Thursday, April 4, 2013

Isaac's Neighbors Leave their Homestead

Early leaders & structures of Trinidad, Colorado
I love the comment left last week by a regular visitor to my blog.  He wrote:  "Threads from Isaac's life can lead you anywhere."  Recently, following one of Isaac's threads led me to Las Animas County, Colorado!

Harry Bentley and his family moved into the quarter section just to the east of Isaac's homestead, and they became friends.  Financial difficulties caused the Bentleys to leave their claim, and they settled in Bent County, not far from Las Animas County.  It was not a happy move for them, apparently the result of co-signing a loan for someone else who defaulted on the debt.  On April 25, 1888, Isaac recorded in his journal, "Mrs. Bentley talking of staying on her place and trying to get her team back."  While the Bentley's did not lose their land, some of their personal property was seized, including the team.  Two days later Isaac wrote, "Mrs. Bentley about to rent her place..." and on May 11, 1888 he documented, "Mrs. Bentley started to St. John with 2 loads of goods for Las Animas, Colorado."

Memorial to Coal Miners
Although Isaac and Harry had worked together when they were neighbors, after the family moved it was Mrs. Bentley with whom Isaac corresponded, keeping an eye on the tenant to whom the Bentleys had rented their house and communicating with her about the Bentley's share of the crops raised on their land.

Naturally I was curious about the region to which they moved.  They chose the town of Las Animas in Bent County, not far from the town of Trinidad in Las Animas County. It is the largest county in Colorado, 4,798 square miles in size, which makes it nearly as large as the state of Connecticut.  Its present population is about 15,000, leaving a great deal of empty land in the county.  It is easy to confuse the location with the town called Las Animas, the county seat of Bent County, Colorado, located in the same region of southeast Colorado.  It is the only town in Bent County,  current population 2,410.)

Memorial to Coal Miners
At the time the Bentleys arrived in the region, Trinidad was a prosperous county seat, the economy fueled not by farming and ranching but rather by coal mining.  The semi-arid land in southeast Colorado had initially attracted open range ranchers, but as homesteaders staked claims and built fences, agriculture increased and grazing of the open range receded.  Just as the Kansas farmers suffered from drought, lack of rainfall caused farms to fail in southeast Colorado.  It seemed that the Bentleys had moved from the frying pan into the fire when they left Stafford County, Kansas for southeast Colorado.

Trinity History Museum with Baca Mansion upper right
The region has an interesting history, with familiar Western names like Kit Carson and William Bent, but the settlement that became Trinidad has its roots in a group of 12 families who followed Felipe and Dolores Baca to Purgatoire Valley.  In 1870 John Hough established the mercantile firm of Prowers & Hough, and using Hispanic adobe construction techniques he had workers build a home of English design for his wife Mary, and their two daughters.  Three years later he sold the house to Felipe and Dolores Baca, and it is now the Baca House of the Trinidad History Museum.

Bloom Mansion to left of Museum
The town also prospered because it was the gateway over Raton Pass, and Trinidad was officially incorporated in 1876, a few months before Colorado became a state.  The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad arrived in 1878 and completed the rail line to Santa Fe in 1880.  In 1882 a merchant, banker, and cattle baron named Frank Bloom built a Victorian mansion with his wife Sarah, and Bat Masterson was the town marshall.

By the time the Bentleys arrived in the region in 1888, Trinidad was a beautiful Victorian town, and my husband and I strolled the streets in search of buildings that would have existed at that time.  

The Opera House
In 1890 the Bentleys left southeast Colorado, as Isaac recorded in his journal:  "Eve[ning] got letter from Mrs. Bentley now living in Salt Lake City, answered same."

Photo of KS farm displayed in Trinidad, CO

As my husband and I looked into historical displays in Victorian store fronts along the old main street of Trinidad, thinking of the Bentleys and their pilgrimage from Stafford County to Colorado, we were in for another surprise.  Looking at an old photograph in one window's display I was shocked to read the caption:  "Summer time wheat harvest at the Bert Aultman farm outside Macksville, Kansas in 1911."  How did that photograph end up in Trinidad, Colorado?!  Did other Stafford County residents from the 1880s and 1890s migrate to Las Animas County?  Can anyone solve this mystery for me by identifying Bert Aultman or sharing the names of others from the town a few miles from Isaac's homestead who might have gone to Trinidad or who might have known someone there with whom they shared the photograph?  (On the NE corner of Main & Commercial is the Aultman Photography Studio where a father and son recorded Trinidad life, but the link to Bert Aultman in Kansas, assuming there is a link, is currently unknown.)  Please leave a comment, send an e-mail to me at, or go to my Lynda Beck Fenwick facebook page to help me solve this mystery.

Children's Museum
The building in the center of this photograph is Trinidad's 1st City Building, which housed city hall, the firehouse, and the jail.  It is now a children's museum.  Although Trinidad is no longer enjoying the hey days of the late 1800s, it is regarded as among the best examples of Victorian commercial buildings to be seen, and it is easy to imagine what it must have been like if the Bentleys strolled the streets.

(Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.  To read more about the early days of Trinidad, Colorado go to )

No comments: