Keeper of our regional history

Article by Marcia Darnell

Virginia McConnell Simmons – August 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

GREAT HISTORIANS are like great teachers: they’re naturally able to convey their passion for the subject to their students.

Virginia McConnell Simmons has been passionately teaching history for 45 years, as a researcher, professor, and writer. Her newest creation is The San Luis Valley: Land of the Six-Armed Cross, a second edition of her 1979 book.

“This edition has more information on the Hispanic culture of the Valley,” Simmons says. “I went through the book with a fine-toothed comb.” The new edition also has a 45-page appendix of Hispanic place names.

“This kind of research and writing is hardly the fast lane to riches and fame, so there has to be some other reason,” Simmons says. In her case, it’s curiosity, or as she puts it, “a desire to learn what isn’t available.”

Simmons began writing history as a newspaper columnist in Colorado Springs, then began writing booklets for social studies classes. She was also a professor of English at UCCS for a time. Her writing led to a job as acting editor at the Colorado Historical Society, which led in turn to more books.

Her first was Bayou Salado: The Story of South Park, published in 1966. She then began researching the San Luis Valley, where she moved 20 years ago. Her book, Valley of the Cranes, is a local classic.

“Then I began to realize there hadn’t been something done on that slice that lay between the San Luis Valley and South Park,” she says, “So in 1990 I had another book published, The Upper Arkansas: A Mountain River Valley.” That book is no longer in print.

She’s now awaiting publication of her most ambitious project to date — a history of the Utes in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. She finished that manuscript last winter; the book will be out next year.

The research for this book has involved extensive travel, but Simmons felt driven to complete it.

“I like discovering aspects of history that have been neglected,” she says. Certainly the culture and history of the Utes has been neglected.

“We always hear about Chief Ouray and Chipeta,” she says, “but Ouray represented the interests of the U.S. government.” Simmons believes the written history of white settlers — and as she points out, they were the only literate historians — has overshadowed the histories of other peoples, often to the point those stories are lost.

Those include the history of the Buffalo Soldiers, which Simmons researched for an exhibit at Fort Garland this summer.

“I believe it’s important to tell history as it really happened,” Simmons says, “the movements, the developments of history.”

She emphasizes that she writes about regional history, “which has a broader stroke than local history.” People who ask her about the lore of a particular town or family are going to be disappointed — she doesn’t know.

Another manifestation of Simmons’ passion is the San Luis Valley Archæological Network, which she founded.

“History is the written record,” she explains, “but you also have pre-history, which comes before and outside the written record.” The organization is dedicated to preserving and recording archeological sites in the Valley. The group has tours, exhibits and educational programs for adults and children on the history of the region, and the importance of preserving it.

“Collecting arrowheads destroys history,” Simmons says.

Further acting on her beliefs, she serves on advisory councils for The Nature Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management, “representing the interests of history and archæology.”

Preserving history, land, and the environment is Simmons’ passion, and conveying that passion is her mission, through her writing, speeches, and teachings.

May Simmons’ history last long.

To join the SLV Archeological Network, send $10 to Box 231, Manassa, CO 81141. Members receive a bimonthly newsletter.

Marcia Darnell lives and writes in the San Luis Valley.