Huerfano County, Colorado

Contributed by: Louise Adams
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.
This history was written for the Huerfano World Newspaper by Nancy Christopherson starting Jan. 31, 1991. The articles were written in celebration of Huerfano County's 130th birthday.

Although Colorado did not enter the union for another 15 years, on Aug. 1, 1876, it became a territory of the United States on Feb. 28, 1861. President James Buchanan signed the territorial act just four days before leaving office. William Gilpin of Missouri was named first territorial governor.

Huerfano was one of the original 17 counties of the new territory and comprised a huge area stretching from the Arkansas River south along the summits of the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the New Mexico border. The eastern boundary was the Kansas border. Tucked in beside it along the Arkansas was an Indian reservation. It was estimated that this vast expanse contained fewer than 50 people, or about one person per 150 square miles.

The first county seat was at Charlie Autobees' plaza at the junction of the Huerfano and Arkansas Rivers, established around 1853. This, of course, is now in Pueblo county, or would be if erosion and vandals hadn't taken their toll.

The location was chosen because of population. There were seven or eight families living along the lower Huerfano between Autobees' and Doyle's ranches, about 18 miles apart. The next largest settlement was around Fort Wise, later Fort Lyon. There were also budding communities along the Santa Fe Trail, notably at Grey's Creek near Trinidad.

Because of the vast distances involved in traveling through the original county, not to mention the complete lack of communication outside of mounted messengers, the formation of Huerfano's first government took some time.

When an election was held is unknown, but the first commissioners were Joseph B. Doyle, Charles Autobees and Norton W. Welton. Doyle was elected chairman on Oct. 19, 1861.

In November, voting places in the five precincts were set at Charles Autobees' home, Joseph Doyle's ranch, St. Vrain's ranch at the home of B.R. Boice, James Gray's ranch and the Sutler's store at Ft. Wise.

Between November and April, the following officials were announced to be elected or appointed: George S. Simpson, clerk and recorder; Donald McKeith, sheriff; Norton W. Welton, assessor; Benjamin Patterson, coroner and James P. Craig, surveyor. Justices of the peace included James Horan, Rufino Wilkins, William R. Walker, Gilbert Huntington, Hiram Hammil, Juan D. Autobees and Gabriel Gutirez. Joseph Doyle was named Judge of Probate.

In a meeting on Dec. 19, 1861, the county commissioners changed the county seat to Doyle's ranch, "temporarily." Just to make things a little more confusing, on Apr. 27, 1862, they declared the seat to be "section three on Huerfano Creek." No mention of territory or range.

The previous week, the commissioners "found taxable'' property assessed at a valuation of $88,849.50. They set the tax at two mills for the territory, five mills for the county and one mill for the schools. They also located an election precinct "at the home of B. B. Fields." No mention of territory or range.

The county clerk got to work that month too. The first marriage license recorded in Huerfano County was issued Apr. 31, 1862 to Sam B. Watrous and Rosa D. Chapin. No mean feat since April has but 30 days.

An election to select a permanent site for a county seat was set for Sept. 1, 1863. It would be instructive to know how many voted, but all that is recorded is that the "county seat [will be] located at the Ft. Union crossing of the Huerfano from Greenhorn." No mention of, well, you know. It was probably the Butte Valley settlement.

Also during the Sept. 1 election, James S. Gray, B.R. Boice and Jonathan B. Rice were elected commissioners. On Mar. 14, 1864, deputy county clerk Alex W. Robb certified the election of Rice as chairman pro tem of the commissioners.

Ironically, Probate Judge Doyle was believed to have had the first recorded document in the county - his will. Since there was no probate judge after his death, Benjamin B. Fields was appointed.

Other early decisions made by the commissioners included recognizing brands in use, transferring deeds and accepting license bonds for grocery stores. Some of the first bonds went to Duncan McKeith at Huerfano, Charles Ramon, Trinidad, N.W. Welton, Leander Philbrook, Rufino Wilkins, John Skelley, Trinidad, Gabriel Gutierez, Trinidad and Antonio Sotello Pino. Constables appointed included Albert W. Archibald, Thomas Suaso, and Martin Elkins.

