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.”
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.
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.
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.