Las Animas County, the largest county in Colorado, covers 4,775 square miles in the southern end of the state, east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It was originally part of a larger Huerfano County that encompassed all of southeast Colorado. Today, it is bordered by Huerfano County to the northwest, Pueblo and Otero Counties to the north, Bent County to the northeast, Baca County to the east, the state of New Mexico to the south, and Costilla County to the west.
Las Animas County encompasses a number of important geographic features, including (from west to east) the Spanish Peaks, Ratón Pass, and the Purgatoire (purgatory) River, a tributary of the Arkansas River. Las Animas is Spanish for “souls,” a reference to the lost souls of sixteenth-century Spanish soldiers allegedly killed along the Purgatoire River. The North, Middle, and South Forks of the Purgatoire flow east out of the Sangre de Cristos and converge to form the main river near the small community of Weston. Shadowed by State Highway 12, the river continues east through the industrial ghost town of Segundo, the former coal-mining town of Cokedale, and the county seat of Trinidad. Flowing northeast out of the foothills, the Purgatoire takes a southward bend near Hoehne before continuing northeast again, cutting a canyon through the plains of the Comanche National Grassland.
Interstate 25 runs along the foothills in eastern Las Animas County, connecting the town of Aguilar and the city of Trinidad before continuing north to Walsenburg and south to Raton, New Mexico. US Highway 160 runs east from Trinidad to the small town of Kim. South of US 160 lay the small communities of Trinchera and Branson, the southernmost town in Colorado. US Highway 350 runs northeast from Trinidad into Otero County and passes through the unincorporated communities of Model, Tyrone, Thatcher, and Delhi.
Historically, the Las Animas County area was inhabited by various indigenous peoples, including the Nuche (Ute), Apache, and Comanche. The first Anglo-Americans arrived in 1821, when trade with Mexico was opened up via the Santa Fé Trail. In 1866 Las Animas County was established as part of the Colorado Territory. By the early twentieth century its coal mines were among the most productive in the nation. The county was the site of the Ludlow Massacre, a deadly conflict between striking miners and state militia in the coalfields north of Trinidad on April 20, 1914. Today Las Animas County has a population of 14,058, with more than 9,000 living in Trinidad.
Native Americans and Spaniards
The land south of the Spanish Peaks and east of the Sangre de Cristos has a long history of human occupation, beginning around 11,500 years ago with Paleo-Indian groups and continuing through the Middle Archaic period (3,000–1,000 BC), the Sopris culture (AD 950–1200), and the Apishapa culture (AD 1050–1400). Most of these groups were hunter-gatherers who lived off elk, mule deer, and other game. The Apishapa culture left behind rock art, images of human and animal figures carved into boulders or cliff faces.
By the time the Apishapa left the area in the 1400s, Ute people began arriving from the west. What is now western Las Animas County was originally home to a band of Utes called the Muache, or “cedar bark people.” Their territory lay east of the Sangre de Cristos, extending north into the Wet Mountain Valley and along the Front Range and south into New Mexico. The Utes had particular reverence for the Spanish Peaks, which they referred to as Huajatolla, roughly translated as “breasts of the earth.” Like other indigenous people before them, the Utes were hunter-gatherers, but unlike some, they did not build permanent dwellings. Instead, they lived in temporary or portable structures such as wickiups and tipis. In 1640 the Utes obtained horses from Spanish Santa Fé, affording them greater mobility.
The Jicarilla Apache, a semi-sedentary people who fished, hunted, and farmed, also occupied what is now Las Animas County by the seventeenth century. This brought them into conflict with the Ute, who began attacking their settlements. The Apache’s plight did not improve with the arrival of the Comanche, a horse-mounted people who came from the north and conquered Colorado’s southeastern plains in the early eighteenth century. The Muache Ute and Comanche formed an alliance, and by about 1730 they had driven the Apache from the Purgatoire and Arkansas Valleys. With their common enemy gone, Ute-Comanche relations soured, and by the 1750s the Muache were joining the Spanish in battle against the Comanche.
It was once thought that Spanish explorers, namely a party led by Francisco Leyva de Bonilla in 1593, were the first to visit the Purgatoire River in the sixteenth century. An attack by Native Americans killed all but one of the Bonilla party at some point after it left New Mexico and reached the Great Plains. The attack was initially thought to have occurred on the Purgatoire; the river was so named because of the unblessed Catholic souls that were allegedly sent to el purgatorio—purgatory—along its banks. The name stuck (its current version is French), but the river may be named for the souls of men who never reached it—the location of the Bonilla expedition’s demise remains uncertain.
By the mid-eighteenth century the northern boundary of Spanish New Mexico lay near the northern edge of present-day Las Animas County. However, for more than 100 years Ute and Comanche raids had prevented Spanish settlement north of Taos. The Spanish Era in North America came to an end with Mexican independence in 1821.
