The High Road to Taos is a scenic byway between Santa Fe and Taos. The road meanders through several Spanish land grant settlements established in the 18th century, as well as multiple Pueblo Indian communities established long before the Spaniards arrived. These small towns are microcosms of living history. They were remote and remained relatively inaccessible until the 20th century, when roads and cars connected them to the modern world. As a result, they retained their customs, culture, heritage, and traditions, including some linguistic nuances that trace back to medieval Spain.
Chimayo is the most well known town, referred to as the “Lourdes of North America” due to pilgrimages to the Santuario de Chimayo. However, the santuario isn’t the only noteworthy church on the High Road. A few miles north of Chimayo, the San José de Gracia church, aka the church of Santo Tomas Del Rio de Las Trampas, is one of the state’s best examples of 18th century Spanish Colonial architecture. In fact, the entire village of Las Trampas was declared a National Historic District in 1967, facilitating the preservation of several elements of the original 18th century settlement, including the church.
Twelve families from Santa Fe established Las Trampas in 1751. Located between Chimayo and Truchas, it was the second genízaro community established in New Mexico. Belen was the first.
The Genízaros are the descendants of Native American slaves. When Native Americans were captured by colonists or during warfare with other tribes in the 18th and 19th century, they were sold. Once enslaved, they were forced to convert to Catholicism and learn Spanish. Some were from tribes in northern Mexico. They had accompanied the many Spanish expeditions into the territory during the first century of colonization. Others were captives based on conflicts between tribes; mostly Comanche, Ute, Kiowa, Apache, and Navajo. They worked for the Spanish as laborers and military conscripts, becoming a critical component of frontier defense and territorial expansion.
Tomás Vélez Cachupín was the Spanish colonial governor from 1749 to 1754 and 1762 to 1767. He wanted to secure Spanish territory, strategically expanding influence and creating opportunities for economic growth. Prior to his tenure, attempts to settle the mountains between Santa Fe and Taos had failed. The nomadic raiding parties evicted settlers before crops could take root. Cachupín decided to establish Genízaro settlements on the boundaries of the frontier. Though it was hazardous, sometimes fatal, for the settlers, relocation to frontier settlements was the only way for the Genízaros to acquire land.
Las Trampas was built to protect the town of Santa Cruz, which is about 17 miles southwest. Raids were common, but the original settlers knew what they were up against. The town was designed with defense in mind. A cluster of adobe buildings surrounded a central plaza, which could be used to secure livestock during raids. They built an adobe wall around the village for added defense.
The community flourished over the following decade despite regular visits from Ute, Comanche, and Apache raiders. Sixty-three families lived in Las Trampas by 1776, with a total population of 278. That may have been the high-point, because there are fewer than 150 inhabitants today.
Las Trampas, like other settlements on the High Road, remained isolated from the modern world until the highways were built in the 1930s-1940s. However, local traditions passed from one generation to the next throughout the Spanish, Mexican, and American periods, creating an enclave of Spanish Colonial heritage with culture and customs intact.
San José de Gracia Church
Located on the north end of the plaza, San José de Gracia church is a testament to the faith and ingenuity of the community. Like many settlements, Las Trampas was established without a church. Parishioners had to travel to Picuris Pueblo to attend Mass, which was a perilous 9-mile journey. Fortunately, villagers from Las Trampas ran into Bishop Pedro Tamarón in Picuris Pueblo in 1760. Recognizing the hazards they faced, Father Tamarón gave them permission to build a church. However, it was meant to be a parish church; erected by the community, without oversight, funding, or support from the Spanish crown or the Catholic church. Undeterred, the residents of Las Trampas built the church themselves, relying entirely on local resources, materials, and labor.
Completed between 1760 and 1776, San José de Gracia Church is one of the least-modified, best preserved examples of Spanish ecclesiastical architecture constructed during the Colonial period. The church retains most of its original features, with a wealth of folk art created by 18th and 19th century santeros. Paintings created in the 18th and 19th centuries cover the interior ceiling. The church’s simple exterior consists of two flanking buttresses topped by wooden belfries. The adobe walls are 4-6 foot thick, rising 30-34 feet in height. A wood-floored balcony above the main entrance serves as a choir loft.
There was never a resident priest so villagers built the small church without living quarters. After the Mexican Revolution in 1820, most of the Franciscan priests returned to Spain. In the absence of clergy, the Penitente Brotherhood took over the roles and responsibilities of the church in many of New Mexico’s small Spanish communities.
Modifications & Renovations
Villagers covered the packed earth floor with wide wooden planks when milled lumber became available in the late 1800s. They also installed railings in the choir loft and balcony, adding pews to the nave and installing lattice screens in the sanctuary.
In 1932, the Committee for the Preservation and Restoration of New Mexican Churches stabilized and repaired the church. They replaced the roof beams, installed new tower bases, and added a new balustrade and beam for the balcony.
The New Mexico Department of Transportation widened NM Hwy 76 in the late 1960s. The church was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970 to protect it during the highway expansion. It was re-plastered, re-roofed, and its wooden belfries were restored to their original appearance based on a design by John Gaw Meem.
San José de Gracia Church
Chamisal, NM 87521
Phone (505) 351-4360
San José de Gracia is still an active parish church and is regularly open to visitors on the weekends. The annual feast day is March 19.
For more information, visit the Holy Family Parish Website.
Directions: The village of Las Trampas is located on New Mexico State Road 76, the “high road” between Santa Fe and Taos, approximately 30 miles south of Taos.
- Kessell, John L. The Missions of New Mexico Since 1776. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 2012.
- Kubler, George. The Religious Architecture of New Mexico: In the Colonial Period and Since the American Occupation. Colorado Springs, CO: Taylor Museum, 1940.
- National Park Service, Las Trampas