In accordance with a state legislative act of 1862, in May, 1864, the commissioners were compelled to decide whether to issue permission for a toll road to cross the county. The road would run from three miles south of Hicklin's ranch on the Greenhorn where the Ft. Union and Ft. Garland roads separate, along the base of the mountains to a point on the Huerfano River one-half mile above the crossing of the Pueblo to Ft. Garland road, thence west to the County boundary and across Sangre de Cristo Pass. This evidently made more sense in 1864 because the commissioners approved it. At least we know from this that there were at least two roads in the county previous to the toll road charter!

Another piece of interesting reading in the old county records is the description of the property William Craig leased for a fort. This one even gives "specifics," such as "one Spanish league below the mouth of the St. Charles River in the northwest corner of the Las Animas grant." The lease was signed by Brevet Brigadier General R.B. Marcy of the U.S. Army and cost $1 annually for 15 years.

Craig undoubtedly planned to open a store at the post, which became Ft. Reynolds just east of Pueblo.

The records are far from complete and are all handwritten, which makes them often illegible due to faded ink, weird spellings and occasional lapses of care or attention.

The 1866 election brought in County Commissioner Mat Riddlebarger, Assessor Malachi Murray, Sheriff Z.G. Allen and County Clerk John H. Brown. By this time, the county boundaries had been changed to include less territory. However, the population was growing steadily, if not rapidly, and there were more than a dozen voting places listed in the various precincts. Las Animas County, which included Baca County, was also sliced off of the original Huerfano.

By 1870, the county seat had been located at Badito for four years. Since the community was "an isolated point in the county," the county officials could not find homes or lodging there. Therefore the powers that were decided that the county clerk would be located at "Bute Valley post office" and the treasurer and sheriff at the house of J.D. Patterson, which was near the St. Mary settlement. Commissioners at this time were John W. Brown, chairman, Jose Mario Jaques and Besente Gomes. In October, the commissioners were Brown, A.F. Seabring and Visento Gomez. See what we mean about spellings!

The toll road had been completed because in March, 1871, tolls were set for both the Sangre de Cristo and Cucharas Wagon Roads. They were: wagon or vehicle drawn by one animal, 50; wagon or vehicle drawn by two animals, 75; each additional pair, 25; loose cattle, horses, jacks, per head, 10; loose sheep, goats, hogs, per head, 1; animal and rider, 25.

On October 9, 1871, newly elected officials were A.F. Seabring, chairman, Ramon Pacheco and Benjamin Doss, county commissioners, Thomas Sproull, sheriff; John H. Brown, clerk; John F. Reed, probate judge; Benton Canon, treasurer, John Albert, assessor; A.J. Thomas, school superintendent. Interpreters hired were David Tobin, Antonio de la Riva and William L. Harmes.

The commissioners set Oct. 23, 1871 for an election to choose a county seat for good and all. Oct. 23 came and went. Another election was scheduled for Sept. 10, 1872. At this time, Walsenburg was selected. The last meeting in Badito was July 6, 1872; the first in Walsenburg was Oct. 7. All officials were to move to the new county seat, all but John Brown, the clerk, who chose to remain at Butte Valley!

Before Huerfano County was permanently settled, it was widely known because of the number of travellers through its boundaries. First, Indian tribes were in the area as early as 1000 A.D., then came Spaniards from the south and French from the north.

As early as 1716 when the New Mexico governor, Don Antonio Valverde Casio, came to the Huerfano River, he noted in his diary the presence of the many "roads" he encountered. The Indians, Apache and Comanche at that time, used the valleys seasonally for raising crops and hunting before returning to the plains for the winter. They also used the lower passes to cross into the San Luis Valley to hunt, trade, visit, or make war. Although accounts vary, it is possible that Valverde crossed Sangre de Cristo Pass on his return to New Mexico from northern Colorado, following one of those Indian trails.

