Huerfano County, Colorado
The Many Lives of Red St. Vrain Bransford
NOTICE All data and photos on this website are Copyrighted by Karen Mitchell. Duplication of this data or photos is strictly forbidden without legal written permission by the Copyright holder.
By Priscilla Shannon Gutiérrez
Note: The author is indebted to Christine St. Vrain and Jeff Bransford, both descendents of Red, who have been invaluable in providing information and insight. Christine was kind enough to review the manuscript prior to submission. This article was initially printed in Wagon Tracks Magazine.
In general, the historical record has not been very kind to women, in spite of the critical role they've played in how history turns out. Many of the male figures synonymous with The Santa Fe Trail and the history of the West cemented their ties with one another through marriage as well as business. And it was not uncommon for them to become related through their wives. But very little information about the women they married is in print and often requires extensive research to bring their stories to light. One of the most fascinating stories is that of Red St. Vrain Bransford, whose life spanned five decades across Wyoming , Colorado, and New Mexico territories.
Red came onto the historical scene in 1840 at the age of thirteen as the bride of Marcellin St. Vrain, youngest brother of Cerán. She was born in 1827, somewhere near Pine Ridge, South Dakota into the Oglala-Teton family of the famous Lakotah Chief Red Cloud. Red was likely a cousin or niece of the chief, either by kinship or blood. Some accounts have her name as Spotted Fawn when Marcellin married her, but she quickly became known as Red. This may have been a reference to her reddish colored hair or a name that Marcellin gave in reference to her family lineage. Whatever the origins of the name, it wasn't long before Marcellin began calling her Royal Red because he considered the tender young bride his princess.
The exact location where Marcellin paid for Red to be his bride isn't known, but probably occurred in the Fort Bridger area in western Wyoming. Fort Bridger was located on the traditional hunting grounds of the Oglala-Teton and represented the western terminus of the Taos Trappers' Trail . At the time, Marcellin worked as the majordomo at Fort St. Vrain, another trading post on the trail near present-day Platteville, Colorado. The expanding trade business frequently brought Marcellin up north to Fort Bridger. On one of his trading forays Red caught his eye, and as was customary with the Lakotah, Marcellin paid for her in horses.
At some point shortly after the marriage, the couple headed back to Fort St. Vrain. Built in 1837 by the St. Vrain-Bent enterprise, the trading outpost was a scaled-down version of Bent's Fort on the Arkansas. For a number of years Fort St. Vrain was a prominent way-station on the trail that often hosted well-known figures. John C. Fremont, with Kit Carson as guide, stopped at the fort in 1842 during his first expedition. And Dick Wootton ran the first courier service between Bent's Fort, Fort St. Vrain and Fort Laramie around the same time.
When Red arrived at the fort as a tender young bride, the Bent-St. Vrain enterprise was doing a brisk business in the area with traders such as Calvin Jones and William Bransford carrying freight back and forth between trading posts. Whether managing the fort or out on the trail, Marcellin was known for his antics, his drinking, and his wrestling ability. As the youngest son, he'd been the last to leave; and his indulgent youth meant Marcellin was accustomed to having a good time.
He apparently treated Red well and it wasn't long before she found herself in love with the Frenchman. Two years into the marriage, the couple welcomed Felix, their first son into the world. A second son, Charles was born in 1844, and daughter Mary Louise arrived in 1846. All three children were born at the trading post.
During the year 1849, their playmates included George Bent. A cholera epidemic on the Southern Plains had brought William Bent and his family north to the trading post where the group remained for several years, alongside the St. Vrain family, and the trappers who worked for them. George Bent fondly recalled the years he lived at Fort St. Vrain as happy ones. Charles St. Vrain had a somewhat different view of his childhood recalling his frustration over being penned inside the post. The gates were perpetually shut, cutting off any opportunity to play or explore beyond the fort's walls. One occurrence that did get him outside was the suicide of a young Native woman who hung herself on one of the nearby cottonwoods.
As if that wasn't enough to shake things up, shortly after Mary Louise's birth, Marcellin began to shows signs of mental instability A wrestling match with one of the Cheyenne braves who'd come to the fort the previous summer had culminated in the Indian's death, throwing Marcellin into a panic that he would be killed in revenge. Given the Natives' aversion to people who were “touched” by mental illness, Marcellin may have used this as a means to avoid further confrontration. But his condition continued to deteriorate to the point where he was incapable of fulfilling his responsibilities at the trading post. Cerán, fearing for his safety, arranged for his youngest brother to be escorted back east to Missouri. On March 1, 1848, with William Bent and Alexander Barclay at the helm, Marcellin began the trip east, spending most of the trip laid up in a Dearborn. By the time they got to Missouri, Marcellin was in a state of complete mental exhaustion.
