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What actually is the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area?

Watch the video to find out

National Heritage Areas are places where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes. A National Heritage Area is designated by Congress and intended to encourage historic preservation and an appreciation of the history and heritage of the area. To become designated, the landscape must be a nationally unique natural, cultural, historical or scenic resource and it must be significant to the national story of the greater United States. There are currently 55 National Heritage Areas. National Heritage Areas are not National Park Service units or federally owned or managed land. National Heritage Areas are administered by either non-profit organizations, local coordinating entities or state governments. The National Park Service provides and advisory role and limited technical, planning and financial assistance. Each heritage area has its own authorizing legislation and set of resources, goals and management plan.

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Modern Agriculture and Water Management (1945-present)

As had been the case throughout the first half of the 20th century, the economy of the heritage area throughout the second half was inextricably tied to water. In the 1950s mechanized center pivot irrigation began to alter the agricultural practices of the valley. Pivot irrigation is less labor intensive, and – because it relies on water from the aquifer – more reliable. This system is based on a well being in the center of a field and an irrigation pipe mounted on wheels gradually moving in a circle around the well.

In 1936, the Bureau of Reclamation began to study the water needs of the San Luis Valley, and the results of that research led to the initiation of the San Luis Valley Project. It took more than a decade, however, for the project to get under way. The San Luis Valley Project is separated into two divisions, the Closed Basin Division and the Conejos Division. The Closed Basin Division is located north and east of Alamosa in Alamosa and Saguache Counties, with the Conejos Division south and west of Alamosa in Conejos County.

The primary feature of the San Luis Valley Project is the Platoro Dam and Reservoir, located on the Conejos River about one mile west of the small town of Platoro. The dam was built in 1949 to control floodwater and provide supplemental water to irrigate approximately 73,890 acres of land in the Conejos Water Conservancy District, 40 miles away. In the Closed Basin Division, the Closed Basin Drain salvages water from the basin via wells, pumps, laterals, and canals, and transports that water to the Rio Grande for use elsewhere.

All operations of the San Luis Valley Project are subject to the provisions of the Rio Grande Compact of 1938 regulating the development of the waters of the Rio Grande north of Fort Quitman, Texas. The compact establishes regulations concerning the quantity and quality of water delivered to the New Mexico state line. This is done through a schedule of delivery based upon the inflow and outflow of water in the San Luis Valley for the years 1928 through 1937. Under the compact, storage projects in Colorado may only store water in excess of the amount required for delivery to the New Mexico state line. If the schedule is not met, it results in a debt that must be repaid in subsequent years.

Today the crops grown within the northern portion of the heritage areas are mainly potatoes, wheat, native hay, and alfalfa with some lettuce and spinach as secondary crops. Potatoes, lettuce, and spinach are produced for the national market. Alfalfa is grown for dairy farms in New Mexico and Texas. Coors Brewing Company also purchases 60 percent of its barley from the San Luis Valley to make its beer.

Within the southern portion of the heritage area where Hispano settlement areas and agricultural traditions still dominate, the lands are primarily used for pasture. The Rio Culebra Cooperative in Costilla County represents 52 family farmers and ranchers. In addition to pastured beef, they also market chicos and two kinds of beans (bolitas and havas).

Late 19th and Early 20th-Century Agriculture and Settlement (1870-1930)

With the extension of the railroad into the San Luis Valley, an established network of feeder roads, and improvements in irrigation technology, agricultural development began to progress rapidly in the 1870s and the population of the region boomed. Practices soon shifted towards larger farms and ranches owned and operated by Anglo-American migrants who acquired much of the wealth in the valley. Many areas of the valley were opened to farming for the first time by these settlers. Other sections of the valley saw a retreat of Hispano influences. Medano Ranch, for example, was assembled gradually through the Dickey brothers’ purchase of Hispano farms. Its 130,000 acres were eventually sold in 1882 to New York investors who developed the largest cattle operation in the valley. Likewise, the large Zapata Ranch was acquired by Texas cattlemen in the 1870s. Some districts, however, particularly in the south, maintained their Hispano identities that are reflected in the landscape today.

