Barela, Casimirio (1847 – 1920)
During the troubled summer of 1864, citizens of Denver
City were too angry to take much note of the lethargic state of
affairs in southern Colorado Territory. The Civil War had caused
problems out west, and bold Arapahoe and Cheyenne warriors
had all but cut off supplies to the infant city. Troops were training
at Camp Chambers, near Boulder City. A campaign against the
Indians during the fall was imminent. If it failed, the swelling
tide of American civilization in Colorado might be halted for
many years to come. Certainly, no one in 1864 cared about the
poor New Mexican padres outfitting caravans in Taos and Mora
for their annual journeys over Raton Pass to the squalid collection of adobe hovels called Trinidad.
Ever since the founding of San Luis in the great southern
valley during 1851, modest numbers of Hispanic immigrants
had filtered into the sage-covered lands bordering the Sangre
de Cristo Mountains. When Colorado became a separate territory in 1861, their poor communities were carved out of New
Mexico Territory. The inhabitants became isolated politically,
economically, and socially. Most Americans in Denver and in
the gold camps could have cared less about them. The Indians
were the immediate problem. As long as the Mexicans remained
confined to the southern portion of the territory, they posed no
threat to the glorious pageant of Manifest Destiny being played
out up north. The politicians in Washington had made them an
instant minority group within the boundaries of the new territory, and the Anglo-Saxon population wholeheartedly approved.
Consequently, no one knew, and no one cared, about a seventeen-year-old lad by the name of Casimiro Barela, who made
the hard trip over Raton Pass that summer in the company of
the padres. The youth immediately fell in love with the new
land. Being the son of a poor farmer and freighter, he returned
to New Mexico in time for the harvest. Within three years,
however he returned with his family to the valley of San Francisco Creek, twenty miles from Trinidad, to start a farm. Soon
the citizens of Denver would know the name -- Casimiro Barela.
Beginning in 1876, this immigrant from New Mexico would
begin a tenure in the Colorado State Senate which would last
until 1916 -- one of the longest of any state senator in the history
of the United States.
Casimiro Barela was born on March 4, 1847, in the town of
Embudo, in what became New Mexico Territory. Educated by
the clergy in the local mission churches, Casimiro showed extraordinary academic aptitude and leadership ability at an early
age. When he migrated to Colorado at age twenty, he came
prepared with a plan to start a small freighting business. After
staking out quarter sections under the Homestead Act, the
Barela clan planted grain and raised cattle. In the fall, the Barelas
took their produce in wagons to be sold at Fort Union and other
isolated way stations along the old Santa Fe Trail. A little village
grew up on the family's land, and they named it, appropriately,
In March 1867, Casimiro briefly returned to New Mexico to
marry Josefita Ortiz in the chapel at El Sapello. He brought his
new bride to Colorado and settled down to a life which would
bring him many financial and political rewards.
Within five years, Casimiro's genius for business made him
a very successful man. With early profits, he started a sheep
ranch. He invested in the budding open range business. He
imported over 1,200 head of Texas Longhorns into Barela to
stock his growing ranch. From there his investments and corresponding wealth multiplied, extending to railroads, real estate,
During the 1870s, Barela built "El Porvenir," a
veritable castle at the base of a small mountain. The luxurious
stone mansion was resplendant with drawbridges, gardens,
and reflecting pools. Turreted spires allowed Casimiro to look
down upon his sheep and cattle empire below the village named
for his family.
In 1871, Casimiro Barela went to Denver as a territorial representative from newly organized Las Animas County. His commanding use of the English language spoken with an eloquent
Spanish accent immediately impressed his fellow legislators. In
1875, he was chosen to be one of the forty-nine delegates to the
convention that drafted the Colorado state constitution. At
Barela's urging, the laws of the new state were printed in English,
Spanish, and German. In arguing his case, Barela exclaimed,
"You may say that ignorance of the law does not excuse the
breaking of it. I say it is the only excuse."
With statehood in
1876, Barela was elected senator from Las Animas County and
thus began a career which extended into the second decade of
the twentieth century.
Casimiro's wife, Josefita, died in 1883. Within a year he married Damiana Rivera, a wealthy woman from New Mexico. The
senator built yet another town, naming it Rivera in honor of
his new bride. His own assets combined with those acquired
through this second marriage elevated Barela to a position of
wealth unequaled among the Hispanic peoples of southern Colorado. By the mid-1880s, he was one of the three wealthiest
stockmen in the state. His horses were recognized as among
the finest in the nation. From his famous sire, Senator, came
many of the noblest quarter horses and polo ponies to ever
please the tastes of eastern sophisticates. In business and private
life, Casimiro Barela was very successful.
