There is nothing ‘new’ about New Mexico. Study of prehistoric populations in North America is ongoing, with sites in North and South America establishing a lengthy record of human habitation. Archaeological work at various sites in New Mexico, from Clovis to Folsom, indicate that humans have been wandering this region for 13,000 years. Early inhabitants were hunters and gatherers, with the Clovis culture hunting small and large game and moving to pursue seasonal foraging opportunities.
On a recent hiking adventure in the Pecos Wilderness, I stopped at the Pecos National Historic Park. Pecos Pueblo was the largest Pueblo in New Mexico when the Spanish arrived. The Pecos Indians spoke a dialect of Tanoan, the same language as Jemez Pueblo. According to Adolph Bandelier, Pecos origin stories indicate that they arrived in the valley from the southeast, but their people originated in the north. Ancient ancestors crossed the Rio Grande and occupied villages in San Jose and Kingman prior to locating to the Pecos Valley. The primary pueblo of the tribe was Tshiquité, or Tziquité (Pecos Pueblo).
The ruins of Pecos Pueblo, approximately 28 miles southeast of Santa Fe, were extensively excavated by Alfred V. Kidder between 1915-1929. Not only did the excavation confirm the descriptions documented by the Spanish conquistadors, it also cultivated a better understanding of the development, history and interaction of communities in the region prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
From the pottery fragments gathered, Kidder established a continuous record of pottery styles from 2000 years ago to the 1800s. His analysis of trends and evolution in pottery styles, in association with changes in culture, was used to establish a basic chronology for the Southwest known as the Pecos Classification System. This system has been used to ascribe dates, and to determine associations and variations in culture, at numerous sites in New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona. He was the first to formally use the Navajo word ‘Anasazi’ to describe the ancient people that established impressive communities throughout northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, though the term had been informally used by earlier archaeologists working in the region.
Kidder’s excavation at Pecos revealed an advanced, powerful, elaborate, impressive trading village. His work was facilitated by the size and age of the community. How was that helpful? Lots of humans living in a place for a long time generates trash. Lots of trash. You can tell a lot about people by sifting through their trash. The Pueblo’s waste, from food scraps, to pottery shards and human remains provided insight into diet, daily activity, artistic achievement, burial practices, etc.
The archeological evidence gathered by Kidder confirmed the descriptions documented by the Spanish conquistadors, with the excavation uncovering the general layout of the north and south pueblos. There were 660 rooms in two large, terraced communal dwellings. Each dwelling housed approximately 110 families, with each family having 10-14 rooms. Each of the structures was 4-5 stories high, with staggered passageways, covered walkways and subterranean passageways. There were 17 round, subterranean kivas and 4 square, above ground kivas. Kidder also identified “un-Puebloan deviations” that confirmed historical records indicating prolonged interaction with Plains tribes.
During Kidder's excavation, pottery and other artifacts were sent to the Robert S. Peabody Museum in Andover, Massachusetts. Human remains were sent to the Peabody Museum at Harvard. Though Kidder was aware that the few remaining residents of Pecos had joined Jemez Pueblo in 1838, it didn’t occur to him to consult with the descendants of Pecos Pueblo regarding the excavation of their ancestral home or removal of their ancestor’s bodies. He didn’t perceive them as having any legal claim. At the time the site was privately owned; however, by a 1936 Act of Congress Jemez Pueblo became the legal and administrative representative of Pecos Pueblo. In 1999, thanks to the effort of William J. Whatley, the Jemez Pueblo tribal archaeologist, the remains were repatriated and ritually interred at undisclosed location in Pecos.
In 1935 Pecos Pueblo became a New Mexico State Monument. 30 years later Lyndon Johnson designated it as a National Monument, expanding the protection to 365 acres to further protect the ruins and archaeological sites. In 1990 Congress enacted a bill to expand the site again, adding 5500 acres and re-classifying it as a National Historic Park. The expanded property encompasses the civil war battlefield of Glorieta and the Lightning Fork Ranch previously owned by Greer Garson, more recently owned by Jane Fonda.
