San Luis Valley & Colorado History


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San Luis Valley & Colorado History

Much has changed in the San Luis Valley but traditional values and practices still endure. Preserved architecture and historic downtowns flaunt the Colorado history


Cradled between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, lies the San Luis Valley. The diverse geologic and geographic features of this vast basin including lush river bottoms, an inland ocean of sand, and craggy summits reaching elevations over 14,000 feet have enticed and enthralled people since the times of Ice Age hunters.

A cavalcade of characters, some famous, some infamous, and some downright notorious, have stepped across this landscape. Diego de Vargas, Juan Bautista de Anza, Zebulon Pike, John C. Frèmont, Kit Carson, John Gunnison, Phil Sheridan, Tom Tobin, Bat Masterson, Soapy Smith, Bob Ford, Calamity Jane, Poker Alice, Chipeta and Ouray, Otto Mears, Ulysses S. Grant, Alfred/Alferd Packer—the names associated with San Luis Valley history read like a western epic.

Nomadic hunters, including Apache, Kiowa, Navajo, and Yutah (Ute) tribal people sought out the Valley’s abundant wildlife. Spanish governors were the first to provide written descriptions of the San Luis Valley before the formation of the United States. During ensuing decades, explorers, pioneers, homesteaders, land speculators, prospectors, and travel writers were attracted to the Valley’s riches. Freely flowing clean water, comforting hot springs, verdant wetlands teeming with birds, fish, and wild game, expanses of natural grass hay, majestic mountain vistas, forests and upland meadows, plus mother lode deposits of silver and gold lured these newcomers. Today, as you travel any of the routes into the San Luis Valley, you will be struck by the expansive landscapes, rugged mountains, and endless blue skies.

By the 1850s, Hispanic settlers from New Mexico had migrated into the San Luis Valley to establish small plazas within land grants issued by the Mexican governor in Santa Fe. These pioneers gave birth to the permanent settling of Colorado. Soon after, people from a variety of backgrounds seeking mineral wealth, free land, or frontier experiences joined the progression.

The State’s oldest town is here, and Colorado’s first parish church still holds Mass every Sunday. Colorado’s earliest adjudicated water rights flow within the San Luis Valley and the State’s oldest business, R&R Grocery, is still open. Colorado’s first territorial governor, William Gilpin, and lieutenant governor, Lafayette Head, had ties to the San Luis Valley. The Valley gave Colorado its first national wildlife area and it’s first national monument. Here the State also built its first facility to honor and care for war veterans.

The Summitville gold rush rivaled the fame of Pike’s Peak. Colorado’s richest silver mines lured an even broader array of migrants into the San Luis Valley’s cultural mix. Rail towns, farm towns, and supply towns emerged as the railroad spread into the mountains and across the Valley floor. Agriculture finally became the sustaining foundation for the Valley’s economy. Today, center pivots irrigate crop circles of potatoes, barley, wheat, alfalfa, and other crops.

While much has changed within the Valley, traditional values and cultural practices still endure. Well-preserved architecture and historic downtowns evoke the past. Whatever your interests, exploring the San Luis Valley’s colorful history and vast beauty can make its legacy part of your Colorado heritage experience.

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