UNESCO World Heritage Site

Taos is a UNESCO World Heritage cultural site. The community is distinct, unique and enduring. The pueblo, in its current, multi-story form, dates back to the 14th century. They were contemporaries of the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. When Chaco and Mesa Verde were thriving, vibrant civilizations, Taos existed in the shadow of Wheeler Peak. When the Ancestral Puebloans were packing up to move, Taos was there. If these walls could talk, it would be a harrowing tale.

Taos PuebloTaos Pueblo

The community, and many of the adobe structures, are at least 1000 years old. Taos claims the distinction of being the oldest continuously occupied community in the United States. Acoma disagrees, but I am staying out of that skirmish.

Taos, as the northernmost of the Rio Arriba pueblos, was on the boundary between pueblo culture and tribes on the Great Plains. Homes are clustered together in multi-story arrangements. A wall encircled the community. There were no doors or windows on the ground floor. The only access was through the roof from the upper levels. Villagers used ladders. They pulled the ladders up when the village was attacked by raiding parties, which was common.

The Coronado expedition made contact with Taos pueblo in 1540. Taos was an impressive community, far larger than most of the other pueblos in the region. The Spanish kept detailed accounts of their expeditions. Their records reflect and estimated population of 15,000. Pedro de Casteñeda, chronicler of the Coronado expedition, described the south and north blocks of the pueblo, divided by the river that both binds and separates them.

“In this village they do not raise cotton or breed turkeys: they wear the skins of deer and buffalo entirely. It is the most populous village in all that country: we estimate there were 15,000 souls in it.” 

Annual Trade Fair

There was one period of relative peace each year. All of the tribes from plains and pueblos would set aside their weapons and their grievances during the month of June and come together for a giant trade fair. Tamarón discussed the fairs at length while visiting Taos pueblo in 1760 to report on New Mexico’s missions to the King of Spain.

“ The governor comes to those fairs, which they call rescates (barter trade), every year with the majority of his garrison and people from all over the kingdom. They bring captives to sell, pieces of chamois, many buffalo skins, and, out of plunder they have obtained elsewhere, horses, muskets, shotguns, munitions, knives, meat, and various other things. ”

The Hazards of Mission Building in Taos

The Franciscans founded the original mission in 1617, but mission building is a tenuous pursuit in Taos. Taos pueblo resisted the Spanish consistently. The community was a hotbed of insurrection. They seized every opportunity to oppose Spanish authority. They were involved in virtually every attempt to overthrow Spanish occupation, whether as instigators, participants, or both. Villagers destroyed the first church in 1626.

Blue doors in Taos PuebloFather Benavides visited Taos pueblo in 1629 to report on the status of New Mexico’s missions to the King of Spain. He reported that the mission was established and thriving.

That didn’t last long. The villagers destroyed the second mission around 1639 and killed the resident priest (again). The Franciscans restored the mission and installed another priest. Rinse and repeat. Several cycles. Priests didn’t live long in Taos. The Spanish didn’t realize that a far bigger plan was percolating in Taos and spreading throughout the province, one that would culminate on August 10, 1680.

Po’pay and the Pueblo Revolt

Governor Juan Francisco Trevino arrested Po’pay, aka Popé, and 47 other spiritual leaders in 1675. The Spanish courts convicted the men of practicing sorcery and plotting a coup. One of the men committed suicide and three were executed. The others, including Po’pay, were whipped, imprisoned in Santa Fe, and sentenced to be sold into slavery. 70 Pueblo warriors showed up at the governor’s office demanding their release. The governor acquiesced, because the Apache and Navajo raiding parties were attacking Santa Fe regularly. He decided that he couldn’t afford additional enemies. Too little, too late.

Po’pay, from San Juan Pueblo, was described as a “fierce and dynamic individual…who inspired respect bordering on fear in those who dealt with him.”

Po’pay moved to Taos pueblo after his release. He spent the next several years coordinating a massive revolt, unifying the pueblos against the Spanish. Killing the Franciscan priests and destroying the missions was part of the plan. The uprising commenced on August 10, 1680. Warriors killed both priests in Taos and torched the church. When Diego de Vargas reconquered the New Mexico territory the church in Taos was being used as a stable. He instructed the priests to tear it down and build a new mission. The parish completed the new church in 1706.

San Jerónimo Mission

San Jerónimo was a large church with massive walls and a tower on its southern facade. The convento adjoined the church, rising to two stories in places. It was also a formidable fortress, because raiding parties visited Taos regularly. The church tower doubled as a guard tower, with a clear view of the surrounding plains. The mission withstood raiding parties, cannon fire, and direct attack before it was destroyed.

San Jeronimo Mission When Bishop Tamarón visited Taos in 1760, the relationship between the pueblos, Spanish, Comanche, and Apache was volatile. Frequent raids and attacks had driven the Spanish settlers from their homesteads in the valley. Many sought refuge at the pueblo.

Fray Francisco Domínguez reported on the Spanish borderlands in 1776. The village was so heavily fortified that he described it as resembling “those walled cities with bastions and towers that are described to us in the Bible.

Rebellion Against the U.S. Army

When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1846, New Mexico became a territory of the United States. Many Hispanic citizens of New Mexico viewed this development with a mix of apprehension and ambivalence. They resented the sudden imposition of an Anglo government. The Americans installed an interim governor, Charles Bent. Charles was from the Taos area, but that didn’t save him. Disgruntled Taosenos murdered him and several allies of the new government, as well as all Americans living in nearby Arroyo Hondo.

The U.S. Army dispatched troops to quell the rebellion. The first skirmish took place near Santa Cruz. The rebels retreated to Taos pueblo, barricading themselves in the mission. The Americans barraged the mission with muskets, cannons, and a howitzer to no avail. The walls were 3 – 7 feet thick and virtually impregnable. They found an area of the church out of view of those inside and began to chop at the walls with axes. They built ladders to set the roof on fire.

Once the Americans penetrated the wall, they tossed artillery through holes. As smoke filled the church, they hacked through the walls, storming the building and taking everyone captive. The U.S. Army successfully squelched the rebellion and destroyed San Jeronimo Mission. One tower and fragments of the nave wall remain.

A New Mission

Taos pueblo built a new church on the main plaza sometime after 1847. Early photos taken around 1885 depict a church that looks different from the structure seen today. The original chapel was a plain, simple building. There have been many modifications and renovations over the last century. The windows that line both walls have Gothic flourishes that imply renovation during Archbishop Lamy’s tenure. Lamy favored gothic flourish and implemented his vision throughout the diocese. Taos added a turret in the 1920s, twin towers, reminiscent of the churches in Las Trampas and Santo Domingo.

To see San Jeronimo or Taos Pueblo, contact (575) 758-1028. $16/adult, $14/children 11+, Free for children under 10. Taos Pueblo allows photography. Additional fees apply for commercial photography or video. See their website or contact them directly for details.


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