Spanish authorities had previously barred trade with Americans, but a newly independent Mexico quickly opened trade with the United States in the 1820s. The Santa Fé Trail, which connected Missouri and Santa Fé, became the most important trade route in the nineteenth-century southwest. The trail had two branches, one of which—the Mountain Branch—took traders through present-day Las Animas County. From Missouri, the route followed the Arkansas River west to the Purgatoire, where it turned south to Ratón Pass and on to Santa Fé. Mexicans, Native Americans, and European Americans all traded along the trail. In 1833 the American trader William Bent established Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River, which then marked the border between Mexico and the United States. The post soon became the center of trade along the Santa Fé Trail, worrying some Mexican officials who thought the Americans might try to encroach on their northern territories.
In an effort to affirm ownership of that area, the Mexican government began issuing land grants in what is now New Mexico and Colorado in 1832. In 1841 Mexico gave the Canadian trader Charles Beaubien and Mexican official Guadalupe Miranda the Maxwell grant, which included land in present New Mexico as well as what is now the southwest corner of Las Animas County. Two years later, Mexico awarded a land grant to Cornelio Vigil and Ceran St. Vrain, a naturalized Mexican citizen and partner of William Bent. This massive grant covered the western half of present-day Las Animas County, stretching between the Purgatoire and Arkansas Rivers and into the San Luis Valley. Conflict with white Texans and Comanches, however, delayed Mexican settlement of the land grants, and any hope Mexico had of retaining its northern territories disappeared in 1846, when US General Stephen W. Kearny’s Army of the West clambered over Ratón Pass and invaded Mexico.
As the Mexican-American War raged in 1847, John Hatcher, an employee of the Bent, St. Vrain & Company, set up a farm in the Purgatoire Valley, intending to supply Bent’s Fort with corn and other produce. Hatcher built log cabins, completed the area’s first irrigation ditch, and planted fields, but Utes drove him off the land before the crops could be harvested.
Early American Era
The United States acquired the Las Animas County area as part of the land ceded by Mexico at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. By then the regional trade in furs and bison hides had declined; in 1849 William Bent was forced to abandon his post on the Arkansas. After the trader-turned-scout Richard Wootton passed through the Purgatoire Valley in 1858, several Hispano families (former Mexican citizens who became Americans after 1848) set up ranches in the area.
A regional market for food and other supplies was created when the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 spurred the development of Denver. In 1860 the New Mexicans Don Felipe Baca and Pedro Valdez loaded four wagons with corn and other goods and headed north for Denver. On their way to and from the new mining town, they camped along the Purgatoire near the site of present-day Trinidad. Baca envisioned a prosperous settlement there, and decided to return with his family in 1861.
Also in 1860, another group of New Mexican traders led by Albert and Ebenezer Archibald passed through the Trinidad area on their way to sell sauerkraut and onions in Denver. When the brothers returned to the area to start a farm in March of the following year, they found Baca and two other men, William Frazier and Riley Dunton, building log homes. These modest structures became the foundation for modern Trinidad.
As Baca and others built homes on the Trinidad site, Congress established the Colorado Territory. However, the area was still largely the domain of the Utes and their native allies. Despite the US government’s earlier attempts to remove the Utes by treaty, in 1865 there was still a significant population of Muaches near the Spanish Peaks who refused to abide the Anglo/Hispano encroachment on their homelands. That year, Wootton completed a toll road over Ratón Pass, increasing the amount of white traffic through the region. This led to conflict between Utes and whites over livestock theft along the roads. Amid growing distrust and discord between federal Indian officials and the Utes in 1866, Muaches led by Kaniache began attacking white and Hispano ranches and other settlements in the Purgatoire Valley. US cavalry arrived, and with the help of local volunteers, defeated the Utes in battle.
Trinidad incorporated on February 6, 1866, and three days later the territorial legislature formed Las Animas County out of the southern part of what was then Huerfano County. In 1868 the legislature amended the boundaries again, shrinking Huerfano County to its current size and creating what are now the western boundaries of Las Animas County. Eastern Las Animas County stretched to the Kansas border until Baca County was created in 1889.
When the town was founded, the only stage lines connecting Trinidad to Denver went by way of Bent’s Fort, remnants of the once-burgeoning Santa Fé Trail. In 1867 Abraham Jacobs and William Jones established the Denver and Santa Fe Stage & Express Company, which started a direct line south from Denver to Trinidad. The stage line led to the creation of dozens of stations between the two destinations, including many in northern Las Animas County. It also fed the development of Trinidad, which by 1867 had a general store, Catholic church, and schools, as well as one of two drug stores in the 400 miles between Denver and Santa Fe.
