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In search of Colorado’s oldest town

Article by Kenneth Jesson

History – December 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

FOR MANY YEARS, San Luis has been heralded as Colorado’s oldest town, but there were towns in what would one day become Colorado 700 years before San Luis was founded in 1851. Located in Montezuma County, just north of the New Mexico border, there are a large number of abandoned settlements that could be regarded as Colorado’s oldest towns. The most spectacular of them are located in Mesa Verde National Park.

Map with El Cuervo, Hardscrabble, and San Buenaventura
Map with El Cuervo, Hardscrabble, and San Buenaventura
The Ancestral Pueblo Indians (also known as the Anasazi) started building cliff dwellings in the four corners region by 1150 AD. The largest cliff dwelling that’s still standing, Cliff Palace, had 217 rooms and it probably housed about 250 people. The next largest, Spruce House had 114 rooms and was presumably home to about 150 people. The Ancestral Pueblo built many, many settlements, but they left their impressive homes in stages around 1300 AD.

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After their departure, the region was left to nomadic peoples who established numerous trails and occasionally built a stone enclosure, but who weren’t inclined to settle down. Thus, it would be half of a millennium later before more towns were built.

The next town builders were Europeans. William Bent was most likely responsible for one of the first settlements of non-Native Americans. Built in 1826, his settlement took the form of a simple picket trading post. Its exact location has been debated, but one likely site is on the north bank of the Arkansas River near the mouth of Hardscrabble Creek. Not only was Bent’s Picket Post an early settlement, but Bent is also credited with operating the first commercial business in the future state of Colorado.

IN 1830, French trappers from Taos, New Mexico, established another trading post on a bluff near the confluence of Mineral and Adobe creeks. The idea was to trade with the Ute Indians as they passed along their trail from the plains into the Wet Mountains. Since crows had been spotted flying overhead, the new settlement was named El Cuervo, which is Spanish for raven or crow. Americans knew the place as the Crow’s Nest.

But El Cuervo was more of a place of business than it was a town. Maurice LeDuc (also spelled LeDoux) settled across one of the creeks from El Cuervo where he cultivated the land and trapped. He also built a cabin with a jacal of vertical logs set into the ground in a circular pattern to act as a crude fortress.

Map with Garcia
Map with Garcia
In her book, From Trappers to Tourists, author Rosemae Wells Campbell speculates that El Cuervo could have supported a distillery operated by Matt Kincade. A large cistern discovered many years after El Cuervo was abandoned, led to this conclusion. For a time, the United States placed a ban on transporting whiskey into the area, and that policy produced a ready market for locally made distillates.

Near the confluence of Adobe and Newlin creeks, San Buenaventura was established in 1843 by Charles Beaubien, a naturalized Mexican citizen.

To encourage development in the northern portion of what was then Mexico, the governor gave land grants to prominent citizens who had the wealth to settle the area. Beaubien received such a grant, and he brought several Taos farmers and their families to San Buenaventura to build a community. The settlement was soon abandoned, however, after Santa Anna cut off trade into the area because of the growing conflict with the United States.

In 1844, however, George Simpson moved into the deserted San Buenaventura, and he, Joe Doyle and Alec Barclay constructed a trading post just south of the site, about one and one-quarter miles above the confluence of Hardscrabble and Newlin creeks.

This may have been part of the 1849 Garcia plaza
This may have been part of the 1849 Garcia plaza
For defense against Indian raids, a high adobe wall was constructed around the post. The place was called Plaza del Rio Penasco Amarillo or Hardscrabble Plaza, and also — harkening back to an earlier time — San Buenaventura des los Tres Arrollos (the arrollos were Hardscrabble, Adobe and Newlin creeks). But the post also became known more simply (and perhaps more appropriately) as Hardscrabble. There, Simpson planted apple seeds from Missouri, and invited seventy others to join him.

IN 1844, George Simpson and his common-law wife, Juana, had a daughter, Isabel, and George proudly announced her to be the first white child in the region. Over the years, such claims were common among trappers, travelers, and Mormons, but the birth prompted a celebration and curious Indians gathered to view the “first” white child. Later, the Simpson family traveled to Taos, where the child was baptized and the couple properly married.

