History of Fort Lewis College

The history of Fort Lewis College is interwoven with the history and people of southwest Colorado and the Four Corners area. Sometimes controversial, sometimes glorious, Fort Lewis College is unique among the educational institutions in this country. It is the history of this institution that has shaped the college that overlooks Durango today and serves thousands of students every year.

Fort Lewis College exists to provide the same exceptional educational opportunities to every student who walks through the doors of any campus building.


Lt. Col. Robert Crofton of the 13th Infantry arrived on the banks of the La Plata River in August 1880 with the charge to establish a military fort. Crofton built the fort, which took the name Fort Lewis from a military post in Pagosa Springs. This new Fort Lewis would watch over the surrounding areas, including the newly founded town of Durango.


The need for a military fort faded and so Fort Lewis became a federal Indian school. Native American students from the surrounding reservations, along with a number of Anglo and Chicano students, attended.


A shift in federal policy spelled the end of Fort Lewis as an Indian school. The federal government offered the Fort Lewis land to the state of Colorado. Colorado accepted and an agreement was created that transferred the land to the state under two conditions: (1) “…That said lands and buildings shall be held and maintained by the State of Colorado as an institution of learning…” and (2) “…that Indian pupils shall at all times be admitted to such school free of charge for tuition and on terms of equality with white pupils…”

The state of Colorado established an agricultural high school, called the School of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts and Household Arts, on the Fort Lewis land.


George F. Snyder, principal of the high school on the Fort Lewis land, saw an opportunity for the institution to evolve into a junior college. The new junior college also kicked off its collegiate sports program under the nickname, the Beavers.


Spurred on by the growth of Durango, Fort Lewis (at the time called Fort Lewis A&M) moved from its location south of Hesperus to Durango. By 1958, three dorms, a student center, a fine-arts building, a chapel, and a football field had been constructed for a little more than $2.2 million.


Fort Lewis A&M grew from a junior college and began to offer four-year degrees with Dr. John F. Reed as its president. During those early days, the school served around 700 students and offered seven majors.


At the request of President Reed, the A&M was dropped from Fort Lewis’ name and the school was renamed Fort Lewis College. The college’s nickname also changed from the Aggies to the Raiders.


Fort Lewis College’s nickname changed from the Raiders to the Skyhawks.


After having been governed by the Colorado State Board of Agriculture since 1911 and having been part of the Colorado State University system since 1984, Fort Lewis College was made into an independent institution when Colorado Governor Bill Owens signed House Bill 1419. The Bill created the Board of Trustees for Fort Lewis College, which would now be responsible for governing the school.

Through all the changes, Fort Lewis College continues to uphold the agreement adopted by the state of Colorado in 1911. All Native American students from federally-recognized tribes are eligible to receive tuition-free education at the college and be admitted as equals with their fellow classmates.


The gymnasium (recently renovated with a new roof) is named in honor of Dr. Donald F. Whalen.


After a 10-year hiatus, Fort Lewis College revives the tradition of Fall Convocation, an academic ceremony that welcomes new students to campus.  For the first time, faculty parade in full academic regalia to welcome and honor the new freshmen and transfer students.


The new 14,400-square-foot $2.5 million Fort Lewis College Linda and Ben Nighthorse Campbell Child and Family Center opens, replacing the 2,100 square feet facility at the end of Raider Drive that occupied one of the last remaining married student housing units.


Animas Hall opens to students.  Fort Lewis' first new dorm since West Hall opened in 1993.  Animas Hall features modern accommodations and green design characteristics, with suites with private rooms, great views, and good solar orientation.  It is LEED gold certified for its sustainable features and design. Animas is also home to the Faculty-in Residence program, where a Fort Lewis faculty member lives in the hall to provide out of the classroom activities and relationships.


The Fort Lewis College Biology wing of Berndt Hall opens. The new facility is almost three times larger than the old building and is LEED Gold certified.


Fort Lewis College celebrates the grand opening of the new Student Union addition.  Most of the funding for the student union construction came from the students themselves. A fee was voted upon and approved by the students, essentially taxing themselves to ensure the new building became a reality. The approval of this student fee represented a remarkable commitment by the students to the future of Fort Lewis College.


Fort Lewis College celebrates its Centennial which commemorates the State of Colorado’s acceptance of a federal land grant of the Hesperus site to establish an agricultural and mechanic arts high school via legislation signed January 25, 1911.