Located 26 miles southwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico is the tiny village of San Miguel del Vado (San Michael of the Ford), that got its start on a Spanish land grant of the same name in 1794. Spanish Governor Fernando Chacon granted 315,000 acres along the upper Pecos River Valley to Lorenzo Marquez and 51 settlers to establish a buffer frontier outpost against raiding Kiowa and Comanche Indians. It was the first village to be founded in the area.
The settlement was concentrated around a defensive rectangular plaza enclosed by contiguous adobe houses. Its early population was comprised of included Genizaros (Native American slaves or their descendants,) Plains Indians, converted Comanche, and a few Spanish military men. Stockraising and farming, with the help of irrigation from the waters of the Pecos River, was the basis of the settlement’s early livelihood.
Though the early residents feared attacks from the Comanche and Kiowa Indians from the plains, they also welcomed their trading parties. During this time, the village also served as a common starting point for parties of New Mexican Comancheros and ciboleros (buffalo hunters) heading east.
However, San Miguel was also slow in establishing itself as a permanent settlement. It was not until 1803 that the petitioners formally received individual allotments and the rest of the property was held as communal lands. By the next year, however, the village had grown enough to encourage its residents to petition the Bishop of Durango for a church. Their request was granted and construction of its two-towered church began the following year.
By 1811, San Miguel’s population outnumbered the declining Pecos Pueblo. That same year, the church was completed and a school was built in the village The next year, the Pecos Pueblo priest moved to San Miguel, which at that time supported 230 heads of families. As word of the village’s prosperity spread, a number of influential people believed that it would continue to grow in population and importance.
San Miguel had long served useful as a lookout point for suspected French and American intruders. But with Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, commercial relations with the United States were welcomed. San Miguel changed from a protective barrier to a commercial entry port for eastern visitors. It also served as the administrative headquarters for the northeastern plains region of New Mexico.
Trader William Becknell, on his first trip along the Santa Fe Trail, found a friendly reception at “the village of St. Michael” after fording the Pecos River on his first trip in 1821. Soon, the village was designated as the port of entry where the Missouri merchants paid their first custom duties to Mexican officials.
“Considerable rejoicing appeared among the natives on our arrival and they welcomed us with the best music the place afforded. A description can best be given by comparing it to a large brickyard, where there are a number of kilns put up and not burnt; as all the houses are made of bricks dried in the sun, and none of them burnt; all of the roofs are entirely flat; the inhabitants appear to me to be a miserably poor people, but perfectly happy and contented, and appeared very desirous to make our situation as agreeable as possible.”
In 1827 a detachment of Santa Fe presidio soldiers were stationed at San Miguel for protection against Indians and to reduce Santa Fe Trail smuggling and import tax evasion. By that time, records show that San Miguel’s population was 2,893 people. San Miguel was becoming overcrowded, so much so that Father José Francisco Leyba, the parish priest, suggested that the Mexican government provide oxen and tools to settlers willing to move to the area of present-day Las Vegas. He believed that increased settlement in the northeast would not only alleviate population problems in San Miguel but that it would also protect interior settlements from Indian raids. In addition, many vagrants had taken up residence in San Miguel and a vagrant law was enacted in 1828 which offered vagrants three life-style alternatives: enlistment in the military to help retaliate against hostile Indians, imprisonment, or settlement of land on the frontier. In addition to his many other duties, Father Leyba conducted a priest’s seminary school on the extreme west side of town in the 1930s.
In 1830 a complete customs station, manned by Mexican soldiers, was established in San Miguel. By this time, the village had become prosperous with the rise and growth of commerce along the Santa Fe Trail. Later, in a journal written by Santa Fe Trail trader, James J. Webb, in 1844, described the customs house at San Miguel:
“When we learned the train (caravan) was passed Las Vegas, Colburn, and myself left one afternoon intending to meet it at San Miguel sometime the next day…Messrs. Colburn and Smith took possession of the goods and wagons at San Miguel and entered them and passed through the customs house without any trouble beyond the usual small annoyances from the customs house officers, which were usually satisfied by small loans of money which were never paid or expected to be, and small presents of some kind to which they would take a fancy, generally amounting to twenty-five to one-hundred dollars according to circumstances and number of wagons entered.”