The Sangre de Cristo land grant was a Mexican land grant possessed in January 1844 by Narciso Beaubien and Stephen Luis Lee. Covering almost 1.4 million acres in the San Luis Valley and Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado, the grant gave rise to the first permanent settlement in Colorado in the town of San Luis (originally San Luis de la Culebra) in 1851. The Sangre de Cristo land grant was among the first and few Mexican land grants to be approved in its entirety by the US Supreme Court.
Colorado’s longest-running land dispute concerns descendants of the families originally hired to settle the grant. In 2002 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of the descendants’ access to firewood, pasturage, and timber on the privately owned Cielo Vista Ranch (formerly Taylor Ranch). Cielo Vista’s owner appealed the decision, and the descendants successfully defended their claim in the Colorado Court of Appeals in 2018.
The Sangre de Cristo land grant spanned the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and San Luis Valley, a high alpine desert in southern Colorado. With its rivers and abundant wildlife, the valley was the traditional spring and summer hunting ground for the Nuche (Ute), Apache, and other Indigenous peoples. During the time of nominal Spanish and later Mexican rule of the region, the presence of Utes in the San Luis Valley deterred permanent European settlement there.
It was only in the late stages of Mexican rule that the San Luis Valley saw a permanent Hispano presence. Mexico awarded land grants in the area to encourage settlement to check the rapid expansion of the United States. The Sangre de Cristo land grant was petitioned by Narciso Beaubien and Stephen Luis Lee in late 1843, awarded a week later, and possessed in January 1844. Both men were killed in the Taos Pueblo Uprising of 1847. The following year, Narciso Beaubien’s father, Carlos Beaubien, bought his son’s and Lee’s portion of the grant after their death, making him the sole owner of the entire 1.4-million-acre Sangre de Cristo land grant.
Carlos Beaubien settled the land by recruiting immigrants from New Mexico, mostly from the Taos valley, and inviting German and French merchants to build trading posts along the Costilla and Culebra Rivers. Settlers were awarded varas, privately owned long-lots of land along major creeks and fertile fields. The first colonization effort involved about one hundred Hispano families who established the town of San Luis de la Culebra in 1851 as a central location among the varas. Families also had rights to use common land, which extended beyond the lowland varas to the foothills, forests, and mountains. Common land could be used for collecting firewood, ranching, hunting, fishing, lumber, and other communal purposes. The communal land in San Luis was known then as La Sierra and continues to be called as such by locals today.
Beaubien’s settlement was consistent with Spanish and Mexican custom, which envisioned communal land, called the ejido, accessible to all villagers. The ejido remains an important concept in current Mexican property law, recognized as an almost sacred cooperative system of shared land use and usufructuary rights, which allows nonowners to derive benefit from the property. Beaubien also produced written documents that reflected the Spanish and Mexican conception of land rights: deeds for individual varas and a covenant letter (known as the “Beaubien document”) that listed all settlers, guaranteeing their rights to use but not own the communal highlands.
In 1848, the same year that Carlos Beaubien gained sole ownership of the Sangre de Cristo land grant, the United States won the Mexican-American War. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave Americans control of thousands of square miles of northwest Mexico, including the Sangre de Cristo land grant and much of the rest of what is now Colorado. The terms of the treaty obligated the US government to honor all existing Spanish and Mexican land grants. While this did not happen in most cases, the Sangre de Cristo land grant was approved by Congress in 1860. At that time, the area had about 1,700 Hispano residents. Carlos Beaubien continued to award land to settlers until his death in 1864.
When Beaubien died, his heirs sold the land grant to former Colorado territorial governor William Gilpin and included communal land rights protections in their legal agreement. Gilpin did not respect Beaubien’s covenant, however, and sold both private and communal land in subdivisions to investors. Eventually, much of the grant was acquired by the Costilla Estates Development Company, which owned the land from 1902 to 1960. From Gilpin’s ownership through 1960 there were several attempts to develop the land, including mining ventures, and to restrict, harass, and obstruct the communal use of land by original settlers. Communal customs, though, remained mostly unchanged in practice. However, the Costilla Estates Development Company did redistribute water rights, favoring some properties over others and resulting in the reduction of farmed land in the region.
Taylor Ranch Conflicts
Changes to common land use began after 1960, when Jack Taylor, a North Carolina investor and lumberman, bought 77,000 acres of the communal highland, La Sierra, which became known as Taylor Ranch. Within months of buying the ranch, Taylor filed a claim in US District Court to clear his title of all competing claims from other ownership, which was awarded in 1967. Meanwhile, he also began enclosing his ranch to restrict outside access and use. Several conflicts ensued over the years. Hispano villagers were intimidated, beaten, and harassed, and Taylor himself was shot.
Taylor’s actions precipitated a movement for land and resource rights among local Hispanos, spearheaded by the Land Rights Council, formed in 1978 in San Luis. For more than a century, US courts had denied the claims of Hispanos in land grant cases and facilitated the work of Anglo-Americans in gaining ownership to land grants throughout the American Southwest. In 1981 the descendants of the original settlers brought forward legal action (Rael v. Taylor) asking for legal recognition of their historic rights to use the land.
After decades of failed legal challenges to reclaim lost access, in the 2002 Lobato v. Taylor case, the Colorado Supreme Court surprisingly reversed decades of precedent by awarding successors of grant settlers renewed access to La Sierra for grazing, firewood, and timber but not for fishing, hunting, and recreation. The court took into consideration Spanish and Mexican legal customs, recognized injustices in past decisions, and set a precedent with great significance to property rights law in the American Southwest. In 2003 the court issued an additional ruling directing the trial court to identify all landowners who have access rights to Taylor Ranch. The process of identification of landowners ended in 2017.
By that time, Taylor had left the scene. He sold the ranch to Enron executive Lou Pai in 1996, who in turn sold it in 2002 to two owners who renamed it Cielo Vista Ranch. In 2017 Cielo Vista was sold for $105 million to Texas millionaire William Harrison, its current owner. He immediately filed an appeal of the ruling regarding landowner access to the ranch. In 2018 the Colorado Court of Appeals not only denied Harrison’s claim but determined that more heirs to the original settlers should be identified and given access to the land. Currently, more than 5,000 heirs have been identified and given access, though many no longer live in the region to exercise those rights. Individuals are given keys that allow them to enter the ranch at designated gates.
The original Sangre de Cristo land grant resembles the current borders of Costilla County. It is a place rich in history, traditions, and natural resources. As of 2019 the population stood at 3,887, with more than 60 percent of citizens claiming Hispano heritage. Castilian Spanish is commonly spoken there, and its inhabitants preserve a Spanish-inflected culture with unique food, music, folklore, and folk art, including weaving and the creation of santos and bultos (carved and painted religious images). The village of San Acacio is home to a mission church that is generally considered the oldest non-Indigenous religious space in Colorado that is still in use today. La Vega, adjacent to the town of San Luis, is Colorado’s only communal pasture, established in 1851 and still used by descendants of the original settlers. San Luis is home to the People’s Ditch, an 1852 acequia that is Colorado’s oldest water right.
Outside the historic settlements in the valley, a large portion of the Sangre de Cristo land grant became Trinchera Ranch, Colorado’s largest contiguous ranch and a land conservation easement managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Cielo Vista Ranch remains privately owned and offers access to private hunting and hiking.