The oldest continuously occupied town in Colorado, San Luis sits along Culebra Creek, just west of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the southeast portion of the San Luis Valley. In April 1851, Hispanos from Taos, New Mexico, founded San Luis on the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, which the Mexican government originally issued in 1843. Today the town has a population of around 700 and is the county seat of Costilla County. In addition to being the oldest town in present-day Colorado, San Luis maintains the state’s oldest continually held water right in the acequia —a community irrigation ditch—developed by residents in the early 1850s.
In the nineteenth century, the San Luis Valley was frequented by several Indigenous nations, most commonly the Tabeguache, Muache, and Capote bands of the Nuche, or Ute people.
After winning independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico laid claim to the valley. Over the next two decades, in an attempt to check the influence of the expanding United States, the Mexican government issued several land grants in the valley. Still, it could not establish settlements there, due to Ute resistance. The Sangre de Cristo grant, where San Luis would eventually be founded, was awarded to Narciso Beaubien and Stephen Luis Lee in late 1843.
The San Luis Valley became part of the United States in 1848, given up by Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In 1849 the US government and local Nuche leaders signed the Treaty of Abiquiú. The treaty allowed the United States to establish a military presence in the San Luis Valley and granted free passage to American citizens, which now included New Mexicans. With the treaty in place, colonizers from New Mexico felt safer venturing north to the valley. Over the course of 1850 and 1851, Hispanos established numerous small villages on Nuche land in today’s Costilla County, many of which were abandoned and repopulated several times.
In the spring of 1851, a group of ten Hispanos from the Taos Valley in New Mexico—including Dario Gallegos, Juan Salazar, Faustin Medina, and Mariano Pacheco—returned to the banks of Culebra Creek. In traditional Spanish fashion, the colonists built their homes around a central public area, a plaza. On April 5 they established the plaza that would become San Luis, then known as San Luis de la Culebra.
The colonists stayed until the fall, when a Ute attack killed three in the party, then left for the winter. When they returned in the spring of 1852, they immediately set to work building the irrigation ditch that would be the lifeblood of the new community.
The People’s Ditch and the Pasture
In April 1852, Dario Gallegos and the other founders began hand-digging an acequia, or irrigation ditch, to bring water from Culebra Creek to the narrow strips of farms dug out by the villagers. The ditch eventually became known as the San Luis People’s Ditch and held the first official water right in Colorado, dating from April 10, 1852. First crops included wheat, beans, corn, and other vegetables.
While the colonists at San Luis built their farms and furrows, Charles (Carlos) Beaubien served as its administrator. He enacted rules to keep order, set up a permission system for newcomers, and acted as the local justice of the peace. He also granted the San Luis colonists a 900-acre public pasture on the outskirts of town, called La Vega, for their livestock.
Conflict with the Nuche in and around the San Luis Valley persisted through the 1850s, but the town of San Luis endured. In 1857 Dario Gallegos opened the first dry goods store in town, and in 1859 he gifted the community a chapel, marking the beginning of organized Catholic worship in San Luis.
As it did elsewhere in the San Luis Valley, the isolation and precariousness of life at San Luis nurtured a fiercely independent culture that retained heavy Spanish influence. While some colonists belonged to the region’s early parishes, others followed the ways of the Penitentes, an unofficial Catholic brotherhood whose roots stretched back centuries in Spain. The group was known for its extreme methods for cleansing sin, which included self-flagellation and members tying themselves to wooden crosses. As more official Catholic activity increased in the San Luis Valley and the region drew itself closer to American laws and culture, authorities sanctioned the Penitentes and discouraged their activities.
Indigenous slavery was another distinct feature of life in the nineteenth-century San Luis Valley. Many enslaved people were Diné (Navajo) taken in attacks by the Nuche and traded to Spanish colonists in places like Taos. Indigenous slaves in the San Luis Valley often worked as domestic servants. The family of Dario Gallegos, for example, had an enslaved Indigenous person as the family cook.