Las Animas County’s industrial future also began to take shape in 1867, as William Jackson Palmer explored rich coal deposits near Trinidad. Palmer, who dreamed of a grand railroad line chugging south from Denver through utopian cities, became convinced that Las Animas County coal would fuel his industrial empire in the West.
As Trinidad developed along the Purgatoire, Hispano settlement commenced along the Apishapa River farther north. In 1866 farmer Julian Gonzales built the first irrigation ditch in the area, and in 1867 Agapito Rivali built a trading post catering to Hispano farmers and Indians. As more Hispanos set up farms and ranches in the area, a small adobe town developed where the Apishapa flows out of the foothills onto the plains; this town was the beginning of present-day Aguilar.
Early Social Strife and Cooperation
By 1870 there were a number of small Hispano and Anglo settlements in western Las Animas County. These settlers brokered an uneasy coexistence with the Utes, who resented the encroachment on their land. In the Treaty of 1868, the Ute leader Ouray and several others agreed to move to a large reservation on the Western Slope, but many Utes continued to travel to traditional hunting grounds, including the Purgatoire Valley. As late as 1873 the Denver News reported that “Kanneache [sic] and his band, which have never yet obeyed the treaty of 1868 . . . have been in the habit of annoying the settlers of the valleys of the Cucharas and the Huerfano.” The paper opined that this activity “should be stopped—peacefully, if possible, forcibly, if necessary.”
Such forcible action, however, did not come to southern Colorado but rather to northwest Colorado in 1879. After the Meeker Incident there in September, Utes living in northern Colorado were removed to Utah. Meanwhile, the Brunot Agreement of 1873, also negotiated by Chief Ouray, gave the United States the San Juan Mountains and created a reservation for southern Colorado’s Utes near present-day Durango. By the 1880s most of the Muache Utes had left Las Animas County for the reservation.
If there were tensions between Native and non-native people in early Las Animas County, there were also divisions between Anglo and Hispano settlers. Their heads filled with notions of an Anglo-centric “Manifest Destiny,” many Anglos in southern Colorado saw Hispanos as a lower class of people. After visiting the Purgatoire Valley, Anglo observer William E. Pabor captured this sentiment in an 1883 agricultural publication, writing that “Mexicans” were “rude” and “uncultivated husbandmen” and that “their method of raising wheat is slovenly, and without signs of thrift.”
Tension between Anglos and Hispanos in Trinidad was on display far earlier than 1883, however. On Christmas Day, 1867, an Anglo man had shot a Hispano man in Trinidad and was jailed. When other Anglos tried to free the shooter, Las Animas County Sheriff Juan Gutiérrez, a Hispano, raised the alarm, and the town’s Hispanos took up arms against the Anglos. Eventually, US troops were called in to help diffuse the standoff. Local Utes offered to help Gutiérrez, but the sheriff rebuked them, so they watched the gunfight from the surrounding hills. Hispano politician Casimiro Barela also witnessed Anglo-Hispano tension on multiple occasions while serving as county sheriff from 1874–75.
Though tension between Anglos and Hispanos produced conflict, for the most part both groups managed to coexist. Hispano ranchers sold wool and other goods at Anglo shops in Trinidad, and in the 1860s both Anglos and Hispanos served as county commissioners, county clerks, sheriffs, judges, and other government positions.
Las Animas County also produced some of the first Hispano members of the Anglo-dominated territorial and state governments. Baca and Barela were among the first Hispanos to serve in the territorial legislature in the 1870s, and Barela even helped draft the Colorado Constitution just before the territory became a state in 1876. Barela also led the push for a resolution that required Colorado laws to be published in Spanish as well as English for twenty-five years.
Coal Mining and Labor Conflicts
While Hispanos and Anglos were busy establishing Las Animas County’s early towns and ranches, William Palmer was busy turning his dreams of a Colorado empire into reality. By 1875 he had extended his Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) south from Denver, founding the towns of Colorado Springs and South Pueblo. The line also extended west into the coalfields of Fremont County, where Palmer built collieries in 1872.
In 1876 the D&RG reached Aguilar, and later that year it reached the Purgatoire River northeast of Trinidad. There Palmer’s railroad built the town of El Moro, disappointing residents in Trinidad who anticipated an economic boom with the railroad’s arrival. To manage his new coal mines and other industrial endeavors, Palmer formed the Colorado Coal & Iron Company (CC&I) in 1880. In 1881 the company completed the Minnequa Works in Pueblo, the nation’s first steel mill west of the Missouri River.
Coal shipped from mining camps around Trinidad and Aguilar fueled Palmer’s steel works, as well as the many smelters in Pueblo and Denver that extracted gold and silver from raw ore. By the 1890s Las Animas County mining camps included Grey Creek, Engleville, Starkville, and Sopris near Trinidad, as well as Hastings, Delagua, and Berwind south of Aguilar. The camps drew workers of more than a dozen nationalities, including Mexicans, British, Italians, Swiss, Germans, African Americans, and Greeks. With the influx of workers and families tied to the coal industry, the county’s population surged from 4,276 in 1880 to 21,842 in 1900.
