Bayfield – Vallecito Lake History

It seems impossible to write about Vallecito without including some information on the earlier inhabitants who also enjoyed this entrancing valley and mountain hideaway. They were living here long before the white man ever even knew of the valley’s existence; and even though present-day occupants feel such a deep sense of love and possession of this place, one has to be saddened by the way it’s former inhabitants were forced from the spot that they also claimed and cherished.

There are many theories as to where the earliest inhabitants came from, but the most accepted theory seems to be that they were nomadic hunters from Asia known as “The Folsom People”, named for an archeological find near Folsom, NM. These ancient tribes crossed the Bering Strait when the Ice Age had created a land bridge and traveled throughout most of the western part of our continent, and eventually migrating down into what is now Colorado. Little record exists of the habitation of these ancient desert people except for proof of their beautiful stone tools and links of ancestry to the Anasazi Indians, a very civilized tribe, small of stature, who forged and farmed the Western Slope of the Rockies.

Traces of the Anasazi people are plentiful in Vallecito, Southwestern Colorado, and the whole Four Corners Region, with notable abandoned dwellings like Mesa Verde National Monument (top), reflecting more than 700 years of history from approximately A.D. 600 through A.D. 1300
Mesa Verde National Monument
Chimney Rock Archaeological Area (bottom) is the nearest Anasazi Ruin site to Vallecito Lake. It’s located twenty-six miles north of Bayfield on hwy 160 East, and then south at the intersection of hwy 151 for eight miles. Tours are available exposing many kivas, ceremonial pits, and captivating views of the towering chimneys, the Piedora River, and the enchanting valley below.
Chimney Rock Archaeological Area

European Explorers would initiate many changes upon the American Indian in the 1500’s. There are records of many adventures who came to make their fortune in the Southwest, but the first were probably Spaniards who embellished intriguing stories of abundant gold and silver. In 1540, Francisco Coronado and his contingency of 250 armored soldiers pressed northward from Mexico to verify these persistent rumors of treasure. Francisco Coronado and his men ruthlessly pillaged Indian pueblo’s along the way.

Southwestern Ute Tribal Members Coronado’s soldiers records didn’t make mention of problems with any “Ute” Indians during their travels, but stories of attacks by the dark-skinned “Uticahs” were widely circulated among the Spaniards during trading with the Plains Indians in the early 1600’s. About 80 Uticahs were eventually captured and punished for horse thievery by means of slave labor in Coronado’s gold and silver mines. Their captors treated the non-Christian “savages” with ruthless disregard.

Eventually, brutal treatment and extremely difficult working conditions would result in many deaths among the captives. The Spaniards attempted to round-up more Uticahs to replace the increasing numbers of slave deaths, but they were soon hampered drastically in their attempts to capture these wily adversaries who became very skilled riders on their stolen Spanish ponies. So the slave-hunters resolved to focus on the more docile “Plains” and “Navajo” tribes for their slave trade. By the late 1600’s, the Spaniards began trading horses with their former adversaries in return for slaves from other tribes, and these Spanish ponies were soon distributed throughout the Southwest.

In a lustful quest for silver and gold, 1700’s Spanish adventurers flooded Colorado, littering the once pristine countryside with a wake abandoned mining operations.
Following the signing of the “Declaration of Independence” of 1776, the first official Spanish expeditions took place in Colorado, charting “Provincia de Nabajoo” or “Land of the Navajos” on the map. And later, a Spanish individual bequeathed the name “Vallecito”, meaning “Little Valley”, on the lush land where Vallecito Reservoir now stands. He thought the name to be more melodious to the ear of the white settlers than “Provincia de Nabajoo” or the name the Indians used, “Shu-ah-gauche”.

The French had also been traveling this country. Fort St. Louis was established on the Texas coast of the vast Louisiana Territory also known as New France around 1685. The many different Indian tribes that inhabited this area were not pleased to see these white invaders, but the French treated these relationships with much more respect than had the Spaniards that preceded them. Showering the locals with gifts earned friendships and the privilege of outpost trading deep into their territory, and west of the great Mississippi.

