Interwoven Peoples and Traditions

Steeped in History — a List of Firsts

San Luis People's Ditch created in 1851: Photo courtesy Kent Anderson

San Luis People’s Ditch created in 1851: Photo courtesy Kent Anderson

The Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area is steeped in history – a history of settlement, survival and persistence and lays claim to some notable “firsts”.

The first permanent non-Native American settlements in what is now Colorado – the town of San Luis was established in 1851.

The first recorded water right in Colorado — a group of Hispanos filed for the San Luis People’s Ditch in 1851.

The first parish in Colorado —  John Lamy, the first bishop of Santa Fe, oversaw the construction of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church just south of Conejos during the 1850s.

Cumbres Pass over the San Juan Mountains on the west side of the San Luis Valley: Photo courtesy Rita Gordon

Cumbres Pass over the San Juan Mountains on the west side of the San Luis Valley: Photo courtesy Rita Gordon

The Sangre de Cristo region is an historic crossroad – a place where different peoples have converged for thousands of years. The area represents a profound historical, religious and cultural convergence that remains visible in the landscape and can be experienced through the area’s development patterns, art, food, lodging and events. Here the traditions of Hispanos, Native American, Mormon, Amish, Japanese-American, Anglos, Dutch, and German have intermingled and persisted.

Historically, mountain passes served as the gateway to the San Luis Valley. Utes, explorers, midwestern homesteaders, Japanese Americans, and railroads all arrived in the valley via openings in the Sangre de Cristo (on the east) and San Juan (on the west) mountain ranges. Each of the newcomers left a story that can be interpreted through the landscape.

Cattle on Krestinger Ranch: Photo courtesy Linda Relyea

Cattle on Krestinger Ranch: Photo courtesy Linda Relyea

Land Grants & Early Settlement Patterns

Large Mexican land grants laid the foundation for the settlement of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area. Land grants made by the Mexican governments in 1843 and 1844 were intended as incentives to encourage permanent settlement and increase the population and productivity of what today is the Southwest United States.

The land grants were large. For example, the Sangre de Cristo grant (represented today by the boundary of Costilla County) was nearly one million acres and was the largest privately held parcel of land ever to exist in Colorado. Read more…

Other Settlers

The late 1870s signaled a turning point in the San Luis Valley. With the coming of the Mormon population, also came a new culture, religious practice, land use, architecture, and economic change. The Mormon immigrant population settled in the lower Rio Grande, in the southern portion of the Valley, mostly in the current day towns of Manassa and Sanford.

The Homestead Act magnetized other Anglo settlers to the Valley. Under the Act, parcels of land were surveyed with the township and range system, with only four farmsteads per square mile. The 1880s saw a new wave of Anglo settlers to the valley who acquired large tracts of land, mostly through land companies, to pursue cattle ranching. The average ranch was approximately 3,500 acres. Read more…

Later Settlement

In the 1920s and 1930s, Japanese-American Issei (first generation immigrants) from central California settled in southern Conejos and Costilla Counties. Read more…

The 1920s introduced two new industries to the valley. With the railroad providing a broader transportation network and improved road conditions, tourism in Conejos County developed a viable market. The seasonal economy of fishing, camping and lodging provided a profitable industry.

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad: Photo courtesy Cumbres & Toltec

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad: Photo courtesy Cumbres & Toltec

Railroads & Mines

Railroads and mines were integral economic activities in the late nineteenth century after the United States government acquired control of the San Luis Valley from Mexico. Following the 1859 discovery of gold in Colorado, development of the San Luis Valley escalated. Precious metals, gold and silver found in isolated pockets in the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains attracted prospectors. With the miners came railroads, farms and cattle ranches.

By 1878, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad had descended into the valley to Alamosa from La Veta Pass. Subsequent railroad lines linked Alamosa to Española, New Mexico and Antonito to Chama, New Mexico.

You can ride for 64 miles along the same narrow gauge route that the Rio Grande Railroad used to serve the silver mines of Southwest Colorado. At Cumbres Pass, the Los Caminos Antiquos Scenic and Historic Byway and the railroad rise to over 10,000 feet. Read more…

Fort Garland: entrance to the Commandants Quarters where Commander Kit Carson and wife Josefa Jaramillo Carson once lived: Photo courtesy Fort Garland Museum

Fort Garland: entrance to the Commandants Quarters where Commander Kit Carson and wife Josefa Jaramillo Carson once lived: Photo courtesy Fort Garland Museum

19th Century U.S. Military Forts

Before any permanent settlements were established in the San Luis Valley, Mexico ceded all of the Southwest to the United States as a result of the Mexican War of 1846. The Utes did not recognize the United States newly acquired control of the Valley and disrupted early settlements. The government recognized that if the fledgling Mexican settlements were to survive, a military presence was essential.

The military built two permanent forts in the San Luis Valley, Fort Massachusetts (1852) and Fort Garland (1858). Read more…