Conejos County (Extended Information)

Conejos offers heritage tourists experiences such as a visit to the oldest parish in Colorado, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a scenic ride on the historic Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Public lands make up two-thirds of the county’s area providing countless recreational opportunities.

Conejos, meaning rabbits in Spanish, is located in south-central Colorado. The eastern half is bounded by the Rio Grande and is part of the San Luis Valley and reaches south to the New Mexico border

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe

The eastern half rises up over foothills to the mountains of the Continental Divide on the west. Conejos County was created in 1861 as an original county under the name of Guadalupe. The name was changed to Conejos in 1869.

Volcanoes and Water

Volcanic activity deposited an abundance of gold and silver bearing solutions in the multiple calderas of the Valley. These volcanic / mining centers include Platoro Caldera in Conejos County.

The explosive eruptions that formed the calderas, also deposited obsidian layers utilized by the early Native Americans. These eruptions covered vast regions with volcanic ash. Erosional remnants of these volcanic flows make up the San Luis Hills and the Piñon Hills in Conejos County.

The volcanic activity continued off and on for over 20 million years, with the last stages producing numerous cinder cones that have been mined in both Conejos and Costilla counties as a supply for decorative and landscaping materials.

About 10 million years ago the final stages of volcanism overlapped with a period of faulting and down dropping causing mineral deposits such as turquoise found at the King Turquoise Mine.

The Rio Grande begins at the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains NW of the San Luis Valley, and enters the SdCNHA in western Alamosa County where it turns southward to form the border between Conejos and Costilla counties.

Fishing is a popular sport in winter and summer with numerous lakes and reservoirs open to the public. The beautiful Conejos River, running through the southwest section of the Rio Grande National Forest is labeled a “gold medal” fishery with excellent rainbow trout fishing. Additionally, there are other cold mountain streams noted for Rio Grande cutthroats, brook trout as well as lakes for bass and blue gill fishing.

The Conejos Land Grant

Acequia San Antonio 1855. Water right still belongs to original land: Photo courtesy Julie Gallegos

Land holdings by Hispanos stemmed from Roman and Spanish traditions that were transferred to the New World. Correspondingly, New Mexico was established by granting land to settlers who would build and protect a colony. These traditions were often abused and were modified through time.

From the Spanish Period (1598-1821) to the Mexican Period (1821-1846), land grants kept New Mexico populated, creating a micro-economy based on raising livestock. As American and French interests started to venture into the New Mexico Territory, the government granted large land tracts in the San Luis Valley to New Mexicans who would brave Ute and Apache attack. One of these grants was the Conejos Land Grant awarded in 1833.

The Conejos Land Grant was bound on the north by La Loma de La Garita, on the east by the Rio Grande, on the south by El Cerro San Antonio, and on the west by La Sierra Montosa.

There were about 80 families living on the original land grant that planted crops and dug out acequias (gravity fed irrigation systems). However, they did not stay because of the hostile environment.

In 1848, at the end of the Mexican war, the United States acquired the New Mexico Territory (part of which is now Conejos County). Jose Martinez, Antonio Martinez, Julian Gallegos, and Seledon Valdez petitioned to reassert their claim of the Conejos/ Guadalupe Land Grant for over 2.5 million acres. The claim was upheld by Mexico’s prefect and stipulated that the land shall be cultivated and never abandoned and that the pastures and watering places should be held in common for all the inhabitants.

Due to U.S. military protection from Native Americans, Nuevo Mexicanos began to migrate into the fork of the San Antonio and Conejos Rivers, as their renewed agreement mandated. Julian Gallegos, an original grant petitioner, filed a petition with then Colorado Governor Charles Bent to reaffirm the grant with the United States. Unfortunately, Governor Bent did not act upon the claim. In 1900, the Court of Private Land Claims heard the arguments and believing that the original grantees had not complied with the tenets of the Conejos Grant in its entirety, the court chose not to honor the claim.

Conejos County and the Greater San Luis Valley

Settlers from New Mexico had moved about the Conejos River for a number of years, so that when the Conejos Land Grant was settled, there had already been a long established vernacular description of the area. When the grantees arrived on the land they found the soil to be rich and fertile, prairie lands covered with grasses and plenty of water flowing through the Conejos and San Antonio Rivers. Nuevo Mexicanos from the Chama Valley (located at the western end of New Mexico), who settled the Conejos Grant, brought with them their family traditions and religious customs.