Meanwhile Red and the children remained in Cerán's care anxiously awaiting Marcellin's return. Day after day, Red climbed the rise above Fort St. Vrain and stood for hours gazing east, looking for some sign of her husband. Unbeknowst to her, Red's vigil for her man was in vain. A mere year after he'd left his frontier family behind, Marcellin married a local Missouri woman by the name of Elizabeth Jane Murphy. Likely, the St. Vrain family beseeched Marcellin to abandon the West that had seemingly broken him and remain in the civilized world. For years after, Red still climb the rise, hoping the man she loved would return.
He didn't, but in 1851 Marcellin sent for Felix and Charles, determined that his sons be raised as St. Vrain men of breeding. Realizing that Marcellin was leaving her behind for good must have been heartbreaking for Red, especially after faithfully holding vigil for him. And as her two sons rode out, she must have wondered if their lives would ever intersect again. As fate would have it, Red was not to see Felix again. The Civil War twelve years later would claim him, a victim of smallpox at Vicksburg while a prisoner of the Union Army. And though Charles would return west in 1901, eventually settling in Sopris, CO, there is no existing evidence that Red ever saw him again either.
With Marcellin and his nephews now gone, Cerán took on the well-being of Red and niece Mary. Remaining at the old trading post was out of the question. The fur trade was in decline and the partnership with Bent had long been dissolved. Cerán could better provide for Red and Mary if they were close by. He made arrangements for them to be brought to his home in Taos. Her departure from the fort must have been an emotional one for Red - she was leaving behind the place where she had come to womanhood and known so much happiness . She would not return to the Fort St. Vrain area during her lifetime. Fate had others plans for her further south.
When Red got to Taos she met up again with William Bransford, who had left Bent's employ and was now clerking for St. Vrain. Back when he was trading at Fort St. Vrain, Bransford couldn't help but notice the pretty young woman. It didn't take long for him to become smitten and several offers of marriage to Red went unheeded. But Bransford refused to give up, especially now that Marcellin was officially out of the picture. As the months passed, Red began to consider Bransford's proposals, wondering if perhaps it was time to move on herself.
For one thing, they wouldn't be staying in Taos very long. Cerán had begun constructing a home in Mora, on the other side of the mountains and preparations to move there were underway. Fort Union had recently been established fifteen miles east of Mora and presented an opportunity to expand business. When completed, Cerán's large adobe home sat alongside the main road in town at the juncture with the road north to the Moreno Valley. A mill was completed nearby in 1855. Initially a white frame building, after a fire the mill was rebuilt of stone and continued to operate under various owners until 1922. Remarkably, the building remains standing to this day alongside the banks of the Mora River. Cerán's adobe is still there as well, converted some years ago into a tavern and liquor store.
After following his employer, St. Vrain to Mora, William Bransford began to pursue Red in earnest, and managed to convince the woman he could provide a good life for her. She was still young and deserved at least that much. Red and Mary left the elder St. Vrain's home and took up residence with William in a nearby adobe. Not long after, in 1854, the first of the seven Bransford children was born, a boy named Alexander. Virginia followed three years later, then another daughter Annie arrived in 1859. The couple officially tied the knot just before the 1860 census where Red was duly recorded as Maria Manuel Rel Bransford. She was still a young woman at twenty-four, but already had brought six children into the world.
The Bransford family remained active in the Mora area for the next decade. They added another daughter, Amelia in 1861, and two more sons – William in 1863, then Charles B. in 1865. As the years passed, Bransford's business ventures continued to grow as well as his family. In addition to his work with Cerán, William clerked at Fort Union and Cimarrón for a time, then ran cattle for Lucien Maxwell up on the Purgatory or Picketwire at the extreme northern fringe of the vast Beaubien-Maxwell Grant. He knew the area from earlier forays with livestock for Bent and St. Vrain and Bransford had liked what he saw. The fledgeling town of Trinidad on the Vigil-St. Vrain Grant was rapidly expanding and there was some good pasturage along the riverbottoms nearby.
Back in Mora, Mary Louise had matured into quite a young lady. In 1863, at the age of 15, she married John R. Skelly, a Trinidad businessman who'd been in the area since the 1850's. After the wedding, the couple moved to Trinidad. Later on Mary would run a boarding house for her mother and step-father while Skelly continued to manage his popular gambling room and dance hall - also used as a courthouse whenever the territorial judge was in town. Later Skelly would add a bowling alley to his list of establishments throughout Trinidad. They would have two children – William and Cora. But the marriage was not meant to last. Skelly passed away in 1879 when William was only nine years old.
