Freshwater lakes, with abundant fish, waterfowl, bison, and antelope once covered New Mexico. The Permian Sea extended into the region, leaving traces throughout the state, including the gypsum that created White Sands.
“In this arid solitude the massive edifice of the church, with the mounds of the pueblo, look strangely impressive. From the west the church can be seen miles away, a clumsy parallelopiped of gray stone; from the northeast, through vistas of dark cedars and junipers, the ruins shine in pallid light, like some phantom city in the desert.”
Las Humanas, or Gran Quivira, is one of three sites that comprise the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. Salinas is Spanish for “salt beds,” a reference to the extensive salt deposits east of the pueblo. Salt was more valuable than gold in the ancient world, a critical commodity used to preserve and flavor food. The mines east of Mountainair supplied salt to the region and was utilized as a trade commodity by the pueblos. They shipped salt to Mexico, the Great Plains and the Pacific tribes.
Based on ceramic evidence, the Tompiro settled in the region in the 7th and 8th centuries. They established multiple pueblos on the eastern boundary of the Rio Grande. Five Tompiro villages existed when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. Nomadic raiders occupied the area, plundering the pueblos regularly.
Agricultural endeavors relied on the moodiness of the summer monsoons. Unlike pueblos on the Rio Grande, the Tompiro pueblos couldn’t grow crops. Water was a rare and precious resource. Villagers dug 15 – 25 foot wells seven miles west of the pueblo to provide the community with a more reliable water source. Instead, they mined salt and traded it for other commodities, including food.
Somehow a pueblo of thousands thrived in this harsh, arid environment. Villagers traded salt and textiles to the pueblos and the plains tribes for buffalo and corn. Gran Quivera became a major trading hub centuries prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan priests.
Catholicism and Construction
The Spanish passed through a couple of times on various expeditions prior to the arrival of Juan de Oñate’s expedition. Several Franciscan priests accompanied his entourage. They intended to establish missions and convert the local population.
The first friar to begin serious conversion work at the pueblo was Alonso de Benavides. His records indicate that there were six churches and conventos operating in the Salinas district. Benavides credited Father Francisco de Letrado with building the first church and convent. Letrado arrived in 1629.
San Ysidro Mission
In a status report for the Spanish King in 1629, Father Benavides described the chapel of San Ysidro as small. Odd description. San Ysidro was among the widest of the missions in New Mexico, second only to San José de Giusewa Mission in Jemez Pueblo. Father Latrado attempted an ambitious design. The mission measured 29 feet by 109 feet. Unfortunately, engineering is an acquired skill and he made critical calculation errors related to weight and structural integrity. The span exceeded the carrying capacity of the beams and load bearing walls and the roof collapsed. It was his first attempt at building a mission.
They constructed the mission using the local blue-gray limestone. They didn’t work the stone, but positioned it with the best side out. The set the stones with mud mortar or caliche. Villagers hauled pine from the Gallinas Mountains 20 miles away to make the great vigas, which were at least 33 feel long. They built the single-nave mission without transepts. The thin walls couldn’t bear the weight. The structure collapsed. The ruins eroded rapidly when the pueblo was abandoned in the 1670s.
The Apache raided the pueblo during the 1650s. They destroyed the church and took seventeen women and children captive. Fray Diego de Santander arrived at Las Humanas in 1659 and found the existing chapel in ruins. He began construction on a new church and convento, San Buenaventura. He selected a site west of the San Ysidro mission.
San Buenaventura was narrower than its predecessor. The nave is about 27 feet wide, with a length of 109 feet. Villagers constructed the church on an east-west axis, with the entrance facing east. The extensive convento south of the church included a full sacristy with access from living and storage spaces. They built a large corral with adjoining stables south of the mission. Sadly, Father Santander didn’t have time to complete the San Buenaventura Mission. He left with the surviving inhabitants of Las Humanas 3 years later.
Conflict Between Church and State
The Spanish authorities based in Santa Fe and the Franciscan priests in the pueblos did not get along. They exploited the labor of the puebloans. The priests in Abo administered Las Humanas until Father Santander’s arrival in 1659. Priests made rare appearances and exercised less control over villager’s day-to-day lives.
Nicolás de Aguilar, the alcalde mayor, relocated to Gran Quivera in the 1660s as the executory for Governor Bernardo López de Mendizábal. Mendizábal had no love for the church. As Father Santander tried to rebuild the mission, Mendizábal waged a campaign against him by forbidding the use of puebloan labor. His motivation was financial. Indians working on construction were not tending flocks, weaving, or growing corn for the Spanish authorities. If crops and other goods were produced for the friars, the church accumulated more wealth than the governor.
Father Latrado wrote to the governor, citing the need to bring the word of God to the Indians. The governor replied “that churches with costly ornaments and decoration were not necessary; that a few huts of straw and some cloth ornaments, with spoken masses, were ample.”
Pueblo Collapse and Abandonment
Within a century of being in contact with the Spaniards, the population of the Tompiro pueblos was decimated by European borne diseases, drought induced famine, and the ongoing hazards posed by raiders. The population of Las Humanas dwindled from around 2000 to 1000 by the 1660s. The priests moved the mission’s livestock to Abo, where food and water was more plentiful and Apache raids were less frequent
Conditions deteriorated in las Humanas by the 1660s. The provincial governor received a report in 1663 about the plight of the Salinas District, “the wells are exhausted and there is an insufficient water supply for the people, for their lack of water is so great that they are accustomed to saving their urine to water the land and to build walls.”
Famine claimed many villagers. They couldn’t grow crops due to the prolonged drought. Father Juan Bernal wrote about the plight of Las Humanas in 1669, describing seeing the townspeople “lying dead along the roads, in the ravines, and in their huts.” Conditions were no better for the Apache. They were also starving, which provoked more raids. When Las Humanas ran out of things to plunder, raiders took people, selling them into slavery in exchange for food.
Gran Quivera collapsed in 1671 or 1672, prior to the Pueblo Revolt. Survivors migrated to neighboring pueblos. Many joined Isleta Pueblo to the west or traveled down the Rio Grande to join their linguistic brethren in the south.
Gran Quivira National Monument was established on November 1, 1909. It was incorporated with Abo and Quarai as the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in the fall of 1988. All three sites are near Mountainair, about an hour south of Albuquerque. They are open daily, free to the public. Dogs are allowed on leash.