More notable than his financial accomplishments, however,
is his record of achievement in helping the Hispanic people of
Colorado while concurrently displaying the pragmatic political
sense to keep himself in a position of power during an age of
severe racial prejudice. By the dawn of the twentieth century,
Casimiro Barela had set the state well on the path toward listening to the concerns of people in southern Colorado. But the
task was not an easy one.
Throughout his long career, Barela used his eloquence as a
speaker to advance his many causes. Not without a sharp
temper, he had the ability to out-shout the best of them on the
floor of the Senate. He always seemed to get his point of view
across in boisterous fashion. Within a very short time, many
people believed that Casimiro Barela would become a major
force in the Colorado Senate. And they were right.
In order to garner political support and inform Hispanic
people about his activity in the Senate, Casimiro Barela established two printing businesses. Las Dos Republicas was centered
in Denver where Hispanics were starting to congregate toward
the end of the nineteenth century. The other press, EI Progresso,
was located in Trinidad to serve his constituents in Las Animas
County. Leaflets and news releases, printed in Spanish, frequently rolled off the giant iron presses and were distributed,
Casimiro Barela did not go unchallenged by his numerous
enemies. During a speech delivered to the people of Hoehne,
Colorado, on Halloween evening of 1896, that point was made
all too clear. No one seemed to notice a window being raised
on the second story of an adjacent wood frame building as
Senator Barela rose to speak. Within a few moments, five shots
rang out across the plaza. People screamed. The senator fell to
the ground, blood flowing down his cheek.
was only grazed. But the crowd wanted action. A posse was
organized to round up two men who had been seen fleeing
down a dusty alley. "We'll hang them on the spot," was the
violent reaction from the incensed crowd. Barela motioned them
to be quiet. "Violence," he said, "is not the answer. Let the law
take its course."
By 1900, opposition to Barela and the concerns of the Hispanic
population in southern Colorado increased. Anglo opponents
forced close elections in Las Animas County after that time.
After one especially hard-fought campaign, Barela won re-election to the Senate by a very slim margin. His opponent insisted
that the election had been unfair. He claimed election fraud.
Showing no anger, Casimiro Barela offered his defeated opponent $100 to help pay for the protest. After a recount, Barela
was once again returned to the Senate.
Despite his staunch stands and unrelenting desire to help his
people, Senator Barela maintained the cool political sense necessary to flow with changing times. After the administration of
Populist Governor Davis Waite was blamed for the depression
of 1893, both Populist and Democrat alike were out of favor
with most Colorado voters. After 1901, reform sentiment, which
culminated with the regulatory changes spearheaded by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, was taking the nation by
storm. With the dawn of a new century, Casimiro Barela thus
switched his allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Consequently, he was able to win reelection in 1902,
sweeping in on the coattails of Governor James Peabody. To
strike a balance between the interests of his Hispanic constituents and the interests of the state as a whole, Barela very
shrewdly supported popular stands in Colorado. He was an
ardent supporter of the silver standard, populism in the 1890s,
and the progressive movement of the early 1900s.
By the turn of the century, Barela depended more and more
on Anglo votes to remain in office. Finally, in 1916, it all came
to an end. Barela was defeated for the Senate by Wesley De
Busk. For the first time in forty years he was not returned to
the state capitol. He retired to Rivera, where he spent the remainder of his life in seclusion. On December 18, 1920, the "perpetual
senator" peacefully passed away. He was buried in the old
cemetery at Trinidad.
Today, the prairie winds blow wild across the weathered remains of the old town of Barela, Colorado. The community is
no longer on maps, but the ambitions of its founder, Casimiro
Barela, are still very much alive. Barela was successful during
his generation because of his unusual sense of pragmatism. He
was, after all, "el patron." Ever since the early settlement of
southern Colorado, the Mexican plaza system of community
development had its political patrons. These local politicians
received political support in return for the obligation of providing employment and political favors for their constituents in
the villages. After 1876, Casimiro Barela transferred this age-old
concept to the state level. By that time, however, the arrival in
Trinidad of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway and the eventual
discovery of coal in southern Colorado brought ever-increasing
numbers of Anglos into Las Animas and adjacent counties.
resulting cultural conflict doomed the plaza system and impoverished many Hispanics. Casimiro Barela witnessed this collapse. He remained in power only so long as he was able to
bridge the gap between the interests of the two ethnic groups
in his constituency and in the state at large. When he left office,
much of his cause fell silent for a time.
Western History Department,
Denver Public Library.