More to Explore
By Shirley Cushing Flint and Richard Flint
Traveling north on Interstate 25 from Las Vegas, New Mexico it is easy to see that here the Great Plains dramatically meet the Rocky Mountains. To the east are endless, flat expanses, described as the Great American Desert, and to the west the majestic Southern Rockies. About twenty miles from Las Vegas the highway dips into a beautiful and lush valley where trees abound. This is Watrous, New Mexico.
The town is located at the confluence of the Sapello and Mora Rivers, whose headwaters are in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southern range of the Rockies. Originally designated as La Junta de los Ríos it was officially changed to Watrous in 1884 by the New Mexico and Southern Pacific Railroad Company (later the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway) to honor one of the town\'s early settlers, Samuel B. Watrous.
La Junta/Watrous has a played an important commercial role in New Mexico\'s early history, encompassing its many cultures. Here were located Indian encampments, a Santa Fe Trail resting spot, railroad stops, modern highways, and several nearby Army Posts.
From earliest times Comanches and Kiowas met Indians from Taos and the Rio Grande Pueblos at the junction of the rivers to trade buffalo hides for corn and other wares. With the influx of Spanish settlers to Santa Fe and Taos came the emergence of two distinctive and colorful groups: ciboleros (buffalo hunters) and comancheros (Indian traders). They, too, engaged in commerce with the Plains Indians at La Junta. And here they could rest before making the final push over the mountains into Taos with their wagons loaded down with buffalo hides. As hostilities with Native Americans of the Plains abated, Hispanic sheepherders drove thousands of sheep out onto the grasslands of eastern New Mexico and the Panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. The area around La Junta and the Mora and Sapello Rivers continued to be a favorite stopover point and watering hole.
With the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821 La Junta entered into its heyday of commercial significance. The arrival of French and Anglo-American traders and merchants introduced manufactured goods to New Mexico's markets. Manufactured goods were traded for beaver pelts, buffalo hides, wool and other commodities. La Junta was in a strategic location to facilitate these exchanges. It was here that the two main branches of the Santa Fe Trail, the Cimarron Cutoff and the Mountain Branch rejoined before heading either to Taos or Santa Fe. La Junta was also a rendezvous point for wagons to gather before heading east to markets in St. Louis and Kansas City. Samuel B. Watrous, the namesake for the modern village made his appearance here about1835.
Born in Montpelier, Vermont in 1809 to Erastus Watrous and Nancy Bowman, Samuel was baptized Erastus but later changed his name. At the age of twenty-six, he left New England for New Mexico. Within two years he was clerking in a Taos store and was the father of Joseph, whose mother was possibly Tomacita Crespin or a woman from Taos Pueblo. By 1839 he, Tomacita, and his small son were living in the mining camps of the Ortiz Mountains, just south of Santa Fe. Not a miner himself, Watrous supplied miners with goods he purchased from the Taos merchant Charles Bent and also traded in deerskins. During the mining camp period Tomacita gave birth to six children: Mary Antonette, Emeteria, Louisa, Belina, Samuel Jr., and María Antonia.
In 1846 New Mexico became a territory of the United States as a result of the Mexican War. Prior to the American occupation Governor Manuel Armijo had assigned extensive land grants to those willing to settle the hostile Indian Territory of northeastern New Mexico. Among the grants made was the John Scolly Grant in 1843 to Scolly, Gidding, Smith, and others, who had become Mexican citizens. The over 109,000 acre grant (reduced by half in 1846) was recognized by the US government. With successful mining in the Ortiz Mountains on the decline, Samuel began to look elsewhere for his livelihood. Thus, in 1849 he purchased a half interest in the Scolly grant, moved his family to La Junta, and officially married Tomacita. So it was that Watrous began to control the strategic La Junta area.
The land around La Junta supported Grama and bluejoint grasses, juniper, white pine, scrub oak, piñon, wild plum and chokecherry. There were antelope, white tail deer, wild ducks, turkey, and quail. To this lush ecosystem Watrous brought German prune, Richmond cherries, pears, apples, and Pacific willows. He also transplanted native cottonwoods to create a luxurious, shaded glen. Even today the grand but dying willows line the highway near Watrous\'s home. Here he farmed timothy, blue grass, red clover, hops, and alfalfa. He was possibly the first person to grow alfalfa in New Mexico.
