Elena Gallegos was a trailblazer before women blazing trails was a thing.
Centuries ahead of her time, the third-generation New Mexican once possessed a large portion of what is modern-day Albuquerque.
Anyone who has driven by or traversed the Foothills east of town has probably heard of or seen her name because one of the city’s most widely used open space properties bears her name. The 640-acre Elena Gallegos Open Space at the base of the Sandia Mountains offers hiking and mountain biking trails, picnic areas, a chance to witness wildlife in natural habitat and breathtaking views of the city.
Gallegos was born in 1680, in what would become New Mexico, to Spanish colonizers Antonio Gallegos and Catalina Baca. The family fled the area that same year to escape the Pueblo Revolt. It’s unclear where Elena Gallegos spent her childhood and young adult life. Some speculate El Paso, and others say possibly Parral, Mexico, her father’s hometown.
She returned to the place of her birth in 1693, with two brothers and an uncle, and married tattooed Frenchman Jacques Grolet in 1699. Grolet, 17 years Gallegos’ senior, had been a part of the ill-fated 1684 La Salle Expedition.
The group sailed from France in search of the mouth of the Mississippi but ended up in Texas. The captain was killed by his men, others aboard also perished, and the ship never reached its destination, but Grolet survived only to become a Spanish prisoner.
He would be sent to Spain and then returned to America. He was eventually granted freedom but had to renounce his French citizenship. He changed his name to Santiago Gurulé and moved to what is now New Mexico.
The couple’s son, Antonio, was born in 1703, and Santiago Gurulé died eight years later.
Although Gallegos was a widow with a young son, she did not remarry. Instead she forged ahead, conducting her own business affairs raising stock. She was the first woman to obtain her own livestock brand. In 1712, Gallegos wrote to the governor asking for permission to register her brand.
“In order that I may brand my stock and horses so that no person may rob me, and with the condition that I and my children may take possession of any animals or stock branded with said brand … therefore, I ask your Excellency to make me a grant in the name of His Majesty of the said brand in order that I may use it for my own.”
Henrietta Martínez Christmas, a historian and president of the New Mexico Genealogical Society, researched Gallegos for the Scenic Historic Marker project highlighting important women in New Mexico. She found the letter during her research. Officials erected Gallegos’ Foothills marker in 2018.
Christmas said she is also a descendant of Gallegos and Gurulé.
“She’s kind of a forgotten hero of that time,” Christmas said. “She was overlooked, and her husband kind of took the lead role in history.”
She purchased thousands of acres, which would become the Elena Gallegos Land Grant, from Capt. Diego Montoya in 1716. The land went south to what is now Montgomery NE, north to Sandia Pueblo, east to the Sandias and west to the river.
Advocates in Albuquerque began to rally in the 1960s in hopes of saving some of the city’s valuable open space from development. Early on, they set their sights on what is now Elena Gallegos Open Space. In 1969, the Albuquerque City Council agreed to enact a tax so it could purchase the land, save it from development and create an open space trust fund for the acquisition of other open space properties. Two years later, the city’s Open Space Division was born.
Gallegos lived on her land for more than a decade until her death in September of 1731, just four months after writing her will. At her request, she was buried in the Holy Church of San Phelipe de Albuquerque, which was in Old Town near the plaza. The church collapsed in 1792, was rebuilt in 1793 at a different location off the plaza and is the current-day San Felipe de Neri.
According to her will, she left two silk petticoats, a shawl, a veil, a silk dress pattern, coral bracelets and a chest made of Michoacán wood to her granddaughter Manuela.
But it was her son Antonio who inherited her land and livestock, which included 32 head of cattle, four oxen, 12 mares, two colts and two mules.
An Aug. 29, 1899, legal notice in the Las Vegas Optic valued the land at 30 cents an acre. That rose to $1 an acre by 1934. Three years later, Albert G. Simms and his wife, Ruth Hanna McCormick, purchased the land. Simms, who died in 1964, donated a portion of the land to the Academy for Boys school, of which he was a major backer. That school is now Albuquerque Academy.
But the real value of Elena Gallegos and her land cannot be assigned a true dollar amount. It has provided endless opportunities for the people of New Mexico to connect with nature, and it has allowed them to be transported to a century long ago, to witness, perhaps, exactly what Gallegos and her heirs saw as they stood in that exact location gazing upon New Mexico’s infinite vistas.
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”