Land of Contrast: A History of Southeast Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 17)
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Chapter V

The Mexican Revolution of 1821 destroyed old land tenure patterns in New Mexico because Spanish law became Mexican regulation. The Mexican government, when it drew up a new constitution, changed some provisions for land acquisition through settlement. Much of the government's concern revolved around the Texas question. Texas declared its independence in 1836 and promptly cast greedy eyes on New Mexico, where the Santa Fe Trail trade was perceived as quite wealthy. Mexico's fears about Texas were not totally unfounded. Yet, long before Texans sought independence, Mexico City was deeply concerned about other Americans. Fur traders made regular appearances at Taos while, of course, American traders found their way into Santa Fe from Missouri. Mexico, concerned for the safety of her northern flank, decided, in the early 1830's, to settle upper parts of New Mexico. Records show that first land grants made in what is presently Colorado were along the Conejos River. Some fifty families were conveyed land, and for ten years they grazed a few sheep but never settled. [1] That grant languished until 1842 when Seledon Valdes and several other grantees petitioned for revalidation. Apparently, the original grant papers were lost. In October 1842, Juez (Justice) Cornelio Vigil, at Taos, actually went to a site along the Conejos called San Francisco de Padua where eighty-four families from Taos, El Rito, Rio Arriba, Rio Colorado, Abiquiu and other northern New Mexican villages had been given lands. [2] This newer grant was made in the names of Julian Gallegos and Antonio Martinez and was called Conejos. The regrant was huge, extending from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, on the east, southward to the Rio Grande, to San Antonio Peak, and then north to the La Garita Mountains. The land subsequently became Conejos County, and represents one of the largest nonsurveyed areas in this state. During the 1840's, settlers tried to raise corn and beans on their shares, but, because of Ute raiding and extreme isolation from New Mexico, results were less than encouraging. [3] The Mexican War changed land status in the San Luis Valley, for Mexican grants were no longer valid. Charles Bent, Governor of New Mexico in 1846, agreed to uphold existing claims. However, this did not last because land claims adjudication courts were established in the 1850's to straighten out older Mexican land grants. Just before the war, grants were issued to Stephen Luis Lee (Sangre de Cristo Grant), Carlos Beaubien (Beaubien-Miranda Grant), and several other groups such as the Vigil-St. Vrain Grant and the Maxwell Grant, the latter two being in Raton Basin. [4]

The Sangre de Cristo Grant lay east of the Rio Grande and was one of the largest such land claims in Colorado. There were no settlements until 1848, when George Gold (or Gould) tried to establish a town along the Costilla River. Being in trespass, he was promptly evicted by New Mexicans, and the San Luis Valley was again without settlement. However, 1849 saw a new village founded near present-day Garcia, Colorado. This place was called the Plaza de los Manzanares. The name was changed when Garcia got a post office a few years later. [5] This first step toward settlement led to further efforts. Several events helped. First, a treaty was signed with the Utes in 1849 and these natives now allowed New Mexicans to settle unmolested. Next, merchants sensed an oncoming "land boom" and decided to set up stores catering to settlers. Since the Utes were out of the way, a village of crude jacales (huts) appeared along the Costilla, followed in 1851 by some log cabins and a general store run by Ferdinand Meyer. [6] The little communities of San Luis and San Pedro represented the first permanent agricultural settlements in southeast Colorado and certainly in the San Luis Valley. These places were based on a Spanish classic "plaza" concept, where homes were built around a central square with spaces reserved for governmental buildings and churches. From the plazas, homesteaders went to their fields during the day and returned at night. The fields were divided in a long, narrow fashion and were semi-communal in nature. There was also a common pasture area for animals to graze. This settlement pattern was a duplicate of New Mexican homesteading in the 1600's. The only difference was that there were hostile Utes instead of sedentary Pueblo natives in the San Luis Valley. By 1851, a permanent European settlement was in operation (San Luis), and farming was an ongoing enterprise. To provide water for an arid environment acequias, or irrigation ditches, were dug. The first recorded water rights (in Colorado) date from April 10, 1852, and this became known as the San Luis People's Ditch. [7] For the first time, Colorado's dry soil was irrigated, a harbinger of things to come. By 1852, the San Pedro Ditch was built, with the Acequia Madre Ditch following. The Montez Ditch was finished in 1853, the Vallejos and Manzanares Ditches in 1854; then the Acequiacita Ditch in 1855. These efforts at farming were not only the earliest in southeast Colorado, but were among the most successful anywhere. [8]

