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History of the San Luis Valley


The San Luis Valley is one of the largest high desert valleys in the world, lying at an altitude of over 7,000 feet.   It is approximately 125 miles long and over 65 miles wide.  Surrounded by the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the east and the San Juan mountains to the west, the valley is the size of Connecticut and is larger than some states and countries.

The Rio Grande River begins as a small stream in the San Juan Mountains on the west side of the valley and was a major factor in the development of farming and ranching in the area.

It was originally home to the Ute Indians, who were removed from the valley in 1895.  Other Indian tribes such as the Jicarilla Apache, Pueblo, Kiowa and Comanche raided or hunted here in early recorded times.

Many famous explorers penetrated the San Luis Valley between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the Spaniards Juan de Onate, Juan Maria Rivera, and Juan de Bautista Anza.  They were followed later by Americans such as Zebulon Pike and John Fremont.

A major trade route, The Old Spanish Trail, passed through the Valley.

Hispanic pioneers from New Mexico founded settlements at San Luis and other sites in the southern end of the valley as early as the 1840s.  The US Army established Fort Massachusetts, near the present location of Fort Garland, in 1852, to provide valley settlers with protection against hostile Indians.

With the discovery of gold and silver in the San Juan mountains, a huge influx of miners and adventurers entered the area.  By 1878 the railroad had reached Alamosa, which soon became destined to be the rail hub for the area.  The narrow-guage line was later extended to Antonito , Colorado and on into New Mexico.

New immigrants arrived to exploit the rich soil of the valley for agriculture and ranching.  Thriving Mormon (LDS) communities were established at Manassa, Sanford, Romeo, and adjoining areas in the early 1870s.  Dutch settlers developed productive farming communities at La Jara, Bowen and Waverly in the late nineteenth century.  Japanese settlers were early immigrants to the area and contributed greatly to the agricultural productivity of the valley.

Alamosa, founded in 1878, is located in the very center of the San Luis Valley and is home to Adams State College which was established in 1921.

Nearby are the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, featuring 600 foot high sand dunes.  Mount Blanca, one of North America's highest peaks at 14,364 feet, towers over the east edge of the valley overlooking the huge Zapata Ranch, where thousands of buffalo still roam.  At its foot lies Fort Garland where the old rebuilt cavalry post, commanded at one time by Colonel Kit Carson , is located.

In the mountains to the east and west are nationally known ski areas, hunting and fishing locations, and scenic mountain towns such as Creede and Crestone.

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