History & Legends
Legend of the Spanish Peaks
The Spanish Peaks of south central Colorado have been among the most important landmarks of the southwestern United States, guiding Native American tribes, trappers, and American settlers. The Ute, and other, earlier Indian tribes held the Peaks in religious awe and named the mountains Wahatoya, meaning "Breasts of the Earth."
"Huajatolla are two breasts as round as woman's, and all living things on earth, mankind, beasts and plants, derive their sustenance from that source. The clouds are born there, and without clouds there is no rain, and when no rain falls, we have no food, and without food - we must perish all."
- Ute Creation Story
The Spanish Peaks are a truly unique and majestic contribution to the area's already beautiful scenery. Rising up to 13,626 feet elevation, much of the Peaks are now designated National Wilderness.
Over the years, many people have been drawn to Wahatoya for many different reasons. Most who come still say there is still magic with the twin peaks that they feel no place else. One who came to Wahatoya and experienced that, and more, was El Grandote, a Tarahumare Indian.
For years his people lived in peace at the foot of the mountain. One day a huge rock-slide roared down the mountain and buried the village, and everyone in it, keeping them in their beloved Wahatoya forever. Only Grandote survived the slide. It is said that he still walks the wild gorges of the Wahatoyas with his beloved wife and son.
And even now, the Wahatoyas remain the prominent place they were in the time of giants, Indians, Spanish traders, mountain men, trappers and explorers.
Legend has it the first Europeans to enter the Spanish Peaks area were Spanish militia in the company of a group of priests, sent to look for gold wherever they could find it. Supposedly they found a rich vein somewhere on the peaks and enslaved some local Indians to dig it out for them. When the Spaniards left they killed all the Indians and headed south over Cuchara Pass. They went down to the Purgatoire River and headed west, hoping to cross the Sangre de Cristo's. Somewhere along the banks of the river they were ambushed by hostile Indians and were wiped out to a man. That's how the river got its' name: Rio de las Animas Perdido en Purgatorio, meaning river of souls lost in purgatory (changed to Purgatoire by French trappers).
The first recorded Europeans to explore the Spanish Peaks region came north from Santa Fe in 1706, 100 years before Zebulon Pike discovered Pikes Peak. There were several forays into the area by northern New Mexico militias looking to put an end to the continual raids from the Comanche. De Anza finally succeeded in this mission when his men killed Cuerno Verde (Green Horn), a great Comanche war chief, somewhere in the Apache-Colorado City area at the foot of Greenhorn Mountain. The Santa Fe Trail was established in 1821 with the Spanish Peaks as guideposts to travelers along the Mountain and Taos Branches of the Trail.
The Spanish Peaks were important markers to early Spanish explorers, probing routes over Raton and Sangre de Cristo passes northward into the Colorado interior. In 1822, Mexico's independence from Spain opened the markets of Taos and Santa Fe to American traders via the Santa Fe Trail. Coming along a lone butte (located near today's Walsenburg), it also quickly became a landmark. Huerfano Butte stands alone, far removed from the other hills or peaks, therefore an "orphan". In Spanish, "Huerfano", for which the river and County were subsequently named.
The Wahatoya continued to be an important landmark for later 19th century explorers like Col. John C. Fremont, John Gunnison, Tom Breckenridge and "Old Bill" Williams. On Fremont's 4th expedition in 1848, they came through this area searching the southern Rockies for a western route for a railroad to span the country.
It was in 1862 that Col. John Francisco chose this site to build a fort for commerce and protection. But Francisco was no town builder. After purchasing a 48,000 acre piece of the Mexican Land Grant, this veteran of Santa Fe raised his adobe homestead, leased the rest of his holdings to ranchers and farmers, and sat on his porch with cronies from the frontier days. When the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad came through in 1876, a town inevitably followed.
La Veta, is Spanish for "the vein". How and why the town was named this is not confirmed. In the 1700s there were Spanish Expeditions looking for gold in the area. Could it have been in reference to gold? Or perhaps it referred to coal, or yaso, to whitewash adobe, or to the dike wall veins. More loosely translated it's not just a word but a description, meaning a central area in the opening of a valley.
The first known coal mine in this region opened around 1876. In the following years it became the largest industry in Huerfano County. At one time, there were nearly 50 mines and over 10,000 people in the area. In 1914, the Ludlow miners organized a union, to protest poor working conditions. Mine owners eventually quashed the protestors. The end result was the "Ludlow Massacre" in which 33 people died and scores were wounded or missing. Some of those included women and children. The mines involved were owned by Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I) whose chairman was none other than John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Coal was mined sporadically until the 1940's and then abandoned. When the mines closed, the town's people were offered homes for $100 per room. Many of those homes were eventually moved to towns throughout the area. The ruins of the old mining camps can still be seen throughout the Walsenburg area and west of Trinidad.
The earliest records of the Cuchara Valley show that it was not called Cuchara at all, but rather Nunda Canyon. Nunda is an Indian word for "potato". The first Anglo settlers were homesteaders. Land was free as long as they built a house, with a real door and window. Many of them followed the Indian tradition, by raising potatoes in the meadows. By the late 1800s it was referred to as Cuchara Valley.
Cuchara is Spanish for "spoon". Some say that the river and valley were named that because early explorers found ancient spoons along the river. Others say the name was given because of the spoon shape of the valley. They claim that when the giants roamed the earth, the valley was formed when a giant laid down his spoon after a heavy rain, thus making an impression in the side of the mountain. The impression has remained.
In 1908 George Mayes and his wife moved to the valley for Mayes' health. Seeing the valley's beauty, Mayes was convinced that the area would make a great summer resort. He named the resort Cuchara Camps. By 1910, several summer cabins had been built and Cuchara became a community, at least in the summer.
The Geology of the Spanish Peaks and the Area
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains were pushed up in one huge chunk between two major faults running north to south. Molten rock from the mantle beneath the Earth's crust began to surge upward into the lower areas of the cracked formations about 25 million years ago. When the magma cooled and hardened beneath the Earth's surface it formed huge horizontal "Batholiths" of granite. Over the last 25 million years, uplifts and folds have raised the surface of the land. The elements have eroded away the softer overlying sedimentary rocks and exposed the underlying hard, igneous stocks of the Spanish Peaks. While the surrounding area is marked by many lava flows and volcanic mountains, the Spanish Peaks are not extinct volcanoes.
West Spanish Peak, with an elevation of 13,623 feet, overtops the East Peak which only has an elevation of 12,708. However, this difference is not readily discernable from a distance. The Spanish Peaks are geologically distinct from the faulted and uplifted mountains of the Sangre de Cristo range to the West. The Peaks are prime examples of "stocks" which are defined as large masses of igneous (molten) rock that intruded layers of sedimentary rock and were later exposed, due to erosion.
Among the most unusual features of the Spanish Peaks are the great dikes that radiate out from the mountains like spokes of a wheel. When the molten magma was rising in the Earth it was also moving through vertical cracks and joints. As erosion has occurred, these dikes have also become exposed. These walls of rock are often spectacular in height and length, and are known to geologists world wide. They are a unique feature of the landscape around the Spanish Peaks. When you are here, I'll tell you the legends surrounding the Devil's Stairstep Dike and Goemmer's Butte.