Costilla County, Colorado, rich in Hispanic culture and traditions, offers many ‘firsts’. In this county, San Luis is considered the oldest town in the state of Colorado and contains the oldest continuous business still in operation, the state’s first water right and “La Vega”, the last remaining commons in the United States still used for its original purpose.
Located in south-central Colorado in the San Luis Valley, Costilla is bounded on the south by New Mexico, on the west by the Rio Grande (separating it from Conejos County), and by Alamosa county in the NW. The eastern border reaches the tops of the Sangre de Cristo Range.
Costilla County was established in 1861 and was named for the Costilla River. Costilla is the Spanish word for “rib” and “furring timber”. The river had been named prior to the 1800’s by the Spaniards.
Volcanoes, Faults, Mountains and Water
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 Costilla and Conejos counties as a supply for decorative and landscaping materials.
The second segment of the geological history began about 10 million years ago when a region of the western United States was pulled apart and large fault bounded valleys formed rifts, such as the Rio Grande Rift.
This period of faulting and down dropping of our Valley, overlapped with the final stages of volcanism. This overlap produced new gold deposits along the faults, forming linear belts of precious metals that run the entire length of Costilla County. Battle Mountain Gold Mine, NW of San Luis is the best known mine. The North end of Costilla County soars into the Sangre de Cristo Range with Culebra Peak at 14,047 ft. Streams and lakes abound in cutthroat, rainbow, browns and pike. Elk, deer and mountain lion wander the forests and mountains.
The Sangre de Cristo Land Grant was conferred by Mexico to Beaubien and Lee in 1844 and was later patented by the U.S. Government in 1880 for just under one million acres. New Mexican families came into the San Luis Basin to settle along the Rio de la Culebra with its watershed in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.
Many of the Hispanos were descendents of the Spaniards who came from Spain, and lived generations in New Spain, now Mexico, before traveling to the southwest with the conquistadores and missionaries. The ancestors were under Spanish rule until 1821 when Mexico won its independence from Spain. They spoke Castilian Spanish of the royal court, were subjects of the Spanish King and swore loyalty to him.
By 1852, three plazas existed – San Pedro, San Luis, and San Acacio. The newly settled lands were in areas close to resources and water used by the Utes, and were taken without any treaty. They found inhospitable climate, very few resources and an indigenous people ready to fight for their homeland. The Utes retaliated and raided the settlements frequently, forcing the Hispanics to abandon several times.
Settlement was unsuccessful until April 1851 when settlers from the northern New Mexico frontier established the town of San Luis, then known as San Luis de la Culebra and which today lauds itself arguably as “San Luis – The Oldest Town in Colorado.”
The building of two forts by the U.S. War Department occurred to offer protection. In 1852, Fort Massachusetts was built six miles north of present-day Fort Garland, at the base of Sierra Blanca, and then Fort Garland was established in 1858. For the next ten years, many settlers did extensive trading and exchanged ideas with the Utes and other regional tribal groups. Some intermarried. The trade/raid aspect of the Native American/ Hispano bartering system provided economic stability for many. Then in 1858, gold was discovered, and in 1861, the Colorado Territory was established. By 1868, the Carson Treaty was signed and the Utes were placed on reservations.
These hardy pioneers were farmer / ranchers in pursuit of a better life while meeting the needs of the Mexican government of asserting its northern boundaries as the expansionist tendencies of the young United States ran rough shod embracing the Doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
By 1848, the United States had defeated Mexico, claimed or purchased over 40% of Mexico, and signed the Treaty of Guadalupe- Hidalgo promising to respect the language, religion and property of the Mexicans (now having become Americans) The Sangre de Cristo land grant settlers and then their heirs engaged in the quiet agricultural use of the fertile bottomlands and the communal use of the mountain uplands for over a century. The land was apportioned in long narrow strips called vara strips.
For 109 years, a family-oriented, religious, communal agrarian and self-sufficient community flourished although rich Anglo land speculators frequently threatened it. In 1960, this pattern was violently shattered by an arrogant North Carolina lumberman by the name of Jack Tarland Taylor. He purchased 77,524 acres, the last unfenced portion of the vast land grant, for less than seven dollars an acre. His deed, as had that of preceding owners, contained the clause “and also subject to claims of the local people by prescription, or otherwise to rights to pasturage, wood, and lumber and so-called settlement rights in, to, and upon said land…” The conflict, dubbed the ‘Costilla County Range War’ by the press, began in the 1960’s and continued until 2005 under owner Lou Pai, of Enron.
Jack Taylor immediately fenced the community out of the “Taylor Ranch” which is known locally as La Sierra. He instituted a regime of violence against the …“Mexicans” who continually “trespassed” on “his” mountain. He filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Denver, J.T. Taylor vs. Pablita Jacquez, et al. to clear his deed under the Torrens Title Registration Act. Five years later, Taylor prevailed in court, Judge Olin Hatfield Chilson ruling that “Spanish- Americans cannot make claims to another’s land based on old Mexican law.”
The Land Rights Council (LRC), formed in 1978, filed a class-action lawsuit in 1981 against Taylor. The LRC sought to regain the use rights to La Sierra, which the community was legally entitled to as confirmed by the Mexican and U.S. governments. After 21 years of acrimonious litigation and after many disheartening community defeats, the Culebra drainage settlement towns have been vindicated.
On June 24th 2002, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned the lower court rulings against the San Luis community stating, “It is an understatement to say that this is an injustice.” In 2005, the Colorado Court of Appeals granted limited access to the property to the Hispano descendants of the original settlers of San Luis; and the new owners of the property, Bobby and Dottie Hill, Richard and Kelly Welch, and another private entity, have been welcoming and better neighbors to the local community. The details and ramifications of this legal victory are yet to be unraveled but the local community is filled with hope and anticipation.