Guest Columns

HUDSON: REMEMBRANCES OF TIMES PAST

Trinidad was a multi-cultural melting pot long before multi-culti was cool

Contributing Columnist

Last weekend we attended the annual picnic thrown by the Friends of Historical Trinidad and the Trinidad Historical Society at the Mitchell Museum on Main Street. My father-in-law, Tom Allen, has been president of the Friends group for several years. Born in a coal camp west of Trinidad, his father was a muleskinner and proud member of the United Mine Workers. It’s reputed he could pick a horsefly off the rump of a mule with his bullwhip, or snatch a cigarette from your lips if you had the guts to let him do it. Once the mines closed, following the Second World War, Las Animas County has lost population in each census for sixty years. That may change once the 2010 count is finalized, as retirees have moved into the county in recent years and one of those long closed mines will soon be reopened. (Apparently there’s money these days in high quality coking coal for Chinese steel mills.)

During the past six decades, entire generations have had to abandon Trinidad and find work along the Front Range. Nonetheless, their emotional attachment to the region seems to have abided in their hearts since better than a hundred were willing to drive down I-25 to share tales from their childhood. Most of the traffic still whizzes right by the lovely Victorian homes and downtown buildings that reflect a period of considerable prosperity and influence in Colorado’s affairs. Trinidad was a multi-cultural melting pot long before multi-culti was cool. During the early part of the last century, miners and their families poured into these Rockefeller controlled workings from Italy, Eastern Europe, Scotland and Wales, together with indigenous Hispanics and refugees from the failing dry land farms on the Eastern plains of Colorado. Their aspirations collided tragically with the Pinkertons and the Colorado National Guard at the Ludlow massacre. This dramatic history was recounted in the biographies of four families that were recognized for more than a century of continuous residency in the Purgatoire valley.

I have my own connection to Trinidad, albeit more as a matter of family lore than personal experience. For thirty-one years, my great-great-grandfather, Samuel Hudson, was a wagon master on the Santa Fe Trail, leading immigrant columns each summer from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, using the ‘mountain route’ that passed through Trinidad, rather than the Cimarron cutoff. He preferred the tough, but short, ascent over Raton pass to enter New Mexico territory. Pictures of Samuel show a huge man with a beard resembling that of a Mormon prophet. At six feet eight inches, and 280 pounds, in a time when most men were five-five, it was never a question who would be in charge along the Trail. Although Samuel had no formal education beyond a little rudimentary home schooling in a Kentucky cabin, he learned to read and write, speak Spanish together with several Indian languages that eased his annual migrations across the continent.

Most winters he would take a pack train from Santa Fe to Guadalajara with trade goods he exchanged for Mexican liquor and silver, returning to Santa Fe in time to leave again for Independence. Despite the fact that this didn’t leave him much time at home, his first wife produced fourteen children before she expired, and her replacement bore him eight more. Samuel’s son Mahlon, my great grandfather, for whom my grandson was recently named, served as U. S. Marshal for Eastern New Mexico and West Texas during the late 1800s. This encompassed a period of armed conflict between sheepmen and cattle ranchers in New Mexico. A cattleman himself, Mahlon was eventually removed from office for his embarrassing failure to discover why so many sheepherders were meeting their maker.

Like his contemporary, Wyatt Earp, Mahlon lived until nearly 1930. My father told me that he wore a gun whenever he left his home until the day he died. On one such occasion, my Dad, who was still a small boy, asked Mahlon, “Grandfather, why do you always wear your gun?” His reply sounds shocking today, “Because, if I didn’t, there are people here who would try to kill me!” All of which leads to my observation that it helped to be either large and strong, or tough and wiry, as well as a good shot, if you hoped to prosper on the American frontier. Trinidad is a great place to put you back in touch with that time. Arthur Mitchell’s illustrations for the ‘penny dreadful’ trade publications that carried tales of Western daring are worth a trip as well. Much like the high desert scrub that surrounds it, Trinidad evidences a fierce commitment to its survival — persistence and tenacity that seems likely to blossom with a little economic rain, just like this year’s abundant wildflowers.

Miller Hudson, a writer from Denver, reminds us of the importance of perspective.