Conejos County covers 1,287 square miles of the southern San Luis Valley and eastern San Juan Mountains in south central Colorado. It is bordered by Archuleta County to the west, Rio Grande and Alamosa Counties to the north, Costilla County to the east, and New Mexico’s Taos and Rio Arriba Counties to the south. With an average elevation of 7,700 feet, the county consists mainly of semi-desert scrubland, but it also contains sections of wooded area in Rio Grande National Forest to the west and pockets of vegetation along the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers.
The county has a population of 8,130, 53.7 percent of which is Latino, 43.8 percent white, and 3.7 percent American Indian. The majority of the county’s residents live in the towns of Antonito, La Jara, Sanford, and Manassa, and the county seat lies in the unincorporated community of Conejos. Conejos is Spanish for “rabbits,” a reference to the abundance of the small mammals in the area.
The county is home to Pike’s Stockade, a reconstruction of the small fort built by Zebulon Pike’s soldiers during their 1806–7 expedition. It stands near the site of its early nineteenth-century construction, administered by History Colorado and the Fort Garland Museum. The stockade attests to the role of Conejos County in the early exploration of Colorado and the West, as well as to the legacy of the Spanish colonial frontier in the San Luis Valley.
Architectural artifacts and oral tradition indicate that Conejos County was inhabited for centuries before the arrival of settlers of European descent. Caputa (Capote) Utes of the Numic language group generally dominated the San Luis Valley and surrounding mountains, but Navajo, Apache, and Comanche also visited the area throughout the centuries. As nomadic hunter-gatherers, these people left little evidence of permanent settlements but deposited arrowheads, stone chips, and other signs of their seasonal presence. They lived by procuring local vegetables, roots, and game, such as jackrabbit, deer, elk, and bison.
Arrival of Europeans
The Spanish began exploring the San Luis Valley as early as the 1590s when Juan de Oñate began sending scouts to look for possible settlement sites. Diego de Vargas entered the valley during his 1692 campaign to reconquer the region in wake of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Nuevo Mexican Governor Juan Bautista de Anza passed through the area during his 1799 pursuit of the Comanche Cuerno Verde. The presence of these figures attests to the region’s role in the history of early Spanish Colonialism in southern Colorado.
Another early visitor to Conejos County area was Zebulon Pike, an explorer hired by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the southern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. During the winter of 1806–7, Pike and his crew of nine soldiers set up camp and built a small fortification on the Conejos River to protect themselves from the elements and the possibility of Ute attacks. Spanish forces arrested Pike on February 26, claiming that the Americans were trespassing on Spanish land. This confrontation demonstrates the role of Conejos County in particular and the San Luis Valley in general played in the story of a contested American West. Both the United States and Spain vied for influence and control, while indigenous peoples sought to both defend their homelands and benefit from the invaders.
Permanent European settlement of Conejos County and the San Luis Valley began in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, when the growth of Spanish-speaking populations along the upper Rio Grande prompted expansion. Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 but feared that the United States would encroach upon its northern frontier if it was not settled. Between 1833 and 1843, Mexican officials parceled out much of northern New Mexico, which included thousands of square miles of what would become southern Colorado.
The area encompassed by the unconfirmed Conejos/Guadalupe Grant, issued in 1833, formed most of today’s Rio Grande and Conejos Counties. Between fifty and eighty families began cultivating the area, but they soon were driven out by the remote and hostile environment. According to some sources, Navajo raiders helped drive out the families, as the Utes did a decade later.
Mexico’s fears of losing its northern territory were realized in 1846, when the US Army invaded Mexico. New Mexico and southern Colorado became part of the United States at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, and all Mexicans living there were granted US citizenship. Today, many descendants of these Mexican families refer to themselves as Hispanos.
A series of treaties between 1850 and 1880 forced the Utes onto a reservation in southwest Colorado, making the area seem safer for new residents. A permanent settlement finally took hold in the town of Guadalupe near present-day Conejos in 1854. What would become Conejos County, along with most of the San Luis Valley, came under the jurisdiction of the Colorado Territory in 1861. Conejos County assumed its current borders with the creation of Archuleta County in 1885.
The first New Mexican settlers of San Luis Valley brought their traditions and culture with them. They built homes in the Spanish Colonial style, often in the form of plazas or clusters of homes with an interior courtyard. Locals relied on small-scale irrigation and other agricultural practices developed in similarly arid New Mexico. Colorado’s oldest parish built the first Catholic church in the state—Our Lady of Guadalupe—in the community of Conejos in 1858; the church was dedicated by Bishop Lamy of Santa Fé in 1863 and demonstrates the importance of New-World Catholicism in the cultural history of southern Colorado.
Residents of the area relied on stagecoaches for mail and transportation until railways extended their lines to the valley in the 1870s. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) began building its narrow-gauge line from Denver to New Mexico, reaching Pueblo by 1873 and La Veta Pass by 1876. By 1881 the San Juan Extension of the D&RG wound through Conejos County on its way through the San Juan Mountains to Chama, New Mexico. The towns of Alamosa and Antonito became relatively busy railroad hubs, and the surrounding farming communities continued to grow.
