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Northern New Mexico History

The following sections provide a brief overview of the history and culture of the Heritage Area and provide an introduction to the long and fascinating unfolding of human activities here: the development of early agriculture, the complex architecture of the earliest inhabitants, the movement of peoples as a result of environmental and societal pressures, the arrival of new inhabitants, and the relations between all the varied groups moving across and into the landscape.

Descendants of the Pueblo peoples retain much of their ancient lands, and continue to speak their respective native languages, and to practice native religions. Similarly, descendants of Spanish explorers (the conquistadores) and settlers retain their cultural practices, a strong religious identity, and a dialect of the Spanish language dating to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Sections presented are under the following headings, which correlate with various waves of governance and socio-political change:








For all the changes wrought by centuries of human habitation and environmental change, the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area retains a recognizable feeling and identity. Older ways of making a living continue to hold meaning and value. Communities dating to the 13th and 14th centuries continue to be inhabited today, while archeological sites document human occupation in the region as far back as 12,000 years.

The Heritage Area is a place where many cultures have interacted over a very long time in a manner unique to the Southwest. Traditional housing made of sun-dried adobe bricks, for instance, was introduced by the Spaniards following methods borrowed from the Moors. Pueblo people contributed their own methods of adobe and stone construction. Both now find expression in expensive homes in Santa Fe and Taos and in more humble abodes in historic area communities.

Cultural resources of the Heritage Area are extensive and varied. They include archeological sites, extensive petroglyph collections, historic Native and Hispanic villages and buildings, plazas, churches and cemeteries, farms and acequias, and cultural events and activities. At the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo’s San Gabriel archeological site, a Spanish mission church was built in 1598 – a generation before the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts; Santa Fe’s Palace of Governors is the nation’s oldest government building, dating to the founding of the City of Santa Fe in 1610.

Music, dance, ceremonies, fairs, and traditional arts and crafts, such as weaving, pottery, basketry, and carved and painted religious art, are found not only in local museums, but also at local arts markets that draw visitors from all over world. The historic and cultural continuity of the region is our inheritance and also our gift to the world. What makes the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area unique is that so much of its past is still alive and vital. The life ways and relationships of ancestors continue to echo in lives being lived today. The Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area intends to ensure that this distinctive nexus of cultures and landscapes is preserved and celebrated.





At the end of the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago, small bands of hunter-gatherers roved the Southwest. The Clovis culture, earliest of these groups, is named in reference to the eastern New Mexican town that is near the place where distinctive spear points (made to hunt now-extinct mammoth, camel, and bison) were found. Archeological evidence found near Folsom, a town in northeast New Mexico, points to a slightly later Paleo-Indian group known as the Folsom culture. Such ancient, ephemeral hunting camp sites are rare. Thousands of years after the Clovis and Folsom cultures, after large animals died out, small groups of what most likely were extended families lived in the vicinity of the Heritage Area, gathering wild plants, hunting small game, and living in the dry caves of the Southwest. They left behind only a few clues about their mobile way of life.

Sometime around 500 B.C., just beyond the western edge of the Heritage Area, Southwestern people began to grow corn. Corn supplemented hunting and wild plant gathering. A bit later, squash and beans appeared. Prior to about 200 A.D., people relied primarily on hunting. They left their corn to grow in whatever moist spots they could find and followed after game. From these beginnings, the ancestors to the Pueblo peoples developed intensified agriculture supporting larger and larger communities.

Between 200 and 700 A.D., an increasing number of people settled in villages, and planted more corn and crops. Villagers lived in small, semi-subterranean pit-houses. Archeological sites document the increased use of tools for grinding grains, as well as, use of more sophisticated stone projectile points, knives, scrapers, drills, and choppers, for specific tasks. Villagers made beautifully woven baskets, sandals, nets for hunting, and blankets of rabbit fur and cotton cloth. By 500 A. D. they were making pottery.

Despite the challenges of climate, including droughts and severe winters, the Southwest was a healthy environment in which to live. In time, people began to build above-ground, creating stone and adobe houses with a row of rooms, often for extended families. Villages grew larger in size, and farming more important.

The earliest structures in Pueblo Bonito, in Chaco Canyon, date to around 800 A.D. From this core of adobe buildings grew the sophisticated architecture of the Chaco pueblos, which date to the 11th and 12th centuries. The complex often is referred to as American’s first apartment building. Chaco, considered a center of ritual and religion, trade and exchange, was not the only such complex, as the Ancestral Pueblo people flourished. The Pueblo name comes from 16th century Spanish settlers who recognized that the native people lived in towns, or pueblos. The word continues to be used to identify the native people and the places in which they live.

