Adobe buildings in towns such as Trinidad and the remnants of plazas or villages attest to early Hispano settlement along the Purgatoire River in southern Colorado. Today, Hispanos—descendants of Mexicans who lived in what became the US southwest after 1848—still account for a portion of the Purgatoire valley’s population.
Located south of the Spanish Peaks and east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Purgatoire valley has a long history of human occupation, dating back to the Paleo-Indian period. From 1821 to 1848 the area was part of Mexico, and a branch of the Santa Fé Trail ran along the Purgatoire to Ratón Pass. During that period the area was a hub of activity related to the Rocky Mountain fur trade. In the 1840s the Mexican government established land grants in the area to encourage settlement. The United States acquired the area after the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, and Hispano settlement began shortly thereafter.
The Penitente Brotherhood
The hills west of Trinidad are scattered with adobe or stone moradas—chapter houses of Los Hermanos Penitentes, a religious brotherhood that dates back almost 1,000 years and had arrived in southern Colorado with Hispano settlement during the 1850s. At that time few villages had a resident priest, so the Brothers dedicated themselves to preserving the Catholic faith through prayer and devotion to the death of Christ. Every Holy Week, the Brothers would call the village to repentance and to union with the divine through a reenactment of the Passion of Christ. Throughout the year the Brothers would care for the sick and needy, as well as help families bury their dead. These practices continue today. Floyd Trujillo, a Hermano Brother, once wrote, “We know the role we accept and, like Christ, we take the cross and follow him. We help the people. We help those that need help. We never say no.”
The religious beliefs and history of the Penitente Brotherhood in the region brought art and music that both complemented and mirrored the hauntingly beautiful southwestern landscape. Known as santos, the holy images depict Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. Santos include retablos, images painted on hand-worked panels of pine or metal, and bultos, statues carved out of cottonwood root. The art of the santos flowered during the 1800s when santeros, or saint-makers, traveled across New Mexico and Colorado to create holy images for the villages. Today, examples of these santos can be seen in the A. R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art in Trinidad.
Felipe Baca and Trinidad
Trinidad, now the largest city and seat of Las Animas County, was the most significant of all the early Hispano settlements along the Purgatoire. In 1860 New Mexican Don Felipe Baca and a partner camped near the site of present-day Trinidad on their way to deliver corn to Denver. After stopping in the area again on the way back, Baca decided to make his home there. In 1862 twelve Hispano families came with him from northern New Mexico. In the company of a few Anglo settlers, the Hispano families built plazas surrounded by thick walls of adobe—sand mixed with straw and water and dried in the sun—as a defense against Ute Indians, who had lived in the valley for centuries and objected to Hispano encroachment.
Hispano settlers continued to come, however, and both sides of the river were soon populated with settlements. Though the daily lives of the settlers presented them with a consistently heavy work load, they found time for religious celebrations, fiestas, and horse racing. By 1866 Trinidad had its first general store, school, and Catholic church, all made possible by personal efforts and land donations from Baca. Baca himself served as president of the Trinidad school board from 1866–68.
The Madrid Placita
In the spring of 1862, as Baca built up Trinidad some fourteen miles downriver, Hilario Madrid stood on a grassy bench overlooking the Purgatoire valley and the hills beyond. It was there that he decided to build a placita, a single-family compound built of adobe. The placita included an L-shaped main building with walls twenty-one inches thick and a sod storage room. Across a patio stood cattle sheds and a shelter for domestic animals. Nearby was the horno, a beehive-shaped oven used to bake bread, cook meat, and dry corn. For almost a century this secure placita was home to the Madrid family, including José Miguel Madrid, who was elected to the Colorado State Senate in 1932.
Relations with Anglo Settlers
Although both groups helped settle the area together, tension developed between Anglos and Hispanos in the Purgatoire valley. This tension occasionally boiled over into violence, as it did on Christmas Day, 1867, after an Anglo man was jailed for shooting a Hispano man. When other Anglos, some of whom came from out of town, tried to free the shooter, Hispano Las Animas County Sheriff Juan Gutiérrez raised the alarm. Trinidad’s Hispanos then took up arms against the town’s Anglo population. Eventually, US troops were sent in to help diffuse the standoff, which lasted into the early days of 1868.
Anglo hostility toward Hispanos was rooted in “Manifest Destiny,” the belief that Anglo- and European Americans were destined to wrest the entire North American continent from the lesser “races,” which included Mexicans and Native Americans. This belief led Anglos to view Mexicans and Hispanos as generally inferior and uncivilized, if agreeable, people. For instance, writing from Santa Fé in 1867, a reporter for The Rocky Mountain News asserted that Mexican “people as a mass are extremely ignorant, and ignore education,” and that they “should never have been citizens of the United States.” The Anglo observer William E. Pabor echoed this sentiment in 1883 after he visited Hispano settlements in the Purgatoire valley, writing that “Mexicans” were “rude” and “uncultivated husbandmen” and that “their method of raising wheat is slovenly, and without signs of thrift.”
Hispanos, of course, had employed just as much “thrift” as any Anglo or European in southern Colorado, as they dug irrigation ditches, built towns, herded sheep, planted crops, and served in public offices, including those of the Colorado Territory.
After the 1870s, coal mines and railroads brought changes to southern Colorado and the Purgatoire valley. Hispano land ownership dropped by 62 percent between 1880 and 1900. Many Hispanos took jobs in coal mines or on railroad crews, and Anglo cattle largely replaced Hispano sheep. By the 1930s most of the early Hispano settlements had receded into memory; nonetheless, their influence is seen daily in the eclectic culture of today’s Purgatoire valley.
Adapted from "Trinidad Lake," Historic Marker, History Colorado, 1997.