At a recent Rotary meeting, historian Christine St. Vrain Fischahs described her ancestor’s role in 19th century New Mexico and the development of the Santa Fe Trail. Photo by Bob Hull
By LINDA HULL
Rotary Club of Los Alamos
“Ceran St. Vrain, my fourth great-uncle, was a New Mexico leader and pioneer,” explained Christine St. Vrain Fischahs at the Aug. 24 meeting of the Rotary Club of Los Alamos. “He has been described as a mountain man, trader, merchant, fur trapper, soldier, and politician.”
To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail, “considered the most important commercial route across the Great Plains during the 19th century,” stretching from Missouri to New Mexico, Fischahs was invited to speak about St. Vrain, her illustrious relative, a man of diverse interests and dynamic pursuits, who traveled the Santa Fe Trail frequently as he earned his place as one of the West’s most celebrated entrepreneurs of the 1800s.
St. Vrain is considered such an important figure in New Mexico that he has been recognized as New Mexico True by the New Mexico Tourism Department in its current publicity campaign.
Fischahs told Rotarians that St. Vrain, the son of a French aristocrat, was born in 1802 in St. Louis, Missouri. In his early 20s, he convinced a friend to join him in a trading venture in Taos, which was part of Mexico at the time. To secure his trading ventures, he became a Mexican citizen in 1831 and formed a partnership shortly thereafter with William Bent, who played a legendary role in the early development of Colorado.
Like St. Vrain, Bent was also born in St. Louis and a fur trapper, trading along the Santa Fe Trail. In partnership with Bent and Bent’s brother, Charles, St. Vrain established trading posts in Taos and Santa Fe with routes reaching into Colorado, Wyoming, and Kansas. Together in 1833, the three businessmen built Bent’s Fort along the Santa Fe Trail in La Junta, Colorado. From there, their wagon trains dealt in shipments of glass, household supplies, cloth, and tobacco traded for horses, mules, furs, and silver. Today, Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, managed by the National Park Service, is open to the public.
Fischah continued that after leading forces in 1847 to re-take Taos from Mexican and Pueblo Indian dissidents during the Mexican-American War, St. Vrain settled in Mora County where he established a flour mill to support nearby Fort Union and Fort Garland in southern Colorado. He also began publishing the Santa Fe Gazette newspaper.
St. Vrain is described as “stout and powerfully built”. He was said to be “kind and polite, a gentleman in every sense,” Fischahs remarked. He had three wives and six children.
Of note, he “petitioned for the public road we now travel between Embudo and Taos,” and he was the “first self-made millionaire in New Mexico.” Among his friends he counted mountain men and guides Jedediah Smith and Kit Carson, both of whom would eventually also fill pages of the history books of the American West.
St. Vrain died of a stroke in Mora, New Mexico in 1890 at the age of 68 and is buried in the St. Vrain Cemetery there. More than 2,000 people attended his funeral, an extraordinary number considering the difficulty of travel to rural areas in 19th-century New Mexico. Today his gravesite on a “lonely hill, visited by few,” to paraphrase a poem about him, belies his legacy and the significant part he played in the opening of the West and the emergence of the Santa Fe Trail. Ceran St. Vrain, indeed, is New Mexico True.
As part of the Los Alamos Historical Society’s new lecture series, Fischahs will present an expanded version of Ceran St. Vrain Is New Mexico True: A Santa Fe Trail 200th Anniversary Commemorative Event at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 12 at Fuller Lodge. For more information, click on this link.
For information about the activities planned during the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail, click on this link.
Christine St. Vrains Fischahs, as mentioned, has strong familial ties to New Mexico, going back to the 1820s when her fourth great-uncle, Ceran St. Vrain, ventured from St. Louis, Missouri, to Taos, New Mexico. Her great-grandfather, James B. Jones, served as lieutenant governor of New Mexico from 1943–1947. Her great-uncle was the playwright Preston St. Vrain Jones, born in Albuquerque. Since 2016, Fischahs has given well-received public presentations about her ancestors to numerous organizations.
Fischahs is a retired paralegal living in Los Alamos with her husband, Chris. She is a genealogist, researcher, historian, writer, and member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the New Mexico Genealogical Society, a board member of the Santa Fe Trail Association, and an advisory board member of the St. Vrain Mill Preservation and Historical Foundation.
She assisted with research for the book Ceran St. Vrain, American Frontier Entrepreneur by Ronald K. Wetherington and the article “The Many Lives of Red St. Vrain Bransford” by Priscilla Shannon Gutierrez published in Santa Fe Trail Association magazine Wagon Tracks. Fischahs also wrote an article about Ceran St. Vrain, “Black Beard,” published in the Taos News, as well as an essay about Marie Felicite St. Vrain featured in the New Mexico Genealogy Society’s Santa Fe Trail commemorative book, Legacy of the Trail, to be released soon.
The Rotary Club of Los Alamos meets in person 12-1 Tuesdays, in the Community Room, Cottonwood on the Greens, at the golf course. A Zoom option is available by contacting Rotary Club Vice President Linda Hull at 505.662.7950. Hull also is happy to provide information about the Club and its humanitarian service.