The 1851 settlements spurred further development. For instance, by August 1854, a permanent settlement under the leadership of Jose Maria Jaquez was founded along the Conejos River. This village was called El Cedro Redondo. Meanwhile, Lafayette Head brought a group of some fifty families from Abiquiu, New Mexico, to the Conejos where they built Plaza de Guadalupe. [9] The Conejos Grant became a beehive of activity. By 1854, Servilleta was founded, Mogote appeared in that same year, and ditches such as the Guadalupe Main Ditch and Head's Mill Ditch were in operation by 1855. Perhaps the most influential settler of the time was Lafayette Head.

A Missouri native, Head came to Santa Fe during the Mexican War. He operated a store at Abiquiu where he was also Indian Agent. He was a member of the New Mexico Territorial Legislature by 1853, and he represented the claimants of the 1842 Conejos Grant. Head, as Indian Agent, built the Conejos Ute Agency and ran its varied facilities, such as the general store, stables, and school. The Utes were a continual problem to New Mexican settlers. Finally, in 1852, the United States government authorized the establishment of a fort just off the Sangre de Cristo Pass trail, about fifty miles west of the Conejos settlements. [10] Fort Massachusetts was the home of Edwin V. Sumner's cavalry. It contained barracks, a blacksmith, a kitchen, officers quarters, and all the "amenities of civilization." However, the fort was badly placed, could never obtain sufficient supplies, and it was isolated from most other settlements. From October 1853 to April 1854, the place was unoccupied due to winter. Lieutenant Colonel Horace Brooks, the commander, saw his troops in action during late spring of 1854. Ute raiders along the Rio Grande caused the U.S. Army to chase these natives, and the troops actually caught a group of Utes near Raton Pass, inflicting serious damage. [11] The summer of that same year saw an outbreak of smallpox among Mouache Utes that decimated the tribe. The natives blamed contaminated goods on the government, and in retribution massacred the settlers at Fort Pueblo on Christmas Day, 1854. They then moved into the San Luis Valley, killed some settlers at Costilla, and raided the area's livestock. [12] February 1855, saw a punitive expedition under Thomas Fauntleroy arrive from Fort Union, New Mexico; he led his troops to Fort Massachusetts. This group chased some 150 Utes and Jicarilla Apache north across the valley catching them north of Poncha Pass on March 23, 1855. After several other skirmishes, a decisive battle occurred in April where forty natives were killed. The troops then retreated to Fort Massachusetts, glorying in their victory. Meanwhile, Guadalupe Plaza was raided, but the Ute were driven off. [13] The rest of 1855 was relatively peaceful, and communities continued to grow along the various watercourses. The next several years remained calm, the Ute having been driven back deep into the San Juans. Agriculture continued to develop, with new canals dug and little settlements built throughout the lower San Luis Valley. The "older" places like San Luis and Guadalupe were so strong that in 1856 a church was built. Equally, Conejos, which already had an adobe church, was quite healthy. The first mass was offered during that year in the uncompleted shell of the new Conejos church. [14]

The Catholic religion, dominant in the San Luis Valley, derived from New Mexican Catholicism which, in turn, dated back to 1598 and the conquest of that province. New Mexican settlers brought their religion with them and the San Luis Valley saw numerous churches built during the 1850's. The parish became part of the Colorado mission in 1860 and was administered by Joseph E. Machebeuf. Later, in 1868, Colorado's Catholic churches were separated from New Mexico and were operated with Utah's parishes. One feature of this religion that came to the San Luis Valley early was los hermanos Penitentes, of just the Penitentes. [15] This group was primarily from northern New Mexico, and one of the first Penitente organizations, dating from 1859, was founded at Chama, New Mexico. The Penitentes were lay brothers who expiated their sins through self-flagellation, using methods such as being bound to wooden crosses. They met in buildings called moradas that were generally secretly built and maintained. The Penitentes were regarded by the Church as extremists who should be stopped, primarily because of their violent practices. However, despite efforts of men like the famous Bishop Lamy of New Mexico, the Penitentes survived and still practice their religion today. Many moradas are found in Conejos, Costilla, Alamosa, and Saguache Counties; they are presently in use. [16]

