Salt Missions Trail Scenic Byway
There are history lessons in every nook and cranny of New Mexico. This region has been populated for thousands of years by numerous tribes. The Pueblos are among the oldest settlements in the nation, with a history going back 7,000 years or more (estimates vary).
The Ancestral Puebloans, the Hohokam and the Mogollon were advanced civilizations that dominated the area encompassing northern Mexico and the American Southwest today. These ancient people left ruins throughout the region, with a preponderance of historic sites in New Mexico. Well known destinations, like Bandelier, Chaco Canyon and the Gila Cliff Dwellings, receive a lot of attention, while lesser known locations are frequently overlooked.
The Salt Missions Trail Scenic Byway is about an hour southeast of Albuquerque, near Mountainair. The Byway encompasses the Salinas Pueblo Mission ruins. Many New Mexicans have never visited, or heard of, these ancient, abandoned pueblos. Visiting them is a viable day trip from Santa Fe or Albuquerque.
Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
On November 1, 1909, President William Taft established the Gran Quivera National Monument. The National Park Service expanded the monument to include Abo and Quarai on December 19, 1980. They renamed it the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument on October 28, 1988.
Each of the pueblos provides insight into the early years of Spanish colonialism and missionary efforts. The pueblos 8000 year history provides insight into how active and populated this area was prior to European arrival.
The Monument preserves a complex of three pueblos established by the Tompiro people. They were mountain relatives of the Piro people who lived further south.
The Tompiro established nine villages on the eastern perimeter of puebloan culture. They mined salt from the Salinas, east of the pueblos, because salt was a valuable and necessary commodity in the ancient world. They used it to preserve meat and bartered it for food and other products. In fact, the Tompiro pueblos relied on trade culturally and economically. They served as liaisons between tribes from the Great Plains, the Rio Grande Pueblos, the Pacific Northwest, and tribes from Mexico. They were the middlemen of the ancient world.
Gran Quivira was the largest Tompiro settlement, home to as many as 2000 people. Part of their year-round population was from the Great Plains. They hosted annual trade fairs where hundreds of Pueblo and Plains Indians would gather in the plaza trading their wares.
Of the Tompiro pueblos, Gran Quivera was the furthest from the foothills of the mountains. There were no consistent sources of water for crops, drinking, cooking or building. Dry-land agriculture and water collection were critical to the community’s survival. Villagers constructed numerous systems for conserving water, including thirty two wells, ranging from 20 to 50 feet deep. They built roof top cisterns and created thirty shallow pits to catch runoff. The remnants of the basins are readily visible throughout the ruins.
The Franciscans arrived in the region in 1598 with the Juan de Oñate expedition. They discovered five Tompiro communities and built missions with the intention of converting the local population to Catholicism.
The priests used women and children from each pueblo as slave labor to construct impressive, towering edifices from stone and adobe. Villagers hauled timber for ceiling beams from mountain forests miles away. The most ambitious mission building project in the Salinas district was San Buenaventura mission in Gran Quivera. It was left unfinished when the pueblo was abandoned.
The Spanish priests initially tolerated the Puebloan’s traditional religious practices, allowing ceremonial kivas to co-exist next to the missions. However, they changed that policy by the 1660s, forcing those adhering to traditional beliefs to convert…at least superficially. Archaeologists found hidden kivas in the walls of Gran Quivira.
Prolonged drought, coupled with multiple seasons of crop failure, disease and persistent raiding, decimated the Tompiro pueblos during the 1660s. Famine claimed 480 people in Gran Quivera over the course of one winter. The missionaries tried to transfer tons of grain, beans and livestock between the missions in armed convoys, but bad roads, Apache raiders and distance made it impossible to effectively support the population.
Spanish demands for labor and tribute, combined with the ravages of smallpox and other European diseases, took a toll on a weakened population. The inhabitants of Gran Quivira fled to Abo in 1672. That didn’t save them. All of the Tompiro pueblos were abandoned within seven years and the survivors assimilated with pueblos on the Rio Grande or joined their linguistic brethren, the Piro, further south.