Questa is one of several small, Hispano villages that were settled by the Spanish along the Rio Grande from Mexico to Southern Colorado during the 18th and 19th centuries.
(Text from Another Time In This Place, Historia, Cultura y Vida en Questa, by Tessie Rael y Ortega and Judith Cuddihy)
The Questa area has evidence of habitation as early as the Paleo-Indian Clovis Folsom people. Around 5000 BC permanent settlements moved into the area following big game as temperatures warmed. The region lacked permanent settlements for many years but was a crossroads for hunting and trading between the Pueblo people to the south and the Plains nations to the north and east.
Francisco Vasquez de Coronado is recognized as one of the first Spanish visitor to the area in 1540. More Spanish followed, hearing reports of gold in 1592. The next century was tumultuous as the Spanish enslaved the Indians to work as miners until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which successfully cast the Spanish out of New Mexico.
The Spanish returned during the 18th century in even greater numbers and the Indian wars continued. Settlers were vulnerable to Ute, Kiowa, Navajo, and Apache raids for generations. Around 1800, the Spanish militia came north and established a secure atmosphere, and a few tentative settlements began in the Questa area. Hispano settlers from Taos began moving north seeking new grazing land for their large sheep herds. By then, some French trappers had found the region and the first U.S. military explorations were also taking place.
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 was initially requested from what was then Mexico in 1841. In 1846, the U.S. declared war with Mexico.
Photos by John Collier. WPA pics from the Library of Congress, colorized…
Questa was officially founded in 1842, although other settlements in this area were documented several different times in the early 1800s. New Mexico became a U.S. territory in 1850, and officially the country’s 47th state in 1912. The end of the 19th century saw an end to the Indian wars. The arrival of the railroad near the Colorado border brought more manufactured goods to the region and the trade and barter economy began to fade.
In the mid-1800s a wall was built around the town plaza area, now where St. Anthony’s Church sits, offering some protection to the fledgling settlement of sheep farmers and traders, and allowed a stability the original population had never experienced. While the wall is no longer in evidence, Questa’s thick-walled adobe church has stood at the center of this historic community since the mid-1800s. The church provided the village with its original name: San Antonio del Rio Colorado, or Saint Anthony on the Colored/Red River. “Questa” was an Anglo attempt at simplification by the first U.S. Postmaster but became an official misspelling of the Spanish “cuesta,” or “slope with a steep front side.”
Settlers in this remote region cared less about which country they belonged to than simply wanting some official protection from Indian raids. A sampling of names of some of the historic families illustrates the multi-national origins of the settlers; from French, some German, Spanish, and even Crypto-Jews. Some of the earliest family names in Questa were Rael, Cisneros, Ortiz, Armenta, LaForet, Kronig, Cruz, Beubien, Vigil, Trujillo, and Gallegos. Some of these families who originally settled in Questa continue to lead the Village today.
In 1916, the Questa molybdenum mine was founded and began operations. The mine was the primary employer in the area for many generations. Questa weathered the Great Depression with the aid of the Works Progression Administration (WPA) to build the Red River Fish Hatchery and the former elementary school, La Cienega. Traditional sheep herds were mostly replaced by cattle herds. Alfalfa, hay, and winter wheat are still grown today, with some grains and even cattle now certified as organic to supply the growing market demand.
In 2006 when the west wall of St. Anthony’s Church collapsed it was rebuilt by many of the ancestors of the same families that originally constructed the Church in the 1880’s. Hundreds of community volunteers worked for six years to rebuild the church one adobe brick at a time. Locals partnered with the U.S. Forest Service staff to choose and fell trees, milling and hand-carving the new timbers; craftspeople designed new stained glass for the windows, and every detail was recreated. Young, old, Catholic, or not, volunteer workers gathered on Saturday mornings for a community workday and a crew of about 10 residents volunteered on weekdays until the reconstruction was complete in 2012.
Today this historic site is re-consecrated and restored at the heart Questa. Gaining national recognition as a “David and Goliath” story of perseverance, it is also a site of pilgrimage for artists who paint the beautiful architecture beneath the soaring mountains. The church is always open during daylight hours and welcomes all guests.
In the summer of 2014, the operations of the Chevron molybdenum mine permanently ceased after it was declared a Superfund Site in 2011 by the Environmental Protection Agency. Chevron has accepted responsibility for environmental remediation work and clean-up in the area, they are committed to the people, land, and water in the Questa area and will continue to be prominent community partners for many years to come.
The Questa Economic Development Fund was established by Chevron, when the mine closed, as a trust to “support the transition of Questa and the surrounding community to a diversified, sustainable post-mining economy.” Chevron generously supports innovative enterprises to help grow new business and entrepreneurial initiatives, improve, and expand housing, develop training facilities, and increase area eco-tourism marketing and promotion. They have donated large parcels of land for the Questa Business Park, new river-side trails, public parks, and more.
Today, as Questa re-establishes itself in the 21st century economy, a high priority is placed on maintaining the cultural heritage and history of the area; elevating awareness of and protection of its wilderness areas and natural resources; re-energizing the agricultural and ranching traditions and supporting area youth with skills training and job opportunities that enable them to stay in the communities where they grow up.