We know the Spaniard Juan Bautista de Anza returned south over that pass. After he and his soldiers killed Chief Cuerno Verde (Greenhorn) and some of his warriors in August, 1779, he was camped near Huerfano Butte when he noticed an interesting low spot in the mountains. Following his Ute guides, Anza and his men went up the Huerfano River until they found a trail heading southwest into the mountains along a creek. Anza named it Sangre de Cristo Pass. He found the route more accessible and shorter than Raton Pass. He even noted that the trail left the Huerfano near what was later named Badito Cone. He also noticed another trail branching off west of the pass's summit - the later La Veta Pass.

Anza was a good promoter and Sangre de Cristo Pass became the preferred route from Taos to the plains.

About 1819 an anonymous report, written in French, reached New Mexican Governor Don Facundo Melgares. The report was startling because of the writer's intimate knowledge of southeastern Colorado, including statistics on population, Mexican troops, economy, fortifications, topography and "civilized" and "uncivilized" Indians. More upsetting to Melgares was the realization that the writer was familiar with the Spanish names for the Sierra Mojada (Wet Mountains), the Huerfano and the Sangre de Cristo Pass, which was called "a fairly easy footpath as far as the summit ... With little work it could be made practicable for artillery."

Melgares concluded from this report that an attack would be mounted against the lightly defended northern towns of his province. He sent a force of 700 men north to survey the areas mentioned by the Frenchman and determined that Sangre de Cristo Pass must be defended.

His men reported back that the pass would be best fortified on the northeast, although the "sides were exposed." A fort was duly built there near permanent springs and overlooking the Huerfano Valley and off to the prairies beyond. He may also have fortified another nearby pass mentioned in the French study, which he called "The Road of the Narrow Gap," which is probably Pass Creek.

The fort, a triangular adobe, was short-lived. Of the six soldiers stationed there, five were killed by "100 white men dressed as Indians," which is highly unlikely. There weren't 100 white men in the country so they probably really were Indians and undoubtedly much fewer in number. In any case, the fort was abandoned in 1820 after the attack.

In the summer of 1820, Major Stephen H. Long led a surveying party through Colorado and up "the Wharf River," as they called it. However, instead of ascending Sangre de Cristo Pass, they turned south to explore the Mesa de Maya country.

Two years later Major Jacob Fowler of Arkansas headed into Colorado with the aim of establishing trade routes from St. Louis to New Mexico. He hit the Taos Trail, by then well marked, and followed it as far as the destroyed Mexican fort. Here they camped for the night "Which Was Cold and Windey ... Was like to frees." Fowler was a fine explorer but not much of a speller.

This was January, 1822. Fowler's experiences on the cold and windy pass reached the ears of traders and trappers throughout the southwest as well as those back in Missouri who were desirous of opening new markets in Santa Fe and Taos. The Taos, or Trappers, Trail grew more popular.

Traffic picked up even more with the building of Ft. Massachusetts in the San Luis Valley in 1852. Ft. Wise also known as Bent's New Fort or Old Ft. Lyon, sent troops, mail and supply trains across Huerfano County via both Sangre de Cristo and Mosca Passes.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, many Congressmen were agitating for a transcontinental railroad to connect the East with the new state of California, admitted in 1850. John C. Fremont was chosen to find a practicable route. He led several expeditions across northern trails but was unconvinced of their safety because of the number of hostile Indians. He made one trip up the Huerfano and across Medano Pass but heavy snow ended the trip disastrously farther west.

The government then sent Captain John C. Gunnison to survey this area in 1853, still searching for that railroad route. Gunnison's party moved up the Huerfano, past the Spanish fort and quickly discovered the trail was too rough for wagons. He went west a short distance and blazed a six-mile road to the top of Sangre de Cristo Pass. Still, the road had such a tilt to it that the men were forced to rope the wagons and haul them up bodily. Gunnison was not impressed. He also explored the "broad Indian road" across Medano Pass but preferred Mosca, though not by much.

Sangre de Cristo Pass was therefore rejected as the route to California, as were our other local passes. Experts predicted that a railroad could never cross the Sangre de Cristos.

