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St. Vrain’s family

SOUTHERN COLO.— Although Ceran St. Vrain died 144 years ago, he left a mighty footprint on southern Colorado. His original Spanish Land Grant of 4,000,000 acres is now spread across five counties (Huerfano, Las Animas, Otero, Bent and Pueblo), so many of us have shared his goal of populating the land. Numerous descendents of his extended family are a part of that population. Ceran was the father of three children by three different common law wives. They were Jose Vicente, born in 1827 to Maria Dolores de Luna, Felix, born in 1844 to Maria Ignacia Trujillo, and Felicita, born to Luisa Branch about 1865. He was also said to have married Maria Luisa Antonia, the second child of Carlos Beaubien of Taos. It was common in those days for the powerful men of Taos to form alliances with other powerful men through marriage, including common law agreements. They were, after all, building empires, and allies were invaluable. Of Ceran’s three children, Felix caused him the most trouble. He was an alcoholic prone to binging, and during these binges he often became depressed and suicidal. Ceran turned to his old friend and partner, John M. Francisco, for assistance, and sent Felix to him in 1862, about the time Francisco was relocating to the present site of La Veta. Francisco’s employees were enlisted to keep an eye on Felix and prevent him from finding alcohol. They put him to work building Francisco’s fort, and later, on the ditch that would feed the new grist mill. Still, he almost succeeded in doing away with himself twice while there. When he finally sobered up, he made claim to land near the Huerfano Butte in 1869. He was still living there in 1907 and died six years later. There are many direct descendants of Ceran St. Vrain, but possibly his most interesting relative was his former sister-in-law, Red. Maria Manuela Ril, better known as Red, was a Lakota or Oglala Sioux, born in 1827 in Wyoming. She was somehow related to the famous Chief Red Cloud (most sources claim she was a sister, while others say a daughter or niece), which might account for her name, and was the aunt of the equally famous Crazy Horse. In 1840, she married Marcellin St. Vrain, youngest of Ceran’s siblings. Marcellin was a carefree young man, enjoying horse racing, hunting, and women. He was, at the time of his marriage, in charge of Fort St. Vrain on the South Platte in Colorado owned by his brother and the Bents. He was 25 at the time of this marriage, and his bride was almost 14. They had three children. In 1848 Marcellin abandoned his wife and young children and returned to Missouri. Sources vary on the topic, but there were rumors that he’d taken another bride and his acquaintances were calling for his arrest for bigamy. Even frontiersmen had their standards. Another story said he may have been insane, but in either case, the Indians, and his friends, no longer trusted or respected him. Back in Missouri he married again and started another family that eventually numbered 10 children. He died in 1871, possibly of suicide. Ceran took Red and family into his care. She waited for Marcellin’s return for a long time, not believing his perfidy. When Ceran built his new spacious home in Mora, there was room for Red. In 1851, Marcellin sent for his two sons, Felix and Charles. His daughter Mary Louise was left with Red, though she apparently was sent to St. Louis for schooling. Red would never again see her sons. Young Felix, who later joined the Confederate Army, died in a Union prison camp. Charles returned to Colorado but not until after his mother’s death. About 1852 Red became reacquainted with William Bransford, an old and trusted employee of the Bents and Ceran as a company clerk. She had known him when she and Marcellin were living at Bent’s Fort. William had been born in Virginia about 1812. He’d been on the frontier for many years, so was no youngster, but had made a fortune in various enterprises. He was said to have given most of his money away because of his generosity. He and Red were married and had the first of their seven children in 1854. William worked at Fort Union, not far from Ceran’s mill and home at Mora. He then took a job with Lucien Maxwell on his huge land grant in New Mexico and Colorado, where he chased cattle along the Purgatory River. In 1863, Red’s daughter Mary Louise married a man from Trinidad. Shortly thereafter, William and Red moved there also. In Trinidad, the Bransfords opened a boardinghouse that soon gained popularity. Red’s cooking brought in many customers, and the place included some small cabins or jacals for lodgers. The couple also acquired a ranch east of town, where their neighbor was their good friend Casimiro Barela, the “perpetual senator”. William was appointed Trinidad’s first postmaster. He was said to have a unique way of delivering mail – he kept it under his hat so customers had to find him to receive their letters (there was no post office building yet). With the formation of Las Animas County out of Huerfano in 1866, Trinidad became county seat. William was an organizer of the Trinidad Town Company and gained more wealth through real estate sales. After operating their boardinghouse for a number of years, the family moved out to the ranch. The site of their boardinghouse, at Commercial and Main, was razed to make way for the construction of the Union Hotel, later known as the Columbian. William built up his ranch and ran several thousand cattle. The couple’s hospitality was well known, and they entertained both famous and infamous guests. Mary Louise, widowed in 1879, made her home with them and her children, William and Cora, grew up on the ranch. In 1889 she remarried, to a businessman and former general of the Colorado Militia named Elbridge B. Sopris. The couple moved to the coal camp named for the general. William died in December 1881, and Red followed in 1886. She had left the ranch after her husband’s death and returned to Trinidad. She lived near the Catholic Church and became a regular attendee. Her home was on the site now occupied by the Pioneer Museum.