Early life in La Plata County was difficult for the men and women who settled here, but particularly for the tiny number of African-Americans who moved to Durango for economic opportunities.
African-Americans who traveled west to work as laborers on the railroad and farms found themselves on the fringes of society.
"While we didn't see African-Americans in the upper echelon of society, there was more opportunity here for them," said Carolyn Bowra, a volunteer at Animas Museum.
John Taylor, a Buffalo soldier, preceded white settlers in La Plata County as the first non-Native American to settle in the San Juan Basin before the Brunot Agreement between the Utes and the United States government opened the San Juan Mountains to mining in 1873, according to historians.
Taylor was born in 1841 to slave parents in Paris, Kentucky, where he worked as a slave until he fled to join the first black regiment recruited by the Union Army in Kentucky during the Civil War.
Many African Americans served as buffalo soldiers on the Western frontier after the Civil War, tasked with protecting settlers and fighting Native Americans.
Taylor was honorably discharged from service on Feb. 6, 1866, and returned to working in the corn and cotton fields until re-enlisting as a buffalo soldier on March 21, 1867.Duane Smith, a retired professor of history, said La Plata County probably saw its largest population of African-Americans in the 1880s when a group of buffalo soldiers were stationed at the Old Fort in Hesperus.
"They were stationed here because the good citizens of the town of Durango were worried about the Navajo and the Utes," Smith said. "They (Durangoans) advocated to get troops here because you had the reservation nearby. They were convinced the Native Americans would raid the town and burn it down."
Historians believe there were fewer than 60 African-Americans in the county during this time, none of which served as officers. "There were only white officers because they didn't feel that African Americans could be officers," Smith said.
The men were relegated to second-class citizenship in Durango. Tensions ran high in the community, and the soldiers were often treated poorly by the people they were stationed to protect, Smith said.
"It wasn't too good, the townsfolks' reactions," he said. "When the soldiers came into town, it was the most African-Americans they ever saw. Even though the soldiers were here to help them, they didn't want them in town."
Some merchants refused to serve the buffalo soldiers when they visited town.
"Things came pretty close to a racial confrontation," Smith said. "When those black soldiers came into town, it really irritated some people."
The experience fighting Native Americans across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado deeply affected Taylor, who longed for their nomadic freedom. He eventually joined a band of desert-dwelling Chiricahua Apache near El Paso, Texas, in 1870.
Taylor lived comfortably with the Native Americans, who sympathized with his struggles.
He lived among many different cultures in the Four Corners in the 1870s. He was a skilled linguist who was fluent in Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Apache and Spanish, and often worked as a translator.
"The Utes really respected him," Smith said. "There wasn't any racism out there because the Utes already knew what racism was, and that's why he settled there."
While it is believed Taylor had 12 wives during his lifetime, his last wife was Kitty Cloud, with whom he had four children.
He was also instrumental to the founding of Ignacio after inheriting a homestead from a deceased stepson, Henry Green, which he sold for $5,000 to the Southern Ute Agency. This land later became part of the site of the town of Ignacio.
The Taylor family remained on the Southern Ute Reservation after Taylor's death in 1935. His daughter, Euterpe Taylor, was a well-known figure in the community and served on the Tribal Council. Euterpe Taylor died in 1994.