Other small settlements were established throughout the San Luis Valley through land speculation associated with the railroad and agricultural development. These platted rail towns, or “New Towns” as they were called, included Mosca, Mesitas, Blanca, New San Acacio, Jaroso, Antonito, and Romeo. For instance, Mosca was established in 1881 through the Mosca Land and Farm Company to provide land for tenant farmers. Blanca was established in 1908 by the San Luis Valley Land Company and incorporated in 1910. New San Acacio and Mesitas were both developed by the Costilla Estate Development Company in the early 1900s. The Seventh Day Adventist Church established a colony at Jarosa with a cooperative farm in 1914 after a San Luis Southern Railroad depot was built there in 1910. Romeo was platted in 1901 by Zeph Felt, a land developer from Denver.

Mineral speculation led to the development of mining towns in the San Juan Mountains. Platoro, taking its name from silver and gold ore, was established in the 1880s. Although the gold rush primarily targeted the San Juan Mountains farther to the north and west, those mining camps and settlements created tremendous demands for food that farmers and ranchers in the San Luis Valley were well positioned to satisfy.

Lettuce, spinach, peas, and cauliflower were important vegetable crops being shipped from the valley; barley, beans, oats, and hay were also produced extensively. Cattle and sheep raising also grew to be important industries. Entrepreneurs soon established mills, warehouses, and other types of facilities related to the logistics of moving, storing, and processing agricultural products. Because of the great distance between the San Luis Valley and urban markets, farmers needed to pack the most perishable vegetable in ice to reduce spoilage. Doing so required the construction of packing sheds, ice houses, and crate-making facilities. As commercial potato production also increased during the first half of the 20th century. Hispano farmers constructed soterranos, or large underground cellars, which helped to maintain even temperatures and keep the potatoes from freezing. Anglo farmers adopted these Hispano construction techniques and build above-ground storage facilities made of double-wall adobe.

Cheap and abundant labor was needed to work these farms, and farmers began to hire local Hispano-Americans and immigrants from Mexico as day laborers as the vegetable industry expanded. These workers built small adobe homes near the towns where they worked. In 1909 the Costilla Estate Development Company encouraged Japanese, who wished to emigrate from California, to work the farms on the estate. Some came as tenant farmers, while others moved into a cooperative colony called Culebra Village. These Japanese farmers perfected the practice of truck farming in the San Luis Valley, specializing in cool weather crops like spinach, lettuce, cauliflower, and broccoli that were well suited to the valley’s cool summers. Many settled in the area of Jaroso and San Acacio and around Blanca and Fort Garland. Within a decade they expanded their agricultural land holdings from 53 acres in 1919 to more than 10,000 acres.

Other ethnic and religious groups also played a role in the settlement of the valley. In 1879 Mormon settlers seeking religious freedom established the town of Manassa. In their surrounding fields the Mormons grew wheat, field peas, oats, and alfalfa. Eventually they went on to establish Morgan and Sanford.

In 1876 T.C. Henry and his Colorado Loan and Trust Company created demonstration farms to lure land speculators and participated in the construction of the Rio Grande, San Luis, Monte Vista, and Empire canals, all in the western portion of the valley. Although Henry and his investors were not successful, farmers benefited from the construction of these irrigation systems and eventually came to control them through local cooperatives. Artesian wells were drilled to tap the underground aquifer beginning in 1887. Within the next decade about three thousand were drilled.

These important changes in the scale and technology of irrigation greatly expanded the number of arable acres in the valley. These changes also influenced the distribution of wealth. Traditional acequias were restricted to short laterals that served nearby bottomlands. The new ditches reached higher benches and the artesian wells watered lands wherever drilling succeeded.

After the financial panic of 1893, agricultural prices dropped and coincidentally a severe drought began. Irrigation canals dried up, except for the Rio Grande Canal, which took almost the entire flow. During this period of depression, many farms failed and farmers fled the valley in search of more reliable sources of water. Several of the small communities disappeared.

During the early 1900s too much water became the problem, as irrigated lands near Mosca and Hooper became waterlogged and alkaline. The result was widespread abandonment of more than 300,000 acres in the valley’s center between 1890 and 1920. Smaller scale versions of the problem appeared elsewhere in the valley.

The longest dry spell recorded in Colorado’s history spanned the entire decade of the 1930s. With the land already stressed ecologically, and the Great Depression further crippling much of the region, the agricultural market plummeted. Many farmers simply abandoned their holdings and left the area, leading to further attrition of communities.

Trails, Roads, and Railroads (1820-1945)

Since the late 16th century the Rio Grande corridor through the San Luis Valley had been a known travel route used by early Spanish explorers to access the northern reaches of their colony. By the early 18th century, such routes, most likely adapted from Indian trails, were well established and frequently used by explorers, traders, and military expeditions. By the 19th century, several of these routes were improved as wagon roads, either by toll road builders or government road builders.

