fight to the end, winner take all. The Navajos chose a giant of a man, a warrior they were confident could not be beaten.

The Utes chose long-time tribal friend Pfeiffer to represent them, a seemingly illogical choice. Pfeiffer stood only 5 feet 5 inches and looked like a dwarf beside his opponent. Without hesitation, Pfeiffer accepted the challenge. Given the choice of weapons, Pfeiffer slipped a much-used bowie knife from its sheath on his hip, licked his lips and tested the keenness of the blade, and insisted the two strip and fight buck naked.

Now is a good time to point out that Pfeiffer was not as overmatched as it might seem. His naked body was tattooed with scars revealing the number of battles he had already fought and won. His opponent knew of Pfeiffer’s prowess and possibly, after eyeballing the scars, considered him unbeatable. And so, the Navajo warrior may have been the combatant most intimidated.

We’ll finish this story next week.