The Hispano farmer and sheep rancher Don Felipe de Jesus Baca (1829–74) was one of the first settlers of the Purgatoire River valley, one of the most important developers of Trinidad, and a member of the Colorado Territorial legislature. He is the namesake of Baca County in southeast Colorado.
Little is known about Felipe Baca’s early life except that he was born in 1829 in northern New Mexico. By the time he moved to Trinidad at the age of twenty-nine he had become a prosperous farmer and rancher, accumulating most of his wealth through raising sheep. He was also a family man. He married Maria Dolores Gonzales from Arroyo Hondo, near Taos, New Mexico, where they raised nine children. The three youngest sons would be born in the family’s new home in southern Colorado.
In 1860 Baca was on his way to Denver to sell a load of flour in the small mining camp when he chanced upon the fertile valley of the Purgatoire River, just over the border from New Mexico. On his way home he stopped again along the Purgatoire, noticed the valley’s potential for agriculture and grazing, and decided to come back. That fall, Baca left his family in northern New Mexico and moved to the Purgatoire Valley. He laid claim to a choice piece of bottomland and the next spring planted several crops. Baca took the fruits of his labor—a wagonful of melons and grain—back to his countrymen. Encouraged by his bountiful harvest, some twelve families decided to make a permanent move northward in 1862 with Baca and his family. Baca’s oldest son and five small daughters—one an infant—also made the journey over Raton Pass to Colorado.
This migration was part of the gradual fanning out of Hispanos from the narrow river valleys along the Rio Grande and its tributaries, places they had called home since the Spanish settled New Mexico at the end of the sixteenth century. Some of these permanent settlements dated from as early as 1693. Once confined to the river valleys because of marauding Plains Indians, Hispano settlers expanded in all directions during the early to mid-nineteenth century, seeking prime grazing land.
While the families that trekked northward with him spread out along the river valley into small settlements, Baca himself settled in the heart of what soon became the town of Trinidad. He was a dominant personality in the early growth of the town. Baca and an Anglo pioneer, William Hoehne, opened the first general store in the tiny settlement. By 1866, the Trinidad Town Company had incorporated on land that Baca donated to the town. In that same year, Trinidad had a school and a school board, with Baca serving as president from 1866–68, as well as a Catholic church built on land Baca donated. The diocese established a convent two years later, again with money and land donated by Baca.
After building up Trinidad nearly by himself, Baca became involved in territorial politics. In 1870 he won a seat as a Republican representative to the territorial legislature, serving one two-year term. He campaigned against statehood, feeling that it would be detrimental to the southern Hispano region of the territory, which would be overshadowed by Anglo-dominated Denver. But the majority Anglo legislature disagreed, and Colorado joined the union in 1876.
Baca died in 1874 at the age of forty-six. His will, executed only days before, showed that he died a wealthy man. His estate—consisting of both money and personal possessions, but especially large numbers of sheep—was divided among his wife and nine children. He specifically provided for his minor children’s education, and they took advantage of their opportunities. To honor his contributions to the state’s development, in 1889 the legislature approved a bill that organized more than 2,500 square miles of Colorado’s southeast corner into Baca County.
Adapted from Luis Baca and Facundo Baca, “Hispanic Pioneer: Don Felipe Baca Brings His Family North to Trinidad,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 2, no. 1 (1982).