Pecos' recorded history began sometime around 800 AD when early inhabitants of the Rio Grande Valley moved into the upper Pecos Valley. By 1100 AD, 14 small hamlets were established, extending 40 miles down the river to Anton Chico. What is now known as Pecos Pueblo was one of them. Something happened in the 14th century, because within one generation the inhabitants of the small villages along the Pecos river consolidated at Pecos Pueblo, dramatically increasing the population of the community. By 1450 Pecos Pueblo had become a frontier trading hub and fortress, home to more than 2000 people.
With high outside walls, and terraced balconies, Pecos warriors had a clear view in all directions. A perimeter wall may have provided a defensive line or it may have served as a boundary to define village territory to visiting traders camped in the valley below. The inhabitants of this community raised corns, beans and squash, with check dams, canals and caching systems created to impound water and to channel it for irrigation. When Coronado arrived in 1541, he found storerooms piled high with corn, estimated to be a 3-year supply. The surrounding landscape provided a plethora of natural resources and the citizens of Pecos used virtually every plant for something; food, clothing, shelter or medicine.
Trade became a critical component of the pueblo’s wealth and power. Straddling Glorieta Pass, Pecos was strategically located between the agricultural Pueblo communities of the Rio Grande river valley to the west and the hunting tribes of the plains. The inhabitants of Pecos became savvy traders, well versed in the cultures, languages, customs and art of their trading partners. They bartered crops, clothing and pottery with the Apache, and later the Spanish and Comanche, in exchange for buffalo products, flint and slaves. These goods were then traded to the other pueblos for pottery, parrot feathers, turquoise and other essentials. By the time the Spanish arrived Pecos was the largest, wealthiest and most militarily powerful Pueblo in the region.
The first Europeans to encounter the Towa-speaking people of Pecos were members of the Coronado expedition. After invading Hawikuh in July, 1540 a delegation from Pecos, led by Bigotes arrived to offer Coronado the friendship of the pueblo, granting his army passage through Pecos territory. Coronado sent one of his men, Hernando de Alvarado, with Bigotes to assess Pecos. Alvarado’s first impression was documented by the expedition’s chronicler, Pedro Castañeda de Nájera.
"(Alvarado) reached Cicuyc (Pecos), a very strong pueblo with four-storied (buildings). The (people) of the pueblo came out to welcome Hernando de Alvarado and their (own) captain with demonstrations of happiness. They took (Alvarado) into the pueblo with drums and flutes, of which there are many there similar to fifes. And they offered him a large gift of clothing and turquoises, of which there are a great many in that land."
Castañeda de Nájera recorded important details about the community, noting there were 500 warriors. Pecos’ warriors were feared throughout the Pueblo world; however, as dominant as Pecos was in the Pueblo region, they feared the nomadic Teyas of the Great Plains even more. To avoid conflict they formed wary trading alliances, allowing the Teyas "to spend the winters there (at the pueblo), beneath the edges of the roofs of the settlement.”
Bigotes presented a captive from the Plains tribes to Alvarado to serve as a guide, encouraging him to seek gold further east. The Spaniards referred to the slave as El Turco, because they thought he looked Turkish. When Alvarado introduced El Turco to Coronado, El Turco claimed that Pecos had taken gold armbands from him. Coronado promptly sent Alvarado back to Pecos to find the gold. Keep in mind that acquiring gold and silver was the primary mission of the Coronado expedition. When confronted, Bigotes denied that the armbands existed. Alvarado didn’t believe him. He took Bigotes and the leader of Pecos Pueblo captive, putting them in chains and hauling them back to the Rio Grande where they were tortured for six months. This provoked the citizens of the Pueblo. Though Pecos alternated between being an ally and an adversary to Spain, the community never fully trusted the Spanish again.
