CONEJOS, Colo. (CBS4)– The home belonging to Lafayette Head, an early pioneer and the first lieutenant governor of Colorado, still partially stands. When Head lived there in the 1860s, the town of Conejos served as the territorial capital.
The unincorporated town was a crossroads where Native Americans, Europeans and Mexicans converged and maintaining a peaceful coexistence required a stead diplomatic hand, often that job belonged to Head.
“I came across this building and it said it was in Conejos, and I had never seen this building in my life, even though I grew up here,” said Ron Rael, a professor of architecture. “I’ve always had an interest in old adobe buildings.”
Rael enjoys refurbishing adobe buildings, especially those in his hometown.
“These buildings may date back to 1855 when the community from Guadalupe moved across the river and settled here.”
Rael became the newest owner of the oldest buildings in Conejos, “I’ve always known about the history of the founding of Conejos, but I had assumed that building no longer existed because many of the buildings in Conejos of the old settlement don’t exist any longer.”
The buildings aren’t just any old buildings but are what is left of the home where Head lived during the 1860s.
“It was referred to as different things at different times: fort, compound, house, diplomatic centers but he was the ‘jefe.’ He was in charge of the site,” said Dr. Estevan Rael-Galvez.
Rael-Galvez wrote about Lafayette Head as part of his dissertation, “He’s caught up like so many young men are at that period in an imperial project of manifest destiny to conquer another land.”
The land seems tranquil now, hundreds of years later, but it was anything but.
“It was an overlapping of empires and contested homelands for all of these people depending on who you would have asked at that time period,” said Rael-Galvez.
Head immersed himself in that diversity. He married a Hispanic woman and became well-connected to the Native American populations as well.
“You think of those primary institutions, political and religious, Lafayette Head was involved in them,” said Rael-Galvez. “And the fact that he would become a Colorado politician and part of the drafting of the Colorado Constitution reveals he not only had a stake in it but was at the table making decisions for those communities.”
Head’s compound became a cultural crossroads.
“There were Ute delegations settled here on this site. Grist mills, sawmills, so it was a vast site with so many things going on,” said Rael-Galvez.
Head traveled to Washington, DC to meet with President Abraham Lincoln and negotiate treaties with the Native American tribes.
“The Ute people at times reviled him because they felt he was taking advantage of them, and other times when he is celebrated, he’s bringing communities together,” said Rael-Galvez.
The site also has connections to a darker chapter in Colorado history. Indigenous slavery in the American Southwest often is skipped over in the history books.
“Part of that history involves the history of slavery in Conejos County, and this is known to be the slaves’ quarters,” said Rael. “Captives in Colorado were typically children that were brought into Conejos County and sold to the church and distributed to the community members who adopted them.”
Head, a slave owner himself, created a detailed list of all the Indigenous slaves in the area.
“This particular effort resulted by the fact that Andrew Johnson required all federal agents to end the practice of indigenous slavery,” said Rael-Galvez.
Currently, the town of Conejos shows no signs of its place in Colorado’s rich history.
“I tell people this was the capital of the territory. They look at me like ‘What rock did you hit your head on?'” said Demetrio Valdez, a resident of Conejos.
Valdez lived in the compound as a young child, “I remember the kids used to come up and put me in a wagon and ride me all over the place.”
He remembers what it was like before and demonstrated the size of the cluster of buildings, “There were houses all around. It was a big building, the Governor’s Mansion. It went from here clear to that wall over there.”
Valdez said that part of the compound where he lived as a child has since been torn down, “They broke the doors, broke the windows, you know, vandalized it.”
“Back in 1965, my dad ordered the buildings torn down,” said Michael Jiron, who lived in the part that still stands.
He said the unoccupied buildings were being vandalized and had become a safety hazard, “I came home from school and noticed the buildings were gone.”
Jiron lived in the compound until 2009. The buildings have sat vacant ever since.
“I was glad somebody had bought it who had an interest in it,” said Jiron. “Ten years down the road I hope to see it alive again, some happiness, usefulness to the community.”
“This roof is a later addition and it’s an addition that tells the story of the coming of the railroad, of the sawmills and technology,” said Rael. “This building in many ways is a three-dimensional history lesson that tells the really complex history of the many different people who occupied this site from different cultures.”
“For many individuals, he becomes a hero because he’s fighting for their rights. But like many people, he’s complicated and layered. Just like this site,” said Rael-Galvez.
Rael hopes to be able to restore Head’s home to show how it looked through various periods through history, as opposed to just one point in time. That way, he believes, people can see how changes in the building over time reflected its changing role in the history of Conejos.