Picurís pueblo was once one of the largest Tiwa pueblos, but today it is one of the smallest, with about 1,801 tribal members. Their language, Tiwa, is part of the Tanoan language group, In the past. The Picurís frequently clashed with Spanish authorities over affairs of state, becoming political instigators on more than one occasion.
Gaspar Castaño de Sosa was lieutenant governor of Nuevo León in northern Mexico. Gaspar was not a noble guy. He made a fortune in human trafficking while in office. He ordered the militia to capture hundreds of Indians along the northern Rio Grande and sold them into slavery. His superiors put out a warrant for his arrest so he led his merry band of thugs and thieves north, into what is now New Mexico. He intended to establish a colony.
The Sosa expedition encountered several of the Rio Grande pueblos, including Picurís pueblo; however, they didn’t settle in the area. The expedition was not authorized. Crime #2. The Spanish authorities tracked Sosa down and arrested him in Santo Domingo. He was convicted and sent to the Philippines.
The Priests Arrive
The missionaries arrived with the Oñate expedition. Oñate assigned Father Francisco de Zamora to the Picurís, ordering him to establish a permanent mission. Picurís was federated with Taos into one district under Zamora. When building missions, priests exploited local resources and local labor. Often women and children were selected for the project, so men could farm and hunt.
Tribal members erected a small, rudimentary chapel by 1620. They dedicated the church to patron San Lorenzo. Initially the mission thrived, serving several neighboring villages in addition to Picurís; however, in subsequent decades, the priests noted that the Picurís were uncooperative and didn’t want to convert. That ambivalence mounted over the years, culminating in the Pueblo Revolt. Tupatu, one of the rebellion’s principal leaders, was from Picurís.
When the revolt broke out on August 10, 1680, Picurís warriors murdered the priest and burned the church. Then, they marched south to join the main attack on Santa Fe. The rebellion was successful. Pueblo warriors fought as one, with some Apache bands pitching in. Together, they drove the Spanish from the province for twelve years.
Reconquest and Rebuild
Diego de Vargas returned in 1692 to reclaim the territory for the Spanish crown. Picurís deserted when he arrived. The church was in ruins. As he did with many pueblos, Vargas convinced the inhabitants to return to their pueblos. Though villagers built a new church, or repaired the old church, Spanish records from 1696 indicate that it was still in poor condition.
Disease, drought and raids took a toll on the pueblos. The Picurís abandoned their village in 1704, joining a group of Cuartelejo Apache for two years. They returned and rebuilt the pueblo and the church in 1706.
The missionaries restored the church again between 1740 – 1750. Much of the work was done by Father Fernando Duque de Estrada. He lived at the pueblo from 1746 to 1747 and dedicated himself to the restoration of the mission. This fellow proceeded to launch Extreme Makeover, Spanish Mission edition.
Father Estrada added a sanctuary, a belfry, and built a crenelated parapet around the entire church. He leveled and packed the dirt floor, restored the campo santo, remodeled the convent, whitewashed the church, and furnished the interior. The benefits of the remodel were short-lived. Estrada’s successor submitted a report about the state of the mission in 1749, saying there was “nothing at this mission but disrepair and misery.”
The Comanche attacked Picurís in 1769. They destroyed the mission. The territorial governor, Pedro Fermín de Mendinueta, ordered the removal of the existing structure and authorized the construction of a new church, moving it to a more defensible location. The project was unusual. Rather than using slave labor, the priest in Santa Cruz hired Alcalde Salvador García de Noriega.
Picurís in the 20th Century
Villagers renovated the church again in the early 1900s. Like many of the renovations during Archbishop Lamy’s tenure, there was no appreciation for heritage, history, or pueblo architectural traditions. They added a pitched, metal roof and belfry to the church, similar to the “schoolhouse makeover” that many churches in New Mexico endured at that time. The surrounding wall was lowered. The wall was barely three feet high in places by 1935. The church underwent major restoration in the late 1960s. The church removed the pitched roof and replaced it with a traditional flat roof. They added two small wings to each side of the pediment and painted the front façade and gateway white.
The public is welcome to view the San Lorenzo de Picurís church and the Picurís Pueblo Museum. The pueblo is located 24 miles southeast of Taos via NM 68, 518, and 75. Photography permits and self-guided tours within the pueblo are available to visitors. Permits for trout fishing at Pu-La Lake are available by contacting the Picurís Pueblo Fish & Game and Parks & Wildlife. There are also picnic and campground facilities. (575) 587-1601