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 (aka Pecos Pueblo).
Pecos Pueblo National Historical Park
Pecos Pueblo became a New Mexico State Monument in 1935. Lyndon Johnson designated it as a national monument thirty years later. He expanded the protection by 365 acres to further protect the ruins and archaeological sites. Decades later, Congress enacted a bill to expand the site by an additional 5500 acres in 1990, re-classifying it as a National Historic Park. The expanded property encompasses the civil war battlefield of Glorieta and the Lightning Fork Ranch, which was previously owned by Greer Garson and more recently by Jane Fonda.
Pecos’ recorded history began around 800 AD when early inhabitants of the Rio Grande Valley moved into the upper Pecos Valley. They established fourteen small hamlets by 1100 AD, extending forty miles down the river to Anton Chico. Something happened in the 14th century, because the inhabitants of the small villages along the Pecos river consolidated at Pecos Pueblo, dramatically increasing the population of the community. The village became a frontier trading hub and fortress by 1450, home to more than two thousand people.
With high outside walls, and terraced balconies, Pecos warriors had a clear view in all directions. A perimeter wall provided a defensive line and served as a boundary to define village territory to visitors camped in the valley below. Villagers raised corn, beans and squash, with check dams, canals and caching systems designed to impound and channel water for irrigation.
Coronado found storerooms piled high with corn when he arrived in 1541; his expedition party estimated 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 was a critical component of the pueblo’s wealth and power. The community was strategically located between the agricultural villages in the Rio Grande river valley to the west and the hunting tribes on the plains to the east. The inhabitants of Pecos were savvy traders, well-versed in the cultures, languages, and customs 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. They traded these goods to other pueblos for pottery, parrot feathers, turquoise, and other essentials. It was the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful pueblo when the Spanish arrived.
Members of the Coronado expedition were the first Europeans to engage with the Towa-speaking inhabitants of Pecos. After word spread that the Spanish had invaded Hawikuh, Bigotes led a delegation from Pecos to offer Coronado his friendship and to grant the his army passage through Pecos territory. Coronado dispatched one of his men, Hernando de Alvarado, to accompany Bigotes to Pecos. Pedro Castañeda de Nájera, the expedition’s chronicler, documented Alvarado’s assessment.
“(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 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 region, they feared the nomadic Teyas of the Great Plains. They formed wary trading alliances to avoid conflict, 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 to Alvarado as a guide, encouraging the Spanish to seek gold further east. The Spaniards called the slave El Turco in expedition records, 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. Acquiring gold and silver was the primary mission of the Coronado expedition. Bigotes denied that the armbands existed when confronted, but Alvarado didn’t believe him. He arrested Bigotes and the leader of Pecos Pueblo, put them in chains, and hauled them back to Spanish headquarters (outside today’s Bernalillo) where they tortured them for six months. The inhabitants of Pecos were livid. Though Pecos alternated between being an ally and an adversary, the community never trusted the Spanish again.
El Turco didn’t have a good track record on honesty either. He lured the Spaniards across the Great Plains in 1541 with tales of gold. The Spanish found very few villages and no gold. They eventually forced El Turco to admit that he had led them to the plains hoping they would all die. With that confession, Coronado had his men strangle him and they turned back. They remained on the Rio Grande one more winter before returning to Mexico the following spring empty-handed. Though Coronado left two Franciscan friars in Pecos in 1542, they were gone by the time the Spanish returned decades later.
Don Juan de Oñate
Spanish explorers began prospecting for silver in the region in 1581. They didn’t find ore, but they realized the land could be used for farming and ranching. Absent gold and silver, they could accomplish the objectives of Cross and Crown by converting the local people to Catholicism and colonizing their land. That was Don Juan de Oñate’s goal.
Oñate brought settlers, livestock and ten priests north to claim the land east of the Rio Grande on behalf of the Spanish Crown in 1598. He assigned a Franciscan friar, Francisco de San Miguel, to Pecos. San Miguel was not a diplomat. He immediately provoked the community 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 Father Andrés’ command, villagers built an imposing adobe church 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 thirteen years of his ministry, from 1621-1634, coincided with the most vigorous mission building period in New Mexico.
Franciscan friars were forcing communities throughout the province to build missions. Their success created conflict with Spanish officials, because both were vying for labor and tribute. Locals became increasingly hostile due to the religious suppression, economic exploitation, and abuse; their spiritual practices were banned, while their wealth, resources and food were plundered.
When Santa Fe became the capital in 1610, controlling Pecos became strategically important. The community was a buffer between the Spanish capital and raiders for the Great Plains and they were a middleman to trade 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 reduced the population to 15,000. Revolts against Spanish rule were common, but the Spanish ruthlessly repressed dissent.
Spanish authorities arrested forty-seven religious leaders of the northern Pueblos in 1675, charging them with witchcraft. The Spanish executed three of them and whipped the others, convicting them of heresy and sentencing them into slavery. Seventy 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. He released the 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 due to their assimilation with the Spanish. All of the pueblos agreed to begin the revolt on August 13, 1680.
