When the Spanish arrived, they built a mission to convert the community, the San José de los Jémez Mission. The Pueblo of Jémez is one of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos. Most of the 3400 tribal members reside in “Walatowa,” a Towa word meaning “this is the place.” Jémez is the only culture left that speaks Towa, one of the Tanoan language group. Traditional law forbids the language from being translated into writing. It is one of many indigenous languages and oral traditions considered at risk worldwide.

Approximately 700 years ago, the ancestors of Jémez (Walatowa) Pueblo migrated from the Chaco Canyon/Mesa Verde area. They established several communities on the western flank of the Jemez mountain range in the 1300s, including a large pueblo in San Diego Canyon called Giusewa, established ca. 1350 AD. “Giusewa” means “place of boiling waters” in Towa. The name is a reference to the hot springs nearby. Originally, the pueblo consisted of several multistory structures, some with as many as 1,000 rooms.

In 1838, the Towa speaking people from Pecos Pueblo resettled at the Pueblo of Jémez. Pecos Pueblo was once a large, prosperous trading center. However, two centuries of European diseases and Comanche raiding parties decimated the community. An Act of Congress legally merged Jémez and Pecos Pueblos into one tribe in 1936.

Jemez Historic Site

Gíusewa Pueblo Site

From Jémez Pueblo Website:

Having originated from a place called “Hua-na-tota,” our ancestors, the Jémez Nation, migrated to the “Canon de San Diego Region” from the four-corners area in the late 13th century. By the time of European contact in the year 1541, the Jémez Nation was one of the largest and most powerful of the puebloan cultures, occupying numerous puebloan villages that were strategically located on the high mountain mesas and the canyons that surround the present pueblo of Walatowa. These stone-built fortresses, often located miles apart from one another, were upwards of four stories high and contained as many as 3,000 rooms. They now constitute some of the largest archaeological ruins in the United States.

Situated between these “giant pueblos” were literally hundreds of smaller one and two room houses that were used by the Jémez people during spring and summer months as basecamps for hunting, gathering, and agricultural activities. However, our spiritual leaders, medicine people, war chiefs, craftsmen, pregnant women, elderly and disabled lived in the giant pueblo throughout the year, as warriors and visitors could easily reach at least one of the giant pueblos within an hours walk from any of the seasonal homes. In addition, impenetrable barriers were established with cliffs to guard access to springs and religious sites, to monitor strategic trail systems, and to watch for invading enemies. In general, the Jémez Nation resembled a military society that was often called upon by other tribal groups to assist in settling hostile disputes.

Coronado Expedition

The Coronado expedition encountered several Towa speaking communities in 1540. At the time, smaller villages surrounded a large community known as Giusewa. Giusewa was located where Jémez Springs is today. Casteñeda, with the Coronado expedition, referenced ten villages. Later, the Espejo expedition cited seven and the Oñate expedition mentioned nine. According to both Jémez oral history and Spanish accounts from the Espejo Expedition, the Jémez nation was 30,000 strong in 1583 and Canon de San Diego’s population was three times larger than the population of Jemez Springs today.

Jemez Historic Site farolitos
Annual farolito display in early December.

Oñate Expedition

The dynamic between the Spanish and the native population changed dramatically in 1598 with the arrival of Don Juan de Oñate. His expedition included an entourage of Franciscan priests determined to bring Catholicism to the new world. Oñate dispatched priests to large pueblos throughout the northern territory with orders to convert the locals.

Though the priests claimed peaceful and pure intentions, the methods they used to convert and subjugate native people were brutal and exploitative. For example, the priests believed native religions were demonic. As a result, they forced the conversion of native peoples to Christianity The restricted or banned traditional ceremonies and spiritual practices. Additionally, they destroyed religious structures.

Furthermore, the missions built throughout northern New Mexico relied on forced labor, often women and children. The priests and the crown demanded tribute from communities struggling to provide food to sustain themselves.