The slave, El Turco, lured the Spaniards to the Great Plains of Kansas in 1541 with tales of gold. They found very few villages and no gold. Coronado eventually forced El Turco to admit that he had led them to the plains hoping they would die. With that confession, Coronado had him strangled and turned back, wintering on the Rio Grande before returning to Mexico the following spring empty handed. He left two Franciscan friars in Pecos, but there is no record of them beyond 1542. They were gone when the Spanish returned decades later.
Between the battles Coronado waged with the Puebloans during the Tiguex War and the demands for food and clothing that he levied on their economies, he is responsible for the deaths of many and he set the stage for the conflicts that followed. His expedition was considered a failure. Several fortunes were squandered, including that of his wife and Antonio de Mendoza, the Viceroy of New Spain. Upon returning to Mexico City Coronado was disgraced and his career was over. He resigned his commission as governor of New Galacia and retreated into obscurity.
In 1581 Spanish explorers returned, prospecting for silver in the region. Whereas they didn’t find ore, they discovered that the land could be used for farming and livestock, which led to the epiphany that, absent gold and silver, the objectives of Cross and Crown could be achieved by converting the local people to Catholicism and colonizing their land. Don Juan de Oñate, aka “The Butcher,” was the first to pursue this objective.
In 1598 Oñate took settlers, livestock and 10 priests north to claim the land east of the Rio Grande on behalf of the Spanish Crown. He assigned a Franciscan friar, Francisco de San Miguel, to convert Pecos. San Miguel was not much of a diplomat, immediately provoking the local population by desecrating their spiritual sites and destroying many of their religious symbols. As the population became more hostile towards San Miguel, the Franciscans decided to send a veteran missionary, Andrés Juárez, to replace him in 1621. Under his direction an imposing adobe church was constructed south of the pueblo, the Mission Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles de Porciúncula de los Pecos. It was the largest, and the most impressive, of New Mexico's early missions, with towers, buttresses, and giant pine-log beams hauled from the mountains. The mission included living quarters, classrooms, workshops, cattle corrals, turkey pens and grazing land. The 13 years of his ministry, from 1621 to 1634, coincided with the most vigorous mission building period in New Mexico.
Franciscan friars were building missions in communities throughout the province. The success of the missions created conflict between the church and civil servants, as both vied for the labor, tribute and loyalty of the indigenous people. It also provoked conflict with the locals as they endured religious suppression and economic exploitation; their spiritual practices were banned while their wealth, resources and food was plundered by the Spanish Crown.
When Santa Fe became the capital in 1610, controlling Pecos became strategically important. The community served as a buffer between the Spanish capital and Apache and Comanche raiders, while simultaneously serving as a trading partner with those tribes. Less risk, more profit.
When the Spanish arrived there was a population of 40,000-80,000 indigenous people in what is now New Mexico, comprised of independent city states and multiple language groups. The Spanish capitalized on the hostility and distrust between the pueblos, with a divide and conquer strategy that allowed them, as a small group, to exert control over a large population. Within a century the impact of European diseases, violence and forced labor had reduced the population to 15,000. Revolts against Spanish rule were common, but the Spanish ruthlessly repressed dissent.
In 1675, 47 religious leaders of the northern Pueblos were arrested and charged with witchcraft. 3 were executed, 1 committed suicide and the others were whipped, convicted of heresy, and sentenced to be sold into slavery. 70 Pueblo warriors showed up at the Governor’s office in Santa Fe demanding the release of the prisoners. With Apache and Navajo war parties targeting the colony, the Governor conceded, releasing the 43 prisoners to avoid creating additional conflict with the Pueblos. One of those released was Po’pay.
Po’pay was a Tewa religious leader from Ohkay Owingeh (aka San Juan Pueblo). After his release, Po'pay went to Taos Pueblo and began planning a rebellion. He started negotiating with leaders from all of the pueblos, overcoming ancient hostilities to form an alliance against the Spanish. Only the Tiguex, close to Santa Fe, declined to join. The Southern Piro weren’t involved, but they weren’t invited. All of the other pueblos agreed to begin the revolt on August 13, 1680, which was just over 140 years from Coronado’s fateful arrival in Hawikuh.
