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Rabbitbrush Rambler: Uncle Lafe, Part II

Posted: Tuesday, Jan 22nd, 2013

During his early years in New Mexico Territory, Lafayette Head was gaining influence among his American and Mexican neighbors. Relations with the American Indians of various tribes and bands were more problematical, however.

In the San Luis Valley and along the Front Range of the Rockies, Indian depredations were frequent, and these reached a climax at El Pueblo, at today’s Pueblo, Colorado, where an attack occurred in December of 1854. Retaliation followed throughout the region, including the San Luis Valley, with troops from Fort Massachusetts and volunteer militia from New Mexico engaging in action in 1855.

Ute Indians took livestock at Guadalupe in March and a battle ensued there. Among the casualties in this fight, Lafayette Head was wounded, and the Muache Ute Chief Kaniache was shot when Head tricked him by holding up a hat on a stick to expose the chief to a shot. Agreements made later in the year at Abiquiú tentatively established peaceful relations afterward with most Ute Indians in the area.

Restocked, the determined Conejos colonists dug irrigation ditches. The oldest recorded acequias there were Jose Maria Jaquez’s Guadalupe Main ditch, Decree No. 1, dated March 1855, and Head’s Mill and Irrigation Ditch, Decree No. 2, dated June 1855.

In 1856, Jaquez erected a gristmill east of Guadalupe on the north side of the river, while Head built a competing one on the south side. These ended the time-consuming chores of grinding grain by hand or transporting it some distance.

During the same year, Head built a two-room adobe house on the higher ground across the river from Guadalupe where flooding as likely. His home, west of the northwest corner of the plaza, expanded into a long, low structure as his activities grew, while his childless wife Maria ran domestic life with her captive Indians workers (criados).

Religious activities commenced by 1857 when priests from Abiquiú and Arroyo Hondo visited Conejos and performed sacraments for the settlers. One of the homes used for these services belonged to Head.

That year, construction of a church began in the plaza. The structure was a small rectangular jacal, made with upright post and low walls of upright posts, the overall dimensions being only 16 by 30 feet.

In 1858, the first resident priest, the Rev. Vicente Montano arrived. He kept records laxly, and Lafayette Head soon became the secretary of the parish committee although records do not show much improvement during this early period. When the better organized Rev. Jose Miguel Vigil replaced Montano in 1860, Vigil got busy and inspired the local people to build a new structure around the original jacal. With walls 10 feet high, the new structure was dedicated in 1863 by Bishop Lamy.

(Our Lady of Guadalupe was the first Catholic parish in Colorado, but not the first church building. The church erected in 1860-1863 later underwent extensive changes, burned in 1926, and was replaced with a new structure incorporating only one corner of an old adobe tower.)

While he was living in the Chama River Valley, Head had become involved in territorial politics in 1853. After he moved to the San Luis Valley, he was elected to New Mexico’s territorial senate for Rio Arriba County from 1856 to 1859 and was president in 1859, the year when Jose Victor Garcia, Jose Jaquez’s son-in-law, of Conejos was elected to the territorial legislature.

By Act of Congress, the Territory of Colorado was created on February 28, 1861, with the 37th Parallel as the southern boundary, creating a dramatic political shift northward and need for leadership in the fledgling communities. Head was always eager to step in whenever opportunity arose.

In the San Luis Valley, Conejos County was one of the two designated to administer county government, these being Guadalupe County and San Miguel County. Guadalupe County was quickly renamed Conejos County with its seat at Conejos, whereas San Miguel County became Costilla County with its seat at San Luis.

Conejos County took in all the land west and south of the Rio Grande to the Utah border for the next few years, but Head left the local government to others, as he was busy with another responsibility.

In 1859, he was appointed to be an Indian agent, and his Ute Indian Agency opened at Conejos in 1860. Until 1868 when the Continental Divide became the boundary of the new Ute Indian Reservation in Colorado, the agency at Conejos was the scene of considerable activity that will be described in Part III.

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