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Lafayette Head

Born: 1825 - Died: 3-8-1897

The Politician Who Bridged the 37th Parallel
By Mark Thompson

New Mexicans who use U.S. 285, Colorado 17 and U.S. 24 to get to the Vail Valley of Colorado, or maybe just use La Veta Pass as an alternative to Raton Pass when heading to Denver, know instinctively from the place names that the area commonly known as the San Luis Valley must have had some connection to New Mexico. Less well known, perhaps, is the history of the territorial era migration of families from New Mexico, including a politician who became the first lieutenant governor of Colorado in 1877.

Before we look at the political history, an examination of some “political geography” might be appropriate. In February of 1821, Spain, as one of its last acts before the Mexican Revolution ended its sovereignty over this territory, ratified a treaty with the United States to settle a long running border dispute. The Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, named for Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and Don Luis de Onís, the Envoy Extraordinary of his Catholic Majesty, established a boundary, some of which is still in use today: following the Sabine River north from its mouth (Texas-Louisiana, in part); the Red River west to the 100th Meridian West of Greenwich and then north to the south bank of the Arkansas River (Texas-Oklahoma, in part); the south bank of the Arkansas River west to the then unknown location of the headwaters of the Arkansas and then north to the 42nd Parallel; and, west on the 42nd to the South Sea, i.e. The Pacific Ocean (the 42nd Parallel today forming the boundaries of Utah-Idaho, Nevada-Idaho & Oregon, and California-Oregon).[1]

February 1821 is probably the beginning of the end for the Mexican Revolution so it was left to the Mexican Republic to attempt a “settlement” of the northern area of the Provincia. That effort, mostly through the issuance of land grants, was then cut short by the war with the United States and, of course, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 which ceded the land to the United States. Then, on September 9, 1850, the United States Congress adopted three separate statutes, each further “refining” the sovereignty of the United States. One statute created the State of California, bypassing any interim territorial status as a result, no doubt, of the discovery of gold in 1849. The second created the territory of Utah with its southern boundary on the 37th Parallel and its eastern boundary the “summit of the Rocky Mountains.” The third statute, in addition to paying off Texas for its claim to land north of the 32nd Parallel and west of the 103 Meridian, created the territory of New Mexico.[2]     

Using the 103rd Meridian as the eastern boundary of New Mexico,[3] the northeast corner begins at the 38th Parallel, not further north at the Arkansas River, which might have seemed like the “natural” boundary, at least since the Adams-Onís treaty. The choice of the 38th by Congress was probably influenced by the push for a transcontinental route following that parallel by Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, the father-in-law of John C. Fremont. The boundary then went west on the 38th Parallel to the “summit of the Sierra Madre; thence south with the crest of said mountains to the thirty-seventh parallel of north latitude; thence west with said parallel to its intersection with the boundary of the State of California.”[4] Using two statutes adopted the same day, we have clarity on part of the boundary between Utah and New Mexico, the 37th Parallel,[5] and ambiguity on that portion between the 37th and the 38th. Is the “summit of the Rocky Mountains” the same as the “summit of the Sierra Madre” and its “crest” south to the 37th parallel?   

As best I can tell, this question is only important to “geography buffs” because the issue becomes moot with the creation of the Colorado territory eleven years later. The authors of a historical atlas for Colorado use the Continental Divide as the line intended by Congress in 1850 and certainly that is a clear cut, arguably legal, boundary for Utah and New Mexico between the 37th and 38th parallels.[6] Using that line would include the mining, now tourist, town, Creede, not just the San Luis Valley and should also expand our perception of the reach of New Mexico into what is today Colorado. Stretching from the Continental Divide east to the 103rd Meridian, roughly, Hasty, Colorado, east of Las Animas on U.S. 50, and reaching a bit north of Colorado City on Interstate 25, and at Moffat on Colorado 17, New Mexico included an interesting portion of what became the state of Colorado.[7]

Geography is one thing, political influence is quite another and for that we must consider the migration from the Chama River Valley of New Mexico to the San Luis Valley, and especially the life of one of those immigrants, Lafayette Head of Abiquiú. Although his obituary has him born in Ohio,[8]  census entries and historical/biographical sketches place his birth in 1825 in Hunter County, Missouri. There appears to be consensus that he arrived in New Mexico with the Missouri Volunteers, Second Regiment, part of the Army of the West headed by Stephen W. Kearny. The 2nd Missouri, under the leadership of Colonel Sterling Price, arrived in Santa Fe about the first week of October, 1846 and played a major role defeating what today might be called the “insurgency,” the grass roots attempt to oust the Americans after the Mexican provincial government had defaulted. Head apparently fought in the major skirmishes of 1847, La Cañada, Embudo, Santa Clara and most notably, The Taos Rebellion.[9]

