Traditional sheepherding in the San Luis Valley

Many of the original sheepherders in the early 20th century lacked formal education and were illiterate. A sheepherder left his mark on an aspen tree in 1906.

SAN LUIS VALLEY - We are in an age of transition, with new technology evolving at an accelerating rate. It seems that every day we are adapting to a new world. With every new adaptation, we are leaving a way of life behind, changing our lifestyle and culture. As we push forward it is easy to overlook what is being forgotten. It is important to take time to preserve certain traditions and values before the history, importance, and stories are lost to memory.
The San Luis Valley in southern Colorado has a long and unique history. Different cultural groups clashed, compromised, and coalesced as they settled into this vast landscape. The valley has come to be known as a hidden “gem,” but much of the history of the valley and its contribution to Colorado and the country as a whole has been overlooked. A significant part of the history of the Valley is connected with the first Spanish settlers and their tradition of sheepherding. Since its first introduction in the mid-1800s, sheepherding has become embedded into the local economy and way of life resulting in the San Luis Valley being the largest exporter of livestock and wool by the end of the 20th century. Understanding and preserving the cultural history of the Valley and the State of Colorado goes hand-in-hand with understanding and preserving the history of Hispanic sheepherding in this region. Unfortunately, due to a combination of economic and social reasons, this lifestyle has become less sustainable and there are few who still remember or practice the traditional lifestyle.
For the past year, I have been working with the Rio Grande National Forest’s (RGNF) Heritage Program to study this fascinating and unique heritage. The RGNF encompasses 1.83 million acres surrounding the Valley and many of the original families’ traditional grazing lands are now located on the national forest. Along with studying the archaeological sites associated with sheepherding found on the RGNF, I have been speaking to descendants, and those who continue the tradition, to better understand their historical movements, customs and values.
When most people think of sheepherding they think of the lone sheepherder with his flock. Here in the San Luis Valley, sheepherding was more of a family affair. Families would work together, with every member of the family participating in tasks ranging from lambing to driving sheep to the mountains, to shearing and butchering. An example of this comes from two brothers who I interviewed last fall, Gerard and Luciano Sandoval. Both brothers described being removed from school early when it was time to take the livestock to the mountains for grazing.
Archaeological sites associated with sheepherding in the San Luis Valley include sheep camps, stock driveways, cairns and arbor glyphs (aspen carvings).
Jeremiah Martinez, a descendent of a Hispanic sheepherding family whose ties to the San Luis Valley trace back to the Muniz brothers, Ute translators for the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante expedition, says that carving in aspens helps remind him of his connection to the land:  
You know, they’ll be like, “Oh I saw your grandpa’s name up there on Cornwall [Mountain],” and I’m like, “Yeah it doesn’t surprise me.” You know, even if I haven’t seen it, I know it’s there. Because they were a big part of this area, you know. They were a big part of that area so it doesn’t surprise me that their fingerprints are all over everything.
Jeremiah showed me an aspen where his grandfather carved his name when he was born, an indication of how the tradition has persisted. Many of the original sheepherders in the early 20th century lacked formal education and were illiterate. Leaving their mark on an aspen, be it just their name, was a way of saying, “I was here, I existed, even if history doesn’t remember me.”
It is time that history remembers all key participants, even ones that can mistakenly be deemed “unimportant” by current or prior society. If we pick and choose the history and cultures we document, then we will fall prey to revisionist history that deprives us of the full richness of our cultural heritage. As Jeremiah Martinez said, “I think when we lose a lot of our culture, we lose our identity, and if we lose our identity we don’t know where we’re from or where we should be. And I think there’s like a personal satisfaction in knowing that you belong somewhere.”
Over the next year I will be working to release the recorded and transcribed interviews and to compile an interactive map to help the public understand and visualize the history of the Hispanic population in the southern San Luis Valley. I would like to send a special “thank you” to the Hispanic Access Foundation for funding this research, to consultant Arnie Valdez, to RGNF Conejos Peak Ranger District employees, to all the grazing permittees, and, of course, to all the families and community members for working with us to make this project possible.
Elena Adalí Jiménez is the Hispanic Access Foundation Archaeological Fellow with the Rio Grande National Forest. Raised between the United States and Costa Rica, Elena’s research includes Pre-Colombian Chorotega settlements in Costa Rica, Latinx/Hispanic history in the United States, and understanding bicultural identity within Costa Rican and American culture.


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