It was 1724 when tribes began confiding in the French that the Spaniards captured their people and enslaved them in the silver mines near their villages. Around the same time, the Spanish were becoming quite annoyed with the Frenchmen who were trading and trapping in Spanish occupied Louisiana territory. They were uneasy because they could clearly see that the French were having an increasing influence on the native populations, but they maintained a diplomatic position with their European adversaries by assigning many of the French to help with necessary transitions.

A 300 man French and French Canadian mining expedition approved by Louis Villamont was launched in 1799 to map the areas between New Orleans and Colorado and New Mexico; but with the main purpose, unbeknownst to the Spanish, was to prospect for gold and silver. The group journeyed into southern present-day Colorado where they joined a band of Capote Ute, saving them from a certain slaughter at the hands of a much larger force of Comanche. In return for their help, the natives led the French to the summit of the Continental Divide near Wolf Creek Pass, where they did, in fact, hit some big strikes near Summitville and the East coast of the San Juan River. Men on hunting detail were said to have traveled westward to the heights above Pagosa Springs and Vallecito during leaner years caused by draught.

By the 19th Century, word of great treasures in the new world had spread throughout Europe sparking wide-spread interest in the Rocky Mountain Regions. The Spanish Inquisition fueling political and religious upheaval, the potato famine of Ireland, and the promise of a better life all contributed to a mass European exodus. More and more would venture westward. Plentiful farmlands and the California Gold Rush were cause for great excitement and expectations. Railroads were built across the continent to haul people, supplies, and equipment to new locations and before long … the “Wild West” was … tame.
Pine River Store and Post Office established in 1877 on Old Stage Rd, a few miles north of present-day Bayfield, was the closest store and settlement to Vallecito in the early days.

The Exciting news of seemingly endless discoveries of gold and silver worth immeasurable wealth in the 1870’s sparked a rush of greedy prospectors and various mining companies toward what is now Denver, into the San Juan’s, and all the way down to the present-day Durango area. Most of those who had drifted through the San Juan Mountains were unknowns until Colonel Baker and his prospecting party arrived at the Animas River in 1861 and settled in Baker’s Park near present-day Silverton, Colorado.

The end of the the American Civil War and the “Homestead Act” of 1862 caused many released soldiers and wandering souls from the east to drift west, and soon many found their way to the Pine River Valley and Vallecito Area. The area, however, was part of a Ute Reservation. Many white settlers were moving into Ute land but, unlike the explorers, they didn’t just come for a while and then move on; they came and began farming, ranching, and setting up stores to furnish supplies for even more settlers. Confrontations were plentiful. The “Boulder News” once stated that “… an Indian has no more right to stand in the way of civilization and progress than a wolf or a bear.” The Indians were gradually being crowded out!
Then, finally, the Bruno Agreement, an unfair treaty reached in 1873, had dishonestly imposed even more hardships upon the natives, cutting their territory further. Had it not been for Chief Ouray’s skillful negotiating, the Southern Ute may have been driven from their last remaining piece of land in Colorado. The Northern Ute retreated into what is now Utah.
This would not be the last bitter pill the American Indian had to swallow.

Cabins in Indian Country Vallecito has never been an actual town. It is simply a valley where the Los Pinos and the Vallecito River join. As settlers ventured in, some ranches sprang up along the edges and bottom of the wildest part of the valley where the rivers actually join, and other ranches were located up both of the individual rivers. Some people settled down on the area below where the rivers combined, which then was known as the Los Pinos or “Pine River”. No real boundaries to “Vallecito” have ever existed, but it’s presumed, by most, to end a few unspecified miles below the present damn.

Some of the earliest recorded homesteaders in the Vallecito area are still remembered because their names were given to localities and other natural areas. John T. Graham and Thomas Wilson had creeks named after them on the east side of the present-day lake. Charles C. Graham homesteaded what later became the Teelawuket Ranch, where his original cabin still stands. George Brawner homesteaded part of the present-day Cool Water Ranch and has a canyon named for him, and Adolphus Germain homesteaded part of the Dunsworth/Warlick Ranch south of Sawmill Point where the Warlicks now live. These hardy fellows were soon followed closely by a number of others.

