Ceran St. Vrain is ‘New Mex­ico True’


North­ern New Mex­ico pi­o­neer Ceran St. Vrain was a leader of his time.

Those who lived and worked with St. Vrain said he was a kind gen­tle­man, a wor­thy and in­tel­li­gent com­man­der — po­lite but, frank and busy. St. Vrain helped in­tro­duce Amer­ica to the New Mex­ico ter­ri­tory as a moun­tain man, trader, mer­chant, soldier and politi­cian.

While in Taos in 1830, he formed a part­ner­ship with Gov. Charles Bent and helped cre­ate the “cas­tle on the plains” be­side the Arkansas River known as Bent’s Fort, along with Fort St. Vrain and Fort Adobe. Em­brac­ing New Mex­ico, St. Vrain made it his home for 45 years. He had stores and houses in the plazas of Taos, Las Ve­gas, Mora and Santa Fe; grist­mills in Taos, Talpa and Mora; lum­ber mills, dis­til­leries; and for a time was edi­tor of the Santa Fe Gazette. He was an en­tre­pre­neur pos­sessed with abil­i­ties to stay ahead of the times.

His birth on May 5, 1802, in Mis­souri Ter­ri­tory, rep­re­sented the first gen­er­a­tion on his fa­ther’s side to be born in Amer­ica. His an­ces­tors were French. Sto­ries of life in his fam­ily’s home­land — in­clud­ing tra­di­tional be­liefs, the Catholic faith, the re­wards of hard work and fair­ness — were handed down.

A trader is born

But why did St. Vrain leave his fam­ily be­hind to travel the Santa Fe Trail? No other writer has com­mented on the to­tal­ity of sud­den, dev­as­tat­ing losses and change ex­pe­ri­enced by a young St. Vrain. At 15 years old, his younger sis­ters died at ages 13 and 14 — likely at­trib­uted to malaria. Eight months later in 1818, his fa­ther died. Ten months later, his older sis­ter died at the age of 18. His mother, now a griev­ing wi­dow and be­reaved mother, was re­spon­si­ble for six chil­dren still at home. She made a for­tu­itous de­ci­sion to al­low her son to ap­pren­tice un­der good friend Bernard Pratte, a noted fur trader.

As a clerk in Pratte’s store, St. Vrain heard ex­cit­ing tales of profit from men like Wil­liam Beck­nell. He met Beck­nell in the spring of 1824, help­ing su­per­vise the de­liv­ery of mer­chan­dise to traders. By fall, St. Vrain had grown im­pa­tient. He wanted in on the ac­tion. Life in Mis­souri for St. Vrain rep­re­sented huge losses; his fu­ture on the Santa Fe Trail was set. With sup­plies pro­vided by Pratte, he formed a part­ner­ship with Fran­cois Guerin and started the jour­ney south­west. In large num­bers, men like St. Vrain headed West to build an­other pil­lar in the foun­da­tion upon which this na­tion now stands.

It was about March 1825 when he crossed the San­gre de Cristo Moun­tains and gazed upon Don Fernandez de Taos (as Taos was re­ferred to in his time). Four months later, a home­sick St. Vrain wrote his mother that it was a “mis­er­able place.” But he fore­saw a busi­ness op­por­tu­nity in Taos, es­tab­lished his head­quar­ters there and was soon re­spected by the Taos Pue­blo In­di­ans for fair­trade deals. They nick­named him “Black Beard.”

Hav­ing set up his first store in Taos:

• St. Vrain re­turned to Mis­souri, vis­ited fam­ily, ob­tained sup­plies and then or­ga­nized a trap­ping ex­pe­di­tion to the Gila.

• In 1826, a pass­port was is­sued for him to pass from Taos to Sonora, Mex­ico for pri­vate trade.

• Around 1831, he was granted Mex­i­can cit­i­zen­ship and learned Span­ish to ex­pe­dite trad­ing.

• From 1834 to 1838, he served as the Amer­i­can con­sul to Mex­ico.

St. Vrain also part­nered with Cor­ne­lio Vigil, a prom­i­nent trader and for­mer mayor of Taos. In 1844, Mex­ico granted the Vigil-St. Vrain Land Grant that spread across south­east­ern Colorado. The grant was huge, about 4 mil­lion acres. It was later dis­puted and Congress re­duced it to 97,000 acres.

In his heart

St. Vrain was a fiercely loyal friend. The Taos Re­volt of 1847 would serve to demon­strate that trait. When Bent, the first gov­er­nor of New Mex­ico Ter­ri­tory un­der Amer­i­can rule, was scalped alive and mur­dered in Taos on Jan. 19, 1847, St. Vrain re­cruited 65 vol­un­teers in Santa Fe known as “The Avengers.” They joined 300 U.S. troops to re­spond to the upris­ing. When the group en­coun­tered Je­sus de Tafoya wear­ing Bent’s blood­stained coat and shirt, St. Vrain shot him. In the fight­ing, St. Vrain nearly lost his life as well. Manuel Chaves and Richens Lacy Woot­ton came to his res­cue. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hi­dalgo would make New Mex­ico part of the United States. Af­ter­ward, St. Vrain was sent as the Taos rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the New Mex­ico Ter­ri­to­rial Con­ven­tion to help frame a gov­ern­ment for the ter­ri­tory.

Away from trap­ping, trad­ing and pol­i­tick­ing, St. Vrain was a fam­ily man. Com­mon-law marriages oc­curred at least three times with lo­cal women: Maria Delores Luna, Maria Ig­na­cia Tru­jillo and Maria Louisa Branch. Be­tween them, he fa­thered five chil­dren be­tween 1827 and 1863. Many de­scen­dants live through­out the South­west.