Although to his dying day he claimed the rank of Major, it is not clear how or when he might have obtained even a so-called “brevet” (battlefield) commission after entering the service in Missouri as a private. Ralph Emerson Twitchell, the New Mexico lawyer/politician/historian, covers the Mexican War and the military occupation, including the work of Col. Sterling Price, in considerable detail, but makes no mention of Lafayette Head.[10] The war for the Missouri 2nd regiment was over in less than two years and we might assume that significant events would have occurred during that time to warrant several promotions. Head apparently also served in the New Mexico militia formed to fight the Indians in 1855 and it is possible that he claimed the rank of Major for that service, but that service is even more difficult to confirm than service in the Mexican War of 1846-48.[11]

There is consensus among the commentators that Head stayed in New Mexico following his service in the Missouri Volunteers. He married a Hispanic, perhaps in 1847, and with some clues such as his birth in Missouri and his wife’s possible name, Martina, he is probably the person identified as “Rafael” Head in the 1850 Census in what would become Rio Arriba County.[12] The only other person in the household is listed as “Marta Head,” age 18, born in New Mexico. This evidence adds to the lack of consensus on her identity. She has variously been identified as Maria Juana, Juanita, Martina or just “M.J.” Was she at the time of her marriage to Head, the widow with two children of a man only identified by his surname, Martinez? Alas, even with the help of northern New Mexico master genealogist, Joe Salazar, whose family also plays a role in this story, I have not been able to conclusively identify her in Rio Arriba.

 The 1850 census entry indicates that Head’s occupation is “trader,” something which fits well with the “Americans” taking up residence in New Mexico. The biographical sketches on Head indicate that during his time in Rio Arriba he served as U.S. Marshall “for the Northern District for three years,” presumably from about 1847-48, Sheriff of Rio Arriba County in 1851 and as a “special agent” to the Apaches and Utes in 1852. Perhaps he served as an assistant Marshall to Richard Dallum, the only U.S. Marshall up to 1851.[13] The records on Rio Arriba County for 1851 are incomplete but the Territorial Archives do indicate that he worked as a county collector, a job possibly associated with the sheriff’s office. The Secretary of the Territory does not include him as Indian Agent for the Utes and Apaches at either of the two locations for that agency, but does include his later service.[14] What we do know is that he served as one of five representatives from Rio Arriba in the Third (Territorial) Legislative Assembly in December, 1853.[15] He was the only non-Hispanic from Rio Arriba, but all of his biographical sketches indicate that when he came to New Mexico he studied Spanish, and that was probably a key to his political success, in 1853 and later.

 Attempts at settlement of what is now the San Luis Valley began in earnest in the 1850s; the town of San Luis, north of Taos, is usually acknowledged as the oldest continuous town in Colorado, dating from 1851. In 1854, there were one or two, depending on who is believed, major migrations from the Chama River Valley in Rio Arriba to the west side of the Valley, i.e., roughly to the area of today’s Antonito, Colorado. We are indebted to Virginia McConnell Simmons who has written an excellent historical survey, or  synthesis” as she describes her book, including an invaluable appendix covering the Hispanic Place Names of the San Luis Valley.[16] Simmons takes the position that in August 1854, a migration from Rio Arriba was led by Jose Maria Jaquez while Lafayette Head led a group in October of that year to a spot on the banks of the Conejos River.[17]

Whether or not he was “the” leader, Head certainly made an immediate impact in the San Luis Valley. He built a flourmill and obtained a decree for water rights for “Head’s Mill and Irrigation District” on the Conejos river on June 1, 1855.[18] As already noted, he joined St. Vrain’s volunteers in the 1855 military action against the Utes. Most significantly, in what appears to be unique in New Mexico history, while living in Conejos he served in the New Mexico Territorial Council (Senate) from Taos County, 1856-58, including being elected its presiding officer for the 1858 session.[19] Taos County, of course, had jurisdiction over the New Mexico portion of “Colorado” from 1852 through 1860.[20]

In 1859, the President appointed Head as the federal agent for the Ute and Jicarilla Apache Agency at Abiquiu.[21] In August 1860, the agency was divided, Head becoming the agent for the Tabeguache Utes in Conejos. After the Territory of Colorado was created by Congress in February 1861, he then came under the supervision of the Colorado territorial governor.[22] Thus, although holding a federal appointed position, Head had literally bridged the political divide of the 37th Parallel.

