by Mary Lowers
Historically, the San Luis Valley has awed and attracted adventurous and independent souls since the first Neolithic humans came to hunt as the ice sheets retreated.
High peaks at the end-of-the-road, brilliant blue skies, and crisp clean air that tastes like honey or the elusive taste of freedom are qualities that have drawn people to the high mountains. Native Americans, citizens of Mexico and the newly founded United States explored, settled and fought for the territories we call home. The following are brief biographies of three very different men whose sojourns into what is now southern Colorado and northern New Mexico illustrated and affected the course of our history.
Juan Bautista de Anza
Juan Bautista de Anza was a first generation New Spaniard born in 1736 to a family living on the northern frontier of the territory. As a young man he joined the army, rising rapidly to the rank of Captain by 1760. De Anza is known for his expeditions all over New Mexico, southern Colorado, Arizona and clear to San Francisco, California. He colonized and established Catholic missions as he progressed. A consummate diplomat, deAnza more often then not made allies of natives.
On August 24, 1777, deAnza was appointed Governor of the Province of Nuevo Mexico which at its northern reaches included the SLV. When he was established in Santa Fe he began to listen to citizen problems. At that time the Comanche band led by the legendary Cuerno Verde (Green Horn), were raiding, killing, stealing horses, and generally raising havoc around Taos, Ojo Caliente, and the San Luis Valley. On August 22, 1779, deAnza with a force of 800, including Pueblo and Ute allies, travelled north by the light of the full moon in pursuit of the Comanche. In a journal of this expedition written by deAnza as a report for Charles III the King of Spain, which can be read online, he describes his journey north guided through the valley by the Ute: “we crossed a beautiful marsh which we named San Luis.”
Pursuing the enemy northward, the Spanish and their allies crossed Poncha Pass and went over the mountains (near where Hwy 24 today comes out of the mountains around Manitou Springs). They circled Pikes Peak (which they called El Capitan), three times and headed south, finally catching up with the Comanche around Greenhorn Creek near Rye. The warriors of Cuerno Verde were outnumbered and defeated. The musk ox horn head-dress worn by the band’s leader was sent to Spain along with deAnza’s journal of the successful defeat of the Comanche.
DeAnza was among the first of European descent to record and fully embrace his place in a new land. It was organically his home. He accepted and embraced the cultures around him. His writing speaks of his love for and admiration of the land he travelled, not as a tourist from somewhere else, but as a native.
Thomas Tate Tobin
Thomas Tate Tobin was born in St. Louis, MO “the gateway to the west” on May 1, 1823 to Bartholomew Tobin, an Irish immigrant, and Sarah Autobees, thought to be a Delaware Indian. His older half-brother Charles Autobees, a well known “mountain man”, returned to St. Louis rich in beaver pelts and stories of the wilderness after being gone ten years. When he left in 1837, he took his fourteen-year-old half-brother Tom with him to Taos, NM where he worked as a trapper and scout. The brothers worked for Simeon Turley at his mill and store near the present-day village of Arroyo Seco. Turley brewed the legendary Taos Lightening Whiskey which he traded with great success for furs. Turley hired the brothers to take the furs on the dangerous journey to St. Louis where they traded for supplies for Turley’s store. While New Mexicans at the time coveted the trade goods brought west from the US, the Mexican government had made it illegal to trade with Americans.
By the end of the Mexican American War in 1846, Tobin had married Pascuala Bernal and was living in Arroyo Hondo, NM working for the Turleys. In 1847 the Taos Revolt against American rule led by Pablo Montoya (a Taos man of Spanish decent) and Tomas Romero “Tomasito” of Taos Pueblo, caused havoc among Anglo residents. Governor Bent was shot with arrows and scalped by angry revolutionaries in front of his wife and children. A force of 500 attacked Turley Mills and Tobin and one other man were the only two to escape death.
Escaping the fiery mill, Tobin joined Capt. St. Vrain in rounding up the Taos insurrectionists. Those not killed in battle were tried and hung. “Tomasito” Romero was assinated by US Dragoon John Fitzgerald while in jail. Tobin continued to act as a scout and guide in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. In 1863 Col. Sam Tappen, commander of Ft. Garland in the southern San Luis Valley, commissioned Tobin to capture the murderous and elusive Espinoza gang.
Moving from New Mexico to the SLV in the 1860’s the Espinozas killed 30 Anglos in retaliation for family killed in the Mexican American War. No one had come close to catching them when Tobin was called in. Leaving the fifteen soldiers assigned to him back at camp Tobin trailed the gang back to their outpost and shot them; he decapitated the outlaws and dropped the sack full of their heads at Col. Tappens feet to prove he’d done the job. Tobin never did receive his full reward for the capture.
In 1876 Tobin was badly hurt trying to defend his daughter against her abusive husband. He never fully recovered from the attack. He’s buried in Ft Garland. Tobin represents the independent spirit and lack of attachment to a national identity, a wish to be independent that motivated many early Anglo immigrants to this beautiful place.
John Williams Gunnison
John Williams Gunnison was born a Yankee in Goshen, NH in 1812. Although educated in poor rural schools, Gunnison was accepted into the US Military Academy at West Point where he graduated second in his class in 1850. Drawn by the wilderness that surrounded his young country, he quickly rose to the rank of captain in the US Corps of Topographical Engineers, the crew who mapped new territories. The young captain honed his skills as a surveyor, which included official journaling for the powers that be in Washington, DC. He was responsible for mapping the Great Lakes territory (1841-48). In 1849 began the Survey of Utah where his cultural observations led to the publication of a book about the controversial Church of the Latter Day Saints, History of the Mormons of Utah: Their Domestic Policy and Theology (1852). Despite heated controversy over Mormonism in the US at the time, even the Utah contingent felt the volume to be fair and balanced.
The philosophy of Manifest Destiny, which fueled the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the administration of territories acquired after the Mexican American War under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1847), required proper maps to facilitate settlement, administration and cultural assimilation. Not a simple task, considering the diverse groups including different groups of native peoples, Spanish and French speakers, not to mention the Mormons, who populated the vast regions that had recently become part of the US.
Gunnison was commissioned in early May 1853 to survey a railroad route from the Mississippi River to California. The route was to wind through Cochetopa Pass to the Gunnison and Green Rivers and move west from there across Utah and eventually to California. Gunnison and his survey crew camped for a few nights near the area of Burnt Gulch just east of present day Crestone. In his journal the young captain describes the area as “a large deer park”.
As the survey party moved west, luck left. They were stranded on the banks of the Sevier River where, in October of 1853, eight of the party including Captain Gunnison where attacked and killed, allegedly by Pahvant Indians. Many modern historians believe the “Indians” who killed Gunnison and seven others may have actually been member of the fringe radical sect of the Mormons know as Dannites, who were ordered to kill the party as revenge and warning for the US to steer clear of Mormon affairs in Utah. Following the captain’s death, Judge Drummond sent the following in a letter to the widow, Mrs. MD Gunnison, “The stout heart will recoil with horror from the recital of the most brutal outrage ever committed on western territory, and every American will regret that a full measure of justice has not been dealt out to the fiendish perpetrators of this cold blooded murder.”
In the ensuing century, the train route to California was established; the Mormons and the United States peacefully settled their differences, and Utah became part of the US. The town of Gunnison, Colorado and the Gunnison River both honor John Williams Gunnison, the adventurous young surveyor.