The Watrous adobe home of twenty rooms was built like a fortified hacienda. Some of the rooms included a huge store with storerooms, granary, meal room, meat room, forge, drying room, and hide and implement storage areas. He imported a rosewood Vose piano, mahogany and walnut marble-topped furniture, china, clocks, mirrors, and books. He traded for Indian serapes and blankets, bear and buffalo hide rugs. He hired an overseer of his property, vaqueros, herdsmen, hunters, and Indian and Hispanic servant women. His domain was nearly self contained and an economic boon to the area.
Watrous hired the Tipton brothers, William and Enoch, whom he knew during his days in the Ortiz Mountains, to help him claim and settle his portion of the Scolly grant. The Tiptons settled what would be called Tiptonville on the Mora River, a couple of miles northwest of La Junta. William Tipton married Samuel\'s oldest daughter, Mary, and became a partner in the firm of Watrous and Tipton. Together they owned twenty freight wagons that hauled merchandise for many years on the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and New Mexico.
By the late 1850s there was increased traffic on the Santa Fe Trail due to gold seekers and settlers, many of whom stopped and traded in the Watrous store, and others who settled. Among the settlers were the Dolds who eventually operated businesses in Las Vegas and William Shoemaker, the ordnance officer at Ft. Union. Alexander Barclay and Joseph B. Doyle bought an interest in the Scolly Grant and built a fortified adobe building called Barclay\'s Fort just west of La Junta. In 1856 William Kroenig, a German immigrant, bought land from Barclay on which to build his home and ranch. He, too, cemented a familial relationship with Samuel Watrous by marrying Louisa. His showpiece ranch was just west of his father-in-law\'s and came to be known as the Phoenix Ranch. Here he created nine artificial lakes and stocked them with fish. Eventually Kroenig went into partnership with Charles Ilfeld, a long-time Las Vegas merchant, and together they operated the Ilfeld & Kroenig Ice Company.
With more and more settlers usurping traditional hunting grounds of the Moache Utes, Jicarilla Apaches, Kiowas, and Comanches, friction flared. By 1851 the US government established Ft. Union about 10 miles northwest of La Junta on the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail and in 1857 Hatch\'s Ranch near the junction of the Pecos and Gallinas Rivers to help mitigate these conflicts. The firms of Barclay and Doyle and Watrous and Tipton supplied beef and other items to the men stationed at the forts, and later to the Navajos held at Bosque Redondo, near Ft. Sumner.
Two other Watrous daughters, Belina and Emeteria married entrepreneurs. Carl Wildenstein an Austrian designer and civil engineer married Belina, and George Gregg, the proprietor of Gregg\'s Tavern, a stage stop on the Barlow and Sanderson line, wedded Emeteria. María Antonia married James Johnson, the first Anglo settler at Cherry Valley, later called Shoemaker. While surrounded by his expanding family, Samuel\'s wife Tomacita died in 1857. He married twice more, first to Rose Chapin, who died in childbirth, and then to her sister, Josephine, with whom he had two children, Charles and Rose.
Watrous grazed over a thousand head of livestock, both cattle and horses, which eventually lured cattle rustlers to La Junta. By the 1860s the Coe Gang used Dog Canyon northwest of Cherry Valley as their hideout. Eventually they were captured near Shoemaker, escaped, were hunted down and hung in Cimarron.
After the Civil War Samuel and his partners built a woolen mill at Cherry Valley. The New Mexico Woolen Enterprises Manufacturing Company was in full operation by 1867, producing blankets, rugs, carpets, and serapes for export and local consumption. After nearly twenty years of operation, disagreements among his sons and sons-in-law, forced Samuel to cease operations in 1884.
By 1879 the railroad reached La Junta de los Ríos and the name of the settlement was changed to Watrous. Samuel donated ten acres for a station right-of-way. With the arrival of the newest mode of transportation, traffic on the Santa Fe Trail and the stage lines ceased but the town of Watrous successfully made the transition. It became an important shipping point for local products, such as pinto beans and quarried stone, and was used by Fort Union in transporting supplies and personnel, until its abandonment in 1891.
Watrous grew to include several general stores, two churches (Methodist, said to be the oldest Protestant church still standing in New Mexico, and Catholic), a hotel, school, post office, barber shop, blacksmith shop, livery stable, lumber yard, slaughter house, and tavern. Schmidt and Reinken, Hand, and Benedict Marcellin St. Vrain, nephew of the merchant Ceran St. Vrain operated the town’s stores. The village was the home of several short-lived newspapers, including the Mora County Pioneer, Pioneer Journal, Northern New Mexico Farmer\'s Weekly, Arrow, and Pioneer Plains Times.