Po’pay dispatched runners to each Pueblo with knotted cords to commence the countdown. Each knot symbolized a day and he instructed each pueblo to untie one knot per day and attack on the final day. The fact that Po’pay was able to coordinate with pueblo leaders in two dozen communities across 400 miles, with six languages, without the Spanish finding out is indicative of the widespread ambivalence. In fact, Po’pay murdered his son-in-law due to concern that he would reveal the plot to the Spanish.
Driving the Spanish from Santa Fe
The Spanish Governor in Santa Fe received word on August 10, 1680 that a parish priest had been killed. One thousand Spanish colonists were huddled at the Governor’s Palace by August 15. The Spaniards retreated on August 21, fleeing Santa Fe and heading south. Two thousand survived, returning to El Paso and Mexico City. The warriors from the Pueblos shadowed them as they moved south, but they did not attack. The revolt was brief. In total, puebloan warriors killed four hundred Spaniards, including twenty-one of the thirty-three priests in New Mexico.
Like all political matters, there wasn’t 100% buy-in. Locals tried to warn the local priest in Pecos to no avail. Most of the community joined the tribal elder in the revolt and they killed the priest, burned the magnificent church, and built a kiva in the mission’s convento.
Reconquest of 1692
Po’pay managed to keep the Spanish out of New Mexico for more than a decade, repelling repeated attempts to reconquer the area. However, without a common enemy or a common cause, he was unable to maintain the unity between 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 province. He wisely promised pardons rather than seeking vengence. Many Puebloans that rejected the return of the Spaniards joined the Navajo and Apache. Pueblos like the Hopi and Zuni were far enough from Santa Fe to retain most, if not all, of their autonomy.
Diego de Vargas expected a battle when he went to Pecos, but they welcomed them and provided his army with one hundred and forty warriors to help reconquer Santa Fe. The mission in Pecos was the first one rebuilt after the reconquest. Villagers constructed a smaller edifice on the ruins of the one they burned during the revolt.
The relationship between the Spanish and the Pueblos changed after the revolt. The Spanish prohibited the forced labor system. Priests did not interfere with religious ceremonies as long as Catholic traditions were also observed. Spanish authorities abolished tribute and negotiated military alliances to fight common enemies; including the Apache, Navajo, Utes and Comanche.
Pecos Pueblo’s Decline
Unfortunately, disease, Apache raids, the revolt, and Comanche raids in the 1700s steadily eroded Pecos’ influence and power. The Spanish estimated the population was 599 people by 1760. During a raid in 1775, the Comanche killed almost every man in the tribe. The Spanish signed a peace treaty with the Comanche in 1785, allowing them to establish Spanish communities east of Pecos, which diminished the importance of the Pueblo as a trading partner. Divisions between those adhering to traditional spiritual practices and those adopting Catholicism prompted some members of the Pueblo to migrate to other pueblos.
The population declined to 152 by 1790. There were 104 people left fifteen years later, in 1805. By 1838 the 17 people remaining reluctantly abandoned their ancestral home, making an 80-mile pilgrimage northwest to Jemez Pueblo. Jemez is the only other Towa speaking pueblo (and the only one remaining). Jemez welcomed them, providing houses and fields. Their descendants still reside in Jemez Pueblo, though they occasionally make pilgrimages to Pecos to honor their ancestors and still consider it home.
It is easy to imagine the community as it was long ago; feet of ancient people trodding the soil, fires smouldering in kivas, traders haggling, and the voices of children filling the air. Pecos was a vibrant, thriving community, with mountains and mesas defining the horizon. Now it is quiet, with knowledge, stories and secrets that we may never know.
Alfred V. Kidder
The ruins of Pecos Pueblo are approximately twenty-eight miles southeast of Santa Fe. Alfred V. Kidder conducted an extensive excavation between 1915-1929. His excavation confirmed the descriptions by the Spanish conquistadors and settlers and 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 two thousands 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. Archaeologists still use this system to ascribe dates and assess associations and variations, at numerous sites throughout the southwest. Kidder was the first to formally use the Navajo word ‘Anasazi’, though archaeologists working in the region had informally used the term earlier.
Kidder’s excavation at Pecos revealed an advanced, powerful, elaborate, impressive trading village. The size and age of the community made the community an archaeological petrie dish. Large numbers of humans living in the same place for a long time generates a lot of trash and you can tell a lot about people by sifting through their trash. The village’s waste, from food scraps to pottery shards to human remains, provided insight into diet, daily activity, artistic achievement, burial practices, etc.
The excavation determined the general layout of the north and south pueblos. There were six hundred and sixty rooms in two large, terraced communal dwellings. Each housed approximately one hundred and ten families, with each family having 10-14 rooms. Each structure was 4-5 stories high, with staggered passageways, covered walkways, and subterranean passages. There were seventeen round, subterranean kivas and four square, above-ground kivas. Kidder identified “un-Puebloan deviations” that confirmed historical records indicating prolonged interaction with Plains tribes.
Pottery and other artifacts were sent to the Robert S. Peabody Museum in Andover, Massachusetts and 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, he didn’t consult them about the excavation of their ancestral home or exhuming bodies. He didn’t perceive them as having any legal claim and, 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. Jemez Pueblo tribal archaeologist, William J. Whatley, successfully repatriated the remains in 1999. Descendant of Pecos Pueblo ritually interred them at an undisclosed location in their ancestral home.
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