Old Spanish Trail and Taos Trail
The two most important early routes included the Spanish Trail and the Taos Trail. The route now known as the Old Spanish Trail actually consisted of a network of trails that passed through six western states. Through time the trails evolved into established trade routes that linked the villages of northern New Mexico to Los Angeles. The “North Branch” of the Old Spanish Trail carried traffic through the San Luis Valley. It is believed there were several routes that comprised this Northern Branch, both to the east and west of the Rio Grande. The eastern route travelled past Costilla, New Mexico, on its way to San Luis, Fort Garland, and Crestone before turning westward over the San Juan Mountains at Cochetopa Pass. Today Route 159 essentially follows this historic route as far north as Fort Garland. The western route, which is still under investigation, may have connected Ojo Caliente, New Mexico, with Conejos and Monte Vista before heading north over Cochetopa Pass.
In 1821 when Mexico gained its independence, the focus of trade shifted east. The Santa Fe Trail was established as a major overland trade route linking Franklin, Missouri with Santa Fe, and opened up much of southeastern Colorado to settlement. While the main route of the Santa Fe Trail passed east of the Sangre de Cristo range, the Taos Trail (or Trappers Trail as it was known), linked Taos, New Mexico. and the San Luis Valley to the Santa Fe Trail via Sangre de Cristo Pass, continuing northward toward Pueblo, Colorado, and Laramie, Wyoming. Its alignment generally followed that of the Old Spanish Trail towards Fort Garland before heading eastward along the Sangre de Cristo Creek.

Ferry Permits
When Colorado gained territorial status in 1861, the development of transportation infrastructure quickly accelerated. In that same year, two ferry permits were granted to cross the Rio Grande. One was located near the juncture of Trinchera Creek (Stewart’s Crossing), which connected Conejos with Fort Garland, and the other near the Piñon Hills which connected Conejos with Costilla. Bridges soon followed, to include one near the juncture of Rio Culebra. These locations continue to serve as major crossings today.

Toll Roads
Several toll roads were also constructed throughout the San Luis Valley during the latter half of the 19th century. Some of the most significant included a toll road was built by the Denver and San Luis Valley Wagon Road Company in the late 1860s to operate between Denver and the valley. This line crossed South Park and Poncha Pass and ran through the San Luis Valley on the Conejos Road as far as the New Mexico border. Otto Mears, a Russian immigrant turned entrepreneur, funded toll roads across Poncha Pass in 1867 and Cochetopa Pass in 1871, thereby opening up a route over the San Juan Mountains to the west. Entrance to the San Luis Valley from the east continued with Sangre de Cristo Pass Wagon Road, chartered in 1864, which essentially followed the Taos Trail.

Stage Lines
Stage lines were also established on the Taos Trail and on the Santa Fe Trail. The principal need was for transportation of people, but almost as important was the transport of freight and mail, which constituted a large part of the profit for the stage companies. In 1866, mail to the San Luis Valley traveled from Pueblo over Sangre de Cristo Pass and entered the San Luis Valley at Fort Garland, then south to San Luis, Costilla, and on to Santa Fe (Scott, 4): the stages traveled as rapidly as the drivers could get the horses or mules to run. Teams were changed about every 10 to 15 miles at stations where extra stock was kept in order to provide rested and vigorous animals that could maintain the schedules. These stations were called “swing” stations but they provided little comfort to the passengers, as stops were only long enough to provide for the changing of the teams. About every fourth station was equipped with a kitchen and dining room so that the passengers could take meals along the routes. These stations were called “home” stations. Some of them had beds, but generally the stages did not stop for the night and the passengers had to sleep in the coaches as they traveled through the night. Because of the sparseness of trees along the stage routes, many of the stations were simply dugouts along the banks of streams or some stations were made of adobe or, rarely, of logs or lumber (Scott, 3).

Railroad Development
At the close of the Civil War, railroad development quickly marched westward. In 1870 William Jackson Palmer, a construction engineer with Kansas Pacific, filed for the incorporation of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG). Believing that a rail line from Denver to New Mexico and El Paso would be a lucrative investment, the D&RG utilized narrow-gauge tracks with only three feet between rails to negotiate the sharp, steep curves of the Rocky Mountains. Starting in Denver, the line reached Colorado Springs in 1872 and Pueblo by 1873. By 1876 it had reached La Veta Pass, and a year later Garland City sprung up as a temporary end-of-track town that lasted only until the D&RG reached the Rio Grande in 1878, where Alamosa eventually grew up around its shop and roundhouse.

