Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area


Recently, I joined a group of volunteers to help paint a new museum in Antonito, in south-central Colorado not far from my home. The museum, housed in an old building, has many interesting exhibits, with themes ranging from the first settlers in Colorado to region’s variety of wildlife.
The museum is one of the many projects that have been launched in the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area (SdCNHA), which was designated by Congress in 2009. It is one of 49 national heritage areas across the country that are intended to encourage historic preservation and an appreciation of history and heritage.
Heritage areas are usually large landscapes known for their unique culture and identity, as well as for being good places to live and visit. SdCNHA certainly qualifies for that.
“It’s about 3,000 square miles, and we also include all of the public lands like the national forest, the Great Sand Dunes national preserve, and the National Wildlife Refuge,” says Victoria Martinez, the executive director of SdCNHA.
The whole area, right on the border with what was then part of Mexico, was the first place in Colorado where settlers arrived in the territory in the early 1800s, moving in from the south. They established the town of San Luis, the first permanent European settlement in Colorado.
Of course, Native Americans were the original inhabitants — including the Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Pueblo, Shoshone, and Ute nations — but those Hispanic settlers from Mexico established roots Colorado decades before white settlers arrived from the east.
The Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area covers a historic region that was largely eclipsed by the Colorado gold boom and the rush of miners and ranchers moving further north.
“I’d like locals to learn more about their culture and the history of this area that not many of them know about,” Says Martinez. “I’d also like them to learn more about the heritage area in general, and to find a place where they can express themselves, have fun, and learn about the heritage tourism that exists in this area.”
The historic area has just begun to develop its resources for people who are interested in learning more about it. SdCNHA offers many historic and archaeological sites, walking tours, old churches, volunteer projects, and events that you can participate in at any time of the year. Research projects will also be sponsored, especially for college students, centered at the new museum in Antonito.
“[A] section of the museum is going to have primary sources, oral history, videos that you can watch, and different things to help [students] conduct their research,” says Martinez.