Many first time visitors to the “Land of Enchantment” focus on New Mexico highlights and inadvertently overlook amazing places that are in close proximity, but receive little to no publicity outside of the state. Highway 84 between Espanola and Chama is a perfect example. Usually when this route is mentioned, it is in connection with Georgia O’Keeffe. Her paintings made the landscapes around Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch famous. It is appropriate that she brought recognition to the area, because the landscapes in this region nourished her as an artist and as an individual.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s first trip to New Mexico was in 1929, when she traveled to Santa Fe with a friend for the summer. Their paths quickly crossed with Mabel Dodge Lujan, who invited them to her house in Taos and set them up with studio space. New Mexico made an indelible impression. Between 1929 and 1949, O'Keeffe spent part of almost every year working in New Mexico. She collected rocks and bones as she wandered isolated areas, utilizing the desert treasures and the distinctive architectural and landscape forms as subjects in her work. In August, 1934 she visited Ghost Ranch for the first time. She was smitten by the colorful, diverse landscapes and immediately decided to relocate, moving into a house on the ranch property in 1940.
O’Keeffe was a loner, an introvert who found creative inspiration and solace in New Mexico’s stark, rugged terrain. In 1943 she explained her love for the area: "Such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the 'Faraway'. It is a place I have painted before ... even now I must do it again." When she passed away in 1986 her ashes were scattered on top of Pedernal Mountain, overlooking her beloved "faraway". Today artists visit from all over the world to walk in the footsteps of Georgia O’Keeffe; visiting her studio in Abiquiu, her cabin at Ghost Ranch and drawing inspiration from the glorious vistas made famous in her paintings.
However, the 80 mile stretch of road between Espanola and Chama offers far more than artistic inspiration. The area is rich in culture, history and natural resources, making it a haven for the curious, with an abundance of options for outdoor enthusiasts, geologists, paleontologists, anthropologists, archaeologists and historians. The area has been settled by humans for centuries, if not thousands of years, with nearby pueblos tracing their ancestry to the ancient inhabitants of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. Millions of years prior to humans arriving, this region was home to a variety of dinosaurs.
The geology along highway 84 is dramatic. The Abiquiu–Tierra Amarilla area lies on the boundary between the Rio Grande rift (to the east) and the Colorado Plateau (to the west). The Colorado Plateau, which stretches into Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, has been a relatively stable block in the Earth’s crust for at least 600 million years.
The Brazos Cliffs, between Tierra Amarilla and Chama, are made up of some of the oldest rock in New Mexico, dating back 1.8 billion years. Created largely by volcanoes, the Precambrian quartzite cliffs rise from their base over 2000 feet. This barrier ridge is so tall, reaching 11,000 feet elevation, it diverts winds and storms from the eastern Great Plains. The streams nearby provide some of the best fly fishing in the state and the entire area between Tierra Amarilla and Chama is a popular hunting destination, with numerous lodges in the area catering to deer and elk hunters.
As you descend from Tierra Amarilla to Abiquiu, the landscape becomes more stark, with less vegetation, revealing colorful, textured, striking rock formations. The pinnacles, cliffs, mesas, buttes and canyons around Ghost Ranch contain a rich geologic record, with portions of river systems, deserts, saline lakes, mudflats and ocean shorelines preserved. The oldest rocks exposed at Ghost Ranch belong to the Late Triassic Chinle Group, a thick layer of brick-red to red siltstone and mudstone and white to tan sandstone. These rocks were deposited by ancient rivers between 205 and 228 million years ago. At the time the Ghost Ranch area was about 10° north of the equator.
During the Triassic Period, 200-230 million years ago, this was dinosaur territory. Ghost Ranch is the site of one of the best known paleontological digs in the Northern Hemisphere. The fossil beds in the area have yielded numerous specimens over the last century, including a new species discovered in 2002. The discovery of dinosaurs and less-advanced dinosauromorphs from the same time period upended the long held belief among paleontologists that dinosaurs existed with their immediate ancestors for a relatively short period of time before dominating the planet in the Triassic period. Paleontologists now believe they co-existed for 15-20 million years before an unknown event, or sequence of events, allowed dinosaurs to flourish as their predecessors went extinct.
