Otto Mears’ life followed the mythical “rags to riches” storyline. Born in Russia on May 3, 1840, his parents were both dead by the time he was four. The orphaned boy was shuttled first to an uncle in Russia, then to various relatives scattered from England to New York to San Francisco. At age 12, he found himself all alone on the Barbary Coast when his ship landed in California. A kindly fellow passenger took pity on him and got him a job selling newspapers.
The bright young Otto made his way in the world trying out various jobs. After a time in the goldfields of northern California, he learned that it was rarely a miner that got rich in a boomtown. Those who supported the miners, providing food, transportation, and other services did the best. He cast his first vote in an American presidential election for Abraham Lincoln, becoming a lifelong member of the Republican party. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the Union Army at 21. As a member of California’s Volunteer Company H, he was sent to New Mexico where he served under the famous scout Kit Carson.
When the war was over, Otto mustered out of the Army in Las Cruces, NM with over $1500 in his pocket from selling surplus Army wheat. He made his way to Santa Fe and went into business with the Staab brothers. They were merchants who hoped to expand their business into Colorado and soon set Otto up with a store in Conejos, Colorado.