Coal miners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries worked between ten and twelve hours per day in extremely dangerous conditions for meager wages. Often they were paid in scrip, company cash that could only be redeemed at a company store in exchange for necessities such as tools and food. Knowing that Colorado’s economy depended on their labor, many miners joined unions such as the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and organized strikes to demand better pay, shorter work days, and safer working conditions.
In 1894 more than 1,200 striking coal miners from across southern Colorado converged in Trinidad in an attempt to stage a strike that would suspend coal production and force companies such as Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I)—the descendant of Palmer’s CC&I—to address their grievances. Companies like CF&I and the Trinidad Coal and Coke Company responded to union pressure by hiring strikebreakers, firing strikers, and closing off other camps to prevent union influence. The strikers failed to shut down the industry, however, and so eventually had to return to work at pre-strike wages and conditions.
Though it failed to achieve its goals, the 1894 strike nonetheless demonstrated the growing power of the labor movement in Las Animas County. But it pales in comparison to the Coalfield Wars, which cast a shadow of death and destruction over the county in 1913–14. Conditions and pay had changed little since the 1890s, and the UMWA again found traction in the southern coalfields. In the summer of 1913, several thousand mineworkers, their families, and sympathizers convened in Trinidad and declared their intent to strike.
The strike began in September and continued throughout the fall, and as attempts to reconcile the two sides failed, Colorado officials grew anxious at the possible fuel shortfall for the winter. Governor Elias M. Ammons sent in the National Guard to suppress the strikers, ratcheting up tension. Sporadic conflict between the National Guard and strikers continued throughout the winter. The powder keg finally exploded on April 20, 1914, when gunfire erupted between the National Guard and strikers near the union’s Ludlow tent colony north of Trinidad. Many of the miners’ families fled the tent colony once the fighting began, so the National Guard believed the camp to be empty when they set it on fire. Hidden in a pit underneath one of the tents, however, were thirteen women and children, who died of smoke inhalation.
After hearing about the events at Ludlow, other miners went on a rampage across the southern Coalfields, killing mine operators and guards. It is still not known how exactly how many people died during the entire conflict, but at least nineteen died at Ludlow, making the event the deadliest labor conflict in American history. In 1918 the UMWA built a statue at the Ludlow site to honor those killed in the massacre. Coal mining continued in Las Animas County until the 1920s, when demand tapered off due to the availability of other fuels.
Today, the Las Animas County economy, especially in the eastern part, reflects its pastoral and agricultural heritage. In 2012 it had 602 farms and a total of nearly 42,000 cattle and calves, and it ranked near the middle of the state’s sixty-four counties in corn and wheat production.
Tourism is also a major part of the county economy. Every year, thousands of outdoor enthusiasts visit the Spanish Peaks Wilderness to climb, camp, hike, bike, and fish around the prominent twin mountains. Trinidad’s historic district, El Corazón de Trinidad (“the heart of Trinidad”), was created in 1972 and attracts heritage tourists with its eclectic mix of Anglo and Hispano architecture. The city is also home to a thriving creative district and arts community, as well as Trinidad State Junior College, which was established in 1925 and has an enrollment of 2,219 as of 2013.
Trinidad Lake State Park surrounds the 800-acre Trinidad Lake, a reservoir built for flood control purposes in the late 1950s. The lake is well-stocked with fish, making it a popular destination for anglers, while the surrounding park offers camping, an archery range, and ten miles of hiking trails, among other amenities.
After the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the federal government bought 440,000 acres of cultivated land in southern Otero and northeast Las Animas Counties and returned it to native grassland. In 1960 this land was designated as the Comanche National Grassland. In 1991, after staging tank drills in the area for twenty years, the US Department of Defense added Picketwire Canyon to the Comanche National Grassland (“picketwire” is the Anglo mispronunciation of “purgatoire”). The canyon is the site of 150-milion-year-old dinosaur tracks as well as parts of the historic Santa Fé Trail. Picturesque landscapes and native prairies draw hikers, birdwatchers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
In 2009 the Ludlow Massacre site was declared a National Historic Landmark, and April 20, 2014, marked the hundredth anniversary of the tragedy. To commemorate the massacre, Governor John Hickenlooper organized a commission that planned a slew of activities, including a speakers’ series, symposia, a play, museum exhibits, and a Sunday church service at the Ludlow site.
In 2016 the Colorado Economic Development Commission added Las Animas County to its rural Jump-Start Program, which offered tax breaks to approved businesses for locating to the state’s most distressed areas. Las Animas County officials have said that industrial hemp and self-driving cars are among the industries they are attempting to attract with the incentives.