Grit, grist­mills and green­backs

St. Vrain built the first mod­ern grist­mill in Taos around 1850, with the sec­ond one in Mora and the third one in Per­alta. The Taos mill was lo­cated on the west side of the Río Grande del Ran­cho above Talpa, about 3 miles up­stream from the Ran­chos Plaza. It con­tin­ued pro­duc­ing un­til 1864, when it burned down. Records say he sup­plied the planned mil­i­tary out­post near Taos with grain in 1851. He was one of the largest New Mex­ico sup­pli­ers to Fort Union. Mil­i­tary con­tracts helped him be­come the first self-made mil­lion­aire in New Mex­ico. He with­drew from the Catholic faith af­ter dis­putes with Fr. An­to­nio José Martínez and pre­sented him­self for ini­ti­a­tion as a Freema­son in 1853. Along with Kit Car­son and oth­ers in 1860, they formed Bent Lodge No. 204 in Taos, in honor of their friend.

St. Vrain also com­manded a vol­un­teer com­pany in 1855 with reg­u­lar troops and In­dian scouts — no longer en­e­mies — from Taos Pue­blo in a suc­cess­ful op­er­a­tion against raid­ing Ji­car­illa Apaches and Utes. He served as lieu­tenant colonel with Car­son as his chief of scouts.

Be­cause of St. Vrain’s po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic in­flu­ence, in 1861 Brig. Gen. Ed­ward Canby chose him to com­mand the 1st New Mex­ico Vol­un­teer In­fantry to coun­ter­act the Con­fed­er­ate threat to New Mex­ico. Car­son was St. Vrain’s lieu­tenant colonel. But on Sept. 17, af­ter he had taken a leave of ab­sence, St. Vrain re­signed, say­ing that “a mul­ti­plic­ity of pri­vate busi­ness” was pre­vent­ing him from de­vot­ing full at­ten­tion to mil­i­tary du­ties. He was 59 and some say he was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ill health. Nev­er­the­less, Car­son took com­mand of the 1st New Mex­ico In­fantry and, un­der or­ders from Gen. James Henry Car­leton, be­came in­fa­mous for cease­less cam­paigns against In­di­ans.

The Stars and Stripes had flown from a short flag­pole in the Taos Plaza since 1846, but Civil War South­ern sym­pa­thiz­ers kept tear­ing it down. Tak­ing a group of men to Taos Canyon, Capt. Smith Simp­son se­lected a tall, slen­der cot­ton­wood, trimmed it and car­ried it to the Plaza. With the help of Ceran St. Vrain, Kit Car­son, Thomas Boggs and oth­ers, the flag was nailed to the pole and raised aloft. Capt. Simp­son an­nounced any­one dar­ing to dis­turb the flag would be shot. Re­tir­ing to the Bent-St. Vrain store, they took turns stand­ing guard. Be­cause it was nailed, the flag flew day and night. While not a law, Congress later au­tho­rized Taos to dis­play the flag 24/7 to com­mem­o­rate this event.

In 1863, St. Vrain fore­saw the need for a road be­tween Taos and Santa Fe. Send­ing a pe­ti­tion to Pres­i­dent Lin­coln signed by 138 oth­ers, he de­scribed the project’s fea­si­bil­ity stat­ing ap­pro­pri­a­tion of $100,000 would suf­fice. He was suc­cess­ful (although he would not live to see it com­pleted) and the road was opened to travel in 1877.

‘For­got­ten and un­honored’

At age 65, St. Vrain re­tired to his home in Mora and en­joyed a respite from his many en­deav­ors. He suf­fered a stroke on Oct. 28, 1870. Over 2,000 peo­ple at­tended his fu­neral in Mora — the most in New Mex­ico his­tory to that date, which in­cluded a full mil­i­tary burial. The Daily New Mex­i­can stated: “In ev­ery part of the Ter­ri­tory there are men who will feel that in the death of Col. St. Vrain not only has the coun­try lost one of its best cit­i­zens, but they have lost one of their truest and no­blest per­sonal friends.”

As rec­og­nized by New Mex­ico’s Tourism Depart­ment, Ceran St. Vrain is “New Mex­ico True.” Sadly, how­ever, New Mex­ico pos­sesses only two stand­ing tes­ti­monies to him: a head­stone mark­ing his burial place and his grist­mill in Mora. Eu­gene Hanosh wrote: “It is tragic to think that such a fa­mous man who gave so much to the de­vel­op­ment of New Mex­ico and of Mora lies for­got­ten and un­honored.” And Marc Sim­mons wrote, “Every­one who knew him … had a great re­spect for him. Ceran St. Vrain was a very sober in­di­vid­ual and very solid. Un­for­tu­nately, his­tory — es­pe­cially the his­tory of the fron­tier West — is more likely to re­mem­ber the yarn-spin­ners, the hell-rais­ers and the gun­fight­ers than it is to re­mem­ber solid cit­i­zens.”

The New Mex­i­can archive photo/Mar­cella San­doval

Mora's 150-year-old grist­mill was built by Ceran St. Vrain, a trader born near St. Louis who be­came a fron­tier en­tre­pre­neur in North­ern New Mex­ico. The mill pro­duced 100,000 pounds or more of flour per year, some from the wheat grown in fields just north of it.

U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey

Above: Map show­ing the ex­tent of the Mex­i­can Land Grants in what is now South­ern Colorado and North­ern New Mex­ico, as of June 21, 1860.

Cour­tesy of the Palace of the Gov­er­nors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg­a­tive Num­ber 011469

The Taos Plaza flag has been fly­ing 24/7 since the end of the Civil War when Ceran St. Vrain, Capt. Smith Simp­son, Kit Car­son and oth­ers nailed it to a pole "dar­ing" any Con­fed­er­ate sym­pa­thiz­ers to tear it down. This photo is dated circa 1915.

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