The Pass was, however, deemed possible f o r stagecoaches. Whether an easier route was found nearby or further grading on Gunnison's road was done is unknown, but a weekly stage began using Sangre de Cristo Pass on its way from Ft. Garland (which was built in 1859 to replace old Ft. Massachusetts) to Canon City about 1860.

The stage line was followed by others carrying mail and passengers. Large corrals and a way-station called Summit House were constructed on the pass.

Around 1873 Henry T. Sefton opened the Sangre de Cristo Toll Road across La Veta Pass but connected with the old Taos Trail and new stagecoach road.

The Presence of "good" roads, soldiers nearby, trade goods and mail delivery brought civilization, such as it was, to Huerfano County in the form of settlers, beginning in the mid-to-late 1850's.

Until the formation of Colorado Territory on Feb. 28, 1861, Huerfano was a part of Mora County, New Mexico Territory. The vast majority of settlers came from Mora County, most of them drawn by the Promise of free land on the Spanish land grant to Cornelio Vigil and Ceran St. Vrain, awarded in January, 1844. Both the "Rio Huerfano" and "Rio de las Cucharas" were included in the grant.

The Vigil-St. Vrain grant was one of 197 awarded in New Mexico and Colorado but, with some four million acres, it was the largest. It stretched north from the Raton Mountains to the river "Napeste" (the Arkansas), east from the Sangre de Cristos to the Purgatory and included the modern towns of Trinidad, Rocky Ford, La Junta, Las Animas and Rye as well as all of the present Huerfano County.

The two men gave shares in their grant to New Mexico Governor Manuel Armijo and Charles Bent, but settlement did not begin immediately, probably because of the war between the United States and Mexico.

After Vigil was killed in the Taos uprising of 1847, St. Vrain sent his employee Charles Autobees north to establish a settlement, which he did on the banks of the Arkansas in 1853. Several other men were sent to settle in the Trinidad area. About the same time, the French trapper "Challifou" began raising crops along the Cucharas in the vicinity of North Veta, though whether with or without St. Vrain's sponsorship is unknown.

According to several sources, the first permanent residents of present day Huerfano County were Jose Fabian Baca and his blind partner Pedro Martinez, who lived about two miles below Badito on the Huerfano. The date is unknown but it is generally accepted that these men came here in the mid -1850's. They had opened a store by 1860. The gold rush of 1859 created a demand for land, even this far south. St. Vrain therefore offered one-half mile tracts along the Huerfano for $100 each. Joseph Doyle became his real estate agent and also bought several tracts. Quite a bit of land was sold and by 1861 the lower Huerfano Valley was producing more food than any other area in Colorado.

Doyle also built a flour mill, possibly the first in the state, while Autobees, still on the Arkansas, opened a ferry. One of the first acts of the territorial congress was to grant him exclusive right to operate a ferry in that area.

There were also settlers near Gardner in the late 1850's, notably Charles Deus who made his claim in 1857, planted crops and returned in 1858 to find his claim "jumped."

Settlers who arrived here before territorial days naturally took the best sites, those in the fertile river valleys close to the major roads, namely the old Taos Trail. There were also good roads elsewhere. Both Cuchara Pass and Mosca Pass were in use so the upper valleys were easily accessible, and there was a road from Denver to Santa Fe via Trinidad, running approximately along the route of old Highway 85-87, which became popular around 1860 with the advent of stagecoach lines.

It would be exciting to know exactly which community in present Huerfano County was settled first. Even if "Plaza de la Martinez" had the first store, it never became a real community. We do know several early towns but not the dates of their establishment.

Badito was the first town of consequence. It was settled before 1860 and possibly as early as 1855. Located at an important river crossing, the name Badito is a corruption of vado, or ford, and supposedly means Little Ford. The Taos Trail crossed the Huerfano here and, early on, a store, "hotel" and livery were built.

Although most early residents of the area were Hispanics from northern New Mexico, sources indicate the first permanent resident of Badito was one F. W. Poshhoff, who is said to have opened a store in the early 1850's. He became a major supplier in the Huerfano region and opened "branch" stores in the San Luis Valley.