 Head served as Indian Agent until 1868 but his tenure was not without controversy. On January 18, 1864, 43 “public officers and other loyal citizens of Conejos County, Colorado” petitioned the U.S. Attorney seeking Head’s removal as Indian Agent. All of the petitioners were Hispanic, and included at least one of the 1854 Chama River Valley group, Jose Reymundo Salazar, the 2nd great grandfather of New Mexico genealogist, Joe Salazar.[23] The petitioners claimed that Head was disloyal to the government and that he was a “man of mean and revengeful disposition.” Head survived this attempt at removal and the not unusual claims by the Indians that he was not doing his job. In 1868, he assisted the government in reaching a new treaty with the Utes. Under the terms of this treaty, the Utes lost all prior tribal rights in the San Luis Valley and Head’s agency at Conejos was terminated.[24]

For six years, Lafayette Head apparently concentrated on his businesses, which appeared to be quite successful. In 1874, he reentered the world of politics, serving in Tenth Colorado Territorial Assembly as the Councilman (Senator) for the 11th District. It is likely that his familiarity with the Spanish language facilitated his return to politics because the Hispanic community was well represented in the tenth territorial legislature, including Juan B. Jaquez, in the Council, and representatives Mariano Larragoite, Cassimiro Barela, J.A.J. Valdez, Manuel S. Salazar[25] and Juan Esquibel.[26] This representation could be contrasted with the election of delegates to the constitutional convention in 1875 when only Barela and Head won seats and were joined by Jesus M. Garcia and Agapeto Vigil.[27]

Lafayette Head apparently made enough of an impression to be nominated for the first state governor at the Republican Convention held in Pueblo on August 23, 1876. He lost that contest to John L. Routt, but then received the Republican nomination for the first Lt. Governor of Colorado.[28] The Republicans won the election and Head served as Lt. Governor, presiding officer of the State Senate, for one term, ending in 1879. He apparently was not a candidate for reelection but the Republican ticket was again successful at the 1878 election, including its Lt. Governor nominee, the infamous and then wealthy Horace A.W. Tabor of Leadville. Perhaps the election of a wealthy miner in 1878 is symbolic of the evolution of Colorado political history. Although later mentioned by the Rocky Mountain News as a potential U.S. Senator in 1882,[29] Head returned to private life in Conejos County in 1879. Maria Juana Head died in Conejos on November 21, 1886,[30] and Lafayette Head died while on a trip to Denver, Monday, March 8, 1897.


Mark Thompson, a former member of the New Mexico Bar, lives in Centennial, Colorado.




[1]. “Treat of Amity, Settlement and Limits (etc)”, 8 U.S. Statutes at Large, pp. 252, 256. The treaty appropriately fudges on the then unknown location of the headwaters of the Arkansas, which our Colorado tourists today know is just south of Leadville.

[2]. See 9 U.S. Statutes at Large, pp. 446, 452 & 453.

[3]. As the readers of my essay on the boundaries of the New Mexico know, New Mexico eventually gets less than what the 1850 law and the N.M. Constitution of 1912 provide. See “The New Mexico Constitution Meets the Facts on the Ground,” New Mexico State Bar Bulletin (October 22, 2007), p. 9, “reprinted” online at the New Mexico State Historian website.

[4].  9 U.S. Statutes at Large, p. 447.

[5]. The 1868 survey by E.N. Darling actually put the boundary below the 37th Parallel and Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to fix the problem. See my Bar Bulletin article, note 3, supra. Ironically, residents of The 1868 survey by E.N. Darling actually put the boundary below the 37th Parallel and Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to fix the problem. See my Bar Bulletin article, note 3, supra. Ironically, residents of Costilla, New Mexico thought the town was in Colorado until the Darling survey moved the boundary slightly north of Costilla. See, Virginia McConnell Simmons, The San Luis Valley: Land of the Six-Armed Cross (Niwot, Colo.: University Press of Colo.; 2nd Ed.1999), pp. 149 & 280.

 Costilla, New Mexico thought the town was in Colorado until the Darling survey moved the boundary slightly north of Costilla. See, Virginia McConnell Simmons, The San Luis Valley: Land of the Six-Armed Cross (Niwot, Colo.: University Press of Colo.; 2nd Ed.1999), pp. 149 & 280.

