HUERFANO — Had it not been for Ceran St. Vrain, Colorado might be an entirely different sort of place. Praise him or curse him, but remember him as the first, and biggest, land developer in the southeastern part of the state. Ceran was the second child of Jacques Marcellin Ceran de Hault de Lassus, born in 1801 at Spanish Lake, Missouri, near St. Louis. Jacques added de St. Vrain to his name and Ceran Americanized the whole title to simply Ceran St. Vrain. Even simplified, the name confounded spellers all over the west for the next seven decades. New Mexicans knew him as “Sambran” while his fellow trappers and traders often referred to him as “Varane”. Some of his Indian acquaintances just called him “Black Beard”. Jacques died when Ceran was 16. With eight younger siblings in the household, Ceran got a job to help out. He became a clerk for Barnard Pratte’s trading company at $20 per month. He also lived with the Pratte family. Pratte financed many trapping parties in the Far West and when the new Republic of Mexico loosened the former
restrictions on foreigners entering New Mexico, Ceran formed a partnership, financed by Pratte, and left St. Louis in November 1824 to enter the trade. He joined a caravan led by the famous William Becknell, known as “the father of the Santa Fe Trail”, and arrived in Santa Fe in March 1825. From there he traveled on to Taos and soon joined a trapping party bound for the Gila River where they spent the winter. He continued trapping in Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado for several years. He bought out his first partner for $100 and two mules and became a naturalized Mexican citizen. Along the way he made the acquaintance of the Bent brothers. In 1932, he went into a mercantile store business with Charles Bent on the south side of the Taos plaza. Meanwhile Charles’ brother William began construction of the new Bent, St. Vrain and Company’s trading post on the Arkansas River. This became known as Bent’s Fort or Fort William. Six years later, St. Vrain and Bent opened a second fortified trading post on a branch on the South Platte River which was called Fort St. Vrain. The tributary it was located on became known as St. Vrain Creek. With the outbreak of Mexican War, Ceran and Charles Bent, on their annual buying and selling trip to Missouri, made a detour to visit Fort Leavenworth to share knowledge of New Mexico with Army officers, especially Col. Stephen Watts Kearny. By this time Ceran was the American Consul in Santa Fe. Following the war and the murder of Charles Bent in the Taos uprising, Ceran organized a unit of 65 volunteers for the United States and was made an officer to command them. During a furious battle with the rebels entrenched in the Taos Pueblo, Ceran was nearly killed, but saved by either l. Richens S. Wootton or 2. Manuel Chavez, depending on whose story you believe. He also bought a newspaper and became a printer. He opened a flour mill beside the Rio Grande and in 1849 got a contract with the U.S. Army to furnish a million pounds of flour. His mill operated on five large burr mills produced in France, and required five millers. In 1856, he and a partner built a second mill in the San Luis Valley. He also owned a whiskey distillery and hundreds of head of cattle. It is said that in Ceran’s first 10 years in New Mexico, he had earned upwards of $10,000. By 1850, he had probably tripled that, at the least. After the discovery of gold in Colorado, Ceran saw yet another opportunity to increase his fortune. As early as 1860, his Taos store was provisioning the markets in the new Denver City. He (along with other contenders) is credited with opening the first store, located on Larimer Street, in the city in February 1859. When Ceran first arrived in Taos, he referred to conditions there as “miserable”. When a new governor was sent by the Mexican government to Santa Fe, he, too, visited Taos and called it “miserable”. With this meeting of the minds, it is perhaps no wonder Ceran and partner Cornelio Vigil had managed to be awarded a land grant of some four million acres from Gov. Manuel Armijo back in January 1844. The grant included the headwaters, tributaries and valleys of the Purgatory, Apishapa (called “Pisipa” back then), Cucharas and Huerfano rivers. The boundaries were the Purgatory River on the east, the Arkansas River on the north, the summits of the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the west and the Beaubien-Miranda Grant on the south. This is a huge chunk of southeastern Colorado. It was called the Vigil-St. Vrain or Las Animas Land Grant. One of the requirements of the grant was for the partners to colonize and cultivate the land. This they did not do. It was not until 1853 Ceran convinced settlers to go to the junction of the Huerfano and Arkansas rivers to build homes and irrigation ditches, plant crops and become full time residents. Because Cornelio Vigil was one of the victims of the Taos Revolt in January 1847, Ceran had purchased his half of the grant from his heirs to become sole owner. From 1860 until his death, Ceran was reviled because of this land grant. In that year, the U.S. Congress considered that 4,000,000 acres to be even unlawful in Mexico, where a grant was not to exceed 11 square leagues, or about 96,000 acres. Litigation began. This did not stop him, however, because he continued to send colonists onto the immense empty lands, such as John M. Francisco and Henry Daigre at the future site of La Veta in 1861. With the Civil War raging and then Reconstruction, the federal government did not act on settling the dispute on the acreage. By 1870, there were 39 major claimants for those 96,000 acres. Many broke up their parcels and either sold or gave away large acreages. Francisco and Daigre’s share, for instance, had more than 80 claimants by the mid 1870s. A large area encompassing Trinidad was also in limbo with several claimants. It was all a big mess. The lawsuits concerning the land in and around Trinidad remained in contention until 1887. By the time the litigation ended, many of the grant’s claimants, and its owner, were dead. Ceran St. Vrain had moved from Taos to the community of Mora about 1855, opened another store, built a large home and operated a third grist mill. He died in Mora Oct. 28, 1870, 144 years ago, of a stroke, leaving three children, an unknown number of ex-wives and business partners, and several hundred disgruntled and uneasy landowners.