Most of his neighbors were sheep and cattle ranchers. Some of his best customers were the cowboys driving cattle herds north to the gold fields near Denver and to builders of the Union Pacific railroad in Wyoming. A flour mill was built in 1857 nearby by Judge Hayden.

Badito got a post office in 1865, under the name of "Little Orphan." On Sept. 12, 1865, the name was changed officially to Badito.

The county seat was moved from Autobees to Badito in 1866 but it was not until 1872 that a courthouse was built. Since the county seat was moved to Walsenburg in October of that year, the courthouse could not have had much use. The same building contained the post office and new, improved store and trading post. These are all destroyed now. The only remains of Badito, whose post office was closed in 1910, are an old adobe home, once used as a hotel, some outbuildings and the ruins of the church across the river on a hill.

Another important and prosperous community was St. Marys, about six miles downriver from Badito.

St. Marys seems to have begun life as Santa Maria Plaza. Henry T. Sefton, a certified "character," operated a store, hotel and blacksmith shop here, a stop on the Taos Trail. After the post office opened in 1865, he was a postmaster.

St. Marys was most important after the Civil War, when it became "the end of the trail" for Southerners abandoning their ruined homes and seeking new lives. They were steered to St. Marys by Green Russell and Decatur "Cate" Patterson, Georgians who passed through on their way north looking for gold, which they found in Russell's Gulch. Their party founded Denver and were responsible for naming "Auraria."

As the Georgians were returning home, they were detained in New Mexico by the beginning of the Civil War. There they met Ceran St. Vrain, who encouraged them to settle on his grant. They finally arrived back home after the war.

Their disillusioned and impoverished relatives and neighbors liked the sound of the cheap and fertile land out in Colorado Territory. Gathering their belongings, they traveled west in wagon trains. The trip took four to five months. We call these immigrants the Georgia Colony, though many were from North Carolina.

Cate Patterson had built himself a "plaza" at St. Marys, while Russell began farming on the Apache. Russell could not stay on the land, however, because his gold fever forced him out prospecting periodically.

So it was to Patterson Plaza the Georgians came. From here they dispersed up the Huerfano around Gardner, over to Francisco's ranch at La Veta and along the Apache and the St. Charles River. Many of their descendants are still here.

One of the earliest arrivals was Rev. Quillian, who settled in the Gardner area. Later came Dr. Abner Chastain, who was responsible for the organization of a Baptist Church, said to be the first built south of the Arkansas, in 1870. The church was built two miles south of St. Marys and when Dr. Chastain died the next year, he was buried beside it. His grave remains, with others, but the church is long gone.

Huerfano County's first school was built on Patterson's ranch at St. Mary, which became county district #1, in 1869.

Further downriver was Butte Valley, named for the Huerfano Butte nearby. This was a stage stop on the Denver-Santa Fe route as early as 1862, run by employees of St. Vrain. Antoine LaBrie operated the stage station and store from about 1866 to 1869. Henry Strange moved there in 1868 and opened a store in one room of his home. A post office was established there in 1869.

Gardner was settled early on but did not get "organized" until around 1870. In 1871, a post office was started, called Huerfano Canyon. Later that year, it was renamed Gardner, in spite of the fact that most sources say Herbert Gardner arrived in 1873. Maybe they knew he was coming.

Gardner operated a ranch and trading post and, actually, may have arrived in the 1860's at what was then known as Los Chavez or Chavez Plaza. He is best known for being the son of the Massachusetts governor who sent melon seeds to his friend in the Arkansas Valley, the beginning of the famous Rocky Ford cantaloupe.

Two other early settlements were located in the upper Huerfano Valley. One was Malachite, named by its founder Tom Sharp. Sharp was brought here by Charles Deus and operated Buzzard Roost Ranch and trading post. He was a close friend of Ute Chief Ouray, who often camped near the post and enjoyed pitting his Indian ponies against Sharp's Missouri-bred racers. Sharp's home, built beside the old Ute Trail, is now Malachite Small Farms.

To the west, a settlement called Crestones was started around 1869. The residents were mostly from Chama, New Mexico and later renamed their town after their former home. Chama was once a populous town with its own large Catholic Church and a school with 100 students. It never had a post office but remains intact as a community.