Railroad access to the valley prompted further settlement of Conejos County. In the 1870s and 1880s, Mormon settlers established the towns of Manassa and Sanford. These communities flourished, cultivating barley, alfalfa, peas, carrots, oats, and other crops with water from the Conejos River. Farming practices began to shift from small, subsistence agriculture to large-scale industrialized techniques as transportation and technology improved in the twentieth century.
Although Congress had confirmed the legitimacy of the neighboring Sangre de Cristo Grant in 1860, the confirmation of Conejos/Guadalupe was muddled and eventually rejected at the end of the century due to lost documents. As a result, many early Hispano settlers of the Conejos Grant lost their claims over the following decades, and much of the area was partitioned into 160-acre farmsteads in accordance with the Homestead Act of 1862. In response, several community members founded the Society for the Mutual Protection of United Workers in 1900 as an aid society to protect the property and labor rights of Hispano residents.
Much of the history of the San Luis Valley is intricately connected to land use, property stakes, and water rights. Escalating land use conflicts around the turn of the century led to the creation of federal Timber Reserves, which were amalgamated by the Forest Service to create Rio Grande National Forest in 1908.
Like other counties in the arid San Luis Valley, Conejos County relies on aquifers and sparse rivers to sustain its agricultural economy. The Bureau of Reclamation began to examine the San Luis Valley’s water needs in 1936 and initiated the San Luis Valley Project (SLV) over the following years. The SLV Project featured the 1949 construction of the Platoro Dam and Reservoir in northern Conejos County. The reservoir helps control floodwater, provides water for the irrigation of arid local farmland, and regulates outflow in accordance to the Rio Grande Compact of 1938, an interstate water allocation agreement.
Throughout the twentieth century the aridity of southern Colorado often exacerbated economic and environmental crises experienced at the national level. The valley experienced a decade-long dry spell during the 1930s, which—along with the Great Depression—prompted many to leave their communities in search of more hospitable conditions. Conejos County’s population decreased by 29 percent between 1940 and 1960. The communities have never truly recovered and continue to decline in population.
Today, the residents of Conejos County rely largely on agriculture, tourism, and local commerce for subsistence. Local farmers cultivate barley, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, alfalfa, beans, and other crops using center-pivot sprinklers that pump water from underground aquifers. Many locals also raise livestock for personal use as well as the market.
Aside from agriculture, there is little industry present in Conejos County; this lack of economic diversity has kept the growth of the San Luis Valley modest compared with much of the rest of Colorado. Family income, poverty, unemployment, and property values in the area remain significantly lower than the state average, keeping the area relatively unpopulated and quiet.
Trade and tourism make up the rest of the local economy. Antonito, like the larger Alamosa to the north, was founded as a railroad support town and has retained that identity. The D&RG narrow-gauge line from Alamosa to Chama, New Mexico still runs today as the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad; this tourist line attracts travelers interested in historic railroads and the history of the American West.
Sports history enthusiasts visit Manassa, which hosts a museum commemorating the town as the birthplace of Jack Dempsey, the “Manassa Mauler,” who held the title of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion from 1919–26. Manassa also hosts “Pioneer Days,” a yearly summer event that commemorates early San Luis Valley pioneers and includes a carnival, rodeo, parade, fireworks, and other activities. The event attracts nearly 10,000 visitors each year.
Outdoor recreation attracts many visitors each year. The Conejos River running through the Rio Grande National Forest lures fishermen with its rainbow trout; other local streams contain cutthroat trout and brook trout, and local lakes are home to bass and blue gill. Hunters flock to the La Jara State Wildlife Area and the La Jara Reservoir State Trust Lands to hunt elk, bighorn sheep, deer, antelope, black bear, and mountain lions. Hikers and campers travel through the area to visit the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Range, as well as on their way to and from Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico.
History Colorado names several structures from Conejos County on its State and National Registers of Historic Places, many of which are connected to the county’s importance as a transportation corridor. The 1892 Costilla Crossing Bridge is the oldest vehicular truss in southern Colorado, while the D&RG’s entire San Juan Extension, the D&RG Railroad Antonito Depot, the La Jara Town Depot, and several surviving engines and cars attest to the importance of trains in the history of the San Luis Valley.
Other structures demonstrate the Spanish Colonial legacy of the area, as well as the continual abundance of Mexican-American people and culture in the county. The SPMDTU Concilio Superior, 1925 headquarters for La Sociedad Proteccion Mutua de Trabajadores Unidos, stands as a memory of early workers’ rights movements during the Progressive Era. Several historic churches, such as La Capilla De San Antonio De Padua in Lasauses and the1895 San Rafael Presbyterian Church in Mogote, demonstrate the multidenominational history of Christianity in Conejos County.