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Rabbitbrush Rambler: Uncle Lafe, Part III

Posted: Tuesday, Jan 29th, 2013

In 1868, when Lafayette Head was 43 years old, a photograph shows a tall, light-haired, bearded fellow with slouched posture, rumpled suit, and a dull expression, in contrast with others in the photo with spiffy black togs and Napoleonic poses. Perhaps Uncle Lafe was showing the wear and tear of his job.

His work had many demands but also some rewards. For services as Indian agent at Conejos, he received up to $750 annually, which had increased from $520, and it was a good income at that time. He also had his other assets in farming, livestock, and flour milling, so he was prospering.

But Head had to spend time receiving Indians, military personnel, officials, and upset neighbors who might appear at Fort Head at any time, day or night, and writing reports. With obvious exaggeration, he claimed he was responsible for 5,000 Indians at the agency, plus 8,000 wandering through the San Luis Valley.

Most Indians whom he served were from the Tabeguache Ute Band, ostensibly under the control of Chief Ouray. More troublesome Muaches appeared occasionally and Capotes less frequently, whereas Weenuches were unusual in this area. Other Ute agencies were operating at Taos, Cimarron, and the Chama River Valle, where Ute Indians also turned whenever they chose.

Nevertheless, the year 1863 was busier than usual for Head. In February he and others escorted a delegation of Utes to Washington, D.C., and afterward the troupe toured some sights in Eastern cities, which he himself probably was seeing for the first time.

During Head’s return trip, he detoured to the home of his sister, Eliza Jane Downing, the wife of an abolitionist Presbyterian clergyman in Illinois who was serving in the Union Army. The Downings’ son had recently been killed in the war, and Head brought his sister and her young son Finis to the San Luis Valley for a visit as a way to ease their sorrow.

Unfortunately, Maria’s frosty reception turned to wrath when Eliza Jane, appalled generally by slave labor and particularly by the cruel treatment of one Navajo girl by a male Indian in the household, helped the girl escape one night. As a result, the visit was cut short, although Finis remained and was sent by his loving Uncle Lafe to Santa Fe for schooling.

That spring, news about the Espinosas, two robbers living only two miles away at San Rafael, caused alarm. In March the brothers set out on a bloody rampage, terrorizing southern and central Colorado for weeks. This grisly story not directly involving Head himself can be read elsewhere, as in James E. Perkins’s Tom Tobin.

In the fall, an upcoming event had the agency, the household, and the entire village busy with preparations for a large gathering of dignitaries, Ute Indians, and military personnel who would be coming to negotiate a treaty with the eastern Ute bands. Lacking trains and hotels as yet, this assemblage encamped on nearby open land, while the upper echelon was greeted at Fort Head.

In this entourage were President Lincoln’s secretary, John Nicolay; John Evans, governor of Colorado Territory and ex officio superintendent of the territory’s Indian affairs; Michael Steck, superintendent in New Mexico Territory; troops from Fort Garland and Fort Union; and assorted agents, interpreters, and hangers-on. The treaty that was negotiated provided that Ute Indians would relinquish any land east of the Continental Divide not already occupied by towns, mines, and homesteaders, but, in fact, the dispossessed Indians continued to roam at will for several more years.

Some of Head’s Hispanic neighbors were unhappy, as shown in 1864 when they petitioned the U.S. Attorney to remove Head as agent because, they charged, he was not doing his job. Their complaint probably referred to trouble and losses around the countryside caused by the Indians, but, raising another question that we cannot answer today, the neighbors also said Head was “vengeful.”

Meanwhile, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, had not freed Indians, so in 1865 President Andrew Johnson directed superintendents to require agents to provide lists of American Indians in their jurisdictions who were then being held in involuntary servitude.

Lafayette Head’s list provided names of more than 100 such households in Conejos and Costilla Counties and itemized the Indians’ Spanish names, age, sex, tribe, and place where they had been obtained, as closely as was known. The largest numbers were from Navajo and Ute tribes, plus Jicarilla Apaches, some Pueblos, and others. If it were available, another fascinating list would have included numerous well-known men and women in the San Luis Valley, such as Lafayette and Maria Head, who are known to have criados (slaves) in their homes and on their ranches but who were conveniently not listed.

Many criados had been women and young boys and girls when they were taken captive by hostile tribes or Hispanic traders. Legally given freedom in 1867, some criados had no memory of previous homes, some had married and were living in local communities, some stayed, and some left.

The government’s push for treaties in the West culminated for Colorado’s Ute Indians with the “Kit Carson Treaty.” Once again, Head accompanied the Ute delegation to Washington and during an ensuing sightseeing trip in the East.

The eastern boundary of the new Consolidated Ute Reservation in Colorado was a straight line, running roughly through Lake City and Pagosa Springs. With finagling by Otto Mears of Saguache, a Los Pinos Agency was established northwest of Saguache, not even within the Ute Boundary.

So Lafayette Head was out of a job, but he was far from ready to retire.

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