Several years into the marriage, Mary Louise decided to make her first trip east to Missouri to visit Marcellin and her brothers. Many years had passed since their last encounter and we are left to wonder what sort of recollections she had of Marcellin. Her father now had a farm and gristmill along Spencer Creek in Rolls County where he lived with his second wife and their numerous children. Charles, now a grown man, would marry a local girl by the name of Mary J. Cope. Felix was gone – their goodbyes at Fort St. Vrain had been their last. Given the changes that had taken place in the intervening years, the reunion at first must have been overwhelming for the extended St. Vrain family. Mary evidently enjoyed the trip enough to return for a second visit later.
The year was now 1865, and William Sr. was ready to make a move. After loading up their possessions the Bransford clan trekked north over Raton Pass, then took up residence in town, joining Mary Louise's family . Not long after their arrival Red and William began operating a boarding house, where they rented several jacals or small residences on the property to visitors . Boarders often sat around the front porch - a favorite spot for watching passersbys, especially during the warm weather. And Red's good cooking brought in a steady stream of paying customers. Later, when the Bransfords moved out of town to a nearby ranch, Mary filled in for them. The Columbian Hotel that currently stands at First and Commercial Street in Trinidad was built on the site of the old Bransford boarding house.
Another arrival in the Trinidad area around the time was Casimiro Barela and his family. The future Colorado politician migrated there from Mora where he had completed his schooling under the local priest and also ran a store for his father in the Los Luceros area near present-day Española. Barela was destined to become the first Latino legislator in Colorado. The Bransford and Barela families would later become neighbors when both built ranches in San Francisco Canyon, a few miles east of town.
In 1867, while still a newcomer to the Trinidad area, Red gave birth to Jefferson, the last of the St. Vrain-Bransford brood. She may have been pregnant before they left Mora – we cannot know for sure. Amazingly, Red was 44 years old at the time, had birthed seven children from two very different fathers and had lived in three different states. With the exception of Felix, all of Red's children would survive both her and William.
Trinidad quickly grew in population and size, numbering some 200 residents by 1868. That year the territorial legislature voted to detach much of the southern section of Huerfano County and create the new county of Las Animas, with Trinidad as the new county seat. William was appointed the first postmaster and became known for making the rounds with the mail tucked under his hat. In addition to postmaster, Bransford's later civic roles would include school treasurer, country treasurer and police magistrate.
The family's financial prospects continued to improve, especially when the territorial legislature officially incorporated the mercantile group of Trinidad Town Company, organized by Bransford, Juan Ignacio Alires and Felipe Baca, among others. By then, William had enough means to build something more accommodating for his large clan. He and Casimiro had been eyeing the canyons just outside of town for potential homesteads. They found what they were looking for on the Rito del Ogadero, 20 miles east of town. Its canyon had good drainage to the Purgatoire, there was a dependable supply of game and enough forage for livestock to be raised there. Bransford laid claim and gained title for some land just upstream from Barela. Two groves of trees and a cornfield separated the two homesteads. Not long after moving there, at Bransford's and Barela's urging, the canyon's name was changed to San Francisco.
William's spread eventually grew to several thousand head of cattle. Later, Casimiro would become known for his horses and many a race was held at his ranch, including a famous one against Lucien Maxell's quick steed. Later the community would take the name of Barela in honor of Casimiro's prominence in local and state politics.
After Skelly's death, Mary took the children and moved to the ranch with her mother and step-father. Red was spending most of her time their now and took grandson William under her wing. He already was very familiar with the ranch, having spent several years earlier living there. Red doted on him, often favoring William over her own sons, some of whom were near her grandson's age. She'd already made William a handsome dressed deerskin outfit, complete with beads. And on the rare occasion that candy was to be found, grandson William always got a piece even if it meant one of Red's own sons went without.
William later recalled that visitors to the ranch included Buffalo Bill Cody, whom Red had known as a young girl in Wyoming and at Fort St. Vrain. Cody was stationed at Fort Lyon at the time and enlisted Red to accompany him to parlay with the Utes and Cheyennes. Trouble was brewing and the two tribes planned to meet up with the Apaches and Comanches from the south to rise in revolt. Accompanying Red and Cody was a small Ute boy who worked on the ranch and had been raised by Red. Somehow Cody managed to find the two tribes and Red was able to convince them, at least temporarily, against an uprising.
When talking about Red, William expressed fond memories of the ranch in the canyon. Often his grandmother would take William out for long walks, pointing northeast in the direction of Bent's Fort and beyond or north where her Lakotah relatives roamed above the Platte. And although she'd never been there, Red told him of New Orleans, where the mighty Mississippi emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. The walks with his grandmother represented young William's first geography lessons.
