Mine Ranch

This Is Colorado Living


Zebulon Pike

A canal weir on the Rio Grande River

Alamosa train station in late 1800’s.

Mining along the slopes of the San Luis Valley.

Downtown Monte Vista (1920’s).

Downtown Monte Vista Today.

Creede at the turn of the century

Alamosa train in the 1930’s.

Hay was important then as today

Part of the Arrowhead Collection at the San Luis Valley Museum

Fort Garland


Spanish Land Grants in southern Colorado

Text Box: Vigil & St. Vrain Grant
Maxwell Grant
Sangre de Cristo Grant
Conejos Grant
Tierra Amarilla Grant
Nolan Grant
Luis Baca Grant


Native Peoples

Evidence of the Clovis culture, small bands of nomadic hunters who came into the valley during the spring, summer and fall months, dates back about 11,000 years ago. Shortly after the Clovis people were in the area, the climate in the valley changed significantly. Average temperature, and more importantly, rainfall, increased to improve the grasslands in the valley between the various riparian river habitats.

Folsom hunter artifacts have been found around the dunes and various ancient water holes or ponds in the valley.

The wet period ended abruptly about 10,500 years ago. For the next 1500 years, there is little evidence of humans in the valley. 9,000 years ago, another wet period occurred and the Cody People moved into the valley. A return of drought occurred until 6,000 years ago, when increased water and forage brought Taos Pueblo Indians into the valley to hunt birds. Pueblo Indian arrow and spear points have been found around the San Luis Lakes, the sand dunes and around Alamosa. The Pueblo Indians also mined turquoise in the area east of Manassa and northwest of Villa Grove.

The first Spaniards arrived in the valley in the late 1500s where the Utes had been for several centuries. Other tribes visited the valley from time to time, the Jicarilla Apaches, the Commanches, the Cheyenne, the Arapahoe and the Kiowas.

However the Ute ranged throughout Colorado, including the San Luis Valley, from the late 15th to early 20th century, but they established no permanent residence in the San Luis Valley.  They have the longest continuous history in Colorado than any other tribe. Primarily hunter gatherers, they rarely planted crops.


The existence of the San Luis Valley has been known to European settlers since the Spanish settled New Mexico in the 1590's, but it was largely ignored due to its isolation and inhospitable environment. (Franciso de Coronado was supposed to have entered the valley in 1540, but that was never confirmed.) It was a land frequented by various nomadic Indian groups and of little obvious benefit to European settlers.

In early 1600 Don Juan de Onate sent his nephew, Juan de Zaldevar on a buffalo hunting expedition into the valley. This is the first recorded description of the San Luis Valley and its Indian inhabitants. Between 1608 and 1680 a succession of governors harshly treated the natives to the point of rebellion. The rebellion drove the Spaniards south to El Paso.

Among the first conquerors  into the valley was General Don Diego de Vargas, who entered the region in 1694 as a show of force following his defeat of the Indians at Santa Fe in 1692. But the Indians, mostly Comanche, were not impressed and the valley became a major staging area for raids down the Rio Grande Valley. Several Spanish military expeditions into the area sought to subdue the Indians, but no Spaniards stayed. The Comanche problem was solved when, in 1783, Juan Bautista de Anza, Governor of New Mexico, defeated the Comanche, under Chief Cuerno Verde, in a battle near present day Pueblo, Colorado. Following the defeat of the Comanche, the valley was once again forgotten.

In the early 1800's, fur trappers began passing through the valley on the way west to the San Juan Mountains. Since Taos was nearby and a major trading center in the region, the valley was not used as a rendezvous and no trading posts were built there. Its isolated location, difficulty in reaching it from the east, and the threat of Indians discouraged permanent settlement by Europeans in the valley.


In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase gave the United States control over vast areas of the west including parts of Colorado. In 1806, under order of President Thomas Jefferson, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike left Fort Belle Fontaine, near St. Louis, to explore the Rocky Mountains near Spanish territory. In late 1806, Pike and his men entered the valley where they set up camp for the winter. In February of 1807 Pike and his men were arrested by the Spaniards for trespassing and moved to Santa Fe. They were released in 1810, and returned to the United States.