Like their tools, agriculture, and architecture, Pueblo societies were complex. Religion played an enormous role in their lives and communities. Relations, marred by competition for resources and warfare, were not always harmonious. People moved, to find more game and better land and soil for their fields, and because they faced opposition from different groups and communities.

New Mexico, and the Northern Rio Grande area in particular, experienced intense occupation in the 12th and 13th centuries. Villages were as small as 20 rooms and as large as 400 to 1,000 rooms. Villages had a central space – a plaza –and kivas, which were large, underground rooms, nearly always circular, associated with religious societies and ceremonies. Nearly 300 Ancestral Puebloan archeo-logical sites have been recorded in the vicinity of Taos, some dating as early as 1000 A.D.

Prolonged, severe drought in the 13th and 14th centuries caused people to abandon their homes and migrate to new areas, including the Rio Grande Valley, where they reorganized their world and learned to interact with foreign cultures. Some large villages were built along the Rio Grande itself and others in the Heritage Area’s Chama River valley, Taos area, and Galisteo Basin. Villages included Te’ewi, Tshirege, Puyé, Otowi, Old Picuris, Arroyo Hondo, Pindi, Pueblo Largo, San Cristobal, San Marcos, and Las Madres. Some of these villages were abandoned hundreds of years ago; 19 other pueblos – eight of them in the Heritage Area – continue to thrive on the same sites, or nearby land, of their 14th- and 15th-century ancestors.

Within the Heritage Area there exist six Tewa-speaking Pueblos – Ohkay Owingeh, Nambe, Pojoaque, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, and Tesuque; and two Tiwa-speaking Pueblos – Taos and Picurís. Both languages are a branch of the Tanoan language. Tewa traditions say ancestors emerged from a lake somewhere in southern Colorado, migrating south and establishing villages along the Rio Chama and its tributaries in Rio Arriba and Santa Fe counties. Tiwa Pueblos were situated to the northeast, in present-day Taos County, and located on the northern frontier in proximity to Plains tribes, including the Comanche, with whom they alternately fought and traded. Taos Pueblo was the site of annual trade fairs with the Plains Indians and, later on, with fur trappers.

[See Pueblo Societies in the Heritage Area]


By at least the 15th century, the Athabaskans arrived in the Southwest after migrating south from west-central Canada. Having similar linguistic characteristics, they comprise the Navajo and Apache groups, and include the Chiricahua, Lipan, Mescalero, Plains, Western, White Mountain, and Jicarilla. Today, the only group settled in the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area are the Jicarilla Apache.

The Jicarilla Apache
By the late 1600s, the Jicarilla (hik-a-REE-ya) Apache occupied a region extending from southeastern Colorado to the Pecos River Valley in New Mexico’s Colfax County, just beyond the eastern boundary of the Heritage Area. Named by the Spanish for the small baskets or cups (jicaras) they made, the Jicarilla established adobe villages, farmed small, irrigated fields, and had frequent contact with the pueblos and Spanish settlements of northern New Mexico. The Jicarilla were principally a bison-hunting culture and retained many characteristics of Plains Indians, such as the use of tepees.

Beginning in 1851, the United States government made several unsuccessful attempts to establish a reservation for the Jicarilla in today’s western Río Arriba and San Juan counties. In 1854, open warfare with the Jicarilla broke out after a series of raids on settlements along the lower Chama River. U.S. military forces and New Mexican militia brought the raiding to a halt, and agencies for the Jicarilla were established at Taos and Cimarron.

In 1874, the tribe entered into a treaty with the United States that established a reservation along the San Juan River in northwest New Mexico. President Rutherford B. Hayes abrogated this agreement in 1876, and ordered the Jicarilla to move onto the Mescalero reservation near Fort Stanton in southern New Mexico. Most of the Jicarilla, ignored the order and remained in northern New Mexico. Policies fluctuated often until 1887, when President Grover Cleveland issued an executive order setting aside the current reservation in Amargo, in western Río Arriba County.

The Jicarilla began moving back to Amargo from the various places they had gone. In the summer of 1987, the tribe re-enacted this trek as part of a centennial commemoration of the establishment of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation.