These six towns were the earliest along the Huerfano within our present county, owing their existence to the river and the trails.

With the crossroads of Southeastern Colorado converging near the Huerfano River, many of the earliest settlements sprang up in that valley, but not all.

As we have seen, the trapper Charlifu was reportedly raising crops on the Cucharas near North Veta as early as the mid-1850's and from this time on, settlers began drifting up into the fertile Cuchara Valley. Most of their farms and plazas, as on the Huerfano, were located near well established Indian and Spanish trails.

The present city of Walsenburg is said to have been on one of these ancient trails. When the first settlers came to the region, the Utes were still using this trail on their seasonal wanderings.

It is unknown just when the first residents moved in (as one noted local historian wrote, "The exact date does not concern us...") It seems reasonable to assume, however, that someone was is the neighborhood by 1861 when Huerfano County was organized.

"Uncle" John Albert, master of personal publicity, may have been the first person to build here. His home and fort, the latter capable of holding 20-30 people, faced one another across the Indian trail, which ran about where South Main Street does today. They were built close to the Cucharas in the days when the channel was farther north than it is now.

While Albert, a former trap per familiar with the Cuchara Valley since the 1830's, may not have been the first settler, it seems he was the first postmaster in the community. The post office named Carson opened in 1870 but disappeared the following year.

Albert's neighbors were the Leons, Atencios and Esquibels. Although Plaza de los Leones, later Walsenburg, was named for the first of these families, many sources claim it was the second, the Atencios, who actually settled here first. On the other hand, most say the plaza was named for Don Miguel Leon though the obituary of Hernando Leon, who died in 1905 at the age of 85, says he was the "founder" of Leon Plaza.

Others speculate the nearby communities of Chico, Oso and Tesquisquita predated Plaza de los Leones.

Whichever was first may never be known (and probably "does not concern us"). What we do know is there were four plazas less than two miles apart, that they were established by the mid -1860's and that they continued to draw more settlers from New Mexico and "the states." These plazas supported extended families whose livelihoods depended upon farming and livestock raising. Their crops and stock, principally sheep, found ready markets in the gold camps around Denver and with the "American" travelers along the old Indian trail.

By this time, the Indians were no longer the "lords of the plains" they once had been. The Territory of Colorado, in some of its earliest legislation, abolished the reservations on the plains of the Front Range and gradually began forcing the tribes, many now decimated from "white man's diseases," across the mountains onto what were considered less desirable lands. Indians being human, they naturally had something to say about this but to little avail. Throughout the 1860's, however, they made their feelings known through raids, stock stealing, murder and other "atrocities," as our forebears referred to the Indians' actions.

Walsenburg might have gone the way of its neighboring plazas had it not been for its ambitious newcomers - the Germans. According to Louis B. Sporleder, "Karl" Otto Unfug came during the Civil War and made his living writing letters and completing documents for the settlers in the region. According to other sources, "Charles" Otto Unfug arrived around 1870, followed about 10 years later by his brothers Conrad, August, and Adolph, operators of the Unfug Mercantile.

Charles came to Huerfano County from the San Luis Valley where he worked for Ferdinand Meyer in the mercantile business. Meyer opened a branch store in Badito and Unfug was transferred there. Later he came to Plaza de los Leones.

Another employee of Meyer's was Fred Walsen, who came to the plaza in 1870. Alex Levy, who was born near Vienna, also arrived in 1870, though from Trinidad, and opened a general store on Main between today's Eighth and Ninth Streets. He later went into business with Walsen in their huge store at the corner of Seventh and Main.

Walsen and Levy married Sporleder sisters whose brother L.B. married an Unfug, so they fit right into the family-oriented community.

These men, between them, soon operated most of the town's businesses, including stores, mines, logging operations, ranches, a hotel and bank, plus they controlled considerable real estate and water rights.

