Spanish Explorers Brought Sheep-herding
to the Colorado Plateau
Sheep in Hispanic New Mexico
Spain’s Search for Wealth. Spain’s far northern frontier in North America had few commodities to offer the outside world. The Spanish search for gold had failed, but for religious and military reasons the Spanish Empire still maintained the colony of New Mexico. In the first half of the nineteenth century small-scale irrigated agriculture and livestock formed the basis of the economy. Although residents bred and used cattle and horses, sheep became the dominant domesticated animal in the region. Unlike some sheep breeds, the small churros, which were more valuable for meat than wool, survived in the harsh, arid environment of New Mexico.
Churros. With the arrival of Juan de Onate and his party of colonists in 1598, sheep became a part of the New Mexican economy. When the Pueblo Indians revolted in 1680, they ejected the Spanish and their religion but kept their sheep. At the end of the 1700s, a century after the Spanish reconquered the colony, sheep raising had developed into a major regional industry. Though New Mexico remained peripheral to the rest of New Spain, it helped feed the communities centered around the valuable silver mines of north-central Mexico. Hispanics of the northern Rio Grande started herding flocks of sheep southward into Chihuahua, Mexico, along a well-established route that connected the colony to the rest of the Spanish Empire. In 1803 perhaps as many as twenty-five thousand churros were driven south. The numbers exported from New Mexico fluctuated in the following years, but sheep remained important to the region’s economy.
The Partido System. In the early nineteenth century the New Mexican sheep industry benefited the wealthier colonists. New Mexicans had developed the partido system in the mid eighteenth century. Under this system an owner of a flock lent a specific quantity of sheep to an individual and expected an equal number to be returned in three to five years. Each year the renter paid around 20 percent of the flock to the owner. If the sheep reproduced in sufficient numbers, the system worked well for both parties. The owners received annual payments while someone else watched over his livestock. The renter could build his own flock and eventually lend out some sheep of his own. Such arrangements in a cash-poor province functioned as a transfer of capital, but if the flock did not reproduce as planned, the renter remained in debt to the owner. Although the partido system resulted in economic opportunity for some, it worked to the advantage of the rich.
Ricos. By the early 1800s sheep were the most important asset of nearly all well-off New Mexicans. Moreover, a small cadre of families dominated the export trade. In 1835, when herders sent eighty thousand sheep south, a single family—the Chavez brothers—possessed almost half of these animals. The ricos, economic elites, dominated the New Mexican economy through much of the early nineteenth century.
Josiah Gregg Describes the New Mexican Sheep Industry
The American merchant Josiah Gregg participated in the trade along the Santa Fe Trail in the 1830s. In 1844 he published his famous book, Commerce of the Prairies. In his chapter titled “Domestic Animals” he describes the importance of sheep in the economy of Hispanic New Mexico: “Sheep may be reckoned the staple production of New Mexico, and the principle article of exportation.. .. This trade has constituted profitable business to some of the ricos of the country. They would buy sheep of the poor rancheros at from fifty to seventy-five cents per head, and sell them at from one to two hundred per cent advance in southern markets.. .. The sheep of New Mexico are exceedingly small, with very coarse wool, and scarcely fit for anything else than mutton, for which, indeed, they are justly celebrated.. .. The flesh of the sheep is to the New Mexicans what that of the hog is to the people of our Western States—while pork is but seldom met with in northern Mexico.”
Source: Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies: A Selection (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), pp. 62–63.
Village Economies. Despite the wealth of the ricos and the larger economy of the sheep trade, villagers on the local level lived a more communal existence. In northern Hispanic settlements such as Las Trampas, certain social values discouraged an individual who was not a rico from profiting at an endeavor that hurt others. Also, most sheep grazed on communal pastures called ejidos. Though these villagers were poor by later standards, and divisions of wealth existed, few people starved because community members took care of each other in times of dearth. Northern New Mexico village economies remained largely self-sufficient; these Spanish speaking villagers had only limited contact with the outside market until the last decades of the nineteenth century.