Originally called Rio Bravo, the town was platted as the Alamosa Town Company by A.C. Hunt in May 1878, only two months before the railroad reached it. Anglo-American settlement and speculation soon followed. Alamosa quickly became the commercial center of the valley as banks, mills, stores, and other businesses located there. By the 1880s it had added two newspapers, a school, and a Presbyterian church.

The D&RG continued to lay track southward, eventually linking Alamosa to Santa Fe, and westward to Chama, New Mexico, via a San Juan extension from Antonito. This latter line opened up the Colorado towns of Durango and Silverton, both important mining towns. Antonito, which was built about a mile south of Conejos in 1880, became the principal community in the southern portion of the county. Antonito soon became a bustling settlement with its own railroad depot, a section house, a bunkhouse, a sawmill, numerous saloons and gambling houses, a hotel, a newspaper, stores, and three churches.

The economic downtown of 1893 and recession that followed discouraged further railroad development within the valley for almost two decades. The next railroads to be built were agricultural feeder lines to meet the needs of the growing farming communities. These included the San Luis Southern, later called the San Luis Valley Southern. This line operated between Blanca and agricultural areas developed on the Costilla Estate, and was completed in 1910. An extension was eventually built through Mesita to Jaroso. The other line was the San Luis Central, built from Monte Vista to Center in 1913. It primarily hauled sugar beets, lettuce, and other produce from the agricultural center of the valley to the D&RG tracks at Monte Vista. The San Luis Central still operates seasonally, but the other line’s rails were removed in 1958 with the exception of a mile and half of track between the D&RG and a shipping facility at Blanca.

Eventually the southern line (nicknamed the “Chili Line”) between Antonito and Santa Fe lost out to competition from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF), a major competitor of the D&RG, and it was dismantled in the 1940s. The Cumbres Pass line to Chama continued to serve local passengers until 1951. In the early 1970s, in order to save it from being dismantled, Colorado and New Mexico cooperated in jointly purchasing the line and leasing it as a tourist attraction.

Early Farming and Ranching (1840-1870)

The early Hispano settlers of the San Luis Valley were primarily poor subsistence farmers and herdsmen who brought with them from New Mexico their food culture, seeds, and traditions of farming and ranching. They spun and wove fabric for clothing, bedding, and rugs from the wool of their own sheep and goats. They also raised some cattle, hogs, and chicken but relied mainly on a vegetarian diet. Their crops consisted chiefly of maiz blanco (white corn), cebolla (onion), aberjon (field peas), calavaza (pumpkin), manzana de agosto (apples), ciruelo de indio (plums), wheat, papa (potatoes), havas (fava beans), and chile peppers.

Indigenous plants were used for both food and medicine, and among others included plumajillo (yarrow) for colds and dysentery, garlic for constipation, chamiso hediondo (sagebrush) for flu and pneumonia, oregano for pain in lungs, osha (lovage) as an antiseptic, poleo (brook mint) for toothache, and romero (rosemary) for arthritis. Agricultural practices also followed Mexican traditions, such as use of oxen plows and acequias. Stock was raised on vegas, or common pastures. Cercas (fenced gardens) and roof farming were also practiced, as were many of the communal and religious traditions such as Saints’ days, fiestas, and Mexican fandangos.
Food preservation became a highly developed art and custom. Fruits, vegetables, meat, and chilies were carefully dried to last through the winter. These were transformed into jerky, chicos (green corn roasted in a traditional oven, dried, and shucked by hand), and cured and dried elk meat.

American Exploration and Military Conflict

The first U.S. military post in the San Luis Valley was Fort Massachusetts. It was authorized in 1852 to provide protection from Ute raids and promote settlement with the valley. Located just south of Blanca Peak off Sangre de Cristo Pass, the fort saw some action as the cavalry based there engaged in battles with the Utes and Jicarilla Apache. Abandoned in 1858 due to isolation and poor drainage, it was replaced by Fort Garland, six miles farther south.

Built by many local Rio Culebra settlers, who served as laborers, Fort Garland was built of adobe. Named after John Garland, commander of the New Mexico Territory at Fort Union at the time, it eventually contained 22 buildings. The fort’s south entrance was framed on either side by company quarters. Cavalry and infantry barracks surrounded a central parade ground on the east and west. Officer’s Row aligned the north side. Additional buildings included a commissary, stables complex, hospital, ice house, and workers’ quarters.

