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Rabbitbrush Rambler: Uncle Lafe, Part I

Posted: Tuesday, Jan 15th, 2013

Lafayette Head came to the San Luis Valley with the first permanent settlers of Conejos County. A prominent leader during the first quarter century of settlement in the San Luis Valley, and he became the first lieutenant governor of Colorado.

He was the sort who recognized opportunity whenever and wherever it arose. Born at Head’s Fort in Missouri in 1825, he seems to have taken after his grandfather, William Head, a Revolutionary War veteran, who had built his home as a stockade for protection from Indians hostilities, just nine years after the Louisiana Purchase was signed.

During his youth, Lafayette had some schooling, helped on the family’s plantation at Fort Head, and had a romance with a cousin that ended in heartbreak. When the United States declared war on Mexico, Lafayette, now 25 years old, enlisted in the Army of the West as a private in a regiment led by Colonel Sterling Price, who was related by marriage to the extended Head family.

His Missouri Mounted Volunteer Cavalry, Second Regiment, Company B, arrived in New Mexico in September, a few weeks after Stephen W. Kearney’s troops had entered Santa Fe in August without any resistance. Head would see some action before long, however.

The newly appointed governor of the territory, Charles Bent, was murdered at Taos in January, and Head’s company was among those sent north from Santa Fe to put down the insurrection in subsequent days. Head saw action at Cañada Canyon near Santa Cruz and at Embudo near Dixon, prior to the defeat of the uprising at Taos Pueblo in early February.

(We should note that Head never held the rank of major, although that title later appeared with his name. He is not officially listed as an officer during the Mexican-American War, nor at other times.)

After his enlistment was up, information about Head’s activities is sketchy for the next couple of years. He seems to have been mingling with other Americans in Santa Fe, while also learning Spanish language and Mexican ways, and he obtained a job as a clerk in a store in the city.

In 1849 he took goods to Abiquiú in the Chama River Valley and sold them profitably. This plaza on the Old Spanish Trail, was occupied by a mix of Hispanic and Indian people and had been a place that attracted traders of all sorts since the 1700s.

The next year at Abiquiú, he was named marshal and sheriff and soon was appointed as subagent for Ute and Jicarilla Apache Indians. His trading post was a hive of people of mixed races and tribes, few of whom spoke English, some being peaceful and some not, and Navajo raiders kept things stirred up nearby.

Although some accounts give her name as Martina Martinez, other sources say that Maria Juana (“Juanita”) de la Cruz Martinez and Lafayette Head married in 1851. Thus he had become part of a prominent family and a circle of Spanish-speaking compadres, who often called him Rafael.

He had kept up his ties with Americanos, too, and was back and forth to Santa Fe. With associates such as Kit Carson, Ceran St. Vrain, and Albert Pfeiffer, he became a member of the first Masonic lodge in New Mexico – Montezuma Lodge No. 1, AM&FM, chartered in 1851.

Soon, he was introduced to politics, too, when he was elected to the territorial legislature from Rio Arriba County in 1853. Around Abiquiú, he had become the man to go, and he had a distinct advantage in being bilingual in a territory where English was now the official language.

By 1854, Head and his neighbors in the Chama River Valley realized that they needed more unsettled, irrigable land, and opportunity beckoned in the San Luis Valley. Jose Maria Jaquez and a group went north in August and selected a promising location, which they called El Cedro Redondo (“the round cedar”) about half way between today’s Mogote and Paisaje (San Rafael) along the Conejos River.

The party returned home to prepare for relocation with livestock and the essentials for making a permanent home. Lafayette Head and about 50 colonizers, with Jaquez usually credited as being the leader, moved to the Conejos River in October, 1854.

The main group occupied a site on the north side of the river where they erected a log stockade, and the others at El Cedro Redondo soon joined them there for better protection. They named their plaza Guadalupe, in honor of their patroness.

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