The Sheep Trade
The sheep trade south along the Rio Grande continued until 1846—the year the United States acquired New Mexico. After the California Gold Rush began in 1848, Hispanics sent thousands of churros to miners further west. Anglos intruded on this enterprise and began shipping their own flocks from New Mexico. However, in the early 1850s the profitability of the commerce diminished, although the Hispanic herders continued moving their stock to California for another five years. Still, sheep remained a fundamental part of the economy of northern New Mexico. The second half of the century witnessed improvements in breeding due to the expanding market in wool.
Overgrazing. The actual number of sheep in New Mexico during any given year remains in dispute. By the 1820s as many as two million of these woolly animals roamed the region. The dramatic nineteenth-century increase in sheep proved hard on the New Mexican range. Overgrazing had long been a part of the sheep industry, and it was particularly bad in long-settled areas. When sheep nibbled away pastures near the Rio Grande, New Mexicans pushed their flocks outward from the river. Still, overgrazing in the first half of the nineteenth century paled in comparison to the damage inflicted later because in the early 1800s the New Mexican economy remained relatively isolated, despite the Chihuahuan trade. With the arrival of the Anglo-American market, and with the villagers’ growing participation in the cash economy, the number of livestock skyrocketed. Cattle also arrived in larger numbers. Overgrazing in New Mexico became a hotly debated issue that persists to this day.
John O. Baxter, Las Carneradas: Sheep Trade in New Mexico, 1700–1860 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987);
Located in rural Alamosa County along the western boundaryof Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, the Trujillo Homesteads were settled in the 1860s and 1870s by Teofilo Trujillo and his son, Pedro. The history of the homesteads illustrates the conflicts between Hispano and Anglo cultural and economic practices in the region, with Teofilo living in an adobe house and raising sheep while Pedro built a log house, learned English, and raised cattle. In 1902, after rival cattle ranchers killed Teofilo’s sheep and burned his house to the ground, both Teofilo and Pedro sold their land and moved away. In 2012 the Trujillo Homesteads were named a National Historic Landmark.
In 1864 Teofilo Trujillo migrated from near Taos, New Mexico, to San Pablo, Colorado. Born in New Mexico around 1842, he was one of many Hispanos who made a similar move north in the 1850s and 1860s to establish villages and ranches along the creeks and rivers of the San Luis Valley. In San Pablo he acquired some property and married Andrellita Lucero, but in 1865 they moved to a ranch northwest of Fort Garland, an important defensive post that also provided a market for Hispano agricultural products. Soon the couple moved again, this time even farther northwest, to an isolated area near what is now the edge of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The Trujillos may have been the first permanent settlers in the area. They had six children, but only Pedro, born in 1866, survived to adulthood.
Teofilo Trujillo quickly made himself into one of the wealthiest Hispano ranchers in the area. By 1870 he had 100 milk cows, thirty cattle, ten horses, and ten oxen, and he was raising wheat, potatoes, peas, and tobacco. In 1874 he built an irrigation ditch for his land, and in the late 1870s and early 1880s he secured the title to his land and started to acquire adjacent parcels.
The Trujillo family was able to expand its holdings even more in 1883, when Pedro filed for his own 160-acre homestead about a mile southwest of his father’s. He claimed to have settled the land in October 1879, when he was only thirteen years old. Even in 1883 he was only seventeen, but he lied and said he was over twenty-one. It is unclear whether he had help from his father in establishing the homestead and how closely the two ranches were connected. In any case, by 1885 Pedro had a three-acre vegetable garden and was growing hay and raising cattle and horses on the rest of his land. He had built a stable, a windmill, and a corral as well as a two-story house. That year, when he was nineteen, he married thirteen-year-old Sofia Martinez. The young couple had nine children over their next seventeen years at the homestead, plus another seven children after they moved away.
In 1877–78 the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad arrived in the San Luis Valley, bringing with it new Anglo cultural influences and economic interests. As a young and ambitious Hispano, Pedro adapted readily to the changes. He could read, write, and speak English, and he sometimes called himself “Pete.” He also built his house using logs, a clear sign of Anglicization in an area where most buildings (including his father’s house) were traditionally made of adobe.