Army operations based out of Fort Garland covered much of Colorado. Troops participated in rescue missions and participated in many punitive expeditions against the Utes.

Between 1866 and 1868 the post was under the command of Kit Carson, famed for his explorations of the West.

In the 1860s several treaties were negotiated with the Utes to remove them from the San Luis Valley and relocate them to reservation lands in western and southwestern Colorado. Hostilities continued, and eventually the treaties were modified to reduce the reservation land and completely remove the Utes from the entire state except a small corner in the southwest. In 1881, all of the northern bands and the Uncompahgres were sent to a reservation in Utah. After removal of the Utes, Fort Garland was abandoned when soldiers were ordered to relocate to Fort Lewis across the San Juan Mountains to the west.

Between the close of the Mexican American War and 1861, the San Luis Valley had been situated within the New Mexico Territory. On February 26, the Territory of Colorado was established by Congress with its boundaries almost identical to today’s state line. The exception was the southern boundary, which was drawn along the 37th parallel, almost but not quite where the state line lies today. Counties were established soon after. Costilla County occupied the eastern and northern portions of the valley with San Luis as its county seat, whereas Guadalupe County encompassed the western side north to the Rio Grande. Seven days later its name was changed to Conejos County with its county seat bearing the same name. It was not until 1913 that Alamosa County was carved from portions of Conejos and Costilla counties.

Early Hispano Settlement

As the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo promised to respect the language, religion, and property of the Mexican people within this newly acquired territory, settlement of the San Luis Valley finally began. However, the United States did not automatically reassert the Mexican land grants and the original grantees were required to petition their claim – a process that took several years and ended with mixed results. Despite this uncertainty, the first recognized permanent settlements in what is now Colorado were established within the Sangre de Cristo Grant along the Rio Culebra. These include Plaza de los Manzanares (now present-day Garcia) in 1849, San Luis in 1851 (recognized as the oldest continually occupied settlement in Colorado), and San Pedro in 1852. Additional early settlements in the Rio Culebra valley include San Pablo (1853), San Acacio (1856), and San Francisco, or La Valley (1855).

It was just south of San Luis that the settlers first constructed several acequias (irrigation ditches) to distribute water from the Rio Culebra to their fields. The San Luis Peoples Ditch #1, which was constructed in 1851, is the first recorded water right in Colorado. Other ditches followed: the San Pedro Ditch and Acequia Madre Ditch, also in 1852, the Montez Ditch (1853), the Vallejos and Manzanares Ditch (1854), and the Acequiacita Ditch (1855).

The Rio Culebra settlers laid out their farms in varas, long narrow strips. They ranged anywhere from 55 feet to one thousand feet long, depending upon the size and importance of the families receiving the plots. East of San Luis, a vega, or communal pasture, of nearly 900 acres was given to the families.

It was not until 1854 that Indian hostilities ceased and permanent settlements were allowed to establish within the Conejos Grant. In the fall of that year Jose Maria Jacques together with Lafayette Head and more than 50 other families from Abiquiu and El Llanito began the settlement of Guadalupe, near the present town of Conejos. It was here that they built Colorado’s first church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and helped establish the first and oldest Catholic parish. Here each family was also allotted a long, narrow strip of land for cultivation. These long plots extended from the river for irrigation to the foothills and mountains for pasture and timber land, but measured only about 500 feet wide. They eventually filled most of the irrigable land between the San Antonio River and La Jara Creek. As stipulated in the proclamation, pastures and watering places would be held in common, and roads in and out of town would be public.

Additional settlements of Servilleta and Mogote followed in 1854, and two irrigation ditches, the Guadalupe Main Ditch and the Mills Head Ditch, were built in 1855. Others followed on all of the neighboring tributaries. By 1855 there were 11 ditches bringing water from the valley’s rivers to the fields. By 1857 nine more were added.

As time passed, settlement spread northward. La Garita and La Loma (near present-day Del Norte) were settled in 1858 and 1859. Across the valley, Zapata was settled in 1864 at the western base of Sierra Blanca. By the early 1860s these Hispano settlers had transformed the valley into an area typical of rural northern New Mexico with architectural styles and settlement patterns following in the tradition of Spanish and Mexican villages.

