Captain Francisco Sánchez Chamuscado and Father Agustín Rodríguez reached the five Tompiro speaking villages that comprise the Salinas pueblos in 1581–1582. The Tompiro settled in the region around in the 1300s based on pottery fragments found in the area. Six hundred people lived in Quarai pueblo was when the Spanish arrived.
“An edifice in ruins, it is true, but so tall, so solemn, so dominant of that strange, lonely landscape, so out of place in that land of adobe box huts, as to be simply overpowering. On the Rhine, it would be superlative, in the wilderness of the Manzano it is a miracle.”
Charles Lummis, visited Gran Quivira in the 1890s.
The Spanish Inquisition in New Mexico
Father Estevan de Perea arrived in Quarai in 1610. He served two terms as the custodian of the Franciscans. Father Perea was the head of the Office of the Holy Inquisition, based in Quarai. Conflict between the Spanish civil and religious authorities over the allocation of Indian labor influenced community affairs. Persistent drama between politics and the pulpit alienated locals.
The Spanish missionaries constructed the Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción mission between 1627–1633. There are no records specifying who was responsible, though it was a Franciscan project.
The village’s women and children served as conscripted labor. They built the church based on a cruciform layout, with an altar in each transept. The nave measured hundred by twenty-seven feet, making it one of the largest in the state. The structure was forty feet tall, nearly twice the height of most of the pueblo churches. The priests intended for it to be awe inspiring. Mission accomplished…literally and figuratively.
Villagers used red sandstone, similar to the stone used at Abo. They incorporated minimal adobe, because the mortar contributed little to the stability of the structure. Instead, they depended on the weight of the stone. The nave widens slightly near the altar, converging beyond the transepts. They hauled pined trees from the Manzano mountains to create the vigs ceiling. Originally the church had two towers, with the entrance facing south. The towers toppled long ago. The amount of labor required to construct an edifice of this size is staggering.
A description of the building from about 1641 referred to the Quarai mission as a “very good church, with an organ, choir, and 658 souls under its administration.” The presence of an organ implies a certain level of community affluence. The village exported salt, piñon nuts, hides, cotton mantas, and livestock. The triannual mission supply caravans provided items like ironwork, chocolate, buffalo meat, hides,corn, cotton, horses, iron knives and slaves.
Collapse of Quarai
Smallpox and measles decimated the population. A prolonged drought induced famine. Plains Indians adopted Spanish horses and became more proficient and fearsome in terms of raiding. The Comanche and Apache raiding parties were a constant threat. The Tompiro people abandoned all of the pueblos by the late 1670s due to a combination of debilitating variables. Survivors migrated to Tajique and Isleta where they had linguistic kin.
Quarai is free to visit, as are all of the Salinas sites. The Salinas Mission National Monument visitor center is on the corner of Ripley St. & Broadway St. in Mountainair. Each site is open from 8am – 5pm. Hours change seasonally. For more information, call 505-847-2585.