Rabbitbrush Rambler: West side story, Part I

Settlers arrived on the west side of the Rio Grande River in 1854, three years after those on the east side earning San Luis the title of the oldest permanent town in what would become Colorado. Even much earlier, both sides of the river had Mexican land grants — the Sangre de Cristo and the Guadalupe — in the 1830s, and herders had occasionally brought flocks to the west side during summer seasons. It had not lured settlers at that time, though, due to Indian hostility.

A petition for a community grant was resubmitted for the Conejos Grant in the 1840s. Its land extended all the way from San Antonio Mountain to La Garita Creek, although when settlement first got started in the 1850s, the early occupants clustered along the Conejos River, the San Antonio River, and La Jara Creek, where streams provided good water for acequias. 

With available land becoming scarce in the areas of Abiquiú in the Rio Arriba area, El Rito, and Ojo Caliente, a party had determined to move north in 1854, with Jesús Maria Jáques chosen as their leader. Satisfied with the prospect for colonizing, they returned home and prepared to move in October with their livestock, supplies, and families.

Originally, they had selected a spot called El Cedro Redondo, between today’s San Rafael (Paisaje) and  Las Mesitas, but this time they chose a location about four miles to the east on the north side of the river, opposite today’s Conejos town, and named it Guadalupe. Lafayette Head, a soldier from Missouri in the Army of the West, who had become a trader was in this second group. 

During that first winter they built shelters with logs hauled by the young Vicente Velásquez’s yoke of oxen. The structures, called jacales, were built with vertical poles and formed a rectangular plaza where animals could be kept at night and guarded by watchmen.

In the early spring of 1855, Indians made off with much of the livestock while it was being herded to pasture, so another trip south had to be made to replenish the flocks. Nevertheless, some grain was grown that year, and by 1856 Jáques had a mill running with water power.

In the that year a jacal was built for use as an orotorio and was dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the plaza’s patroness. Accounts differ, however, as to whether any priest had yet visited and administered sacraments. If one did, Guadalupe might boast that its humble jacal was the first church building on the west side of the Valley.

Early on, a problem existed with the location of Guadalupe, as the colonizers quickly learned, because it was prone to flooding during spring runoffs. In 1856, the enterprising Lafayette Head decided to move to higher, drier ground across the Conejos River, and others joined him there, giving birth to the plaza known as Conejos.

During Conejos’ infancy, priests from Arroyo Hondo near Taos and from Abiquiú visited a few times and it is said that the well-known Father Martinez was one. By 1857 or 1858 Conejos had a resident priest, Father Montaño, who remained until 1860, but left no records to provide any details. In any case, the first parish in the San Luis Valley was created.

We do know that in 1858 a small, narrow, adobe building started on the west side of the plaza and enlargement of the original walls soon began. The adobe, flat-roofed building was dedicated in 1863 by Bishop Lamy, who was greeted by an entourage with great ceremony at No Agua, north of Tres Piedras, and accompanied for the remainder of the journey to Conejos. 

Other illustrious events had already prompted festivities. In 1860 Congress authorized the creation of Colorado Territory, and in the following year, when the territorial government was being organized, the enormous Conejos County was created, extending all the way west to Utah and north to Lake County. Thus, Conejos became a county seat of government. Also, in 1860 the federal government had authorized an Indian agency at Conejos, and Lafayette Head was appointed as its agent.

So, Conejos was thriving, but the 1860 Congress denied the Conejos Land Grant. (To be continued.)