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Mexican Land Grants in Colorado

Sidebar by Martha Quillen

History – December 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

SAN LUIS (formerly known as Culebra and San Luis de Culebra) is generally recognized as Colorado’s oldest town because it was founded — sort of — in 1851. But its history goes back even further than that.

After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, officials started worrying about the northernmost reaches of their territory, which at that time stretched past the mighty peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the distant banks of the Arkansas River.

By the 1830s, Mexico’s interests in its border region seemed threatened by both hostile Native Americans and ambitious U.S. traders (especially after the Bent brothers opened their famed fort and trading post for business in the winter of 1833 – ’34). American and Mexican traders on both sides of the Mexican border, which was then the Arkansas River, were building a profitable network, but Mexico’s influence in the region was weak.

Therefore, between 1832 and 1843, Governor Manuel Armijo of New Mexico made six land grants in what would one day become Colorado: the Tierra Amarilla grant; the Conejos grant; the Maxwell grant; the Vigil and St. Vrain Grant; the Nolan grant; and the Sangre de Cristo grant.

Those huge tracts of land (see sidebar for locations) were granted to encourage Mexican citizens to settle in and develop the region. Theoretically, settlement should have been overseen by the loyal Mexicans who received the grants, but those grants never really served their original purpose.

Although attempts were made to establish communities in the region, settlements tended to be short-lived — usually because of Indian attacks, but also because the land was remote, arid, forbidding, and far from supply lines and established trade routes.

To complicate matters further, Mexico’s problems with its northern provinces went from bad to worse. In 1836, Texas declared its independence, and in 1841 the new Republic of Texas tried to annex New Mexico. The Republic’s expansion plans failed, but in 1846 the U.S. declared war against Mexico. Eventually permanent settlement in our region did take place, but long-lasting communities weren’t established until after the Mexican War ended in 1848.

Once those large Mexican land grants were part of the United States, however, they became the site of numerous fledgling communities and much controversy. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo protected the rights of Mexican landowners, the legality of those particular grants was questioned because they were far larger than what was allowed under Mexican law and also because the terms of the original grants said that settlement had to take place within a certain amount of time. Therefore, the future of the Colorado grants was unclear.

YET EVEN SO, another grant was still to be made. The Luis Maria Baca grant number 4 in the San Luis Valley was awarded to the Baca family in 1860 in exchange for part of the original Baca grant in New Mexico. By then, however, the region was almost bustling.

In the late 1840s and early 1850s, several communities were established in what would later become Colorado. In most cases, their design included a central plaza with space reserved for government and business buildings. The plan was for settlers to come build their homes around the plaza, but very few of these new communities would survive.


In her book, Pueblo, Hardscrabble, Greenhorn, Janet Lecompte says, “In the quarter-century between 1832 and 1858 there were more than a dozen distinct trading posts and settlements along a hundred-mile stretch of the Arkansas River and its tributaries in the present state of Colorado. The men who lived in these settlements were the first white settlers, farmers and stockmen of the Rocky Mountain West.”

Hardscrabble and Greenhorn, southeast of CaƱon City, were settled in the 1840s. But by the early 50s, there were also many settlements in the San Luis Valley. Over on Costilla Creek, almost on the New Mexico border, Garcia was settled in 1849 by two brothers named Manzanares and their families. Originally called Plaza de los Manzanares, Garcia is sometimes called the first permanent settlement in Colorado.

MOST FLEDGLING COMMUNITIES didn’t make it, however, and in Colorado many townsites have been settled and abandoned and settled — again and again. Pueblo, for example, was settled and unsettled. In 1842, the townsite was occupied by El Pueblo, a trading settlement that trafficked heavily in whiskey — even though its sale to Indians was illegal. On December 24, 1854, Indians attacked the post, killing several men and kidnapping some children.

There was also an attempt to build a settlement on the Conejos grant in 1843, but the pilgrims were quickly chased off by hostile Utes. And therefore Guadalupe, a town later swallowed by Conejos, wasn’t established until 1854.

San Pedro was one of the first settlements attempted along Culebra Creek. It was about a mile from the present town of San Luis, but the settlers were driven out by Indians.

In 1851, however, several settlers returned with a larger group, and that’s the date that stuck in Colorado history. The settlers started a ditch at San Luis, but several of the men were killed by Indians that autumn. The rest left for the winter, but they returned the next spring and established their claim to Colorado’s first recorded water right — the San Luis People’s Ditch — which dates back to April 10, 1852. They also established a public pasture, La Vega, which survives to this day.

In 1852, Culebra Creek was home to both San Luis, which was also known as San Luis de Culebra or Culebra; and San Pedro, which was known as Upper Culebra or Plaza Arriba. The San Pedro ditch boasts Colorado’s second oldest water right which also dates back to 1852. Soon afterward, San Acacio was settled and called Lower Culebra or Plaza Abajo.

In a later era, a town’s birth date would coincide with its first post office, and therefore those long-term public institutions in San Luis help to establish it as Colorado’s oldest permanent town. But San Luis was certainly not Colorado’s first settlement; by 1851, there had been many.

More than a half dozen communities were born in our region in the 1840s — including Hardscrabble, Greenhorn, Pueblo, Plaza de los Manzanares, San Pedro, San Antonio de Padua, San Pablo. Yet San Luis, which was founded in 1851, is generally recognized as Colorado’s oldest permanent town.

But that date isn’t entirely surprising — because the United States offered new inducements to settlers. After winning the Mexican War, the U.S. promised to protect its new citizens from Indian hostilities, and thus numerous forts were built in the American southwest, including Fort Massachusetts in 1852. (It was north of what would later become Fort Garland).

Fort Massachusetts was not entirely successful in protecting citizens, but it did retaliate when settlers were attacked. After the fort was established people were killed — in Pueblo and Costilla and elsewhere — but the presence of a fort no doubt heartened settlers, and before long many new communities were thriving.

IT TOOK A WHILE, but the fate of the Mexican land grants in Colorado was finally determined in the 1890s. The Conejos grant was thrown out, and the Vigil/St. Vrain and Nolan grants were reduced in size, but the Maxwell, Sangre de Cristo, and Baca grants were upheld.

This July, Colorado’s oldest town, San Luis, celebrated its centennial in conjunction with its annual Fiesta de Santiago y Santa Ana. A big event was planned with fireworks, two parades, a carnival, booths, a mass, and more, but the town’s 150th birthday party turned into a bittersweet event after 2-year-old Ezekial M. Cordova of Colorado Springs slid under the float truck he’d been riding on and was killed.

Martha Quillen edits Colorado Central, although on nice days, she’d prefer to be out hiking around old Spanish land grants.