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Biography of Ceran St Vrain

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Ceran de Hault de Lassus de St. Vrain, born May 5, 1802 in Spanish Lake, Missouri, was the fourth child of Jacques Marcellin Ceran de Hault de Lassus de St. Vrain and Marie Félicité Dubreuil. Ceran's grandfather, a French Flemish noble displaced by the French Revolution, sought a new life and possible fortune in Gallipolis, Ohio in 1790. By 1793 the nobleman was in Spanish-held New Orleans, where he established the town of Nouvelle Bourbon and was appointed its commandant.

It was not until 1799 that Ceran's father and uncle Charles joined their father in America. The king of Spain had appointed Uncle Charles, to be the Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana. But Ceran's father stayed in eastern Missouri where he met and married Marie Dubreuil and established a brewery near Bellefontaine, fourteen miles north of St. Louis. A brief two years after Ceran's birth the United States purchased from France the vast western territory, later to include all or parts of the states of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Louisiana, called the Louisiana Purchase. The family's allegiance now shifted from their familial country of France to their adopted country, the United States.

Unfortunately, Ceran’s father Jacques suffered a major financial blow from which he did not recover, when his brewery burned down in 1813. Five years later Ceran's father died insolvent, leaving his mother with young children to care for and few resources. Thus, at the age of sixteen Ceran was placed in the trading establishment of Bernard Pratte and Company, a most fortunate and far-reaching happenstance for the young adventurer. Coincidentally, Pratte was a one-time judicial associate of Judge Silas Bent, the father of Charles Bent, who would later become Ceran's partner.

As a clerk in the Bernard Pratte and Company's St. Louis store, Ceran managed fur shipments, and other trading matters but soon became restless for adventure and the possibility of greater financial reward. He was minding the store at $20 per month. In the early 1800s French fur trappers invaded the Rocky Mountains and with St. Vrain's knowledge of French and Spanish, he envisioned successfully catering to the needs of both trappers and customers in Spanish-speaking New Mexico. After two years of employment with Bernard Pratte and Company, St. Vrain proposed to the company that he organize a wagon train of trade goods and head to Taos on the Santa Fe Trail. In a partnership with François Guerin, in which Pratte and Company owned a one-third interest, St. Vrain joined William Becknell's 1824 caravan to New Mexico.

Upon arrival in Taos sales were very poor and Guerin sold out to St. Vrain and returned to Missouri. Ceran, however, remained until he was able to dispose of his goods at a modest profit. With the departure of Guerin, St. Vrain (sometimes referred to as Ceran Sambrano or Severiano Sambran in Spanish-language documents) formed a partnership in the summer of 1825 with Paul Baillo to supply trappers coming into Taos to sell their furs and who would need to refit before heading back to the wilderness. This partnership was to last for three years. For the next forty-five years Ceran called New Mexico home.

By April 1826 St. Vrain was back in Missouri organizing another trading caravan destined for New Mexico. Ceran had found his niche in the Taos trade market. He even turned to trapping beaver furs himself, along both the Gila River and the headwaters of the North Platte River, but his real strength was his business acumen. It was at this time that he met and developed a romantic interest in fifteen year old Maria Dolores Luna, daughter of don Rafael Antonio Luna and Ana Maria Tafoya. Together, they had a child, José Vincente, in April 1827.

During this same time, St. Vrain was artfully cementing his Mexican connections to Governors Narbona and Manuel Armijo, to allow him more access to markets within New Mexico. When the Mexican government cracked down on the merchant invaders from Missouri by imposing heavy tariffs and confiscating goods, St. Vrain thought it expedient to become a naturalized citizen. In February 1831 he made that transition, but most likely held on to his American citizenship as well. In fact, between 1834 and 1839 he was appointed US Consul to Mexico in Santa Fe, but apparently never actually fulfilled any of the post's duties. Thus as a Mexican citizen, he entered into a mercantile partnership with another outsider, Charles Bent, forming the well-known Bent, St. Vrain and Company. The trading area encompassed by the company at its height of commercial power ranged from southern Wyoming, to western Kansas and from northern New Mexico to eastern Colorado.

Within two years the new partners, St. Vrain and Bent, constructed a stockaded trading fort nine miles below the mouth of Fountain Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas (east of today's Pueblo, Colorado), called Ft. William after Charles's brother. In 1834 a permanent structure was constructed at the mouth of the Purgatory River where it flowed into the Arkansas between present-day Las Animas and La Junta, Colorado. Again, this adobe "fort" was called Ft. William. The term "fort" was not used in a military sense, but rather described a fortified compound. Within this fort Bent, St. Vrain and Company conducted a lucrative buffalo hide trade with Arapahos, Cheyennes, Comanches and Kiowas, as well as trade with mountain men trappers and Santa Fe Trail travelers.

Success came rapidly to the new partnership. They expanded to the South Platte River, establishing Ft. St. Vrain, just northeast of Denver and Ft. Adobe on the Red or Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle. In the late 1830s St. Vrain outfitted Richens Lacy Wootton, known as Uncle Dick Wootton, who later constructed a toll road over Raton Pass, to trade with the Sioux Indians. Bent & St. Vrain also opened stores on both the Santa Fe and Taos plazas, as well as in Abiquiú and by 1841 they had purchased the Taos flour mill of John Rowland and William Workman.

As a Mexican citizen, St. Vrain, along with Cornelio Vigil, the alcalde for Taos, applied to Governor Armijo for a land grant in late 1843. Armijo had become increasingly wary of both Americans and Texans anxious to enter New Mexico, legally or illegally, to trade and trap, despite the Mexican government's prohibitions and strict procedures. The governor was realistic in acknowledging that he was in no position to actually stop the invasion. Instead, he issued several large land grants to Mexicans and American-Mexicans, hoping they would protect his northern boundary and act as a buffer. Thus, St. Vrain and Vigil were granted four million acres, called the Vigil-St. Vrain Land Grant. Its northern boundary was the Arkansas River and included the valleys of the Greenhorn, Huerfano, Apishapa, Cucharas, and Purgatory Rivers in what is now southeastern Colorado.

