Just two hours from Santa Fe is one of New Mexico’s historical treasures, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.
New Mexico’s history chronicles the lives of people who have lived here for thousands of years. A case in point is the ruins of Las Humanas (Gran Quivira), Quarai, and Abó pueblos, along with their Spanish mission churches. They lie near the geographic center of New Mexico and comprise the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument with headquarters in Mountainair. Quarai is eight miles north of town, while Abó is nine miles west. Las Humanas is a somewhat more remote, 25 miles southeast.
I first visited the pueblos in late autumn, having driven from Las Cruces to Carrizozo and then northwest to the ruin. That day the sky looked like a blue shirt laundered too many times. It had stormed earlier, and the remnants were drifting east, clouds looking like a platter of pancakes. Grasslands in Estancia Basin, where the ruins are, were yellow, camouflaging small herds of pronghorn. If they had not moved, I might never have seen them.
My first impression was these pueblos are mostly piles of rock buried beneath dirt in which grow grasses, cholla cactus, and flowers in season. Though now silent, these rocks have stories to tell.
LAS HUMANAS/GRAN QUIVIRA
Built from rock quarried on Chupadero Mesa to the west, Las Humanas was constructed in the late 1200s or early 1300s on top of two earlier pueblos. The first was a structure of perhaps 240 rooms in concentric circles, with a large kiva at its center. The second was a semi-circular residence. The last pueblo, the ruin we see today, was extensive, covering acres of land. Exactly how big it was only scientists can determine. Except for the one rectangular block of excavated and reconstructed rooms, visitors see only a series of mounds.
Water is scarce in Estancia Basin. What’s there pools in playas and evaporates, leaving behind salt deposits — a principal reason why the pueblo was there. There were no streams nearby, forcing the Tompiro people who lived here to construct catch basins and cisterns and to practice dry farming. Most of their wealth came from being middlemen, trading invaluable salt; pots and tools; blankets, fabrics, and clothing; and food, like corn, beans, and squash, acquired from neighboring pueblos, with the nomadic Plains people for hides, meat, and other animal products.
Their ethnic sister pueblo, Abó, was also occupied by the Tompiro. Astride the Abó pass in the Manzano Mountains, these people had access to and traded with tribes living along the Rio Grande. While not plentiful, water was consistent, making it easier for people to live here. Their pueblo was built from the red sandstone of the Manzanos.
The last of the three pueblos — Quarai — is nestled in a juniper forest at the base of the Manzanos and was watered by a spring-fed stream. It was built by the Tiwa people, whose closest relatives were from Isleta and Sandia. They had plenty of red sandstone as well as timber for building.
There are similarities in construction. Most rooms are small, accommodating the lengths of timbers they could find. Over vigas forming roofs, they laid latillas and brush and layered them with dirt. They used clay to mortar stone forming the room blocks and finished exterior surfaces with a coating of mud. There were few doorways. People accessed their homes through hatches in ceilings which were easier to build than doors. From where excavated items have been found, it appears they lived mostly outdoors, using rooms principally for storage and as a refuge from bad weather or enemies.
There were perhaps several thousand people living in these three villages and undoubtedly they visited, intermarried, argued, and traded with each other. Visitors from other distant pueblos and the Plains people weren’t strangers to them. They had sophisticated social and political structures governing their lives, and they were deeply spiritual practitioners of an animistic kacina religion. Their ceremonies governed every aspect of their lives. They sought balance and harmony that made life possible, living mostly at peace with their neighbors for upwards of three centuries.
THE SPANISH ERA
Then, in the 16th century, everything changed. The Spanish arrived.
The story continues, revealing cultures in conflict. The Spanish governor came to recover money paid to the king for the office and then to garnish enough wealth on which to live after serving as governor. Spanish priests came to Christianize. The people of the pueblos began work on churches for that purpose: constructing buildings where they would be taught to worship in a different and bewildering way.
You wouldn’t necessarily think of friars as architects and engineers, but they were. They understood the forces and weights involved in large-scale buildings, devising their own unique and sophisticated solutions to construction problems.
They first built their conventos, or priests’ quarters, consisting of a kitchen and dining area, classrooms, infirmary, and sleeping rooms. The friars taught the native people carpentry so they could build window frames, doors, and stairs. There were corrals and gardens. At Quarai, they also built a torréon, or defensive tower, for protection from attackers.
In 1630, they constructed Mission San Gregorio at Abó. It was 84-feet long, 25-feet wide, and 25-feet high. Workers found, cut, and shaped ceiling beams reaching the width of the church.
The year the Abó church was completed, the friars began work on Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepcíon de Quarai. Workers built walls 5-feet thick and 40-feet high. The cruciform church was 100 feet long with a 27-foot wide nave and 50-foot wide transept. It took five years to complete and was considered one of the grandest churches on the frontier.
Only at Las Humanas was a grand edifice not built. Friars there had built a modest chapel, intending on constructing a much more elaborate church later. By the time they had begun work on the larger building, drought, disease, and hardship had so decimated the people, work halted, and the church was never completed.
I walked through the ruins of each of the churches and their attached conventos. I was amazed at their size — as undoubtedly were the puebloans who had never seen an enclosed space larger than their own rooms and kivas. The stones had been shaped and mortared so they fit snugly. Buttresses were strategically placed to absorb forces and allow the lofty walls to stand. I could still see the square socket holes where floor joists and roof beams had been.
By the time of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the three pueblos had been abandoned. History is never as simple and straightforward as the stories we tell. There are always complexities and subtleties that aren’t incorporated and expressed. This one involves the supplanting of the existing culture with one technologically superior. While buildings were left in disarray, the people didn’t disappear. Some left for the Piro pueblos of Alamillo and Senecú, of whom they were close relatives. Others migrated south to El Paso.
The Salinas pueblo missions makes a nice day trip, especially if you pack a picnic lunch. Mostly outdoors and never very crowded, worries about coronavirus are minimal. There is a museum at the Mountainaire headquarters and smaller exhibits and models at each of the three pueblos. There are also knowledgeable rangers who can answer questions and provide greater perspective and appreciation of these historical treasures.
Check Salinas Missions National Monument for the latest COVID-19 restrictions, background, and enlightening bird’s eye photos of each pueblo.
Written and photography by Bud Russo
Originally published in Neighbors magazine