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Early New Mexican settlements of southern Colorado were indeed the founding cornerstone communities in the state of Colorado’s history. Although cultural beliefs and traditional land use hindered communal progress, Anglo-American aggression took over the Hispanic populace.
Mexico's Concern With American Military Encroachment
The Mexican government had large concerns for Anglo-American Expansion after independence from Spanish rule in 1826 and devised a plan to encourage its citizens to colonize further north to thwart such aggressive activity. There was already a unique need for land since the Mexican population had increased in size. The Government issued a drawn-out success of land grants in northern New Mexico territory for the next ten years. These grants also included thousands of miles of southern Colorado territory. They covered much of what consists today of Conejos, Rio Grande, Costilla, Huerfano, Las Animas, and Pueblo counties. Of the five significant grants within Colorado, the Sangre de Cristo award had the most success, so successful that it lured in the earliest Hispanic settlement of San Luis, which established in 1851.
Besides land grants, the scarce commodity of wool for American soldiers’ uniforms during the Civil War caught Mexican sheepherders’ interest. Seizing an opportunity, entire families settled down within the San Luis Valley area, creating small communities built up for protection against the possibility of a Native American attack.
A Religious Foundation
Religion was also a significant factor in the success of the early Hispanic community. The Hispanic settlements strengthened resolve by building organized parishes and making the church the focal point within the community. The first church established within the southern Colorado region was “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” built in 1857, and in present-day Conejos.
One of the legendary accounts of religious faith within the Hispanic community is the story about the village people of San Acacio Vega, which is in Costilla County and known for the “Legend of San Acacio.”
During the 1850s, the people of the settlement came together in prayer after discovering a Ute war party on a nearby bluff. The villagers prayed to their patron saint, St. Acacias, and asked for deliverance. As the story goes, the warrior party advanced as if they were going to attack, but then stopped in their descent. The Utes looked toward the sky, pointing their spears at the high clouds which hung low, and then they retreated. Years later, one of the community members befriended an old Indian woman who claimed she recalled the day in which the Ute warriors were about to raid a nearby settlement but changed their minds when they saw a grand vision of a defending warrior astride a white charger in the clouds. Afterward, the village people fulfilled their promise and built the church of San Acacio.
Though religious faith held lasting intrinsic value within the Hispanic community, it was unfortunate other valued traditions such as the use of land and the rights to the property were not so permanent an amount.
The Great Anglo Migration
Between 1849 and the 1860s, American immigrants and gold-seekers poured into the countryside. The American threat had become a reality, and Mexico and the United States went to war. By 1848, the Mexican government surrendered to defeat, and the united states had gained Colorado lands and the 80,000 Mexican citizens that came along with it. American Congress created Colorado Territory, and by 1876, Colorado enacted statehood. With a vast influx of Anglos seeking life in a new state and the already established Hispanic populations, these two cultures veered toward one another, creating a mesh of ethnic objectivity. Hispanic valued time-old traditions as “the only true way” and Anglo’s centered their ideas on “European progress.”
These extreme cultural mindsets set in motion a biased struggle between Anglos and Hispanics, yet there were a few individuals who tried to implement change amid all the hostility. In the 1860s, an American entrepreneur by the name of John Lawrence supported Hispanic tenant-herders, guiding in their financial independence. On the other end of the spectrum, Casimiro Barela, a Hispanic settler turned patron and politician overcame cultural alienation and learned to speak English and practice among the Anglos when elected to office in 1871, and in return for his hard work, he could help his people better understand the Americanized system. Even though a few Hispanics gained ground in the entrepreneurial and political spheres amongst the Anglos, by the 1870s the American legal system no longer recognized the value of “traditional rights,” and the Hispanic commoner lost his greatest foothold in the American society. A large part of the early Hispanic settlements remained abandoned In search of another means of survival, many Hispanics found their way into the coal camps and railway gangs or labored on farms or ranches for wages. In the end, the Anglo-American ascension of power became an unfortunate reality to the Hispanic communities of southern Colorado, and by the 1900s with the new society of anglo aggression and biased opinion, many Hispanics, forced to move or live on isolated farms, and away from the traditional Hispanic setting.
Cited Sources & Works
- Colorado: A History of the Centennial State, Abbot, Leonard, and Noel. , 4th ed., 2005.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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