Costilla County

Costilla County, Colorado, rich in Hispanic culture and traditions, offers many ‘firsts’. In this county, San Luis is considered the oldest town in the state of Colorado and contains the oldest continous business still in operation, the state’s first water right and “La Vega”, the last remaining agricultural commons in the United States still used for its original purpose.

Located in south-central Colorado in the San Luis Valley, Costilla is bounded on the south by New Mexico, on the west by the Rio Grande (separating it from Conejos County), and by Alamosa county in the NW. The eastern border reaches the tops of the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Costilla County was established in 1861 and was named for the Costilla River. Costilla is the Spanish word for “rib” and “furring timber”. The river had been named prior to the 1800s by the Spaniards.

Volcanoes, Faults, Mountains and Water

The volcanic activity continued off and on for over 20 million years, with the last stages producing numerous cinder cones that have been mined in both Costilla and Conejos counties as a supply for decorative and landscaping materials. The second segment of the geological history began about 10 million years ago when a region of the western United States was pulled apart and large fault bounded valleys formed rifts, such as the Rio Grande Rift.

This period of faulting and down dropping of the San Luis Valley, overlapped with the final stages of volcanism. This overlap produced new gold deposits along the faults, forming linear belts of precious metals that run the entire length of Costilla County. Battle Mountain Gold Mine(now closed), North West of San Luis is the best known mine. The North end of Costilla County soars into the Sangre de Cristo Range with Culebra Peak at 14,047 ft. Streams and lakes abound in cutthroat, rainbow, browns and pike. elk, deer and mountain lions wander the forests and mountains.

Sangre de Cristo Land Grant

Fort Garland: entrance to the Commandants Quarters where Commander Kit Carson and wife Josefa Jaramillo Carson once lived: Photo courtesy Fort Garland Museum

The Sangre de Cristo Land Grant was conferred by Mexico to Beaubien and Lee in 1844 and was later patented by the U.S. Government in 1880 for just under one million acres. New Mexican families came into the San Luis Basin to settle along the Rio de la Culebra with its watershed in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. Read more…

Oldest Colorado Town and Military Forts

Settlement was unsuccessful until April 1851 when settlers from the northern New Mexico frontier established the town of San Luis,  then known as San Luis de la Culebra and which today lauds itself arguably as “San Luis – The Oldest Town in Colorado.”

The building of two forts by the U.S. War Department occurred to offer protection. In 1852, Fort Massachusetts was built six miles north of present-day Fort Garland, at the base of Sierra Blanca, and then Fort Garland was established in 1858. For the next ten years, many settlers did extensive trading and exchanged ideas with the Utes and other regional tribal groups. Some intermarried. The trade/raid aspect of the Native American/ Hispano bartering system provided economic stability for many. Then in 1858, gold was discovered, and in 1861, the Colorado Territory was established. Read more…

Costilla County Range War

Stations of the Cross San Luis: Courtesy Kyle Hammons

Stations of the Cross San Luis: Courtesy Kyle Hammons

For 109 years, a family-oriented, religious, communal agrarian and self-sufficient community flourished although rich Anglo land speculators frequently threatened it. In 1960, this pattern was violently shattered by an arrogant North Carolina lumberman by the name of Jack Tarland Taylor. He purchased 77,524 acres, the last unfenced portion of the vast land grant, for less than seven dollars an acre. His deed, as had that of preceding owners, contained the clause “and also subject to claims of the local people by prescription, or otherwise to rights to pasturage, wood, and lumber and so-called settlement rights in, to, and upon said land…” The conflict, dubbed the ‘Costilla County Range War’ by the press, began in the 1960s and continued until 2005 under owner Lou Pai, of Enron. Read more..

Slide show photo credits: 1) Mariachis at SdCNHA Dedication, courtesy Tawney Becker 2) Fields Looking towards Mt. Blanca, courtesy Sharon Arnoldi 3) Fort Garland Campers, courtesy Fort Garland Museum 4) La Vega, courtesy Tawney Becker 5) Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, courtesy Rio Grande Scenic Railroad 6) La Capilla de Todas los Santos, courtesy Tawney Becker 7) Stations of the Cross, courtesy Tawney Becker


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