Each settlement typically was established near a creek and built around a central plaza or square, with corrilleras or linear arrangements of contiguous homes facing each other along a road. These corrilleras were separate from the plazas. Less formally clustered placitas (places – originally a diminutive for plaza) also appeared in some settings operating as an informal hamlet containing a few families. Settlement continued in this tradition: Some of the new settlements on the valley’s grants continued to be made by people from New Mexico. On the west side, between the Alamosa and La Jara Rivers, Capulin, meaning “chokecherry” was established in 1867 by people from Ojo Caliente, and La Jara was settled on the south side of the latter stream at about the same time. Plazas around La Loma expanded to the north, while Ortiz and San Antonio began to prosper in the corner of the valley south of Conejos. To the east, Ojito on Trinchera Creek and to the north Rito Alto appeared. Nearly every stream with the San Luis Valley had at least one settlement of Spanish-speaking people.

Beside the living quarters, a compound usually contained other farm related structures like barns, sheds, granaries, walls, fences, corrals, storage facilities and shelters. The earliest structures were jacales, which were built of vertical logs plastered with mud, and typically replaced by more permanent adobe built low to the ground. Religious structures included churches and moradas, a Penitente meeting house, and cemeteries.

In 1860 Congress confirmed the Sangre de Cristo Grant, but adjudication of the Conejos Grant was held up by the surveyor general of New Mexico. Documents regarding the grant were not received in Colorado until 1867, six years after the new territory was created. It was 1900 before the Court of Private Land Claims heard the arguments and dismissed the petition on the grounds that no evidence of the original 1833 grant existed, and that the governor of New Mexico had expressed doubt regarding his own authority to grant possession. As a result, many of the early settlers of the Conejos Grant eventually lost their land when it was opened for homesteading.

Following the Homestead Act of 1862, new settlements within the valley conformed to the township, range, and section pattern of development, with farmsteads being partitioned on a 160-acre grid.

Mexican Land Grants and Disputed Territory–1830-1848

In order to promote settlement, reward patrons of the government, and create a buffer zone to separate hostile Indians from the more populated regions of New Mexico, Spain (and later Mexico) made land grants to individuals, towns, and groups throughout its northern frontier lands. The number of grants made between the end of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century total about 295.

The first land grants in present-day Colorado were executed during the era or Mexican rule in the 1830s:

The Conejos Grant boundaries covered most of present-day Conejos and Rio Grande counties. It was described as “extending north to La Garita Mountains, east to the Rio Grande, south to San Antonio Peak, and west to Sierra Montosa.” The Conejos Grant was originally made not to an individual but rather to a group of 50 families on the condition that they affect a settlement on the grant. However, Indian hostility prevented them from beginning any attempts to settle the land until 1842, when the original grantees and their heirs petitioned for the grant to be revalidated. Since the original paperwork could not be located, a new grant, in the names of Julian Gallegos and Antonio Martines, was made to 84 families from Taos, El Rito, Rio Arriba, Rio Colorado, Abiquiu, and other villages in northern New Mexico. This reinstatement of the grant, however, did not abate the Indian attacks and settlement stalled for several more years.

The Sangre de Cristo Grant, located in present-day Costilla County, was granted to Narciso Beaubien and Stephen Luis Lee in 1843. The Sangre de Cristo Grant began “one Spanish league above the mouth of Trinchera Creek, from which point the boundary ran straight northeast to the summit of ‘Sierra Madre,’ or Blanca Peak. From there the boundary followed the spine of the Sangre de Cristos southward along the Culebra Range to take in the headwaters of Costilla Creek and then ran generally northwest to meet the Rio Grande”. No settlement, however, was attempted until 1848.

1836-Beginning with the Texas Revolution in 1836, lands to the east of the Rio Grande were claimed by the Republic of Texas when it declared its independence from Mexico. This boundary was disputed by Mexico, which recognized the Nueces River farther to the east as the dividing line. Texas was never able to effectively control the region.

1845- The United States annexed the Republic of Texas in 1845 as the 28th state in the Union.

1846- The contested territory became a trigger for the Mexican American War, which began on May 13, 1846.

1848- Mexican American War ended on February 2, 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This treaty provided for the Mexican cession of more than 500,000 square miles in exchange for 15 million dollars. The ceded lands included all of present-day California, Nevada, and Utah as well as most of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado (west of the Rio Grande). Mexico also relinquished all claims to Texas and recognized the Lower Rio Grande as the southern boundary of the United States, placing the entire San Luis Valley firmly under the undisputed control of the United States.

Trading and Trapping–1803-1880

1803–Trappers came to the San Luis Valley shortly after the United States purchased Louisiana from France in 1803. The San Luis Valley was still officially under the control of Spain, which considered trapping for trade illegal. Traded goods mostly consisted of beaver pelts and buffalo hides.