The Chapman Lodge of the Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons moved from Las Vegas to Watrous in 1875 to be closer to their members at Ft. Union. After several relocations and the closing of the fort, a new stone Mason Hall was erected in Watrous and still survives.
At one time La Junta was within the jurisdiction of San Miguel County. However, when the town changed its name to Watrous, many of its Anglo residents endeavored to have it designated a county seat. The village was heavily Republican, as was the state government at the time, and its influential residents succeeded in having a small notch taken from San Miguel County (which included Watrous) and placed within the boundary of Mora County in 1882. However, Mora remained the county seat, much to the disappointment of the thriving town with its population of 100 persons.
Samuel Watrous was pivotal in one of New Mexico\'s most enduring stories. An Italian ascetic and hermit, Giovanni Agostini, arrived in the Las Vegas area in the 1850s. He first took up residence in a cave near Romeroville, then moved up to the mountain that today bears his name, Hermit\'s Peak. Apparently, Samuel Watrous was attracted to the Spiritualist movement, consulted mediums, and claimed some clairvoyant powers himself. He took it upon himself to assure the safety and health of the hermit by having Giovanni light a fire every third day, which could be seen from his home in Watrous. However, after ten years Watrous one day did not see the watch fire, became alarmed, and sent someone to inquire if the hermit was ill. What he didn\'t know was that the hermit had started on a trek to Mexico, and was murdered in the Organ Mountains north of Las Cruces.
Samuel Watrous committed suicide in 1886 at the age of seventy, possibly from being despondent over the death of Samuel Jr. a few years earlier. Also, the bad winter of 1884 adversely affected his cattle and he borrowed heavily from Charles Ilfeld Company and the 1st National Bank of Las Vegas, which may have contributed to his decision. He was buried on a hill overlooking the Watrous Ranch. He was described as having had a life that "exemplified the American pioneer of a bygone era." And that "perhaps the greatest thing that Samuel Watrous did was the planting of trees."
The passing of the village\'s namesake did not diminish the town. On the contrary, families continued to settle in the beautiful valley of the two rivers and businesses flourished. Watrous\'s son-in-law, Carl Wildenstein, developed a flourmill at Glenwood Farm. Several new ranches were operating, the Clyde Ranch and the Dubuque Cattle Company among them. The Overton Mining and Tunnel Company commenced operations in 1881. By 1889 the population had tripled to 365.
At the turn of the century there were new merchandise retailers and new partnerships, such as Lang and Tipton. The town supported an auto dealership and at least one attorney. Samuel\'s son, Joseph, raised cattle, hay and alfalfa. Unfortunately, a 1901 fire destroyed much of Watrous\'s business district and several homes, and the flood of 1904 killed eight persons.
Watrous weathered this setback and reached its peak population of 435, as noted in the 1920 census, in part due to the sanitarium residents at Valmora Ranch. Although the village incorporated in 1939, it was beginning its decline, losing both population and businesses. Watrous received rural electricity in 1946, and by 1950 the population had dropped to 256. Although the railroad made flag stops as late as 1953, Watrous was no longer a key shipping point.
Today the willows lining New Mexico State Highway 161 stand as a mute reminder of the visionary days of Samuel Watrous. Today his beautiful hacienda is the ranch headquarters for the Doolittle Ranch. Hispanics once again make up the majority of its residents. In many ways La Junta de los Ríos has returned to its beginnings as an idyllic, peaceful rest stop, only now for travelers on Interstate 25.
Clark, Ann Nolan. "Fifty Years of Change." New Mexico Magazine Vol. 16:2 (February 1938), 15-17, 35-38.
Crocchiola, Stanley Francis Louis. The Watrous, New Mexico Story. n.p.: Pantex, TX, 1962.
Kosmider, Alexia M. "Samuel B. Watrous: New Mexico Pioneer" M.A. thesis, University of New Mexico, 1983.
Oliva, Leo E. Fort Union and the Frontier Army in the Southwest. Santa Fe: National Park Service, 1993.
Watrous, Joseph B. Memoir. Special Collections, Donnelly Library, New Mexico Highlands University.