Hispanos were devout Catholics. They brought with them their faith and religious practices that were embodied in their everyday activities and ritual. Before churches were erected, clergy from northern New Mexico held mass and administered the sacraments of the church at private chapels referred to as oratorios. The first church built in the valley was Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the village of Conejos. The church was made of adobe brick and had a tampered earthen floor. Bishop Lamy of Santa Fe dedicated the Church on December 13, 1863.

Their well-established and accomplished farming techniques were well suited to the rich farmland and climate of the area. By 1930 the southern part of the valley had eleven packing houses.  These farmers located their warehouses and packing sheds along railroad spurs, where produce was easily shipped to the southern and mid-western United States.

The U.S. Military: Pike’s Stockade

Pike Stockade, reconstructed: Photo courtesy Julie Gallegos

Pike Stockade, reconstructed: Photo courtesy Julie Gallegos

Contact between Anglo and Hispano cultures in the San Luis Valley occurred long before the arrival of the railroad. In February of 1806, Lt. Zebulon Pike and his exploration party were discovered by Spanish scouts at the stockade they had constructed on the Conejos River, and were commanded to return to Santa Fe. Though only occupied for about two months, its the first official ofrt in the region.

Pike’s orders included finding the source of the Arkansas River and locate the headwaters of the Red River.

Unfortunately, Pike had mistaken the Conejos River, which was on Spanish soil, for the Red River.

Railroad

Completed in 1881, the narrow-gauge San Juan Extension of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway  stretched from Alamosa and through Conejos County, wound its way through the San Juan Mountains to Chama New Mexico. The line survives today as the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

As the railroad gained importance, Antonito became a hub of activity, attracting people from the Town of Conejos, NW of Antonito.

Sociedad Protección Mutua de Trabajadores Unidos (the Society for the Mutual Protection of United Workers)

Large-scale commercial agricultural/ranching operations sprang up during the late 1800’s changing the agropastural culture to a cash and wage labor economy that solidified with the coming of the railroad. Once the cash economy and dependence of wage labor took hold in the valley, Hispanos experienced discrimination as wage earners. Pobladores who owned substantial sheep and cattle also experienced discrimination as they tried to participate in the larger agricultural/ ranching economy of the valley. Spanish speaking laborers formed a labor union, Sociedad Protección Mutua de Trabajadores Unidos (the Society for the Mutual Protection of United Workers or S.P.M.D.T.U.), to address discriminatory practices and racism against Hispanos in the region. The first S.P.M.D.T.U. was organized in the town of Antonito in 1900 as an officially recognized corporation by the State of Colorado. The organization garnered a large membership then formed local chapters that were located in the various towns and villages throughout the valley. The society eventually spread to New Mexico and Utah (Mead 1984:51). Like the members of La Hermandad, members of the S.P.M.D.T.U. referred to each other as brothers and provided both emotional and financial support to one another, particularly low cost insurance.

Religion

Hispanos were devout Catholics. They brought with them their faith and religious practices that were embodied in their everyday activities and ritual. Before churches were erected, clergy from northern New Mexico held mass and administered the sacraments of the church at private chapels referred to as oratorios. The first church built in the valley was Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the village of Conejos. The church was made of adobe brick and had a tampered earthen floor. Bishop Lamy of Santa Fe dedicated the Church on December 13, 1863.

Early Churches of the San Luis Valley Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church is considered the oldest church in Colorado, established in Conejos in 1856. The first settlers into the area were from New Mexico, primarily from Abiquiu, San Juan de los Caballeros, and Santa Cruz. As more and more people arrived, mission churches were established and all had the records housed with Our Lady of Guadalupe.

When the town of Antonito was built, the Theatine Priests from Spain came into the area and built St. Augustine Church in 1880. Even the church records from Our Lady of Guadalupe are now housed in the church offices of Saint Augustine in Antonito.

In the late 1860s, Presbyterian missionaries from the Taos area and from the East came to the Valley and opened a college in Del Norte. Emphasizing the Scriptures and the learning of the English language resulted in several converts in southern Conejos County.  The San Rafael Presbyterian Church was the main Hispano Presbyterian Church in Conejos County.

The declining membership resulted in the Presbytery’s decision to merge the church with the Presbyterian Church in Antonito. Today the churches remain merged and are still Mission churches. In 1999, the Colorado Historical Society designated the San Rafael Presbyterian Church a state historical site.

The adobe building may be the oldest adobe building in Conejos County. A unique feature of the building is the bell tower. The building will be restored and will be one of the few Hispano historical sites that date back to the 1880s. There are many Hispano Presbyterians throughout the Southwest and throughout the United States that trace their historical roots to this small church located in Mogote, Colorado.