[6]. Thomas J. Noel, Paul F. Mahoney & Richard E. Stevens, Historical Atlas of Colorado (Norman: U. of Okla. Press, 1994), Section 14.

[7]. Geography buffs will rightly point out that I have had little to say about that portion east of the Sangre de Cristos, (La Veta Pass), to the 103 Meridian. That area does retain Hispanic influence but has a different political history than the story of the San Luis Valley. (That political history would also include the much later influence of New Mexican Miguel Antonio Otero, for whom Otero County, Colorado is named. See my essay for the N.M. State Bar Bulletin of January 4, 2010, “reprinted” on the State Historian website as “ Miguel Antonio Otero: Three Generations of New Mexicans.”)

[8]. “Death of Major L. Head,” Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado, Tuesday, March 9, 1897), p. 1.

[9]. Hubert Howard Bancroft & Frances Fuller Victor, History of Nevada, Colorado and Wyoming(San Francisco: The History Co., 1890), p. 444, n. 43.

[10]. See Ralph Emerson Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexican History(Cedar Rapids: The Torch Press, 1912), Vol. II, ch. VI and Ralph Emerson Twitchell, Old Santa Fe: The Story of New Mexico’s Ancient Capital (Santa Fe: Santa Fe New Mexican Pub. Co., 1925), chs. X & XI.

[11]. Twitchell, for example, describes the six battles in the San Luis Valley area, but mentions only Col. Céran St. Vrain, the head of the militia battalion, plus officers Manuel Cháves, William Craig and Smith H. Simpson. Twitchell, Old Santa Fe, Id at pp. 283-84.

[12]. Rafael Head household, U.S. Census, 1850, Territory of New Mexico, Rio Arriba County; Dwelling 847, Family 847; National Archives micro edition, Roll M432, page 141A.

[13]. Secretary of Territory, New Mexico Blue Book 1882 (Albuquerque: U. of New Mexico Press, facsimile ed. 1968), p. 125.

[14]. Id at p. 123.

[15]. Id at p. 102.

[16]. See note 5, supra.

[17]. Id at p. 88. Some of the descendants of Jaquez take the position that he, not Lafayette Head, was the leader of the migration of 1854, by virtue of leading a search party in August, and then the full migration of fifty families in October. See Alvin T. Steinel, History of Agriculture in Colorado (Fort Collins: Colorado A & M Press; 1926), p. 29.  

[18]. Id at p. 179.

[19]. New Mexico Blue Book, note 13, supra, at pp. 104-05.

[20]. The creation of Mora County, February 1, 1860, split the territory between the 38th and 37th parallels along the summit of the Sangre de Cristos. Mora’s jurisdiction was short lived, however, ending with the creation of the Territory of Colorado by Congress on February 28, 1861.

[21]. New Mexico Blue Book, note 13, supra at p. 123.   

[22]. Simmons, The San Luis Valley, note 5 supra at p. 113. The N.M. Secretary continued to count Head as a part of the Abiquiu agency, with Albert H. Pfeiffer in charge of the New Mexico portion. New Mexico Blue Book, ibid.

[23]. A photocopy of the petition is preserved at the Western History/Genealogy Dept. of the Denver Public Library. 

[24]. Simmons, The San Luis Valley, note 5 supra at pp. 118-19.

[25]. To the best of my knowledge, Manuel S. Salazar was not an ancestor of current San Luis Valley politicians, los hermanos  Ken and John Salazar (nor of New Mexico genealogist, Joe Salazar) . Likewise, according to Joe Salazar, the ancestor of the Salazar brothers, Francisco Estevan Salazar, though also an immigrant from the Chama River Valley, was not related to the 1854 immigrant, Jose Reymundo Salazar. See note 23 supra and accompanying text.

[26]. General Laws, Tenth Legislative Assembly, Territory of Colorado (Central City: Register Printing House, 1874), list of Territorial Officers.

[27]. Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention, Denver, December 20, 1875 (Denver: The Smith-Brooks Press, 1907), pp. 15-16.

[28]. Wilbur Stone Fiske, ed., History of Colorado (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1918), Vol. I, p. 428.

[29]. Untitled political column, The Daily News (Denver, Colorado, Tuesday March 28, 1882), p. 4.

[30]. Frank Hall, The  History of the State of Colorado (Chicago: The Blakely Printing Co., 1895), Vol. IV, p. 94.