[See Jicarilla Apache]

The Navajo
The Navajo call themselves Diné, meaning “the people.” They do not live in the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area, but have had a considerable effect on the region. They joined with the Pueblo people during the period of struggle with the Spanish, retreating to hidden sites far from the settlers and sharing living quarters and defense. The Navajo adopted horses and sheep from the Spanish and became herders; under pressure as settlers continued to move into their area in the 18th century, they raided Spanish and Pueblo villages alike, creating a period of conflict toward the end of the century.

In 1846, the United States government made several unsuccessful attempts to stop the raids. In 1863, Gen. James S. Carleton implemented a “scorched earth” policy to defeat the Navajo, and in 1864 they were incarcerated in east-central New Mexico at Bosque Redondo, near Fort Sumner. In 1868 the Navajo signed a treaty with the U.S. government, which allowed them to return to their present homeland.

The Navajo’s way of life increasingly centered on the movement of their sheep herds to grazing areas in summer and in winter, though they also farmed; they traded with the Pueblos for food, exchanging meat and hides for corn and other produce. The Navajo are known for their weaving, which they traded far and wide from at least the 18th century, and their jewelry, which developed in the mid-19th century. Their reservation in the Four Corners area, one of the largest in the United States, comprises land in New Mexico, Arizona, and the edge of Utah. The reservation is west of the Heritage Area.






Spanish exploration of the American Southwest, including present-day New Mexico, began after stories of rich cities to the north fired imaginations in New Spain. The stories came from Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who was shipwrecked off the coast of Texas in 1528 and spent eight years wandering as he tried to make his way back to Mexico. In 1539, Fray Marcos de Niza and his slave, Estevan, were the first to come north from the capital in Mexico City.

When the expedition approached what is now southern Arizona, Fray Marcos received reports from the advance scouting party led by Estevan that Cibola, one of seven magnificent cities, lay ahead. Despite learning that Estevan had been killed, Fray Marcos rushed forward and encountered a settlement. Instead of Cibola, what he actually found was the ancestral Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh.

In 1540 Fray Marcos set out again, this time with 29-year old Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who was chosen by the viceroy of New Spain to follow up on Fray Marcos’ “discovery.” As were all such Spanish colonial enterprises of the time, this expedition was privately financed. When the expedition arrived at the outskirts of the multi-storied, stone and adobe village of Hawikuh, the Spanish were met by Zuni warriors, intent on defending their homes. After a furious but uneven battle, mounted Spanish soldiers replenished their supplies from captured Zuni storerooms and continued on their two-year quest, which took them into and beyond what today is the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area.

In the summer of 1541, Capt. Francisco de Barrionuevo of the Coronado party traveled north along the west side of the Río Grande to the Tewa villages of Yuque-Yunque, which they described as “two very beautiful pueblos which were on opposite sides of the river…In these two pueblos were found abundant provisions and beautiful glazed pottery of many decorations and shapes.” These were the pueblos that, 50 years later, the Spanish would settle and rename San Juan de Los Caballeros and San Gabriel.

Barrionuevo and his men proceeded farther north along the river until they reached a large pueblo the Spanish called Valladolid, after an important city in Spain; this was Taos Pueblo. “The river flowed through the center of it,” Barrionuevo noted, “and the river was spanned by wooden bridges built with very large and heavy square pine timbers.” The Pueblo has changed little in the past five centuries.

The Coronado expedition explored deep into the North American continent, but discovered that the fabled cities of gold were only a myth. In the winter of 1542, the disheartened and bankrupt adventurers returned to Mexico. Not only were they unsuccessful in their quest to find the Seven Cities of Cibola, but the expedition also failed miserably in its relations with the inhabitants of the region. The Spanish were heavy-handed in their demands for food and supplies, leading to numerous conflicts with the Indians and the destruction of several Pueblos. The best known of these is Kuaua Pueblo, near the place where the expedition spent the winter of 1540-1541, now Coronado State Monument near Bernalillo.


Spanish settlement into northern Mexico advanced slowly but steadily in the late 1500s. During the 1580s, several expeditions entered present New Mexico, including one led by Fray Bernardo Beltrán and Antonio de Espejo in 1582 that is said for the first time to officially use the term, la Nueva Mexico. Expedition reports alerted Spanish officials to the many potential Indian converts to Christianity and encouraged the subsequent conquest and colonization of this "new" Mexico.

In 1595, the Spanish government awarded a contract to settle New Mexico to Juan de Oñate, whose father, Don Cristóbal, earlier had helped Cortés conquer Mexico. Oñate’s contract specified in great detail the number of settlers, livestock, and other provisions and equipment he was to provide. In return, he was given titles that gave him civil and military authority over the colony. He also was to be the primary beneficiary of any riches that might be discovered.