When Plaza de los Leones received a post office in 1870, it was named Walsenburg, probably because Walsen was postmaster. Levy had the contract to carry the mail. The town was incorporated on Apr. 3, 1873, and Walsen was the first mayor. Other incorporators included Captain Cornelius D. Hendren and John Albert, who just got streets named after them. By 1874, Walsenburg had a population of 150.

Farther east on the same old Indian trail, others were making their claims in the early 1860's. The community of Cucharas is generally thought to have been established in 1866 by the Martinez, Manzanares, Lopez and Bustos families. J.M. Manzanares was a friend of the Ute Chief Ouray and often entertained him at his plaza.

Nearby, Manuel Vallejos established his ranch, building a substantial plaza for his large family and digging irrigation ditches. Besides running huge herds of sheep like his neighbors, he also raised cattle and horses.

As with other settlements in Huerfano County, the name Cucharas was confusing to strangers so when the post office was started in 1870, it was known as "Cacharas." This was straightened out by 1872. Cucharas remained a loose-knit community of ranchers with a store and hotel until the railroad was built in 1876. In territorial days, much transient business was provided by those traveling other stagecoach line as the major north-south route passed through the settlement. Mail for Walsenburg and La Veta was dropped here and carried on by horseback.

Following the Ute trail west from Plaza de los Leones one reached North Veta, about seven miles up the Cucharas.

The first permanent settlers there seem to be the Romero family of La Nasa, NM, with a son-in-law Felipe Santiago Cruz, who settled there in 1867. Two years later their families joined them, along with the Vigils. These were vigorous settlers as they soon changed the course of the river to the south, along the hills, to make way for more crops. Besides farming, they ran sheep nearby on the drier mesas.

North Veta eventually had stores, schools and churches but for some reason did not get a post office until the 1920's. It did become a major shipping point for crops and livestock when the railroad came through and was renamed "Wahatoya" by the Denver and Rio Grande.

Several early trails continued from North Veta, one branching off to the west to cross La Veta Pass and another following the river up to Indian Creek and Cucharas River.

The vicinity of La Veta, despite being "off the beaten path" today, was at one time the center of activity in Huerfano County. That was in 1876, when the construction of the railroad was all important, but Colorado statehood was pretty good news, too.

When engineers for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad began seriously surveying for a route across La Veta Pass around 1873, they found nearby the community of Spanish Peaks with a population of about 200.

This community centered around the 10-year-old Francisco Plaza, the commercial hub for many plazas and ranches on the Cucharas and its tributaries, Middle Creek and the Wahatoya.

The plaza was named for John M. Francisco. Francisco and his partner, Henry Daigre, built their ranch on land purchased from the Vigil-St. Vrain Land Grant in 1868 for $37,710. Their ranch/fort was already completed by that time (some, such as John Albert, say on the ruins of an earlier fort built by the Spanish) and their main business was supplying the Denver mining camps with cattle, sheep, hogs, flour, vegetables, barley, hay, beans and other crops.

"Uncle" Billy Hamilton was the first postmaster, but not of La Veta! The original post office was named Spanish Peaks and opened in 1871. Mail came three times weekly, delivered by horseback from Cucharas where the nearest stage stop was located.

La Veta was yet another of those towns located on an Indian trail. The Utes, and, earlier, the Comanches, were fond of mineral baths at the old Sulphur Springs southwest of town. They used Indian Creek Pass to reach the San Luis Valley and both Cucharas and Apishapa Passes to get to the Purgatory. The sheltered Cuchara Valley was a favorite hunting area and the lush grass and abundant water made for excellent camping. Several well-used Indian campsites were within several miles radius of the town.

In the 1860's, it seems a military road was built through this area to connect Ft. Garland with Ft. Union in New Mexico. (Since Francisco was for some years sutler at Ft. Garland, it is possible he had heard this road was planned and therefore built his plaza nearby to supply it.) The exact location of this road is unknown but it ran south of town across the mesa to the vicinity of Rouse.

Around 1870, Henry Daigre hired Hiram Vasquez and a crew to improve the trail across Cuchara Pass for wagon use. There is some indication this was operated as a toll road for a while.