Agriculture was well established by the late 1850's. Stores in Costilla, San Luis, and Conejos all provided "imported" goods to settlers, who, in turn, sold grains, corn, and other staples to northern New Mexico's population. There was virtually no northern trade in Colorado, for there were no towns outside the valley. However, by 1858 the situation was to change. Gold was discovered in the Dry Creek and Cherry Creek drainages near Denver in 1858. These small placers resulted in a gold rush that brought an alleged 100,000 people to the area now called Colorado. While there was no gold rush in the San Luis Valley, there was a boom. Since there was absolutely no agriculture north of the valley, and with thousands of gold seekers pouring into the region, San Luis Valley farmers were in an excellent position to provide food and grains to the hungry miners. At first, food was shipped across the plains from Missouri and Kansas into the Denver area. However, this process was not only extremely expensive, but it also limited the types of foods available. Flour, grain, beans, corn, and other staples that would not easily rot could be shipped, but fresh meat, vegetables, and milk had to be obtained locally. The San Luis Valley was not only closer to Denver, but it could provide nearly anything the "59ers" needed. To accommodate this sudden growth, flour mills were built at Costilla and other locations near settlements in the valley. Albert D. Richardson, noted journalist, visited the area in 1859 and stated that F.W. Posthoff, at Costilla, had a milling operation of the "Mexican type." The coarse ground flour produced was not well suited to the new Denver market, and soon other businessmen arrived. [17] Ceran St. Vrain, late of the fur trade, and H.E. Easterday, who operated a trading post at Taos, built a new mill at San Luis in 1860. April of that year saw advertisements in the Rocky Mountain News for "American Mill Flour." [18] Valley farmers hauled grains into San Luis and Costilla for milling, and, as traffic increased so did San Luis' population. San Luis emerged as the dominant town in the valley, thanks to its agricultural efforts. The village petitioned for a post office, and its name was changed from Culebra (Snake) to San Luis. Easterday, doing well, imported a "Negro woman" to do housework. This was the first recorded case of a black slave being in southeast Colorado. [19]

Slavery was not new or unusual to the settlers of the valley, for Navajo and Apache natives were often enslaved after capture. This tradition was New Mexican in origin and dated from the mid-1700's when captured raiding natives became booty for the Spanish. Abiquiu was one of the major centers for this slave trade, and as settlers moved into the San Luis Valley they brought with them native servants and workers. Even during the 1850's the slave business went on. Raids were conducted by Utes and Apaches into Navajo territory for the purpose of obtaining young boys and girls who would become slaves. New Mexican settlers, needing cash, would also raid for slaves. The poorer farmers would conduct attacks, knowing that a good captive could bring up to $500. These slaves were used as household domestics but not usually for hard labor. In 1865 Lafayette Head, Ute Agent, was required to list native "servants" in the valley, and he came up with some 88 in Conejos County alone. What was unusual was that many were Ute. Costilla County listed 65 slaves, with other areas reporting "native servants" at fewer numbers.

As the gold rush to the north progressed, agriculture benefited in the San Luis Valley. Towns and villages continued to be established and plazas cropped up on a regular basis. For instance, Fort Massachusetts was abandoned in 1858, and a new post, Fort Garland, was established at the northern end of the Sangre de Cristo grant, along Ute Creek, to protect the valley's settlers and to keep the passes over the Sangre de Cristos open year round. A town grew up around Fort Garland; settlers grew vegetables to sell at the fort. At the base of Sierra Blanca, the town of Zapata was established in 1864, while new places were founded farther north and east of Culebra Creek. Jesus Valdez and Luis Montoya settled on San Francisco Creek near present-day Del Norte in 1858, while Domacio Espinoza, Crescencio Torrez, J. Mateo Romero, and Susan Trujillo founded a town along La Garita Creek. The original settlement was west of today's La Garita. The Espinosa family settled along Carnero Creek, grazing sheep and cattle, during 1859. [21] Spring of that same year saw fourteen families from the Conejos area build a plaza near Del Norte and call it La Loma de San Jose. From this village came a number of smaller places like Valdes (Seven-Mile) Plaza and Luzero Plaza. Naturally, ditches were dug from these plazas and agriculture flourished. The Silva Ditch was a major enterprise that was followed by forty other similar irrigation projects within a few years [22]

