Rio Grande County Museum takes ownership of Col. Pfeiffer gravesite

RIO GRANDE COUNTY — Thanks to the generosity of the Monte Vista chapter of the Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR), the Rio Grande County Museum is now the proud owner of Albert Pfeiffer’s gravesite located between Del Norte and South Fork on County Road 15.

DAR was founded in 1890 to preserve the historical significance of the American revolutionary War and through the years the Monte Vista chapter has served the surrounding community through several projects, one of which was the care and preservation of local hero and legend, Col. Albert H. Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer’s descendants still reside in and around the San Luis Valley today and his legend is passed on from generation to generation forming a sturdy foundation of historical relevance known throughout Rio Grande County.

Though the Monte Vista chapter of DAR is disbanding, the Rio Grande County Museum was proud to take over the care of the gravesite and hopes to one day make it a historical attraction once again as it was several years ago. Pfeiffer was a founding father to the town of Del Norte and Rio Grande County and through his efforts, the local Native American Pi-Utes secured the Pagosa Hot Springs for many years.

According to newspaper articles from the San Juan Prospector in 1874, Albert H. Pfeiffer came in after serving under Kit Carson on the Barlow and Sanderson Stagecoach when Del Norte was a brand new town. Seeing the potential in the area and the beauty, Pfeiffer decided to homestead a ranch out by what is now known as Embargo Creek along County Road 15. It is here that he was laid to rest several years later, and his story is one that enriches Rio Grande County history.

Tucked just off County Road 15 in the rolling foothills northeast of South Fork lies the grave of a man that most have never heard of and some that revere for his bravery, dedication, and perseverance. A marker placed on the side of the dirt road reads simply, “Historical Marker: Homestead and gravesite of Col. Albert H. Pfeiffer 1822-1881. Soldier and Scout for Kit Carson, Indian Agent, adopted by Utes.”

There are several men and women of the Valley’s past that stand out among others for their tough personalities and wild adventures; some of which helped shape the Valley’s cities and towns today and Col. Pfeiffer was one of those men. His story speaks volumes to how people survived in the rough and tumble world of the 1800’s in Colorado.

According to historical documents pulled from the Del Norte Prospector and, Pfeiffer was born in Friesland, Netherlands, in 1822 and traveled to the United States at the age of 22 in 1844.

From there he lived a unique life as a frontiersman, soldier, fur trapper, Indian scout, and agent as well as colonel and assistant to Kit Carson. But his story does not end here and what he did for the remainder of his years still astonishes historians and history buffs to this day.

Like out of a western novel, Pfeiffer rose quickly in rank when he joined the Army in Sante Fe, N.M., and swiftly became highly regarded by the local Ute Indian Tribes in the northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado territories. In fact, according to documents collected by local historian Rosalind Weaver, he married into a prominent Ute family.

“While serving at Fort McRae, near present Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, in 1863 he and his wife, along with a party of 10, were bathing in the hot springs near Taos, N.M. They were suddenly attacked by a band of Apache Indians. Pfeiffer was seriously wounded by arrows, with one arrow going completely through his body just below his heart.”

The archives continue to state that Apache Indians carried his wife, who was later killed and five other men in the party were mortally injured.

“It was from that day forward that Pfeiffer hunted and killed Apaches with a vengeance. It was reported that at one time, he said, ‘They paid for it, yes, they have paid for it in blood. I fight ‘em night and day — everywhere in all seasons!’”

Pfeiffer, with nothing left to lose, fought in many battles over the years but the one that he is most remembered for is the one that occurred after his retirement from the Army. Pfeiffer returned to his homestead just east of the town of South Fork, then known as Baxterville, to live a quiet life when he was contacted by his Ute tribe.

The Utes were in a war with another Navajo tribe over the ownership of the hot springs near Pagosa Springs, Colo. According to history, the Utes had possession of the hot springs for many years and after several days of fighting, the Utes sought assistance from Pfeiffer.

“Pfeiffer traveled over Wolf Creek Pass to Pagosa Springs and worked out a deal with the Navajos. It was agreed that each tribe would put up one man to battle each other to the death with the winner taking possession of the hot springs and the other leaving peacefully.”

The Navajos sent a young, seasoned warrior as their champion and the Utes sent Pfeiffer, who was five foot five and was in his late 40s. Pfeiffer agreed to do the fight for the Utes under one condition and that was if the fight was done in the nude. The Navajos agreed, and the fight began the next day.

On the day of the epic battle, the young warrior took one look at Pfeiffer’s mangled body that was covered in scars from past battles and submitted to the man, calling a draw and peacefully surrendered the hot springs to the Utes. The hot springs remained in the possession of the Ute tribe for many years, until after the death of Pfeiffer, when they had to concede their land in 1873 to the United States government.

Col. Pfeiffer died in his bed at the homestead near South Fork in 1881. He was 59 years old at the time of his death and insisted on a quiet burial in the foothills of his home where he rests today.

People can visit the gravesite by traveling along County Road 15. The exact location is hard to describe, so drive slowly, and watch for the historical marker which is placed on the northern edge of the road.

The museum will be working to restore the gravesite and area in the fall and will be seeking volunteers to help. More information will be reported as it becomes available.