San Luis Valley Colorado Discovery
Well, it was not exactly discovered by Zebulon Pike but that poor fellow had a lot to do with the history of the place. Originally it belonged to the Utes and not much happened then so we can skip over that bit. Then the Mexicans seemed to have an interest in the area – I have a story about that from a very good friend and school buddy, Dick Martinez – later if there’s space. Meanwhile back to Pike. It was in Jefferson’s time that the following occurred.
Pike was a young guy and a very very poor writer so I have decided to make up a story about the occasion. As preamble I have to say that Pike and his band of hardy but poorly equipped men had a very difficult time of it. He established over 50 camp sites in the state, none of which have left a trace. He was eventually arrested by the Mexican army for trespassing while camped by the Conejos River. He did however get a very imposing mountain named for him. He, incidentally, had never seen mountains higher that the gentle hills of the Adirondacks and he found it confounding and puzzling to be confronted by mountains as high as 14500 feet.
He was looking for the Red River, instead found the Rio Grande. To begin, a true bit, he started from Wet Valley (look on your map for Westcliffe) which lies hard against the eastern side of the lofty Mt. Blanca, one of the highest peaks in the lower 48 and the southern terminus of the Sangre De Christo Range – part of what is often referred to today as the Front Range, the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains.
He and his men struggled up through Medano Pass against enormous difficulties accompanied by their trusty Mexican scout who had earlier assured them he knew the territory like the back of his hand. They finally reached the top and were able to look out to the west across the vast expanse of the San Luis Valley, the mighty sand dunes lying below at their feet.
What Pike saw
Pike gazed at the green swath of trees that came out of the mountains far to the west, snaked across the valley and then gently curved south. He knew they marked the path of a large river which he assumed was the Red River.
He called to his scout, “Hey Jose, Is that the Red River?”
Jose saluted and said, “No senor general, that is the Rio Bravo, I think.”
Pike ruminated a minute or so and said, “I’ll write this down. I’m calling it the Rio Grande.” Turning to Jose, “Sound good to you?”
Jose was as tired as the rest and not about to argue. “Si senor general, muy bueno.”
Then Pike pointed and asked, “Jose, what are those trees along the river called? There sure are a lot of them. Don’t seem to be much else.”
“Si, general, they are Alamo arboles. I think you say cottonwoods.”
Pike looked confused for a moment, “Yeah, arbol – tree. Okay, I’m going to call that place down there where the river turns south “Alamosa.” I bet there will be a nice little town down there some day.”
And so there was. It’s where my mom and dad and two sisters moved in 1920 and where my dad opened a J.C. Penney store.
John Hood Senior’s new store – 1920
Pike and his boys went on down into the valley and made camp about 15 miles south of where the town of Alamosa would stand to the Conejos River. I’ve camped there and my friends and relatives have fished on that river frequently. Menkhaven is up the Conejos – nice cabins.
That camp or crude fort made from cottonwood poles is where the Mexican Army arrested the lot. People in that area have tried to reconstruct what that fort might have looked like – tourists, you know. It’s near Magote where the wind blew down a fence a few years back.
A few miles east of where Pike camped is the oldest town in Colorado, San Luis. Near San Luis in a remote setting is a relatively new church, the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen. Ted Turner owns most of the land east and south of this area and lets the local Latino population of San Luis gather wood in his private forests as they have done for centuries.
Dick once asked me when my dad had come to Alamosa. I proudly told him “Way back in 1920. When did your folks come?” He said his aunts in San Luis had some things that indicated they came in the 1500s with the Conquistadors.