Pike was the last recorded explorer into the valley until 1848, when John C. Fremont entered the valley in search of a rail route through the Rockies. Fremont was followed in 1853 by John Gunnison, also in search of a rail route. In the 1870's, explorer and surveyor, Ferdinand V. Hayden came to Colorado to map the unexplored regions of the territory. His journey took him into the San Luis Valley, but like the others before him, he passed through without stopping.

The first permanent settlements in the valley came in the 1840's. Eager to solidify its claim to the region, Mexico began giving land grants in the valley in the 1820's. A number of early grants were allowed to lapse due to non-use, but several settlements were established by the 1840's. Early settlers found life difficult. The land was arid, and there were only a few major rivers and streams. By the late 1840's, there were a few settlements along the rivers and streams of the southern valley.

The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that ended the U.S./Mexican War in 1848 had a dramatic effect on the settlements in the San Luis Valley. The treaty, which awarded the United States much of the west including parts of Colorado and New Mexico, raised questions about the validity of the land grants in the valley and other areas. In 1854, the courts upheld the validity of many grants and denied several others. Only one Colorado grant was affected, and the case was settled when the affected party was allowed to choose another site in the valley.

In 1851, New Mexican settlers founded the first town in Colorado, San Luis. By 1852, these farmers realized irrigation was necessary, and they constructed the San Luis People's Ditch. Several other ditches soon followed, and the era of irrigation in the San Luis Valley began.

The New Mexican farmers used a method of irrigation known as sub irrigation. This involved raising the water table by diverting water from rivers and streams and flooding the area. This flooding caused the water table to rise up to the roots of growing plants.

The Civil War brought the conflict between North and South to the valley. In 1852, Fort Massachusetts was built to protect settlers in the valley from the Ute Indians. In 1857, it was moved to a new site and became known as Fort Garland. Fort Garland became the base for Union Army activities in New Mexico where the Union and Confederacy were struggling for control. The Battle of Glorieta Pass, just east of Santa Fe in 1863, marked the end of the Confederate threat in the region.


The Colorado gold rush of 1859 passed the valley by, and agriculture remained the primary economic activity in the valley. Primary crops were alfalfa, wheat, and corn. The livestock industry, which had begun with the introduction of sheep and cattle by early settlers in 1842, continued to grow. By 1879 there were 145,000 sheep and 35,000 head of cattle in the valley, and grazing was prominent throughout the region.

The mining boom finally reached the valley in the late 1870's, gold was discovered in the valley, and thousands of gold seekers moved to the area. The primary activity was in the San Juan Mountains. This presented a problem as there were no roads into the mountains. Throughout the 1860's, roads had been built to link the communities of the valley, but none had been built into the mountains. To solve the problem, a German immigrant named Otto Mears, a freight hauler in the valley, built a toll road across the mountains. This venture was so successful that Mears sold his freight company and began to build a series of toll roads throughout the region.


While Mears was developing his toll road empire, the southern valley was getting its first railroad. The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad reached La Veta Pass in 1874, and began to move into the valley. In 1874, the railroad reached Alamosa, and agricultural goods from the valley began to move toward Denver and the east. In the years prior to the turn of the century, the mining industry in the north end of the valley was booming, while agriculture industry in the south continued to grow. By 1900, the rail system in the valley was complete, and almost no area was left without transportation.

The arrival of the railroad in the valley signaled an increase in economic development and new settlement. Among the first "Anglos" to settle in the valley were the Mormons, who established the towns of Manassa and Sanford in the late 1870's and early 1880's. A number of other groups attempted to settle in the valley, but met with little success. A group of Dutch settlers arrived in late 1892, but broke up after an diphtheria epidemic killed 13 children.


One of the major reasons for the economic success of the valley was the "ditch boom" of the 1880's. Irrigation canals were a popular investment of eastern interests investing in the west. The largest investments came from the Travelers Insurance Company of Connecticut, which built the Monte Vista and Travelers Canals. Several other large canals were built, and by the 1890's, the valley had begun to reap the benefits of the eastern investments.

Following the turn of the century, the mining industry began to shrink, and several rail lines that had served the mining communities were abandoned. Tourism began to be a major economic activity, replacing part of the income that had come from the mineral industry. The introduction of the automobile impacted on the valley by providing easy access to and from the area. Transportation continued to play an important role in the life of the region, bringing in tourist dollars and shipping out agricultural goods. By 1950, the valley was served by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, Frontier Airlines, several bus lines, and a number of truck lines both scheduled and unscheduled.

1895 Colorado Map