Area ranching originated in 1880s, and still plays a strong role in Ouray’s economy.
Story by Kathryn R. Burke
In 1875, THE LOS PINOS Indian Agency (originally established 1869 in Conejos, New Mexico) was moved to the Uncompahgre Valley just north of the future town of Colona (in Ouray County Colorado). The area had long been inhabited. Members of the Ute Tribe camped and hunted here along the leafy course of the Uncompaghre River, but with the arrival of settlers, and the beginning of farming, game became scare. To supply food to the new agency, a herd of government cattle was trailed in from Gunnison, Colo. When the land was opened up for legal homesteading, the need for farming and ranching grew.
Then came the arrival of the railroad in the late 1880s. It ran approximately where Highway 550 is today between Montrose and Ouray. Silver mines above Ouray and Telluride were already booming. Ore needed to be shipped out and the miners needed food. Rough mining camps grew into ‘civilized’ towns. The market for beef continued to grow, and the fertile valley at the foot of the San Juans supplied it.
More people came, arriving on foot, horseback, and by covered wagon. Winters were long, the land was arid, and ranching was hard—but possible with determination and perseverance. Ranch families formed a close- knit community, helping each other out during fall roundup and branding and spring calving.
One of the favorite social activities was the ranch rodeo, which recognized cowboy skills such as roping and riding. Early rodeo was truly a spectator sport, with little or no barrier between the performers and the audience.
Ranching still remains a vital part of Ouray County’s economic history, and the Ouray County Ranching History Museum helps to preserve and protect that history.