Rabbitbrush Rambler: Honoring San Luis

The name of the San Luis Valley and Colorado’s first permanent plaza might seem to be a puzzler. The origin of the name, it is believed, is the Spanish Anza expedition that camped in the northern part of the Valley in 1779 on August 25, the feast day of San Luis Rey (Saint Louis IX), known in history books as the French King Louis IX who led a Crusade to the Holy Land.

In widespread use throughout the San Luis Valley and in the first permanent town in Colorado, the name of San Luis is used dozens of times, even more than does the name of the Rio Grande del Norte, but rarely if ever does someone think of San Luis as being the patron saint of the Valley. But take a look at the listings in your telephone book.

As for naming the Sangre de Cristo Range, the legend about a friar, who was attempting to escape Indians at San Luis Lake on a raft, is well known. Looking up at the peaks, tinged crimson with alpine glow, he is said to have exclaimed with his dying words, “Sangre de Cristo!”

Besides this ill-fated man, by the 1700s Hispanos and slaves were pursuing hostile Indians, probing the mountains for minerals on both sides of the Sangre de Cristos, and traveling farther than the Front Range via passes like Sangre de Cristo, Mosca, and Medano.

When accompanied by padres, early Spanish-speaking travelers put saints’ names on places where they camped, often at streams and springs. Without such a blessing, many physical features and campsites acquired names like Culebra, where it was a good idea to watch out for snakes, or Costilla, where mountain sheep might have been common.

Whatever the reason, the name of Costilla Creek was bestowed on the first cluster of adobe homes in the San Luis Valley. We tend to forget that this huge swale is actually one big physiographic chunk of land without the political boundaries that came later in 1860.

Settlement and commerce at Costilla began in 1848, and when names of counties were first bestowed in 1861, the two in the San Luis Valley were Costilla County on the east and north sides and the other was Conejos County on the west side, the latter stretching all the way to Utah beyond the San Juan Mountains. With the Rio Grande separating the two counties, Costilla County went to the crest of the Sangre de Cristos and north to Poncha Pass.

When the 47th parallel, the boundary between Colorado and New Mexico Territories, was resurveyed later in the 1860s, it was shifted a few hundred feed to the northward, The plaza at Costilla then was in New Mexico Territory, and San Luis became the county seat. Costilla County’s name remained, but territorial and state governments gradually altered the political and social orientations.

Church affiliations changed at about this time as well. When Costilla first was visited by a priest, its church and plaza acquired the name of San Miguel (Saint Michael). In fact, very briefly the county seat of Costilla County was given that saint’s name, though only for a couple of days.

The custom of dedicating individual churches and plazas to saints caused other complications. For instance, New Mexico had several with the name of San Miguel, and one of these is reached only from Conejos, but it has been in New Mexico since the 47th parallel moved.

Devotion to San Luis, referring to Louis IX, was not so widely practiced in this part of the world, so there are only a couple of such designations in New Mexico and Colorado. This patron saint’s name is still given to the San Luis Valley, but the town of San Luis and the parish will be celebrating the Festival of Santiago and Santa Ana on July 21-23 instead of San Luis Rey on August 25. The Stations of the Cross on the mesa and the cultural heritage of the area will also be attracting pilgrimages throughout the year.