While the San Luis Valley progressed nicely, events on the eastern plains caused more and more settlement along the Arkansas River and its tributaries. One of the earliest villages, El Pueblo or Fort Pueblo, was wiped out in 1854. Bent's Fort disappeared as did the fur trade. What then caused trappers, traders, and settlers to stay? Similar to the San Luis Valley, the Mexican government was worried about both Texan and American intrusions into New Mexico. As in the Valley, that government granted large tracts of land for settlement, based upon the premise that occupation equaled ownership. In 1843, Ceran St. Vrain (of fur trade fame), and Cornelio Vigil obtained a grant along the Huerfano River, east of future Walsenburg. The Vigil-St. Vrain Grant was not huge in the style of the San Luis grants, but it was in a well-watered area. However, little development occurred, and no permanent settlements were founded. [23] Of more interest was a giant grant made to Carlos Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda, also in 1843. This land extended from the Culebra Mountains on the west, eastward along the Purgatoire River to near modern-day Trinidad. The grant became known as the Maxwell Grant when Lucien Maxwell, Beubien's son-in-law took over control of the tract in later years. [24] The other land grant of note was a tract called the Nolan Grant that was south and east of present-day Pueblo, Colorado. This grant was also supposed to be settled and developed, but that never took place. As happened in the San Luis Valley, the various Mexican grants on the eastern plains were turned over to the American government in 1848 and claims to these grants were adjudicated in 1853 by Claims Courts. The Maxwell Grant was upheld in full while the Nolan and Vigil-St. Vrain Grants were reduced. The Conejos Grant remained in court for years, while the Sangre de Cristo Grant was confirmed. [25]

The 1850's on the eastern plains was a time of retrenchment for most settlers and residents. The fur and buffalo trade died, and California or Oregon bound travelers went north along the Oregon Trail, leaving southeastern Colorado to the natives. The Santa Fe Trail trade also ended with the annexation of New Mexico, and there was simply little incentive for settlers to remain. Yet a few hardy souls stayed on in the Raton Basin-Arkansas River area. Maurice Le Duc and Mathew Kinkead's fur post on Hardscrabble Creek struggled along, trading with the Utes and a few die-hard fur trappers. Of course, Fort Pueblo was in business until 1854 while Bent's (New) Fort served the lower Arkansas River Valley. Charles Autobees established a plaza in 1853 at the mouth of the Huerfano River and proceeded to farm and ranch. [26] During the 1850's, little plazas were founded along the Purgatoire River, too. These places, generally without names, were agricultural settlements that were subsistence in nature and did not provide much export trade. They were usually unorganized, had no governmental functions, and probably had no churches or other infrastructure. Yet these places became the core towns that sprang up during the 1860's in this region. [27]

The 1850's were generally a "dead" period for Colorado, but the San Luis Valley and, to a lesser extent, the Raton Basin saw development, progress, permanent settlement and a solid agricultural foundation within a ten-year period. Such settlement patterns were unusual for Colorado and represent a unique chapter in this era. The late 1850's were times of dramatic and drastic change, not only for the Raton Basin, but also for the San Luis Valley. Not only did the gold rush to Pike's Peak affect southeast Colorado, but so did problems with Ute natives in the Valley, pressures from miners in the San Juans, changes in land tenure patterns, and the invasion of Anglo-American society to a land that was predominantly Spanish in origin.


1. Virginia McConnell Simmons, Land of the Six Armed Cross (Boulder: Pruett, 1980), p. 43. See also: State Archives of New Mexico, (Santa Fe, New Mexico): "Request for Renewal of Los Conejos Grant," William Blackmore Papers, MS.

