European Settlement of the
San Luis Valley
Early European explorers, mistaking the plains bison for water buffalo, tried to domesticate the animals. One of the earliest recorded histories of the San Luis Valley includes an account of one such incident. The tale involves Spaniards who entered the Valley around 1599 in search of gold, meat and religious conquest. Upon hearing of the bison in the north, a small party of Spaniards was sent to domesticate the animals. On the East Side of the Valley, The Ute, who gave an elaborate demonstration of bison hunting, greeted the party. With little knowledge of the temperament of bison, the would-be Vaqueros stampeded a herd of 500 bison. Many of their horses were killed, and the idea of domestication was abandoned.
With winter approaching, the initial friendliness between the Native Americans and the Spaniards deteriorated rapidly. The Spanish needed food and shelter, so they commandeered the Native Americans’ corn and enslaved them. For nearly a century the Spaniards enslaved the native peoples. When the slaves finally rebelled, they drove the Spaniards down from the mountains, across the sand dunes, and into makeshift rafts on the Rio Grande River. Francisco Torres, a Catholic missionary, had been mortally wounded in the uprising. Too weak to make it into the raft, his dying vision was of the mountain peaks tinged blood red by the setting sun. As he lay dying in great pain, he cried out, “Sangre de Cristo!” (Meaning blood of Christ) giving the mountains surrounding the ranch their name.
There are several archaeological sites on what is now called the Medano-Zapata Ranch, which point back to early Native American and bison co-habitation in the region. Archaeologists Pegi Jodry and Dennis Stanford, from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, uncovered bison bones believed to be roughly 11,000 years old. They later uncovered a bison kill site.
European Contact and Settlement
The Spanish were the first Europeans to settle the San Luis Valley, as they came in search of gold, meat, and religious conquest. Their foothold in the valley ebbed and flowed as relations with the Native Americans shifted. Eventually, the valley fell under Mexican rule and finally, after the Mexican-American War, the land was ceded to the United States.
By the early 1800s, New Mexican pastors began herding sheep up the Rio Grande for summer grazing. Considerable trouble developed with the Ute Indians, but each year the sheep ranchers secured more land. The demand for wool and mutton was so great in Colorado that cowboys are said to have planned raids to rustle sheep from Native Americans in Texas and brought them back to sell at Fort Garland, CO.
In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson sent Lt. Zebulon Pike to discover the source of the Red River, which was considered to be the dividing line between the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and the Spanish Territories. In the dead of winter, Pike crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with twelve men. Upon exiting Mosca Pass, he described his first view of the sand dunes. He said it was as if one was looking upon a sea. We know from his journals that he descended and camped in a “copse” of cottonwoods that is now the headquarters for the Zapata Ranch.
The Dickey Brothers were an early cattle outfit in the San Luis Valley, moving to the area at a time when the valley was dominated by Mexican sheep ranchers. They set up their ranch Headquarters on the Medano Ranch in 1877, a site that still stands today, and quickly began purchasing and leasing land from the neighboring sheep ranchers.
Medano- Zapata Ranch
Portions of both ranches changed hands until 1911, when the whole of the Medano Zapata ranch fell into the eager hands of G. W. Linger. When the train delivered Linger’s first cattle to Fort Garland in 1914, the cows were in such bad shape they could barely stand. Having just acquired the ranch, the Lingers faced total disaster. They built sleds, strapped each cow on a sled, and hauled them to the Ranch. The journey to the ranch was difficult considering there was no snow at the time. The Linger operation survived and, with his children, he eventually built the Medano and Zapata Ranches into one of the greatest cattle spreads in Colorado.
Renovation & Restoration
The ranch changed hands several more times until, in 1989, a Japanese investment group known as Rocky Mountain Bison Inc. purchased the ranch. Rocky Mountain Bison began to renovate the lodge and surrounding buildings with the aim of creating a high-end resort, spa, and golf course. They also introduced bison to the Medano Zapata Ranch, and began running a herd of up to 2,800 on the Medano side of the property. In the early 1990’s, Hisa Ota emerged as the sole owner of Rocky Mountain Bison, Inc. Through his time on the ranch, Mr. Ota came to appreciate the landscape and realized the need to protect the natural integrity of the property. Mr. Ota sold the Medano Zapata Ranch to the Nature Conservancy in July 1999. The Nature Conservancy continued to operate the inn, restaurant and golf course. In the fall of 2004, The Nature Conservancy contracted Duke Phillips to manage the land, cattle, and bison at the ranch. The restaurant and golf course were closed, and efforts are underway to restore the land to its native condition. The lodge now serves as a center for a guest ranching program and Nature Conservancy events.