In 1876, when news of the Battle of the Little Bighorn reached her, the news hit hard. Jefferson, her youngest recalled a night when his mother sat crying beside the fire, mourning the dead on both sides. For days afterward Red kept to herself, weeping often. She'd been aware of the battles raging across the territories just to the north, but long ago had recognized how futile it was to try to fight the white man. Many of the chiefs she had known since childhood would perish in the fighting and Crazy Horse, her nephew would meet his end long before he ever got onto a reservation.
To make matters worse, her husband's health had been deteriorating. Time was catching up to both of them. On December 6th, 1881, at 71 years of age, William Bransford suffered a massive stroke. He never regained consciousness. His obituary in the Trinidad Observer commented on how many hearts across Colorado and New Mexico would be touched by his passing.
After William's death, Red was never quite the same. She often would wonder off into the foothills early in the morning, staying for hours at a time. As she roamed the hillsides, Red must have revisited the decades, looking back on the many lives she'd had since that day long ago when Marcellin had taken her for his bride. So much to think on - her life had taken so many different turns.
At some point, deteriorating health forced Red to move back into town, where she took up residence. For some time, Red regularly attended Mass at the Catholic Church in town. It was a short walk from her home, just a few blocks north of the old boarding house, now known as the Grand Hotel. And Red's home where she spent the last months of her life is now the Trinidad Pioneer Museum.
On April 12, 1886, Red St. Vrain Bransford passed away at the age of 53. Her obituary appeared in the Trinidad Advertiser the following day, listing her time of death as 7 p.m. The writer, a one-time boarder with Red and William, proclaimed his great respect for her, but somehow confused Marcellin with his more famous brother , and listed Red as the widow of Colonel Cerán St. Vrain. Today, a large stone monument stands in the older section of the Catholic Cemetery in Trinidad, commemorating the lives of both Mr. and Mrs. William Bransford.
All of Red's children, with the exception of Charles, survived her passing. The youngest, Jefferson, would cowboy in Arizona and New Mexico, and gain a bit of notoriety as witness to Billy the Kid's demise at Pete Maxwell's house near Fort Sumter. William and granddaughter, Cora would take the name Sopris when their mother, Mary Louise married Trinidad businessman General Elbridge Sopris in 1889. Charles had fond memories of Sopris as a step-father, stating he and his sister were well cared for. The family moved west of town where the community became known as Sopris, in honor of the General's many accomplishments. The town continued to have residents until the damming of the Purgatoire for Trinidad Lake State Park in 1977 forced them out.
That same year, Charles St. Vrain would bring his family out west, spending the rest of his days in the Trinidad area, riding and walking the very same paths his mother had just a few years before. It may well be that Mary Louise, during her earlier visits to Missouri, tried to convince Charles to return with her to visit their mother. Alas, perhaps too much time had passed, too much change had left its mark and Charles felt things were better left as they were. There is no indication to-date that he came to Colorado prior to Red's death. But Red's descendents continue to hope that oneday, documents will surface that confirm whether Charles ever did see his mother again. Time will tell.
In the meantime, all we can do is admire the incredible woman, Red St. Vrain Bransford, who played such an important, although little-known role in the St. Vrain family; and who contributed much to history and to the development of the town of Trinidad and Las Animas County. Hers is a long overdue story that deserves to be told.
Fridtjof Halaas, D. & Masich, A.E. Halfbreed. The Remarkable True Story of George Bent. (Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Press 2004).
Sopris, William R. (1945) My grandmother, Mrs. Marcellin St. Vrain. Colorado Magazine, March 1945 XXII (2) pp. 63-68.
Hammond, George (1976). The Adventures of Alexander Barclay. Denver, CO: Fred A. Rosenstock Old West Publishing Company.
Marchi, Ray. (2003). A Brief History of the St. Vrain Mill in Mora. http://www.moravalley.com/st_vrain_mill.htm
United States 1860 Census, Mora, NM.
Cragin, Francis W. Early Far West Notebook IX, 23-25, 40
Fernandez, Jose E. (2003). The Biography of Casimiro Barela. Translated by A. Gabriel Melendez. Albuquerque, NM , UNM Press. pp.8-9
Taylor, Morris F. (1966). Trinidad, Colorado Territory. Trinidad, CO. Trinidad State College.
Sopris, William R. (1945) My grandmother, Mrs. Marcellin St. Vrain. Colorado Magazine, March 1945 XXII (2) pp. 63-68.
Sopris, William. (2006). Red St. Vrain Bransford. Oral History. Huerfano County Colorado. Karen Mitchell. http://www.kmitch.com/Huerfano/oral180.html
xii Trinidad Advertiser, April 13, 1886
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