by Gussie Fauntleroy
On an 1861 government map of the Colorado Territory, a large swath of the northeastern San Luis Valley is marked with symbols of grass and water and labeled Bay of San Luis. An 1866 map marks the same area with what appears to be a long north/south lake with creeks and rivers flowing into it from all directions.
In fact, both maps refer to the immense expanse of marshy wetlands that once covered much of the eastern side of the valley. (The “bay” of the earlier map was likely a shortened version of the Louisianan-French word bayou, meaning marshland.) It was a biologically rich web of interconnected ecosystems that included cottonwood-lined riparian drainages flowing down from the high mountains, and on the valley floor, a sea of tall prairie grass and a thick network of creeks spreading into a series of pools.
Ice-skating to Hooper
For thousands of years, as suggested by ancient stone points found in the area, nomadic indigenous peoples hunted here, followed in more recent centuries by ancestors of the Comanche, Ute and other tribes. For these inhabitants, as well as for 18th-century Spanish miners and early 19th-century French trappers, traveling in the valley meant keeping close to the mountain foothills and knowing trails and times of year to circumvent the wettest areas across the valley floor. As recently as 70 years ago, it could also mean ice-skating between Moffat and Hooper.
Lifelong valley resident Bob Bunker remembers his father telling of doing just that in the early 1940s, skating on the frozen north-south San Luis Creek and checking his muskrat traps along the way. Bunker recounts the story as he stands over a large, laminated 1941 aerial photo of what is now the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, on a conference table in the refuge office across from the Yak ’N Cracker Café. Next to the photo is a one from 2011, which tells a very different story. Gone is the tangled network of waterways and pools. What remains is a mostly dry valley floor, a few snowmelt creeks flowing west from the mountains, and seasonal playas, or areas of temporary standing water. Conspicuously present in the newer photo at the south end of the refuge is a cluster of bright green circles—agricultural fields irrigated by center-pivot systems.
Head of a cow
The long story of the almost 100,000 acres that now comprise the Baca National Wildlife Refuge starts with water, animals and plants, especially grasses. It develops over time as humans interacted with these elements—with the lure of gold, development and other sources of wealth thrown in along the way. And it finds us today still concerned with the valley’s water, animals and plants.
In the early 1200s, as great herds of elk, deer and other wildlife provided sustenance for nomadic people in the San Luis Valley, across the globe another large grazing animal provided a key element to our valley’s history. In southern Spain, a farmer placed a cow skull on a post in a strategic spot, marking a shortcut for the Christian Spanish king’s men to ambush Muslim Moors.The Moors were defeated and the king honored the farmer with the title Cabeza de Vaca, “head of a cow,” a name later changed to Cabeza de Baca.
In 1823, de Baca’s descendants—Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca and his family—petitioned the Mexican government for 500,000 acres of land at the site of present-day Las Vegas, New Mexico, land that Mexico had gained in its independence from Spain. The family lived on the Vegas Grandes Land Grant just three years before being driven away by unfortunate events, including Navajo raids. By the time the Bacas returned in 1835, homesteaders and cattle ranchers had begun settling the land. The settlers asked Congress to appropriate the land—which by 1846 was within U.S. territory—to establish the town of Las Vegas. But the Baca family claimed ownership through the grant.
Baca Grant #4
To settle the issue, Congress in 1860 offered the family five other replacement parcels of land in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, totaling 500,000 acres. One of these, Baca Grant #4, was in the San Luis Valley. The criteria set by Congress for the land grant exchange was that the offered acreage be uninhabited and unexplored for minerals. The family’s lawyer in Santa Fe, John S. Watts, presented Baca Grant #4 as meeting these criteria, and in 1864 Watts finally succeeded in getting title to the land for the Baca family. He then accepted ownership of the grant as payment for his services, which he billed at $3,300.
However, letters were discovered that had been written before the grant was finalized, between Watts, first Colorado Territorial Governor William Gilpin and Alexander Hunt, fourth territorial governor. The letters suggest the three men—each of whom later owned a stake in the grant—suspected gold might be found on the land, an indication that some mineral exploration had already taken place. As a result, the grant did not come with clear title to mineral rights.
Gold and the Supreme Court
By 1870 gold was being discovered in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and mining camps including Cottonwood, Spanish and Duncan sprang up in the foothills south of Crestone on Baca Grant land. In 1880 George Adams platted the town of Crestone, and in 1885 he purchased the Baca Grant from Gilpin, who had bought it from Alexander Hunt in 1877. Hunt had purchased it from Watts in 1870. Adams filed suit in federal court in 1893 to have the miners evicted from all areas that fell within the grant. But because the grant title had not been patented for mineral rights, the case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1898 the Supreme Court ruled that there was “no real evidence” the area had been explored for minerals before the grant was finalized, and found in favor of its owner. In 1900 Adams evicted the miners, offering them $125 for each house and then selling the houses back for $10 if the owners agreed to move them. Most of the miners moved to Liberty, just south of the grant boundary. Meanwhile, the main portion of the Baca Grant was being irrigated and developed for cattle, gaining some of the earliest water rights in Colorado.
Next month: the Baca Grant in the 20th and 21st centuries—prized Herefords, wildlife management, and water and mining issues.
Thanks to Crestone resident Jim McCalpin, volunteer director of the Crestone History Museum, and Baca National Wildlife Refuge Manager Ron Garcia for historical background.