Another old Garcia structure
Another old Garcia structure

At Hardscrabble Plaza, a dozen or so adobe rooms were constructed within the plaza, and hired hands constructed their own dwellings near the creek. In the very best of times, Hardscrabble offered a good living, but most years it was prone to drought and suffered from overgrazing. In the end, poor crops and hostile Indians forced the settlers to leave. In 1852, Spanish-speaking families tried to settle around the plaza, but they met with resistance from Ute Indians.

In the 1830s, William Bent and his brothers along with Ceran St. Vrain constructed a large fort to replace their picket trading post. Still under construction but open for business in late 1833, Bent’s Old Fort took four years to build, and was located approximately a dozen miles west of present day Las Animas. It was a commercial, cultural and social center throughout the 1840s, but after a disagreement with the United States government, William Bent moved out and blew the place to pieces in 1852.

Inspired by the presence of Bent’s Fort, traders established many settlements along the Arkansas and its tributaries in the 1840s, but most of them were short-lived. Today little remains to remind us of those early settlements.

Adobe home near San Francisco
Adobe home near San Francisco
BUT IN the late 1840s, Spanish-speaking settlers began to establish plazas in the very southern part of the San Luis Valley, and some of them survive to this day. Of note was the plaza at Costilla, settled in 1849. Now in New Mexico, Costilla was actually inside Colorado Territory in 1861 when the territory was recognized by the United States Government. Costilla County was one of Colorado’s original counties, and was named after the town. In 1862, the town of Costilla became the site of a territorial post office.

Also important to the state’s history was a second plaza north of Costilla called La Plaza de Los Manzanares. It was settled in 1849 when two brothers, Manuel and Pedro Manzanares, brought their families into the area to live on the Sangre de Cristo Grant.

The Colorado Territory’s southern border was defined by the 37th parallel, but early surveys were often inaccurate. A new survey in 1869 proved that the 37th parallel was north of Costilla, which placed Costilla in New Mexico. But La Plaza de los Manzanares was still in Colorado.

Map of San Luis area
Map of San Luis area
In 1901, La Plaza de los Manzanares got its own post office which was located in a store operated by the Garcia brothers, and in 1915, the post office and town took the name Garcia. Garcia remains an occupied town today, although there are a number of abandoned buildings.

Virginia McConnell Simmons, a noted expert on the history of the San Luis Valley, says, “Garcia … was the first permanent settlement within today’s boundaries of Colorado.” Olibama Lopez-Tushar in The People of El Valle states that, “La Plaza de los Manzanares, now called Garcia, was settled in 1849.” This makes Garcia the oldest settlement in Colorado, and there are people who think that Garcia should be recognized as Colorado’s oldest town.

Over on Culebra Creek, the first settlers were driven out by Indians, but two of the original settlers returned with a larger group of men in 1851, and they founded the town of San Luis — which has been there ever since. It was named in honor of Fiesta de San Luis, a holiday celebrated on June 21, the day of the founding.

In addition to San Luis, there were many other early settlements in the San Luis Valley including Los Cerritos, located near two volcanic hills about a mile and a half southeast of Manassa. The first settlers arrived in Los Cerritos in 1852.

South of San Luis at San Pablo, a settlement was established in 1848, but its occupants were driven away by Indians. The nearby settlement of San Pedro, originally called La Plaza de Arriba, was settled in 1852 coincident with the construction of an irrigation ditch. The old town of San Acacio was settled in 1853, and Guadalupe was founded near the Conejos River a year later.

With regards to Colorado’s oldest town, it is difficult to determine what the future holds. Perhaps, the oldest town may yet be discovered by arch├Žologists.

Building in San Pablo
Building in San Pablo

Kenneth Jessen of Loveland is the auther of many books of Colorado history, like Eccentric Colorado and Colorado Gunsmoke. His most recent work is a trilogy (North, Central, and South) of Ghost Towns, Colorado Style.