The Three Decker brothers, Elmer, Claude, and Jim arrived at Vallecito and put down roots in 1922. They first opened Vallecito Livestock Company and then changed the name to Decker Livestock Company in 1936.
The three Decker families owned the whole upper part of the valley, and they all lived in houses that were in close proximity to where Grimes Creek and Vallecito Creek came together in bottom land.

The Decker Family Ranch house had to be moved before the lake would come to cover it in 1942

In October of 1911, a flood washed out part of the town of Bayfield. There was much debate over water rights and how to delegate such rights so as to meet the needs of ranchers both the upper and lower Pine River Valley. After the June and September floods of 1927 washed out several bridges and causing terrible damage, it was generally agreed upon that something had to be done to solve the water shortage problem as well as flood control for the sake of all of Bayfield and Durango.
After years of studies and meetings, a plan was successfully negotiated and the “Pine River Project” was drawn up and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 17, 1937.

View from southeast end of dam during dam construction. Sawmill Point in background. The Mining years had come and gone at Vallecito, and the population was holding fairly steady, when came news that a dam would be built and a reservoir would displace some of the ranch land in the bottom of the valley! The Sullivans, the Deckers, and the Dunsworths owned most of the land needed. The other owners were the Pearsons, Wilmers, Oberts, and Curries. Most would lose their homes, or move them, if that were at all possible.
After the land acquisition phase was accomplished, the Bureau of Reclamation awarded the contract for logging the timber from the dam and lake site. The timber to be removed was estimated at five million feet, log scale, merchantable timber, and the removal was complete in one thousand days.

Since the construction of the Pine River Dam Project, the community has turned sharply from agricultural and ranching toward a heavy reliance on a recreational, tourist market. The people who now live in Vallecito are there for the area’s crisp mountain air and an easy-going lifestyle. Tourists come back for exceptional hiking, biking, boating, fishing and camping. You’ll continue to come back for our genuine Colorado hospitality … Vallecito-style!

Information for this page was gathered from the following sources: “Vallecito Country”
Dottie Warlick
After hearing the almost forgotten stories of the Valley’s early days from her husband’s family and other old timers, author Dottie Warlick felt compelled to preserve the treasure of information that would otherwise be lost forever with the passage of time. Her extensive research resulted in stories about many of the local families who homesteaded this area, including the Warlicks, Deckers, Sullivans, Dunsworths, McCoys, and Wommers, to name just a few; the building of the Vallecito Dam; and the disastrous 2002 Missionary Ridge fires. Dottie also relates tales of the explorers, fur traders, miners, outlaws, and lawmen who explored this beautiful region of Colorado.

Dottie Warlick is a Vallecito local and a rare authority regarding Historical Vallecito Lake

Warlick brings an appreciation for the interaction of the people and the land they grew to love, despite severe hardships that cost some of them their lives. Vallecito Country will appeal to the old-timer, who wants to review and pass along to the next generation a fast-disappearing way of life, or to the tourist, who wants to learn more about this enchanting land and its fascinating people.



  1. jason richard Said:

    I lived in the valley for a few years, it’s been almost ten years since i left, and moved back to maine. Vallecito was one of the only vortex’s that I have ever felt and I miss that with all of my heart. Hopefully one day soon I’ll be back there having a beer with my good friend Scott Brown. I assume he’s still living there but I not sure we have’nt talked for a long time. your history info was fascinating thanks

  2. R. D. Elder Said:

    I am in the process of writing some short stories about people, places and incicents that took place during my nearly forty years as the owner and operator of Colorado Trails Ranch which is located on the Florida Road about 12 miles from the lake. As part of our program, we boated and water skied on Vallecito Lake. I need some stats about the lake itself: what is the size in terms of miles of shoreline, total area, how much water when full and how deep at the dam. I know the lake is fed by at least three streams: Los Pinos, Vallecito Creek, and (I think) The Pine River. Are there other sources of water? And, am I correct about the three listed above?

    Thanks. Dick Elder

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