Questa History

Questa is one in a long string of small, Hispanic villages that scattered up the Rio Grande from what is now Mexico into southern Colorado during the 18th and 19th centuries. Thirty miles north of Taos, we were historically a remote and rough place to live.

Photographs of Questa in the 1940's by John Collier, Jr. (Library of Congress)

The Questa area has shown evidence of habitation from as early as the Paleo-Indian Clovis, then Folsom people. Around 5000BC, permanent settlements seem to have moved into our area, following big game as temperatures warmed. Since then the region lacked permanent settlements for many years, but was a crossroads for hunting and trading between the Pueblo (as the later Spanish speakers referred to them) people to the south and the Plains nations to our north and east.

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado may have been the first Spanish visitor to the area, travelling through in 1540. In 1592 or 1593, more Spanish came through following reports of gold. They did not come out alive. The next century saw turmoil as the Spanish enslaved Natives to work as miners, until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 cast the Spanish out of New Mexico.

The Spanish soon came back in even greater numbers, and the Indian wars continued. Around 1800, the Spanish militia came north with settlers and established a secure enough (relatively speaking) atmosphere that a few tentative settlements began in this area. Hispanic settlers from Taos began moving north seeking new grazing land for sheep and goats. By then some French trappers had found the region, and the first U.S. military explorations were also taking place.

Questa was officially founded in 1842, though settlements in this location were documented several different times in the early 1800s. Settlers here were vulnerable to Ute raids for generations. Predominantly Hispanic, a sampling of names of some of the historic families illustrates the multi-national origins of the settlers; from French, some German, Spanish, as well as Crypto- Jews. Some of the earliest family names in Questa were; Rael, Cisneros, Ortiz, Armenta, LaForet, Kronig, Cruz, Beubien, Vigil, Trujillo, and Gallegos, to name a few.

A wall built around the historic plaza area offered some protection to the fledgling settlement of sheep farmers and traders, and allowed for a stability the original population had not enjoyed. While the wall is no longer in evidence, Questa’s thick-walled adobe church has stood at the center of our old plaza since the mid-1800’s. It gave the village its original name of San Antonio del Rio Colorado. “Questa” was an Anglo attempt at simplification but became an official misspelling of the Spanish “cuesta,” referring to the “inclines” throughout town; on the south end of the village, and under the ridge where the old church plaza was built.

Settlers in a region this remote cared less which country they belonged to, than simply wanting some official protection from Indian raids. The settling of Questa fell under three different nationalities. The first land grant from the king of Spain was issued in the area in 1815. From 1810 to 1821, Mexico was at war with Spain to win its independence. The San Antonio del Rio Colorado land grant (basically the land that is now Questa) was initially requested from what was then Mexico, in 1841. In 1846, the U.S. declared war with Mexico. New Mexico became a U.S. territory in 1850.

The close of the 19th century saw an end to the Indian wars. In the early 1900’s the molybdenum mine, now owned by Chevron, was founded and became an important employer in the area. The arrival of the railroad just to our north over the Colorado border had begun to end the long-term trade and barter economy as more manufactured goods became available in the region.

Questa weathered the Great Depression with the aid of the WPA that employed Questaños to build the Fish Hatchery and our elementary school. The traditional sheep herds have mostly been replaced by cattle herds. Alfalfa, hay, and winter wheat are still grown, some grain and even cattle now are certified to supply a growing market for organic goods.

Many of the same families who built this town continue to lead our village and, as of this writing, they are using the same tried and true methods of their ancestors to restore Saint Anthony’s Church, which suffered a partial collapse several years ago. Operations at the Chevron Mine ceased in the summer of 2014 and Superfund clean-up is ongoing. A new day of clean energy, eco-tourism, and safe business development has begun in this beautiful valley with its palpable history.

Another Time in This Place: Historia, Cultura y Vida en Questa (2003) by Tessa Rael y Ortega and Judith Cuddihy, from which this article pulled much information, is the best book  Questa History . This out-of-print book is a thoroughly researched, detailed, very readable story of Questa that encompasses everything from archeological records to oral histories. Find it in our local Questa Public Library.

John Collier Jr. (May 22, 1913 – February 25, 1992) was an American anthropologist and an early leader in the fields of visual anthropology and applied anthropology. His emphasis on analysis and use of still photographs in ethnography led him to significant contributions in other subfields of anthropology, especially the applied anthropology of education.

His father was the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the New Deal. John Jr. grew up largely in Taos, New Mexico and the San Francisco Bay Area in California. While living in Mill Valley, California, John suffered injuries in a car accident at age 8 that resulted in major brain injuries and associated learning disabilities and hearing loss that prevented him from successfully completing schooling beyond a third grade level, although he attended school sporadically into his teens. When it became evident that he could not perform in school, his family permitted to him spend considerable time, when in New Mexico, living with family friends in the Taos Indian Pueblo

He was also informally apprenticed to the Western painter, Maynard Dixon, who was then married to the photographer Dorothea Lange. When in Taos he also received informal training from the artist Nicolai Fechin.

He signed on as seaman in the four masted bark Abraham Rydberg for a voyage from San Francisco around Cape Horn to Dublin, Ireland, an experience arranged by Capt. Robinson. On his return from the voyage he continued to divide his time between Taos and the Bay Area, and in 1934 he established a home in Talpa, New Mexico, which would remain an important anchor place throughout his life.