St. Vrain's private life was a bit complicated. By 1841 Ceran had, according to his descendants, married Maria Ygnacia Trujillo of Taos, who gave birth to four children within six years: Mathias, Felix, Ysabel, and Marcelino. Some historians assert that Ceran was married four times and that each marriage produced one child. However, others posit that he had only informal liaisons with a series of women. There are also records that suggest marriages to Louisa Branch of Mora and Luz Beaubien, the daughter of Carlos Beaubien.

With the Mexican defeat in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the United States gained another vast territory, comprising today's states of California, Utah, Nevada, and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming. St. Vrain's partner, Charles Bent, was made provisional governor of the new Territory of New Mexico. However, local unrest continued in northern New Mexico spurred on by Padre Antonio Martinez of Taos. Former Mexican citizens and Taos Indians put up a final struggle to oust the conquerors from their midst. Their efforts were unsuccessful, but Charles Bent was killed during the Taos Rebellion of 1847 and many merchants and traders fled into southern Colorado.

St. Vrain was outraged by the attacks and organized the New Mexico Mounted Volunteers with himself as captain. In two major battles, one at Embudo and the other at Taos Pueblo, the insurgents were defeated. In the trial that followed, the men accused of Bent's murder were tried, convicted and hung in a process that can only be described as a kangaroo court. One of the judges, Charles Beaubien, was the father of one of the men killed and the jury consisted of Bent supporters, including their foreman, George Bent brother of Charles, with St. Vrain acting as interpreter. The result of the unrest and trial was a final acceptance of an American occupation and citizenship.

These tumultuous events also meant a change for Bent and St. Vrain Company. With the death of Charles, a new but short-lived company was formed, St. Vrain and Bent, with William and George Bent as partners. William would manage Bent's Fort, and St. Vrain the Santa Fe stores. By November of 1847 George Bent was dead from a fever and the following year the partnership with William was dissolved. St. Vrain offered to sell the adobe stronghold to the US Government as an Army staging area, but was turned down. Instead, William continued operations at Bent's Fort, but destroyed Old Bent's Fort (location of Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site) and moved the location some miles downstream to Bent's New Fort.

St. Vrain moved on to other partnerships and endeavors, ever expanding his influence in the Territory. In 1849 he was the representative from Taos County to the Territorial convention. The Territorialists, preferring a continued territorial status with more flexibility to govern than statehood would allow, dominated the convention. Although he ran unsuccessfully as lieutenant governor with Francisco Tomás Cabeza de Baca, he exerted considerable political influence in having his cronies appointed to governmental positions.

By the 1850s St. Vrain, now a resident of Santa Fe, was concentrating his business in the Mora Valley. He operated several sawmills and the town's first flourmill (still in evidence today), supplying flour to the troops stationed at Ft. Union. He was also the sutler to the Ft. Union troops, providing all manner of merchandise. It was at this time that his partnership with Isaac McCarty ceased and his son Vincente became his partner.

For two editions he was the publisher of El Nuevo Mexicano, the Spanish-language version of The New Mexican. After a brief period living in New York City, he returned to New Mexico permanently and lived in Mora. He obtained the military rank of Lieutenant Colonel of the Mexican Battalion of Mounted Volunteers to fight the Utes and Jicarilla Apaches, and was honorably discharged from duty after his six-month enlistment expired. By the time of the Civil War, St. Vrain was in his late 50s and was a colonel in the 1st New Mexican Cavalry but resigned after a few months, citing his age.

With the end of the Civil War his flour contracts with the Army evaporated. He then used his supplies of wheat in his distillery operations. However, he continued to obtain other government contracts to supply lumber for the construction of the third Ft. Union and food for the Navajos held at Bosque Redondo, near Ft. Sumner.

St. Vrain, however, also had setbacks. His attempt to establish the first National Bank in New Mexico was unsuccessful. His Taos flourmill was destroyed by fire and Congress balked at approving his large land grant. It was not until 1892 that the Court of Private Land Claims made its final decision regarding the Vigil-St. Vrain Land Grant, now called the Las Animas Grant, reducing its four million acres (which had been approved in 1857) to 96,000.

At the age of 65, St. Vrain retired from his long career as an entrepreneur and territorial powerhouse. On October 28, 1870 he suffered a stroke at the home of his son Vincente in Mora and died at the age of 68. Although today his gravesite stands neglected and forlorn, he was one of the richest men in the Territory, worth a quarter of a million dollars. He was accorded full military honors and many officers from Ft. Union attended his funeral. His obituary in the Daily New Mexican stated that: "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."

Today the name St. Vrain dots the countryside of New Mexico and Colorado. Northwest of Denver there is a mountain pass, stream, and glacier named in his honor. Likewise, the small village of St. Vrain, west of Clovis, stands as a mute reminder of Ceran's one-time widespread influence.

Sources Used:

Dunham, Harold H. "Ceran St. Vrain." In Mountain Men and Fur Traders of the Far West, edited by LeRoy R.Hafen, 146-65. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Hanosh, Eugene J. "A History of Mora, 1835-1887." M.A. thesis, New Mexico Highlands University, 1967.

Lavender, David. Bent's Fort. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1954.

Mullen, David N. "Ceran St. Vrain: Leading Citizen of NM" M.A. thesis, University of New Mexico, 2002.

Weber, David J. The Taos trappers: the fur trade in the Far Southwest, 1540-1846. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.