2. Ibid., p. 44, Files of the U.S. Surveyor General, New Mexico in: State Archives of New Mexico, (Santa Fe, New Mexico), 1821-1848, MSS. See also: Myra Ellen Jenkins, Catalog of the Mexican Archives in New Mexico (Santa Fe, New Mexico: State Archives of New Mexico, 1966.)

3. Simmons, op. cit., p. 44, and see: Ralph E. Twitchell, The Spanish Archives of New Mexico (Cedar Rapids: Torch, 1914), 2 Vols.

4. See Harold H. Dunham, "New Mexico Land Grants with Special Reference to the Title Papers of the Maxwell Grant," New Mexico Historical Review, 30, 1955, p. 4.

5. Simmons, op. cit., p. 44. See also: Olibama Lopez Tushar, People of the Valley: A History of the Spanish Colonials of the San Luis Valley (Denver: n.p., 1975.)

6. Simmons, ibid., p. 46, and see: Olibama Lopez, "The Spanish Heritage in the San Luis Valley," (M.A. Thesis, University of Denver, 1942.)

7. Simmons, ibid., p. 49.

8. Ibid., pp. 49-50.

9. Alvin T. Steinel, History of Agriculture in Colorado (Fort Collins: Colorado Agricultural College, 1926), pp. 177-179.

10. Simmons, op. cit., pp. 48-49, and Morris F. Taylor, "Fort Massachusetts, Colorado Magazine, 45, 1968, pp. 120-123.

11. Rafael Chacon, "Campaign against Utes and Apaches in Southern Colorado, 1855 from the Memoirs of Major Rafael Chacon," Colorado Magazine, 11, 1934, pp. 108-112, and Morris F. Taylor, "Action at Fort Massachusetts: The Indian Campaign of 1855," Colorado Magazine, 42, 1965, pp. 292-310.

12. Taylor, ibid., p. 301.

13. Simmons, op. cit., p. 52.

14. See: Claire McMenamy, "Our Lady of Guadalupe at Conejos, Colorado," Colorado Magazine, 17, 1940, pp. 180-181.

15. Simmons, op. cit., p. 53, and see: Martin F. Hasting, "Parochial Beginnings in Colorado to 1889" (M.A. Thesis, St. Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri, 1941.)

16. See: Lorayne Ann Horka-Follick, Los Hermanos Penitentes (Los Angeles: Westernlore, 1969.)

17. No Author. "San Luis Store Celebrates Centennial," Colorado Magazine, 34, 1957, p. 256, and Simmons, op. cit., pp. 58-59. See also: Robert G. Athearn, The Coloradans (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.)

18. As related in Steinel, op. cit., pp. 37-38.

19. Simmons, op. cit., pp. 59-60. See also: Lynn Robinson Bailey, Indian Slave Trade in the Southwest: A Study of Slavetaking and Traffic of Indian Captives (Los Angeles: Westernlore, 1966) and D. Gene Combs, "Enslavement of Indians in the San Luis Valley of Colorado" (M.A. Thesis, Adams State College, Alamosa, Colorado, 1970.)

20. Simmons, op. cit., p. 60. See: The San Luis Historian, 5, No. 1, 1973, pp. 22-29.

21. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit., p. 57.

22. Simmons, op. cit., pp. 60-61, and Frank A White, La Garita (La Jara, Colorado: Cooper, 1971), pp. 21-23.

23. Robert A. Murray, pp. 32-33, and pp. 44-45. See also: Morris Taylor, "Captain William Craig and the Vigil and St. Vrain Land Grant, 1855-1870," Colorado Magazine, 45, 1968, p. 319.

24. Murray, op. cit., p. 44; and see also: LeRoy R. Hafen, "Mexican Land Grants in Colorado," Colorado Magazine, 4, 1927, pp. 81-93; Richard W. Bradfute. The Las Animas Land Grant, 1843-1900," Colorado Magazine, 47, 1970, pp. 26-43, and Jim B. Pearson, The Maxwell Land Grant (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.)

25. See: House Report 195 and Senate Report 228, 36th Congress, 1st Session, 1860, and "An Act to Confirm Certain Private Land Claims in the Territory of New Mexico," U.S. Statutes at Large, Vol. 12 (1859-63) (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1863.)

26. Murray, op. cit., p. 46.

27. Ibid., p. 45.

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008