Not too far in the distant past, hundreds of families were forced to leave their homes and communities to make way for the waters of Navajo Lake.
The emotions of those displaced – the anger and bitterness – are still harbored in the descendants of these families today and feed into research to document this time in history and the people who lived it.
“Our elders are like libraries burning,” said Patty Tharp, a local author and researcher. “All their knowledge and wisdom and stories will go with them unless it’s shared. And every life is a story.”
The stories of those who once lived in the places now inundated by Navajo Lake can particularly be tragic, Tharp said.
The lands along the San Juan River near the Colorado-New Mexico border were off limits to outside settlers until the Brunot Agreement in 1873 was signed between the U.S. government and the Ute tribe, effectively opening up the lands.
Almost immediately, people of mostly Hispanic descent living in northern New Mexico and parts of the San Luis Valley in Colorado started flocking to the region to farm or raise livestock.
Ruth Lambert, a cultural program director for the San Juan Mountains Association, said the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s, along with the discovery of mining in the mountains around Silverton, added to this rush.
“Once the railroad was there, then all these little towns began to flourish,” she said.
A period of prosperity lasted until the 1950s, when mining began to decline in the San Juan Mountains, and eventually, the railroad cut service. Those who continued to live on the land were dealt a major blow in 1956 when a dam on the San Juan River was authorized by Congress.
“In the 1940s, there was rumor of a future dam, but no one believed it would really happen,” Delia Velasquez said in a previous interview with Tharp. “What a shock when it did.”
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had eyed a dam on the San Juan River as early as 1904, but the need for such a project wasn’t justified until the 1950s when surrounding communities, such as Farmington and the Navajo Nation, needed more water.
Four communities – Los Arboles, Los Pinos, Rose and Los Martinez – and an untold number of farms and ranches, were displaced by the 1.7 million acre-foot reservoir, which was completed in 1963. Researcher Frances Swadesh Quintana estimated nearly 200 families had to move, mainly Hispanics.
“Some (families) had been here nearly 80, 90 years,” Tharp said. “To be evicted was shattering.”
Tharp has tracked down a number of living descendents to document what it was like living in these communities, and what it was like to be forced to leave.
“They’re still very sad, and some are extremely bitter,” she said. “When you split up a community, those bonds are gone.”
Still, to this day, families that trace back to settlements along the San Juan River continue to keep those bonds alive. Lambert said there’s annual masses in Arboles, Tiffany and Los Martinez.
Lambert said she received a grant to write a history of the settlements along the San Juan River to help improve record keeping. The project will research churches in Trujillo, Pagosa Junction, Allison, Tiffany and Juanita.
“There’s some documentation out there, but it’s spotty,” Lambert said. “In most of these little communities, there isn’t much left than a church and a cemetery.”