Two events in 1858 helped spur further development in San Luis and the surrounding valley. First, the valley’s main US military institution, the ineffective Fort Massachusetts, was relocated and recommissioned as Fort Garland. The new fort was better positioned and equipped to discourage Nuche resistance. Then, the Colorado Gold Rush drew thousands of immigrants to Colorado. Recognizing that the swelling ranks of miners to the north would need more grain, Taos residents Ceran St. Vrain and H. E. Easterday built a new flour mill in San Luis in 1859. The mill made San Luis a local hub, as farmers from all around came to deposit their grain.
The town got a post office in 1860, and by 1872 the Pueblo Chieftain estimated its population to be around 1,000. The Chieftain described San Luis that year as “quite a large village, containing four stores, a blacksmith shop, carpenter shops, a good hotel, and among the rest several very neat dwellings.”
With the creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861 and the removal of most of the Muache bands in 1868, American influence within and around San Luis grew, spurring conflicts over water and land rights. The US government officially recognized the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant in 1860. In 1864 Beaubien died, but not before he agreed to sell his stake in the grant to Colorado territorial governor William Gilpin. Gilpin eventually acquired much of the grant and began offering tracts for sale to investors elsewhere in the United States, England, and Europe. These new investors had their own plans, in which the existing Hispano residents of San Luis figured little. The citizens of San Luis and other towns on the grant were eventually forced to give up some communal rights to water and timber, though not without protracted legal fights. These tensions between descendants of the grant’s original colonists and developers continued throughout the twentieth century and persist today.
Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, San Luis’s status in the broader valley declined as regional economic ties shifted away from Hispano New Mexico and toward an increasingly Anglo-developed Colorado. In the late 1860s, Otto Mears helped establish the town of Saguache in the northern part of the San Luis Valley; he later connected his mountain toll roads to the town, making it a magnet for commercial and agricultural interests. In 1878 the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad extended to Alamosa, creating another regional hub.
Even though it was now the seat of Costilla County—with a courthouse built in 1883—San Luis sat in relative isolation in the southern part of the valley, developing far more slowly than some of its regional neighbors. In January 1920, San Luis got its first bank, the State Bank of San Luis. An article announcing the bank’s opening described the town’s residents as “Spanish-speaking people of the old school, polished, courteous, energetic and prosperous.”
Over the next several decades, San Luis continued to be an out-of-the-way farming community. Perhaps some of the most significant developments in the twentieth century were changes to the People’s Ditch. A series of dry years in the 1960s prompted the incorporation of the ditch at the urging of state and federal authorities. The State Engineers Office and the Army Corps of Engineers believed that paving the ditch would reduce evaporation and absorption and allow more water to reach downstream farmers during drought years. Although some expressed concern about the environmental effects, San Luis ditch members ultimately agreed to pave the original channel of the People’s Ditch, the Acequia Madre.
In the late 1980s, the Rev. Patrick Valdez came up with an idea to use San Luis’s Catholic heritage to revive the town’s lagging economy: an outdoor shrine commemorating the fifteen stations of the cross. The shrine would draw religious tourists from across the country. For the site, Valdez got the county to sell off eighty-two acres atop a mesa overlooking the town, and local sculptor Huberto Maestas created a series of fifteen bronze statues that were placed along a trail leading to an adobe church built in the Spanish-Moorish style—the Capilla de Todos Los Santos, the Chapel of All Saints. Although it fell short of rejuvenating the San Luis economy, the shrine does attract visitors and remains a holy site and point of pride for many locals.
Today, the town of San Luis has a population of around 680. Like many other towns in the valley, it still faces challenges associated with its isolation. One out of every four residents in the San Luis Valley is impoverished, and San Luis residents struggle to get basic internet access to augment work and school. Agriculture continues to be the main economic activity, but recent droughts have exacerbated a water shortage that threatens to cut productivity.
Despite its economic struggles, San Luis remains a uniquely rich bastion of Hispano culture. Each year, for example, the town hosts the Fiesta de Santiago y Santa Ana, a gathering that celebrates the community’s patron saints. The fiesta is a celebration of the town’s past and present, with a car show, historical speaking events, a mass, and concerts.