The first Franciscan assigned to Jémez was Father Alonso de Lugo. He supervised construction of the area’s first church in Guisewa (Jémez State Monument). Archaeologists believe he built a small chapel on the site around 1600, though there is no visible trace of that structure today.

San José de los Jémez Mission


Spanish civil and religious authorities consolidated small groups of people into larger villages due to the need for indigenous labor. They leveraged this policy throughout the Spanish Empire, particularly in South America. The communities created were referred to as ‘reductions’ (reducciones de indios). The strategy was to gather native populations into concentrated populations so they would be easier to control.

Though Puebloans were settled, the small villages scattered along the Jémez river were too far away from one another for the Spanish to maintain adequate control. As a result, the Spaniards consolidated the villages of the Jémez into three communities: Astialakwa, Patoqua and Giusewa. Giusewa was the largest of the three. It became the focal point of missionary efforts in the area.

However, the people of Jémez pueblo are warriors, descended from a long line of warriors. They resisted the Spanish ferociously. The frequency of revolts and uprisings in Jemez Pueblo made it an unpopular, often fatal, assignment for Spanish priests. Furthermore, there were decades during the 1600s where the priests abandoned the pueblo entirely due to the constant violence.

San José de los Jémez Mission walls

San José de Giusewa

Father Jerónimo de Zárate Salmerón was assigned to Jémez in 1617, though historians don’t believe he arrived in Giusewa until 1621. Zárate Salmerón founded a second congregation called San Diego de la Congregación in 1622, which coincided with construction of a new, larger mission using pueblo labor (forced). He may have upgraded the Lugo church or he may have demolished the smaller structure to build the new one. Regardless, Salmerón completed the massive, stonewalled structure between 1621 and 1625. He left the Jémez district shortly after construction on the mission was complete due to the constant conflict and instability in the region.

The church and its convento were in ruins and the congregation scattered when Father Alonso de Benavides arrived in 1629 to compile a report on the missionary work in New Mexico. He reported that the Jémez people had been “almost depopulated by famine and wars.”

Benavides described San José de Giusewa as an extremely large structure compared to other missions in the region, with an unusual, rare octagonal bell tower. The church was 111 feet long and almost 34 feet wide. They built it with sandstone from the area, set in an adobe mortar. The walls are as thick as 6 feet on the west and 8 feet on the east. Additionally, the walls extended 5-6 feet above the roof, which was likely for defensive purposes. The Navajo were enemies and raids were common. Churches often served as fortresses in Mexico and Old Spain.

San José de los Jémez Mission

Massive Mission

Villagers positioned the nave on a north-south alignment, with the main facade and entry facing south. The nave has twelve low platforms, 12 x 18 inches, which archaeologists perceive as pedestals for sculpture or lighting units. The floor is stepped quite drastically in the chancel area, indicating that there were efforts to minimize excavation. A door in the east connects the nave with the convent. The burial ground is to the south of the church. It extended almost to the stream. Though the church was built of stone, the interior was finished with gypsum plaster. Selenite windows lined the church walls. Selenite is a rock easily fractured to produce very thin, translucent panels.

There are few references to San José from 1630 to the 1680 pueblo revolt. The assumption is that the newer San Diego Mission, further down the canyon, became the base of operations for missionary efforts in the area. Unlike the mission in Giusewa, the San Diego Mission endured. The Franciscans founded it in 1622, Jemez Pueblo burned it in 1623, and the Franciscans rebuilt it in 1626 or 1628.

Pueblo Revolt & Reconquest

Oñate’s arrival represented domination, a war using steel and religion to undermine traditional spiritual practices and indigenous culture. However, the subsequent rivalry between church and state for revenue and resources further impacted the pueblos. Abuse, cruelty, enslavement, greed, rape and murder were commonplace. European borne diseases decimated the population. Later, a prolonged drought in the late 1600s provoked raids by nomadic neighbors struggling to survive, including Apache, Ute and Comanche.