1807–Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike led an expedition to explore the western portion of the Louisiana Territory, whose boundaries, which were understood to be the upper reaches of the Arkansas River Valley, were still being contested. In January 1807, he crossed over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains via Medano Pass and recorded his famous observations of the San Luis Valley – the first American to do so. He was apprehended shortly thereafter by the Spanish at a stockade camp on the Conejos River, and later released.

1821–After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, American trade with Santa Fe increased substantially. Much of this eastern trade came by way of the Santa Fe Trail, which linked Santa Fe with Missouri. While this trail passed far east of the San Luis Valley, a cutoff route utilized by trappers and other travelers going to Taos (the Taos Trail) cut through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and then turned south through the east side of the San Luis Valley along Sangre de Cristo Creek. Trappers based in Taos ranged throughout the San Luis Valley, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and rivers along the Front Range, and worked in this region from the 1820s through 1840. While temporary settlements and trading posts were likely established in the valley, no known record of these sites remains.

Spanish Exploration LONG

During the period of 1580-1594, there were several Spanish expeditions into northern New Mexico and the San Luis Valley – mostly to look for gold. In late April 1598, Juan de Oñate took possession of New Mexico, claiming all land drained by the Rio Grande for Phillip II of Spain.

In 1694, Diego de Vargas, having defeated the Pueblo Indians and restored Spanish possession of Santa Fe, brought an expedition into the San Luis Valley, travelling north to the Rio Culebra and then south to Costilla Creek.

Other expeditions were conducted throughout the region during the mid-1700s.

* Governor Manuel de Portillo led an expedition into the San Luis Valley in 1761

* Juan Maria de Rivera set out in 1765 to search the mountains of southwest Colorado for minerals. The party entered the area by way of the Rio Chama, the route that became known as the Spanish Trail. They returned along the Gunnison River, across Cochetopa Pass, and through the San Luis Valley.

* A military expedition organized by Governor Juan Bautista de Anza also travelled north through the San Luis Valley in 1779 to wage a battle against the Comanche.

*Individual Spaniards also made trips into the San Luis Valley to trade with the Utes and to hunt deer.

Spanish exploration into southern Colorado followed two primary routes:

The San Luis Valley route was followed either along the mountains on the west side of the valley by travelers coming north from Santa Fe or along the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the east side of the valley. The Rio Grande Gorge dictated this division of routes. The eastern route along the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was popular, and much traffic turned east at the base of Mount Blanca to cross the mountains via Mosca Pass. The western route followed just to the east of the San Juan Mountains and took a northeast arch toward Cochetopa Pass or, curving northeastward, followed a route over Poncha Pass through South Pass and Ute Pass to the Great Plains.

While the Spanish presence within the San Luis Valley was certainly felt by the Utes and other indigenous tribes they encountered, they left little evidence of their adventures. While outposts and forts were located at Sangre de Cristo Pass and other sites in the San Luis Valley, their detailed locations are unknown and no traces of these features have been found. Explorers traveled light and left little. Spanish dominance ended in the region in 1821 with the Mexican Revolution, and in 1822 the Mexican government opened its borders for trade with Santa Fe.

Historic Period: Exploration and Settlement Around 1300 AD

The Ute Tribes had occupied the Great Basin of Utah and traveled into western Colorado by at least 1400AD, and maybe as early as 1100AD in search of better hunting, which they found as they moved eastward into the mountain areas of Colorado.

Utes traveled in smaller family groups but also belonged to larger tribes. While various members of the southern tribes visited the San Luis Valley from time to time, the Capotes most often frequented the southwestern part of the San Luis Valley. The Moaches frequented the eastern portion, and the Tabeguache band entered through the western side by the 1800s. Both the Moache and Capote were in and out of the San Luis Valley, but it was the Tabeguache or Uncompahgre band who claimed the valley as their territory.

When the Utes first came to this area they had no horses, did not practice farming, and they fashioned their tools and weapons from stone. The Utes were primarily small game hunters and gatherers, collecting piñon nuts, roots, seeds, and grass. Much of their game included rabbit, antelope, deer, mud hens, and fish, as well as snakes, lizards, and insects. Each family unit hunted in a certain area. When winter approached and game became scarce, the Utes were forced to migrate to warmer areas such as Pagosa Springs or along the Gunnison and Uncompahgre rivers between Montrose and Grand Junction farther to the west. Several routes were regularly used during these migrations, including Poncha Pass and Cochetopa (or Buffalo) Pass. Mosca Pass was used often, as well as Medano Pass, to gain access to Wet Mountain Valley. Wolf Creek and Cumbres Pass led the Utes in and out of the southwest country as did Rock Creek. Campsites and rock art remain along these routes as evidence of their passage.