Anyone interested in dinosaurs should stop by the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology at Ghost Ranch. There are numerous exhibits, replicas as well as information about current excavation efforts. Two small species of dinosaur, discovered at Ghost Ranch decades apart, form the centerpiece of the exhibits. The bones of the Coelophysis, who roamed the ranch 220 million years ago, were discovered in 1947. In 2002 a new species, the Tawa Hallae, was found by hikers.
Archaeologists aren’t sure when humans arrived in the area, but many believe that the inhabitants of New Mexico’s pueblos are descended from the archaic people who hunted the desert southwest for thousands of years. Clovis and Folsom points discovered at various sites confirm at least 14,000 years of human presence and the pueblos closest to Espanola, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso and Ohkay Owingeh, can trace their ancestry to the ancient inhabitants of Mesa Verde. The thousands of petroglyphs adorning the basalt boulders of the Wells Petroglyph Preserve are a testament to long term habitation, with images from the Archaic, Ancestral and Historic periods of New Mexico’s past. Historic in this case refers to images clearly influenced by the Spanish, like crosses and heraldic lions.
When Mesa Verde and Chaco were abandoned in the late 12th century, the inhabitants migrated, establishing numerous settlements, including several around present day Espanola and Abiquiu. The Puye Cliff Dwellings (south of Espanola) were home to 1,500 Pueblo Indians who lived, farmed and hunted game there from the 900s to 1580 AD. The inhabitants of Puye eventually migrated closer to the Rio Grande where their descendants live today in Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos.
The Poshuouinge Ruins just south of Abiquiu is one of the largest Rio Grande Pueblos ever unearthed. The city is believed to have been occupied between 1375 AD and 1475 AD. The remnants of more than 700 ground-floor rooms encircling two huge plazas and a large central kiva have survived relatively undisturbed for more than six centuries. The site was abandoned around 1500, almost a century before Don Juan de Oñate’s expedition arrived. Poshuouinge is three miles upstream and due west of another Tewa Pueblo ancestral site, Tsama. Both communities are assumed to be ancestors of Santa Clara and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblos.
Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (“Place of the Strong People”) is a Tewa-speaking village west of Espanola. When Don Juan de Oñate’s expedition arrived in 1598, the community graciously provided lodging for the Spaniards, because they initially perceived them as potential allies. Their communities were frequently targeted by Apache, Comanche and Ute raiding parties so the arrival of the Spaniards, with horses and gunpowder, was welcomed. Oñate renamed the Pueblo San Juan de los Caballeros to reflect the hospitality received, establishing the first capitol of the new territory, San Gabriel, nearby in an abandoned pueblo known as Yungé Owingeh (“Mockingbird Place”).
Several members of Oñate’s expedition had personal reasons for accompanying him. The isolation of the northern territory provided refuge for individuals fleeing the religious persecution occurring in Spain at the time. The Spanish crown had expelled Jews and Muslims in 1492, establishing the Office of the Holy Inquisition to rout religious impropriety among conversos. Captives of the Inquisition were subjected to torture and frequently executed. A false accusation of heresy was often as fatal as guilt.
Peaceful coexistence didn’t last long. Conversion was one of the primary objectives of the Onate expedition and priests were quickly dispatched to build missions throughout the province. The indigenous inhabitants of the province were exploited for labor. Land was seized. Resources were seized. Resistance was squelched with extreme brutality to induce fear and to deter organized revolts, with Acoma Pueblo suffering the most brutal treatment. In 1606, after finishing plans for the founding of Santa Fe, Oñate was recalled to Mexico City where he was tried and convicted of cruelty to both natives and colonists. He was banished from New Mexico, though he appealed the verdict and was later acquitted.
