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The History of Zapata Ranch

The Medano-Zapata Ranch is owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed by Ranchlands in a partnership model that emphasizes environmental conservation practices. Located on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, the ranch borders the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, one of the newer National Parks in the United States.

Archaeological investigations have documented that the San Luis Valley was utilized by various Native American cultures for thousands of years. The earliest time period, the Paleo-Indian stage (approximately 11,500 B.P. to 7,800 B.P.), was characterized by highly mobile, specialized big-game hunters whose sites are sometimes associated with the remains of extinct megafauna such as mammoth, bison, camel, and ground sloths

The entire San Luis Valley was once a northern frontier of the Spanish Empire. One of the early Spanish explorers reportedly mistook the plains bison for water buffalo and once tried to domesticate these wild animals. One of the earliest recorded histories of the San Luis Valley includes a tale involving Spaniards led by Juan de Oñate, who reportedly entered the valley around 1599 in search of gold and religious conquest. When they heard about the bison, a small party of Spaniards was sent to domesticate them. On the eastern side of the valley, the Ute who gave a demonstration of bison hunting, greeted the party. With little knowledge of the temperament of bison, Vaqueros (Spanish cowboys) stampeded a herd of 500 bison resulting in many horses killed and the idea of domestication was abandoned.

Following its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico issued land grants to encourage settlement, and some of these resulted in small communities of Mexican farmers and shepherds living in the San Luis Valley. One of these grants, the Luis Maria Baca Grant No. 4, was located to the north of the Medano-Zapata Ranches. These land grants resulted in property disputes amongst the descendants of Hispano settlers and white homesteaders well into the twentieth century.

The ranch was owned by the Dickey Brothers from the early 1870s to 1882, then sold to Neil Adee and William Durkee who consolidated lands forming the Medano and Zapata ranches and were major cattle ranchers in the valley. In 1889, members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, having troubles with Native Americans in Utah, attempted to start a settlement in the San Luis Valley and purchased part of the Zapata Ranch. They envisioned a reservoir in the mountains above Zapata Falls with a flume designed to bring water down to the valley floor where it would irrigate the Mormon farms.

During the mid-1800s, New Mexican herdsmen had begun herding sheep up the Rio Grande into the southern end of the San Luis Valley for summer grazing and immediately encountered conflict with the Ute Indians. Despite this conflict, the sheepherders secured more land as demand for wool increased.

In 1864, Teofilo Trujillo moved from Taos to the southern end of the San Luis Valley. He then purchased a small ranch northwest of Fort Garland. Over time, Teofilo diversified his livestock operations and by1885 had 600 sheep and 70 cattle, becoming one of the largest sheep producers in the area. His son, Pedro, developed a somewhat different approach to ranching than his father; he became an excellent horseman and also a staunch cattleman. He refused to become a sheepherder saying that it would cause him trouble as that had always been cattle county. 

In the 1880s and 1890s, Anglo and Hispano ranchers clashed over the use of public ranges in the San Luis Valley. The Hispano ranchers, like Teofilo Trujillo, generally raised sheep and the Anglo ranchers raised cattle. The cattle ranchers believed sheep grazing destroyed the grasses preferred by cows and, when the sheep population increased in the valley, tensions grew between the different livestock-producing groups. Teofilo owned one of the largest sheep herds in the valley and was the target of the cattle ranchers’ intimidation. His son, Pedro, tried to persuade him to give up sheep and return to raising cattle, as Teofilo did in his ranch’s early years. The cattle and sheep conflicts turned violent in 1902 when a number of Teofilo’s sheep were killed and his ranch house was burned to the ground. The range war ultimately drove the Trujillos to sell their homesteads to the bordering Medano Ranch. At the time of the range wars, the ranches were owned by cattlemen Loren Sylvester and Richard Hosford.