When spring came the Utes would gather for their ceremonial bear dance and social activities before moving out in small family groups again for summer living. When danger threatened from the Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Comanches, Kiowas, Sioux, or Pawnees (who also used the valley for
seasonal hunting), the Ute families grouped together for defense.

The Spanish first arrived between 1630 and 1640 and their arrival changed things for the tribes. First encounters were peaceful and trading flourished. The Utes traded meat and hides for trade goods from the Spanish, but above all they bartered for the horse. With the use of the horse and faster mobility the Utes’ hunting grounds spread over the mountains to the east where they found the buffalo in plentiful numbers. Now they had a resource that provided them with tepee covers, blankets, sinew thread, bowstrings, horn glue, skin bags, moccasins and more meat than they had ever known. The horse also allowed them to invade and withdraw quickly and they become more warlike and aggressive while defending their lands from the influx of traders, trappers and settlers.

In the 1830s, Anglo-American trading forts were constructed in northern and western Colorado, and the Utes’ relationship with New Mexico began to deteriorate. Indian conflict in the valley came to an end when Chief Ouray made a treaty with the United States in 1868, after which the Utes were moved to a reservation in western Colorado.

Upper Rio Grande People: Archaic Period (5500-500 AD) LONG

There was a shift in environmental conditions that caused prehistoric people to adapt to hunting small game and diversify their sustenance to include wild plant species, such as piñon nuts, wild grasses, and sagebrush leaves. Although not formally recognized as a discrete culture, the Upper Rio Grande People were migratory hunters and gatherers who had no pottery and appear to have raised no crops. They hunted rabbit, deer, antelope and buffalo with points that were crudely carved from black and gray volcanic stone. Dwellings were temporary camps and shelters made of rock. While dating has not been defined, evidence indicates these people were moving up and down the Rio Grande for sometime before year zero and left extensive artifacts, indicating larger groups and longer occupancy. However, there is still no evidence to indicate permanent settlements.

Pueblo Indian Influences: Formative Period LONG

The Formative Period is distinguished from the earlier prehistoric periods by the presence of agriculture or similar subsistence farming. Within the mountain region of central Colorado, however, there is little evidence to suggest that prehistoric peoples were practicing a sedentary lifestyle. Artifacts such as pottery and definitive point styles suggest that the Ancestral Puebloans (11,300 AD) from southwestern Colorado, who practiced agriculture and lived in villages, did penetrate into the San Luis Valley and Rio Grande National Forest, but most likely only for hunting or trade expeditions.

Of the San Luis Valley, the Tewa Indians who now live in pueblos north of Santa Fe, tell legends about Sip’ophe (a sacred lake where people emerge into this world from the underworld, and where spirits of the dead return) as being a small brackish lake near the sand dunes. Several artifacts have been found near the sand dunes and San Luis Lakes, such as ceramics that are associated with formative Pueblo cultures along the Rio Grande, some dating to 700-1400 AD. Pueblo Indians were also attracted to the San Luis Valley for turquoise, a material they especially prized. The King Mine near Manassa is believed to be the oldest known prehistoric turquoise mine in North America.

Despite this evidence of Pueblo contact and knowledge of the San Luis Valley, no evidence of permanent dwellings has been found. During this entire development period, nomadic hunters came from spring to fall, seeking the bountiful game and wildfowl. From evidence found at camp sites it is apparent that three approaches into the valley were used by the Pueblo Indians. The one traveled most often was north from Taos, along the east side of the Rio Grande into the Great Sand Dunes area.

Folsom Man: Paleoindian Period (10,000-5500 BC) long

Paleoindian nomadic people, known as Folsom Man, survived by hunting now extinct large game species such as mammoth and bison, and smaller game species, using stone tools. Bones of extinct bison and mammoth have been excavated in the area in recent years, and stone tools belonging to Folsom Man. The first discovery of Folsom artifacts were found in the vicinity of Great Sand Dunes. Important Folsom sites in the heritage area include: the Linger Folsom site, a bison kill site; The Zapata site, a temporary camp site most likely associated with a bison kill event; and Stewart’s Cattle Guard site, a short-term bison kill and processing site.

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