On any given day, driving around Taos and its environs, spotting a few sheep grazing in a random fenced backyard is not unusual. The off-white, rotund, coarsely curled critters almost look more like pets than agricultural property.
Sheep are not a major source of income for most Northern New Mexico ranchers anymore. But during the turn of the 19th century in the colony of Taos, for some families, sheepherding was a lucrative financial venture in a place that had limited economic avenues. Wheat farming was the other predominant basis for Taos’ agropastoral economy. Today, sheepherding provides an agricultural history of Taos through Spanish, Mexican and American history.
One such family was the Mondragons, led by patriarch Rosalio. The other two prominent sheep ranchers in the 1800s to the mid-1900s were the Gabriel Chavez and Severino Martinez families.
Bob Romero, author of the book, “History of Taos” and a lifelong educator, is Rosalio Mondragon’s grandson. Romero’s descendants traveled from the Basque region of Spain and settled in what is now the Ranchos de Taos/Llano Quemado area. Mondragon saw a bankable commodity in a sheep population that by 1800 was growing exponentially, mainly through the use of the “partido” system.
Originating in Spain, this system of raising sheep allowed anyone with an established flock (the patrón) to go into contract with someone (the partidario) who assumed responsibility for a certain number of ewes over a decided-upon time period. Every year under contract, the partidario paid interest – generally about 20 percent – to the owner in wool and lambs. When the contract ended, the partidario was expected to return the same number of ewes – and at the same age – as the ones he had initially received.
If all went well, the partidario had amassed a flock of his own. “It was a win-win for all,” Romero explained. However, if all did not go well, the partidario risked going into debt to his patrón.
Mondragon entered such an arrangement, starting with a dozen ewes. Sheep may seem weak, but they multiply fairly quickly. It isn’t uncommon for a ewe to give birth to twins or even triplets.
“In five years, 12 sheep can turn into 30 or 40,” Romero said. By the mid-1880s, the Taos area was seeing more and more sheep in its pastures, and so was Mondragon on his land. Romero estimated there were 75,000 sheep in the Taos area before the Civil War. By 1880, there were 186,000.
Mondragon married and started a family in the early 1900s. With the help of 10 children (five others did not survive), he grew his flock. The boys started working the ranch at age 6 and moved on to herding at 10.
In the summer, the sheep grazed on land in a Jicarita allotment near Peñasco, along with a Chavez family herd. Two herders walked with the animals. Departing from Llano Quemado, it took four days to get to Peñasco by way of Miranda Canyon. If they had a horse or two, they were only used to pull supply wagons. The Mondragon boys mostly lived off the land, but did go for supplies every two weeks.
“It wasn’t easy,” Romero said of living in the wild with the herd. “But it kept them healthy. It was a hearty life.”
June through August was a typical time for them to sell some of the rams. November through April was the “lambing season” and a time to diligently watch for birds of prey. Males were castrated in the spring.
The boys marked the sheep’s ears (a type of branding) and sheared them.
“It took a week to shear all the sheep,” Romero recalled from his family’s accounts. “They would stuff wool into big bags and take it the railroads in Alamosa and Jaroso, Colorado, to be shipped. From there, it went all over the country.”
Fall was the harvest season when they “culled” (separated out) the females from the flock to prepare for winter grazing near Carson, New Mexico, Romero explained. Every winter, the sheep were trailed to Carson, right next to the “dry” reservoir. They made just one stop at Taos Junction to rest. Older sheep were either butchered or sold to neighbors with no sheep.
Entrepreneurs like Mondragon were looking for other markets for their influx of sheep. One such market presented itself during the gold rush.
Some ranchers, such as Kit Carson, herded their flocks into the San Luis Valley toward Grand Junction, Colorado, and then followed an immigration trail through the Nevada desert toward Salt Lake City, ending up in Sacramento, California. There, they sold their few thousand sheep for $8.50 a head, Romero said, addingthat was good money for the time.
Mondragon never ventured that far, instead preferring to sell wool, meat and whole sheep/lambs in Northern New Mexico and Colorado. He saw the railroads as a means to expanded his market.
Ultimately, the Civil War put a cramp in herding to California since many people left to fight. Instead, ranchers sent much of their flocks north to Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. The herders often remained with their sheep to establish the industry. This did, however, lead to some heated exchanges with cattle ranchers.
“Some scuffles ensued over grazing land,” Romero described. “Eventually, the two sides saw benefits – the sheep were actually fertilizing the land while grazing it.”
With such a large growth in the Taos area’s sheep population, however, it was inevitable that the land here would struggle to sustain them.
“It was an ecological disaster,” Romero said. “The waist-high grass in Taos Valley was replaced by sagebrush.” (Sagebrush seeds were mostly dropped by herded animals brought in from the south.)
The ecology of herding eventually altered the economics of it. European entrepreneurs, according to Romero, came in and bought up sheep and acquired interests in communal lands. The industry fell into decline in the early 1900s.
The Mondragons and some other families, such as the Chavez and Martinez clans, however, stayed in the business and adapted. One major change had to do with grazing lands, which now required permits from the U.S. government. President Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of national parks and forests resulted from much of the grazing land becoming public land. Mondragon received his first permit to graze in 1917.
From the 1930s to 1950s, Mondragon’s herd grew to 1,500, including lambs. At that time, Romero estimated wool from 400 to 500 lambs fetched about $5,000 and $10,000 for the animals.
“My grandfather turned much of that money into purchasing more grazing land,” Romero shared. “He ended up with over 2,000 acres in Northern New Mexico. A poor sheep herder just making ends meet ends up a multimillionaire.”
The Great Depression also threatened sheep ranchers’ livelihoods after prices for lambs and wool collapsed. But, the Mondragons continued to thrive when others moved on to other industries, such as mercantile and banking.
The patriarch of the Mondragon family died in 1974 at 87 years old. His land was divided evenly among his remaining children and continued to be divided up and passed down through the generations.
Because of the perceived unfeasible economics of sheep ranching, many of the family members have since sold off parcels of Rosalio Mondragon’s land.
Romero’s father, Jose de la Luz, kept a small herd and tried to maintain it until the late 1990s. He sold the sheep eight years before he died. The last family ranch still stands on Camino del Medio.
How they got here
The sheep came with the Spanish conquistadors and explorers – as did horses, hogs and mules. All of them herded onto ships, the first load was brought by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in the 1500s. He brought more sheep to the area in 1540 and Juan de Oñate (of Spanish descent, born in Mexico) added to the wooly population in 1598.
Oñate was named both governor and captain general by Spain during the colonization of Nuevo México. Sheep were present in the New Mexico territory before the Spaniards arrived, Romero explained, but they were never found in great numbers due to predators. When the Spaniards were ran out of the area in 1680, some of their sheep were left behind. But even 20 years later, survival was difficult in Northern New Mexico due to the constant raiding and pillaging of Taos Pueblo by nomadic tribes.
“By the 1770s, people were just hanging on by a thread,” Romero said. That is until the arrival of Juan Bautista de Anza in the later part of the decade, who successfully led a punitive expedition against the raiding Comanches at Taos Pueblo and into Colorado.
After Bautista’s dividing and conquering of the Comanche, “People felt better about getting land through five early land grants,” Romero said. “They weren’t just surviving anymore.”