Also in the early 1870's, Henry T. Sefton built his toll road across La Veta Pass. It was known as the Baldy Scott toll road for its founder; Sefton did not reveal his real name until he thought he was on his deathbed some years later. This old road can still be seen at spots along the modern highway, especially where it passed under the bridge at Muleshoe.

Another toll road came along a little later - up Middle Creek and over Wagon Creek Pass. It was not excellent, to say the least, and was barely passable for heavy wagons, but light freight was hauled across here as well as Indian Creek Pass to the south.

The importance of these latter passes lay in the fact they improved the route to the gold-rich areas around Creede and across the San Juans. Their existence also proved to General William J. Palmer that a railroad pass would be feasible through these mountains, despite earlier surveys indicating the opposite.

Of course, Palmer, owner of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway Company, had other motives. When he first began building his railroad in 1870 from Denver to Colorado Springs and Pueblo, he had a distant dream of taking it all the way into Mexico by way of the San Luis Valley. Shortly after the railroad surveyors appeared around La Veta in the early seventies, it was learned that Palmer's Southern Colorado Coal and Town Company had purchased land in the vicinity of Alamosa, meaning he meant to get his railroad there or take a loss financially. You might remember that Palmer was also a partner in Colorado Coal and Iron Company, forerunner of CF&I.

The widespread Panic of 1873 slowed construction of Palmer's railroad and implementation of his town building schemes, but on Feb. 22, 1876, he succeeded in having tracks laid to Cucharas Junction, just north of the old Cucharas community east of Walsenburg. By saying "laid," we mean just that - the tracks were first laid right on the prairie, with fill added where needed, in Palmer's haste to get to the busy El Moro coal fields to the south and La Veta Pass to the west. By April, 1876, he reached El Moro.

Meanwhile, Alex C. Hunt, former territorial governor, had become purchasing agent for the D&RG (as well as a director), obtaining land titles along the right of way. Since he was paid per parcel, or $500 to $800 for every tract of land he contracted for the company, he bought a lot! Hunt was also partially responsible for opening the Walsen mine, not one to ignore a profit on the side while working for another. The mine was on leased land, probably Fred Walsen's, and the coal was hauled by wagon to Cucharas for shipment in the beginning.

Hunt arrived in Spanish Peaks, still often called Francisco's, probably as early as 1874 to begin negotiations to bring the railroad in. Naturally, if local landowners weren't willing to make Hunt a good deal, the tracks would have been built elsewhere and a new town established. However, Hunt found the residents amiable and was soon a member of the La Veta Town Company, which sold lots at $50 each and was almost immediately profitable.

In 1875, the route was finally determined (by Hunt!) across La Veta Pass, which was occasionally called Abaja (meaning down or lower). Once this was announced, the town began to fill with speculators and businessmen with an eye to the future. Construction began in early 1876 as crews began working on grading and building foundations for bridges. The first train to La Veta was a six-car special arriving from Cucharas on July 4, 1876, full of dignitaries and promoters.

Just who, and why, proposed the name of La Veta is unknown, but Spanish Peaks post office was officially dissolved on Aug. 17, 1876, after the name La Veta had been unofficially used for several months. On Oct. 9, the county commissioners approved the order to incorporate the Town of La Veta and appointed G.W. Morton, Joseph Baker, J.B. Brink, Samuel Todd and Col. Francisco trustees. They held their first meeting that evening and voted Francisco permanent chairman. Although they were all present for that first meeting, very soon they had so much trouble getting together they declared that two trustees constituted a quorum!

While Huerfanos were busily encouraging the D&RG building, the big news elsewhere in Colorado was impending statehood. On Aug. 1, 1876, Colorado became the 38th state in the union and was dubbed the Centennial State for entering in the 100th anniversary year of the Declaration of Independence. By that time, Huerfano County was 15 years old, well established and well pleased with herself for her prosperous farms, new coal mines, some dozen growing settlements with schools and churches, the railroad and, of course, her unique history as the crossroads of Southern Colorado.

Today, Feb. 28, 1991, marks the 130th birthday of Huerfano County, one of the original 17 counties in Colorado Territory.

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© Karen Mitchell