Early ranching in the San Luis Valley: Mexican settlers & the pioneering Trujillo family ranch near the Great Sand Dunes

Filed under: Living on the Earth |

by Mary Lowers

Ranching and mining put food on the table for many diverse groups. Over the span of time, rich grass, abundant water and accessible passes have drawn herds and hunters to the northern San Luis Valley (SLV). Smithsonian archeologists Pegi Jodry and Dennis Stanford uncovered the remains of mammoth bison and a kill site where humans processed the animals 11,000 or so years ago northeast of the Great Sand Dunes. The Ute and other native groups in the region ventured to the rich SLV to hunt on an annual cycle.

Some early settlers mistook the American Plains Buffalo for water buffalo and tried to domesticate them. Around 1600 early Spanish explorers and settlers reached the SLV. Searching for gold, meat and religious converts, a group of these vaqueros, impressed by a Ute display of bison hunting, set out to round up a herd of buffalo. They managed to stampede a herd of some 500 of the angry bison. Many men and horses were killed in this debacle and the idea of domestication was given up.

Winter hardship broke down precarious good relations with the Ute and other natives. The need for food and shelter led to the commandeering of corn and enslavement of native people. For nearly a century the citizens of Spanish Mexico enslaved native people and some native groups enslaved Spanish people. The native slaves in the SLV decided they had enough and rebelled, driving the settlers down from the mountains and across the sand dunes to board make-shift rafts to escape south on the Rio Grande. Francis Torres, a Catholic Jesuit missionary, was mortally wounded in the uprising. As he expired trying to make it to the relative safety of a raft, his dying vision was of the mountains to the east tinged a blood-like red in the light of the setting sun. In great pain he cried out, “Sangre de Cristo” (Blood of Christ) and the steep range was named.

In the early 1800s New Mexicans began herding flocks of sheep up the Rio Grande for summer grazing. If you go for a soak at Stagecoach Hot Springs north of Taos and southwest of Arroyo Hondo you can see some of the steep and precarious trails up the Rio Grande Gorge these early ranchers took with their dogs and flocks.

Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 and encouragement from the government led to the settlement of the SLV in the then-northern reaches of Mexico. Mexican sheep rancher, Teofilo Trujillo was born in Rio Arriba County in northern New Mexico around 1842. He moved north and began running cattle and sheep in the area of the Great Sand Dunes and Blanca Peak. Seeing the way the political tides were turning, Trujillo became an American citizen in 1848, right after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo made the SLV part of the USA.

The Trujillos broke from the traditional agricultural practices of their forbearers: the majority of settlers from NM in the SLV lived and worked the land communally. They lived in adobe brick homes built around a central plaza, cultivated common land, and shared water resources.

The Trujillo family founded an independent ranch away from other settlers. They were one of the first families to claim land that was part of the Ute domain. Patriarch Teofilo Trujillo never spoke English but he was astute and took advantage of US land incentives, including the Preemption Law (1841), the Homestead Act (1862) and the Desert Land Law (1877) encouraging settlement, to expand and hold onto his family spread.  The Trujillo family kept their ranch, but in 1874 when several ranchers of Mexican linage filed claim with the US government for title to Zapata Ranch, the Surveyor General said their documents were forgeries and denied their claims.

In 1877 the Dickey brothers came to the SLV and settled on the Medano Ranch with plans to introduce the white-faced Herford cattle and acquire as much grazing land as possible. A family who would not succumb to pressure from the Dickey brothers to sell out was that of Teofilo Trujillo. The goal of the Dickeys was to obtain the Trujillo acreage and stop the sheep operation. Cattlemen and sheepherders were in conflict in much of the grazing lands in the west. Sheep, when grazing, eat the whole plant, root and all, whereas cattle just mow the top. This caused cattlemen to claim sheep “ruined” the land. This era saw many American Anglos moving into the SLV. Despite some reported trouble with the Ute, more and more land in the SLV was secured for settlement.

A great demand for wool and mutton inspired some nefarious cowboys to rustle sheep from native flocks in Texas and to bring them to Fort Garland to sell. Range wars were on and the Medano Zapata Ranch just south and west of the Great Sand Dunes was one of the largest and most productive.  The Dickey brothers made the headquarters of their cattle operations Medano Ranch. The site may be visited today.

Try as they might the Dickey brothers could not persuade Teofilo Trujillo to sell out. They began quickly buying and leasing land from their predominantly Mexican American neighbors who ran sheep. The story goes that some cowboys working for the Dickey brothers decided to run the Trujillos off their land.

While most of the men were gone a cowboy who worked for the Dickey outfit came up and knocked on the door of the Trujillo homestead. He distracted the women at the front door while other cowboys surrounded the house breaking windows and hurling flaming jars of kerosene through them. They slaughtered the prize ram and hung his bloody head from the ranch entrance. Teofilo Trujillo came home to find his ranch in ruins and his family scared. He pulled up stakes and relocated to San Luis where he is buried.

The Dickey brothers did end up with some of the Trujillo land. Teofilo Trujillo’s son Pedro stayed on and built a home just a mile from his father’s burned-out residence. The house still stands and is known as the Trujillo Homestead. Although he ran cattle and no sheep, pressure from Anglo ranchers drove Pedro Trujillo to sell out for $30,000.00 in 1902. Pedro and his wife Sofia moved northwest to the area near Sargent where they established a four hundred-acre ranch. Pedro served for a time as a deputy sheriff. His descendants still call the SLV home.

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