After being forced off their lands, Teofilo and Andrellita moved to a new ranch in the San Luis Valley where they continued to raise sheep. Though Pedro raised cattle, his connection to sheep herders threatened his ranch’s safety and he sold his land along with his parents’ ranch. Pedro and Sofia moved northwest, to the Sargents, Colorado area where they established a 400-acre ranch and Pedro served as deputy sheriff. The Pedro Trujillo log house, barn, and corral still stand today and are part of a National Historic Landmark along with the remains of the original Teofilo Trujillo ranch site.

The Linger family that took over the Medano Zapata in 1911

Portions of the Medano-Zapata Ranch changed hands until 1911, when the entire ranch was bought by G. W. Linger. When the train delivered Linger’s first cattle to Fort Garland in 1914, the cows were reportedly 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 most successful cattle spreads in Colorado. Betty Linger was homeschooled on the Medano Zapata and always looked forward to the town mail trips, “It was exciting because both my father and mother were avid readers, and so I grew up an avid reader and a trip to the post office meant new books.” Betty went on to pursue a career in higher-education. The Medano-Zapata Ranch continued to be sold to several different families until 1947 when it was sold to Malcom Stewart, Sr., an oilman and a third-generation cattle rancher from Texas.

A horse and wagon was a common method of travel during the 1930s-40s
Andy Stahlecker, a hand that was in charge of irrigation on the Medano from 1937-1967 under the management of Malcolm Stewart who took over after the Lingers
The original Zapata Lodge.

The main lodge and dining area dates back to 1928 when the Linger family built it over an existing structure. The building was used as a ranch house up until 1989 when a Japanese investment group opened the Inn at Zapata Ranch. The renovation of the Zapata Ranch began in 1989 after the Japanese investment group, Rocky Mountain Bison Inc., purchased the ranch from the Stewart family. Plans for the ranch included a high-end bed and breakfast style resort, restaurant, and golf course. Rocky Mountain Bison, Inc. was head-quartered on the Medano ranch where they operated a 2800-head bison ranch.

The building we now use as the boiler room was originally a chicken coop. The Education building was once a barn and it is said that a horse thief was hung outside of the post office. The blacksmith shop was in what is now our laundry room. The old bunkhouse is now used as guest quarters and the cattle barn was converted into a sauna and massage area for the former Inn at Zapata Ranch.  

One of the most interesting features of Zapata is a log ruin considered by the Stewarts and local historians and to be what is left of a small Catholic chapel. It is thought the church was moved to Zapata from another location during the 1850s.

Many of the original buildings at the Medano Ranch also still stand today including the main ranch house, bunkhouse, cook’s house, meat house, cottonseed cake house, harness shed, barn, and an extensive corral complex. Both the Medano and Zapata Ranches are listed in the National Register of Historic Places as highly significant historic resources in Colorado.

Bison on the Medano, 2020

If you’re interested in reading further into any of these topics, here is a comprehensive list of sources for this article:

Great Sand Dunes National Park:
https://www.nps.gov/grsa/index.htm
https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/great-sand-dunes-national-park-and-preserve

History and Culture of the San Luis Valley Area
https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/riogrande/learning/history-culture/?cid=stelprdb5172158
https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/san-luis-valley

Medano Ranch:
https://www.historycolorado.org/location/medano-ranch-headquarters

Medano Ranch National Register of Historic Places nomination form:
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/84128162

Sangre de Cristo Heritage Center
https://www.colorado.com/history-museums/sangre-de-cristo-heritage-center

San Luis Valley Geology – Lake Alamosa
https://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2007/1193/pdf/OF07-1193_ChG.pdf

General (geology, history)
https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/san-luis-valley

Trujillo Homesteads:
https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/trujillo-homesteads
https://www.nps.gov/grsa/learn/historyculture/trujillo-homesteads.htm
https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/American_Latino_Heritage/Trujillo_Homesteads.html
https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/2012/01/early-latino-settlement-colorado-designated-national-historic-landmark9248
https://www.sangreheritage.org/history-of-the-trujillo-homestead-by-katie-dokson/

Trujillo Homesteads National Register of Historic Places nomination form:
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/84128164

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