Onate’s successor moved the capital to Santa Fe. Outposts were established in Abiquiú, Truchas and Ojo Caliente. These communities were settled by Mexican Indians, mixed-blood Spaniards, and genizaros. They were established to protect the Spanish communities in Santa Fe and Santa Cruz. In addition to communal land grants, some conquistadores made grants of encomiendas, or forced Indian labor. An encomienda beneficiary could levy a tribute upon Natives. Some Spaniards interpreted the encomienda to mean that they could seize land and enlist the prior inhabitants as slave labor. Ambivalence and resentment mounted, culminating in the unprecedented unification of New Mexico’s pueblos in 1680. More on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
For thirty years, Comanches protected Rio Arriba from Ute and Navajo raids; however, by the 1820s Mexico was developing its own government, declaring independence from Spain. The Comanches moved east, leaving Rio Arriba open to attack by the Navajo, Apaches, and tribes from the plains. As raids increased in frequency and intensity, Mexican support via arms, troops and other resources ceased.
When Mexico separated from Spain in 1821, New Mexico was divided into two territories defined by the Rio Grande. Rio Abajo, the “Lower River,” referred to everything south of Santa Fe. Most of New Mexico’s landed gentry traced their ancestry directly from Spain and lived in Rio Abajo. Rio Arriba had evolved into a diverse, isolated, self-reliant and quirky cultural mix of genizaros, mestizos and Tewa. The citizens of Rio Arriba were subjected to an increasingly oppressive social structure, subservient to the ruling class of Rio Abajo.
In 1821 the newly established Mexican administration decreed that militiamen had to relinquish war booty to their commanding officers, who were invariably elites from Rio Abajo. Prior to the edict trade stemming from war booty buoyed the local economy. In 1835 a new Governor, Albino Pérez, arrived in Santa Fe. He disbanded his regular troops to avoid paying them and called upon the Rio Arriba militia to fight the Navajo. Militiamen armed with pitchforks were ill equipped. They suffered frostbite and hunger while their villages and extended families suffered. Furthermore, the officers from Rio Abajo mistreated them. Resentment and ambivalence mounted. In 1837, residents of Santa Cruz, Chimayo and Truchas staged a revolt, killing Governor Pérez and his advisors, and temporarily overthrowing the government. Padre António José Martinez, an enigmatic priest who was believed by many to be the instigator of the revolt, held a mass in Santa Cruz on the eve of the rebellion. Jose Gonzales, a genizaro from Taos involved in the revolt, became the interim Governor. Members of the ruling class from Santa Fe and Rio Abajo quickly retaliated, crushing the revolutionary government and executing Gonzales and the remaining leaders of the revolt in a battle near present-day Pojoaque.
In 1846, General Stephen W. Kearny marched U.S. troops into New Mexico. Governor Armijo fled without a fight. The United States claimed possession of the territory. The majority of the people were unarmed farmers who could not defend themselves against well-equipped American forces. In Embudo, U.S. soldiers herded townspeople into a church and burned it to the ground. In 1848, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago, ending the U.S. war with Mexico. The Treaty promised that the U.S. would honor Spanish and Mexican land grants. That didn’t happen.
In 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago was signed, at least 1.6 million acres of mostly communal grants existed in Rio Arriba county. A Santa Fe network of lawyers, judges, politicians and businessmen involved with land grant speculation organized with the specific purpose of divesting Hispanic villagers of their land. The speculators were nicknamed “the Santa Fe Ring” and admired by the press. Often, they would exchange services for interests in a grant claiming to represent impoverished heirs who could not pay cash. They would then use their interest to force the sale of communal lands, acquiring the grant for themselves. A number of villages such as Ojo Caliente and Petaca were awarded land for the village proper but stripped of all common lands. In many cases, villagers who did not understand the new laws did not realize they had lost their land until it was restricted in later generations.
The railroad arrived in the late 19th century, bringing an influx of Anglo settlers and increased prosperity. Mining and logging became vital industries. The railroad was christened “The Chili Line” in deference to the exceptional local chile. Even then there appears to be disagreement about how to spell chile.