In August, 1680, the bitterness and festering anger in the pueblos mobilized and organized under the leadership of Po’pay, a medicine man from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (near Española). The pueblos of New Mexico united in opposition to the Spanish. Puebloan warriors descended on Santa Fe on August 10. The attack, known as the Pueblo Revolt, successfully drove the Spanish south to El Paso for 12 years.

Diego de Vargas

The ruins circa 1877. Photo by John K. Hillers.
The ruins circa 1877. Photo by John K. Hillers.

Once the Spanish retreated, the old rivalries re-emerged between pueblos. For example, there was resistance towards eliminating everything related to the Spanish. Sheep, horses, fruit trees and other items had become part of the regional economy. When Po’Pay passed, the fragile alliance shattered. Drought induced raiding intensified. Moreover, French fur trappers and the British were expanding west.

The Spanish wanted to protect their extensive mining operations in northern New Mexico. With the collapse of a united front, the Spanish sent approximately 140 Spanish soldiers with Diego de Vargas to reclaim the northern territory. He gathered additional warriors from sympathetic pueblos, including 140 from Pecos Pueblo. With reinforcement from various Puebloan allies, Diego de Vargas reconquered Santa Fe in 1692.

Diego de Vargas’ objective was different than Oñate. Conversion of the local population was secondary to establishing a barrier between Spanish mining interests in Mexico and the French and British expanding from the east. Vargas prioritized establishing villages along the fertile waterways, establishing a human shield of villages. Initially he focused on the region around Santa Fe to secure the capital.

Many of the pueblos further from Santa Fe were hostile to the return of the Spaniards, including Jémez Pueblo. They fought relentlessly for two years until July 24, 1694, when Vargas launched a full-scale assault against them.

Battle of Astialakwa

Jémez anticipated the attack and withdrew to their pueblo, Astialakwa, on top of Guadalupe Mesa, high above the Jémez River. The Jémez warriors were outnumbered and armed with rocks and arrows rather than armor and muskets. The Spanish soldiers, with help from Zia, Santa Ana and San Felipe Pueblos, attacked the mesa from two points, forcing the Jémez to split their defenses across two fronts.

The mesa top stronghold fell by the end of the day. Many warriors jumped from the cliffs to evade capture. Of the 361 captured, 84 were killed. The pueblos that had allied with the Spanish divided the stockpiled food and burned the village. The Spanish relocated the remaining population to one village, Walatowa, where they reside today. Today, most of Jémez’s significant ancestral sites are on federal land. They continue to pay tribute through religious offerings and prayers.

Additional Resources

The Mission San José de los Jémez is part of the Jémez Historic site in Jémez Springs. The visitor center contains exhibits interpreting historic events from the perspective of the Jémez people. A 1400-foot interpretive trail winds through the 7-acre site. The San Diego Mission is in Jémez Pueblo. Contact (575) 834-7235 or email tourism@Jémezpueblo.com.

Jemez Historic SiteJemez Historic Site
On State Route 4
Just north of Jemez Springs, NM
(575) 829-3530

8:30 AM – 5 PM Wednesday – Sunday.

$5. Free to NM residents on the first Sunday of each month. Admission is free for children 16 and under. Wednesday admission is free to New Mexico Seniors with ID. A combination ticket, good for admission to both Jémez and Coronado Historic Sites is available for $7. Dogs Allowed on a leash.

From I-25, exit 242 take 550 west to San Ysidro, RT on Route 4 18 miles.

Jemez Pueblo Public Events
August 2nd | Nuestra Senora de Los Angelas Feast Day de Los Persingula | Pecos Feast Day of St. Persingula
November 12th | San Diego Feast Day

Additional events open to the public occur throughout the holiday season. The Walatowa Visitor Center at the Pueblo of Jemez provides information to the public.

  • Jémez Pueblo forbids cameras, video camcorders, tape recorders, sketchpads, alcohol and firearms at these and all events.
  • No authorized publication information regarding Pueblo activities allowed

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