Rabbitbrush Rambler: Visiting Conejos County’s La Isla

The southern part of Conejos County is an area that few of us often visit, but it’s worth getting acquainted with this out-of the-way area east of Antonito.

Pinos Creek, as we often call Rio de los Pinos, and Rio San Antonio connect near Ortiz. From that point eastward few people who are out for a drive bother to learn what is in this open, agricultural area. But make no mistake, this is a tantalizing part of the San Luis Valley’s history that deserves to be better known.

When would-be settlers first came from New Mexico’s Chama River and El Rito area into the southwestern part of the San Luis Valley in the 1830s, they were looking for new land to farm and ranch. Although they had a grant from the Republic of Mexico, hostiles ran the newcomers out of the Utes’ territory.

Although it is said that some seasonal grazing and crop-growing took place around 1847, it was 1854 when settlers arrived on the Conejos Land Grant. They too came from the Chama River and El Rito area.

José Maria Jaques built the first mill at Guadalupe in 1856, but Lafayette Head established the town of Conejos with the parish church, the county seat of Conejos County, and the Ute Indian agency on the south side of the Conejos River, across from Guadalupe. He also built a flour mill on La Isla east of Conejos that played an important role in the agricultural life of the area. 

The colonists made their first homes in the Guadalupe area along the Conejos River and soon occupied land upstream and downriver along the Conejos River. But lying south of that stream is the Rio San Antonio, where daring folks took up land to the west around Mogote, to the south near San Antonio and Ortiz after a few years and even up on the mountainside at San Miguel too, but the land north and east of Conejos was most suitable for farming and ranching and attracted settlers there.

If you look at a map, both the Conejos River and Rio San Antonito wiggle northeastward from the mountains and eventually come together east of Manassa. This triangular space was commonly called La Isla, “the island.”

To visit this area, one can take County Road G to Lobatos and than traverse adjacent country roads, mainly lying to the north of Road G. South of Romeo and Manassa, various county roads, laid out like a grid, also traverse this area.

Very early on, this entire area was dotted with homes and settlements such as Servietta, Espinosa, El Brazo, Los Cerritos, La Isla with that name itself, and Rincones, which is in the corner where the Rio San Antonito and the Conejos River meet. Rincón means the corner. The well-known Salazar family ranched in this corner, and Sego Springs State Wildlife Area is in this corner, too.

A specific location was the community of La Isla with a chapel dedicated to San Jose, a school, and the San Jose ditch. The most prominent family at La Isla was that of Seledon, or Celedonio, Valdez (d. 1884), who moved from the Chama River region with the Conejos Land Grant holders in 1854. Like many others, Seledon was listed in Lafayette Head’s report of 1865 as having captive Indians in his household.

In addition to ranch activities, Seledon owned the ferry that crossed the Rio Grande River, above the subsequent location of the historic Lobato Bridge. The ferry served the diagonal route between Conejos and the town of San Luis in Costilla County, prior to the era of the railroad and motorized vehicles.

According to the family history compiled by Amy F. Naranjo, the great-great granddaughter of Seledon Valdez, the Colorado Territorial government granted a charter for this ferry to Joseph Jacques and Joseph Garcia, but the owner and operator of the ferry was Seledon. This ferry was called variously Valdez’s Ferry or Celededon’s Ferry, according to Naranjo.

In Ruth Marie Colville’s book “La Vereda: A Trail through Time,” rates for crossing on the ferry are given, suggesting that it was a good way to earn cash at that time. A wagon with two animals was charged 50 cents, carriage and animal one dollar, 5 cents for a person on foot, and 10 cents each for livestock such as sheep, goats, and hogs. The ferryman’s identity is not reported, but we might assume that he was paid very little or nothing at all if he was a slave.

Legend has it that when the Valdez adobe home was demolished in the 1930s, $60,000 worth of gold bars were found in its walls. If true, Seledon Valdez had been a successful man in this corner of Conejos County known as La Isla.