HISTORY AND CULTURE OF THE SAN LUIS VALLEY AREA
The area comprising the SAN LUIS VALLEY and RIO GRANDE NATIONAL FOREST has a rich and colorful history.
Native American Paleo-Indian cultures, beginning with the Clovis and Folsom Complexes (11,000 years ago) were the first know inhabitants of the area. These and the following cultures of the Archaic Stage and the Ute Indians lived by hunting animals and gathering native plants found in the area.
The Spanish began exploring the San Luis area during the late 1500’s. In an attempt to get people to settle the area, Mexico established numerous land grants within the Spanish territory. In 1770, Don Juan Baustista de Anza traveled through the San Luis Valley and over Poncha Pass in attempt to crush the Comanches who threatened the Spanish settlers.
The valley remained largely unsettled until the area became the territory of the United States around 1850.
The first permanent settlement in Colorado, known as San Luis de la Culebra, was established in 1851 on the Rio Culebra River on the Sangre de Cristo Grant.
To protect the early settlers in the valley, Fort Massachusetts was established, north of San Luis, in 1852.
La Loma de San Jose, near present Del Norte, was first inhabited by Hispanic families in 1859 that left the Santa Fe area. Irrigation ditches were constructed and farms established. More extensive farming activities began in the 1880’s near Hooper and the area near Monte Vista where large-scale irrigation systems were built.
Gold and silver were discovered near Summitville in1870 which began the mining rush to the area. Other mining settlements followed at Bonanza, Creede, and along the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Del Norte, one of Colorado’s earliest cities, established in 1872, served as a supply point and gateway to the San Juan mining camps.
In 1891, an Act of Congress authorized the establishment of Timber Reserves in order to conserve the nation’s timber, range and water resources. Portions of these established reserves were combined to form the RIO GRANDE NATIONAL FOREST in 1908.
Written historical references to the Conejos River valley during the time before the 1600’s are few, but evidence of early man and later Indian tribes lies scattered throughout the Conejos Valley and the mountains beyond. Archaeological artifacts indicate that these lands were inhabited for centuries before appearance of Europeans.
The San Luis Valley and surrounding mountains was the land of the Ute Indians but was the also use by the Navajo, Apache, and Comanche, who came to trade, hunt, and raid. The nomadic lifestyle of the Utes and their visitors left little evidence of their traditional, seasonal camps. The Conejos river drainage was well known as good hunting grounds. The extensive distribution of campsites, arrowheads, stone chips and other artifacts
across the land within the Conejos Peak Ranger District attest to centuries of living.
Trails worn deep by the passage of thousand of feet persisted through time. One of the heaviest used trails passed between the Chama River Valley in New Mexico over Cumbres pass, along a route similar to that taken today by Highway 17. From Cumbres pass, the trail descended along La Manga Creek to the foothills bordering the San Luis Valley.
EXPLORATION OF THE SAN LUIS VALLEY
The vast San Luis was once a northern frontier of the Spanish Empire. During the17th and 18th centuries, occasional expeditions came from Santa Fe to the valley and surrounding mountains in exploration parties on military campaigns, and to trade. One of the most noteworthy expeditions was that of the Governor General Don Diego de Vargas, which passed through the area in 1694. Almost a century later, in the summer of 1779, Governor Baustista de Anza and his army of 600 met their Ute and Apache allies on the Conejos to proceed north on a campaign against the Comanche. This north-south route continued to be used by Spanish, French, Anglo trappers, traders, and finally, settlers, traveling between the present day New Mexico and Colorado.
In the winter of 1807, Captain Zebulon Pike and a small contingent of men were exploring the newly acquired “Louisiana Purchase” and arrived in the San Luis Valley. They build a small shelter on the Conejos River, six miles upstream from its confluence with the Rio Grande, in what was then Spanish territory. The Colorado State Historical Society has erected a dramatic log stockade on the site in commemoration of the event.
SETTLEMENT OF THE SAN LUIS VALLEY
The Conejos River region remained in the hands of the Spanish until the liberation of Mexico from Spain in 1821. The Mexican Republic attempted to settle the San Luis Valley by offering land grants to groups of people promising to settle them. The Tierra Amarilla Land Grant, encompassing some 500,000 acres of present day northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, was the second largest of the Mexican land grants. This grant was later broken into several parcels; one of these is now managed as the Banded Peak ranch and borders the Conejos Peak Ranger District on the west. The Banded Peak Ranch manages the Gramps’ Oil Field, which has produced over five million barrels of oil since its discovery in 1935. The Conejos Guadalupe Land Grant, which was comprised of portions of present day Conejos, Rio Grande, and Saguache counties, was bestowed in 1833 to a group of families from northern New Mexico. Despite the grants, Indian opposition to settlement slowed colonization of the valley. Actual settlement of these New Mexico families did not take place until the 1850’s, following the end of the Spanish-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought the San Luis Valley into the territory of the United States. By a series of treaties between 1850 and 1880 the Ute Indians of the valley were removed to the Ute Mountain, Southern Ute and Hintah reservations of western Colorado and Utah.
The earliest permanent settlement, Guadalupe, was established on the northern banks of the Conejos River near present day Conejos by a group of 50 families from
New Mexico. Utilizing irrigation waters from the Conejos River, Guadalupe thrived on farming and stock-raising. The first flour mill in Colorado was constructed in Guadalupe.
The establishment of agricultural communities by people from New Mexico continued slowly. The population of the valley soared in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s when Mormon settlers from the southern U.S. and Utah established the towns of Manassa, Sanford, and Richfield. Manassa and Sanford became prosperous agricultural communities, using irrigation waters of the Conejos River to grow barley, oats, alfalfa, and peas. The town of Manassa is also known as the birth place of Jack Dempsey, a world champion boxer.
The mining boom of the late 1800’s brought attention to upper reaches of the Conejos River, within the eastern San Juan mountains. On the edge of the prosperous Summitville mining district, sprung Platoro on the upper Conejos. Silver, and some gold was extracted from the Platoro mines but the expense of transportation from this remote region caused the decline of the mining community. During the peak of the mining activity, two roads to Platoro were built. The Le Duc and Sanchez Toll Road extended up the east bank of the Conejos River from Antonito to Platoro. Later, the Platoro Toll Road was built between Platoro and Alamosa River.
Agriculture and stock-raising, both sheep and cattle, remains the major base of the economy to this day. Increased demand for rangeland created intense conflicts which were greatly abated by the creation of the Rio Grande National Forest in 1908 and subsequent range management by the Forest Service.