Runners were sent to each Pueblo with knotted cords. Each knot symbolized a day, with the cords serving as a countdown to the revolt. The fact that Po’pay was able to coordinate with leaders in two dozen communities sprawled across 400 miles, with six languages, without the Spanish finding out is indicative of the widespread animosity that existed at the time. In fact, Po’pay murdered his son-in-law due to concern that he would reveal the plot to the Spanish.
When the Spanish Governor in Santa Fe received word that a parish priest had been killed on August 10, 1680 he was taken by surprise. By August 15, 1000 Spanish colonists had taken refuge at the Governor’s Palace. On August 21 the Spaniards retreated, fleeing Santa Fe and heading south. The warriors from the Pueblos did not attack them. 2000 survived, returning to El Paso and Mexico City. The revolt was brief. 400 Spaniards were killed, including 21 of the 33 priests in New Mexico.
Like all political matters, there wasn’t 100% consensus. In Pecos, locals tried to warn the local priest, but most of the community joined the tribal elder in the revolt. The priest in Pecos was killed. The magnificent church was burned and a kiva was built in the mission’s convento.
Po’pay managed to keep the Spanish out of New Mexico for a decade, repelling repeated attempts to reconquer the area. However, without a common enemy or a common cause, he was unable to unite the Pueblos. A few years after Po’pay’s death in 1688, an army of 150 soldiers, led by Governor Diego de Vargas, returned to reclaim the region, wisely promising pardons rather than punishment. Some Pueblos joined the Navajo and Apache. The Hopi, far from Santa Fe, retained their independence.
The Spanish expected a battle when they returned to Pecos, but they were welcomed back. In fact, Pecos provided 140 warriors to help the Spanish reconquer Santa Fe. A smaller church, the one seen today, was built on the ruins of the one burned during the revolt. It was the first mission rebuilt after the Spanish returned.
The relationship between the Spaniards and the Pueblos was different after the revolt. The forced labor system was prohibited. Priests did not interfere with religious ceremonies as long as Catholic traditions were also observed. Tribute was abolished. Military alliances were negotiated to fight common enemies; including the Apache, Navajo, Utes and Comanche.
Unfortunately, disease, Apache raids, the revolt and Comanche raids in the 1700s eroded Pecos’ population and power. By 1760 the population was estimated to be 599 people. The Comanche killed almost every man in the tribe during a raid in 1775. In 1785 the Spanish signed a peace treaty with the Comanche, allowing them to establish Spanish communities east of Pecos, diminishing the importance of the Pueblo as a trading partner. Divisions within the community between those adhering to traditional spiritual practices and those adopting Catholicism may have prompted some members of the Pueblo to migrate to other nearby pueblos.
By 1790 the population had declined to 152. By 1805 there were 104 people. In 1838 the 17 people remaining reluctantly left their ancestral home, making an 80-mile pilgrimage northwest to Jemez Pueblo, because it was the only community that spoke their Towa language. Jemez welcomed them, providing houses and fields. Their descendants still reside in Jemez Pueblo, though they periodically make pilgrimages to Pecos to honor their ancestors. It is still home.
While wandering the ruins of Pecos, it was easy to envision the community as it was, when the feet of ancient people trod the same soil as mine, when the kiva fires were lit, when the haggling of traders and voices of families and children filled the air of a vibrant, thriving community. I see what they saw, with mountains and mesas defining the horizon, but now it is quiet, with knowledge, stories and secrets that we may never discover.
The Park is 25 miles east of Santa Fe, New Mexico off of I-25. Visitors traveling north on I-25 should take exit 299 to Highway 50, turning right on State Road 63 in Pecos village. The park will be on the right approximately 2 miles south of the village. When traveling south on I-25, take exit 307 and proceed 4 miles north on State Road 63.
From Labor Day until Memorial Day, the park is open from 8:30 to 4:00.
Pecos National Historical Park is open every day except for Thanksgiving, Christmas & New Year.
$7.00 per person
Free for children under 15
New Mexico Nomad