Ghost

Mine Ranch

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Text Box: Local cities range from 12 miles (Del Norte) to 45 miles (Alamosa). The front range of Colorado (Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver) are from 3-5 hours away.
Text Box: Native tribes gave way to settlers, cattle ranches, then mining, forest products and then with irrigation, a very productive farm community.
Text Box: The San Luis Valley is part of the Rio Grande Rift system that extends from central Colorado southward through New Mexico and West Texas into northern Mexico. The San Luis Valley of southern Colorado has been called the highest, largest, mountain desert in North America (Trimble 2001). 
Text Box: Migratory and native bird species abound with two national wildlife refuges. Small game and big game with deer and elk dominating. And one imported species in the strangest place on earth...
Text Box: Semi-Arid, 320+ days a year sunshine, highs in the 80ís, lows in the teens. 8-10Ē of precipitation a year. GMR is at 8,000+ feet in elevation.

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A SHORT HISTORY OF THE SAN LUIS VALLEY

(Allan HeltzelóGhost Mine Ranch )

 

You may have noticed that there is no place quite like the San Luis Valley. This is true not only because of itís unique physical geography, but also because of itís unique blend of people. There is no place in the United States with the same mix of cultures and settlement patterns.

 

If you search carefully on the land you will find artifacts as old as human habitation in North America. There are stone remains from old cultures such as the Clovis peoples, dating back 11,000 years or more, and from cultures as recent as the Utes, Kiowas, Navajo, Arapahoe, and other plains and mountain nations. The size and success of these groups waxed and waned with the climate, which dictated the availability of game animals and edible wild plants. In historic times, the Tabeguache band of Utes were a frequent habitant, coming east over the Cochetopa hills to hunt bison and other game animals, occasionally contesting the hunting opportunities with Plains Nations such as the Kiowa and Arapahoe. Native Americans pursued other activities in the Valley as well, including mining for turquoise. Pueblo peoples living to the south and southwest of the Valley apparently pursued this work. Although there is as yet no evidence of permanent Pueblo settlement, there are the remains of at least two turquoise mines, one east of Manassa and the other northwest of Villa Grove. The Taos (Tewa) People have oral memories of hunting expeditions to the Valley.

 

The Spanish entered the valley from the New Mexican colonies before English or Dutch colonies were started on the eastern seaboard of North America. There are no definitive records of an exact date, but it is known that the expedition of Francisco Coronado reached Taos in the early 1540ís. The first recorded Spanish venture to the Valley was a bison hunt led by Juan De Zaldevar in the late 1590ís or early 1600ís. A few years later, Zaldevarís uncle, Don Juan De Onate led an exploration searching for precious metals that most likely traversed the Valley.

In the 1680ís the Native peoples of New Mexico revolted and drove the Spanish south to El Paso. In 1694 the Spanish, led by General Don Diego De Vargas reconquered Santa Fe and continued north into the San Luis. According to the diary of De Vargas, Spanish place names were already in use when he camped on the San Antonio river.

 

Throughout the 1700ís Spanish people explored and exploited the valley. They hunted, searched for gold and silver, and established small settlements, or plazas, to grow crops and herd sheep and cattle. The record of these activities is not always clear, but the presence of the people is well attested through artifacts and oral histories. In the early and mid nineteenth century, officially sanctioned settlement occurred. After the successful revolt of Mexico from Spain, land grants began to be awarded to groups of Spanish families, and the Land Grant system became the prevailing method of awarding new lands for settlement. The town of San Luis was officially established under United States jurisdiction in 1851, but is in reality at least 75 years older than that.

 

The Zebulon Pike expedition of 1806-07 explored the Valley, but was often disoriented as to where they were, and ended up in Spanish custody as trespassers. After the Mexican Ė American War ended in 1848 the Valley became part of the United States. Spanish settlement, moving ever north in the San Luis, continued throughout the century, largely utilizing the Land Grant system inherited from Mexican times. With the establishment of a permanent U.S. Army garrison at Fort Garland, the presence and potential conflict with the Native Americans was forcibly controlled, and the Utes mostly withdrew to the west.

 

Anglo settlement in the San Luis was presaged by two more exploratory expeditions sponsored by the United States. The first was led by John C. Fremont, which crossed the Sangre De Cristo mountains in 1848 searching for a practicable rail route to California. Fremontís expedition got trapped by severe winter weather in the La Garita Mountains, and retreated to Santa Fe with serious loss of life. In 1853 John Gunnison led another search through the San Luis looking for a rail passage. Though both expeditions failed in their purposes, they did raise public awareness of the existence of the Valley for potential settlers.

 

†With the passage of the Homestead Acts of 1854 and 1863, the U.S. congress set the stage for an influx of American and Northern European settlers to join the Spanish. Added impetus was created by the discovery of gold in the Rocky Mountains. In other parts of Colorado, notably the Front Range and South Platte drainage, settlers quickly followed prospectors and mining groups to supply food and goods for the new industry. Gold and other precious metals were found in the Valley on South Mountain in the Summitville District in the early 1870ís. A few years later saw strikes in the Bonanza area northwest of Villa Grove. The biggest strike occurred at Creede, and by 1891 a railroad was built to the thriving mining camp there to haul out ore and bring in labor and goods. There was also a major strike on Cottonwood creek at Crestone.

 

Settlers followed close on the heels of the prospectors. From Europe, 200 Germans started a cooperative colony north of Del Norte in 1872, a group of Swedes established Swedeís Lane outside of Monte Vista, 350 Dutch settlers of the Holland America Land and Immigration Company settled north of Alamosa, and English settlers acquired ranch land along La Garita Creek. Homesteaders arrived as families and small groups from Illinois, Indiana, and other states throughout the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. An influx of members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints established a thriving community based in the towns of Manassa, Sanford, and Romeo. Japanese farmers came from California developing truck farms; the Buddhist temple still standing in the town of Waverly is part of their legacy.

 

This mix of Spanish and English speaking settlers established a vibrant and self-reliant agricultural industry. Over time, and with much hard work and clever engineering, an awesome system of irrigation canals tapped the Rio Grande and other streams and rivers. Techniques were developed for raising crops at high altitude, so that today, the finest alfalfa, hay, potatoes, and other crops are grown. The San Luis is justly famous for itís potatoes and grass fed beef. These successes are due to the industry, perseverance, and tenacity of the pioneers and their descendents.

 

The society of the San Luis Valley today comes from the combination of these different human streams in a unique environment. At 7500 feet or more above sea level, the San Luis is the highest large mountain valley in North America. The antiquity and steadfastness of the Spanish combined with the diversity of the Native Americans and the industry of Anglo-Americans has created a self-sustaining way of life not to be found elsewhere. Unlike the rest of Colorado, the majority of residents were born in the Valley, mainly descended from pioneers of one sort or another.

 

The trend of settlement continues. In recent times, groups of Mennonite and Amish congregations have settled into farming and other enterprises. Migrants from Mexico and other countries have joined the community. Vacationers, retirees, and second homeowners have discovered the beauties of the Valley and the surrounding mountains. The recent boom in western land development is currently impacting the San Luis, raising new concerns and creating new opportunities for all inhabitants.

 

What has gone before effects the future. The human culture that has developed in the San Luis Valley combined with the unique geography will go far in determining how the future habitation of the Valley unfolds. An understanding of the past better equips the inhabitants of the present, both new and old, to shape and enhance the future of the San Luis.