Another way Pedro made himself a part of the new order was by raising only cattle. In fact, in an interview conducted in the 1930s with the Works Progress Administration, Pedro implied that a disagreement with his father about whether to focus on sheep or cattle was what caused him to start his own homestead. Teofilo had started as a cattle rancher in the 1860s, but by the 1880s he was shifting to sheep. In 1885 he was one of the largest sheep producers around, with 600 sheep and 500 lambs. At the same time, large-scale cattle operations run by Anglos were expanding in the San Luis Valley, leading to increased competition over grazing lands between Anglo cattle ranchers and Hispano sheepherders. Pedro worried that by raising sheep and grazing them on open range, his father would incur the wrath of powerful Anglo ranchers.
Pedro was right. As one of the largest sheep raisers in the area, Teofilo eventually became a target for the animosity of nearby Anglo cattle ranchers. In 1902 the simmering tensions erupted into conflict. That January, about ninety of Teofilo’s sheep were killed and others were driven away. On January 31, while Teofilo was away from home attending a trial about the incident, cattle ranchers swept in to destroy a large part of his sheep herd and burn his house to the ground—including $8,000 in cash that he had stored inside.
The violent intimidation worked. In March, Teofilo and Pedro sold all their water rights and land—a total of 1,496 acres—to Loren Sylvester and Richard Hosford, cattle ranchers who owned the nearby Medano Ranch. Teofilo moved to San Luis and continued to raise sheep until his death in 1915. Pedro also moved. His descendants believe that even though he raised cattle instead of sheep, he was probably threatened because of his connection to Teofilo. He bought 400 acres of land near Sargents, northwest of the San Luis Valley, and lived there until his death in 1934.
In the early twentieth century, the Trujillos’ land became part of the huge Medano-Zapata Ranch. Teofilo’s homestead was never rebuilt, and his land was never reoccupied. Pedro’s homestead served as housing for ranch employees. A worker named Eulogio Martinez lived there from the early 1900s until the 1930s. After that a variety of ranch workers temporarily occupied the house, but none wanted to stay long because the location was considered too remote. Eventually the house was abandoned and began to deteriorate.
The Medano-Zapata Ranch changed hands several times over the twentieth century. In 1989 a Japanese investment group bought the ranch to raise bison and open a high-end resort. In 1999 the company’s owner, Hisa Ota, decided to preserve the land by selling the ranch to the Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy eventually closed the resort’s restaurant and golf course but continued to operate a guest ranching program and raise cattle and bison on the land.
In 2004 the Pedro Trujillo Homestead was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The next spring, Benjamin and Carole Fitzpatrick toured the homestead while staying at Medano-Zapata Ranch. The house was in disrepair and the Nature Conservancy did not have the resources to properly preserve it, so the Fitzpatricks decided to fund a restoration effort. Work began in 2006, stalled for a few years while the Fitzpatricks tried to secure outside grants, and was completed in 2010. The house was placed on a new foundation, the roof was patched, the windows and doors were restored, and a fence was built to keep the ranch’s bison away.
In 2002 the Teofilo Trujillo Homestead was rediscovered by RMC Consultants and J. Robert Linger. In 2006 RMC completed an archaeological assessment of the site using grants from the State Historical Fund and the National Park Service. The Teofilo Trujillo Homestead has experienced very little disturbance since Teofilo sold the land in 1902. The site still includes the ruins of an adobe structure (probably his burned house) as well as several artifact scatters that could offer new information about life at Hispano ranches in the late nineteenth century.
In 2012 the Teofilo and Pedro Trujillo Homesteads were named a National Historic Landmark, making them the first Hispano homesteads in the Southwest to achieve that distinction.
Benjamin Fitzpatrick, “Privately Funded Preservation: Saving the Trujillo Homestead,” History Colorado Blogs, June 8, 2015.
Nathaniel Minor, “Great Sand Dunes Eyes Purchase of 12K Acres Within Park Boundaries,” Colorado Public Radio, July 1, 2016.
R. Laurie Simmons and Thomas H. Simmons, “Trujillo Homestead,” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (November 24, 2003).
Thomas H. Simmons, R. Laurie Simmons, and Marilyn A. Martorano, “Trujillo Homesteads,” National Historic Landmark Nomination (September 23, 2011).
Rocky Mountain PBS, "The San Luis Valley," Colorado Experience, November 12, 2015.
Virginia McConnell Simmons, The San Luis Valley: Land of the Six-Armed Cross (Boulder: Pruett, 1979).