After three years of preparation, an enormous caravan of nearly 200 soldier-colonists, many with wives and families, nine Franciscan priests, several hundred Mexican Indian servants and allies, and thousands of head of livestock left, in January of 1598, for northern Mexico. The expedition advanced slowly and, in April 1598, paused near present-day Cuidad Juárez, where Oñate took formal possession of the province in the name of King Philip of Spain. On July 11, an advance party of the expedition arrived at the Tewa village of Ohkay Owingeh, near the confluence of the Río Grande and the Río Chama in the Heritage Area. Renaming the village San Juan de Los Caballeros, here they established the first Spanish capital and Christian church in New Mexico. Oñate’s chronicles suggest that the Spanish expanded the ditches and irrigation systems the natives of Ohkay Owingeh utilized for the irrigation of their own fields.

After a few months, the Spanish relocated their settlement to the west bank of the Río Grande at the village of Yunque, renamed San Gabriel. Here they built another church, whose archeological remnants were excavated in 1960 by Dr. Florence Ellis of the University of New Mexico. [San Gabriel de Yunque-Ouinge]

The settlement served as the capital of New Mexico until the new villa (royal town) of Santa Fe was established 20 miles to the south; the seat of government moved there in 1610. Santa Fe celebrated its 400th anniversary as the capital of New México in 2010. [Santa Fe Plaza]


During the next several decades, a thin string of Spanish settlements were established along the Río Grande. Still, nearly a century after the colony was established, there were fewer than 3,000 Spanish inhabitants in the entire province. The 1600s presented a series of challenges to Spanish rule, most derived from Spanish intolerance of Pueblo religious practices and a persistent abuse of Indian labor. The Spanish clergy, charged by the king to convert Indians to Christianity, systematically destroyed Pueblo kivas and suppressed dances and other ceremonial practices important to the Pueblos. Several Pueblo resistance uprisings proved unsuccessful. The situation reached a critical point in the 1670s when increased Apache raids and drought devastated crops and led to the starvation deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of Pueblo people.

The crisis peaked in 1675, when 47 caciques, Pueblo spiritual leaders, were arrested and taken to Santa Fe to face charges of practicing sorcery and plotting rebellion. Four were executed; the others were whipped, then released. Among those released was Popay (also known as Popé), a Tewa from San Juan Pueblo. Popay spent five years following his release traveling among the pueblos and organizing an uprising. From a base of operations at Taos, Popay and his confederates laid out a plan that depended upon the unprecedented cooperation and participation of all of New Mexico's Pueblos. At a prearranged signal, each Pueblo was to destroy its mission church and kill the resident priest and neighboring Spanish settlers. Once the outlying Spanish settlements were destroyed, the Pueblo forces were to converge on the isolated capital of Santa Fe. Runners were dispatched to all the Pueblos carrying cords tied with knots signifying the number of days remaining until the appointed day to rise in unison – the day the last knot was untied.

The attacks began on the morning of August 10, 1680, from the northern Tiwa Pueblo of Taos to the Tewa villages near Santa Fe. Spanish settlers able to escape the initial onslaught made their way to the relative safety of Santa Fe's fortified seat of government – today’s Palace of the Governors.

Meanwhile, more than a thousand additional survivors managed to gather at Isleta Pueblo, 70 miles south of Santa Fe. Within five days, thousands of Pueblo warriors had converged on Santa Fe, but were unable to dislodge the Spanish until they cut off the water supply – an irrigation ditch running through the sprawling compound.

After two days without water, Governor Antonio de Otermín led a column of at least a thousand refugees from the capital. They joined Lt. Governor Alonso García and the refugees from Isleta Pueblo and slowly retreated to El Paso del Norte, the southernmost settlement in the province, near present-day Ciudad Juárez. There, approximately 2,000 Spanish refugees spent the winter.

Wrongly assuming that the Pueblos would welcome the Spanish back to aid against Apache raids, Otermín quickly made plans for a reconquest, but his expedition was forced to retreat. As they again left, the Spanish burned the Pueblo of Isleta and took with them nearly 400 of its inhabitants, who were resettled at what is today’s Ysleta del Sur near El Paso, Texas.

By all appearances the revolt had succeeded. During the revolt, an estimated 600 colonists and 21 Franciscan priests were killed, and churches and Spanish settlements destroyed. Popay and the other Pueblo leaders began a systematic eradication of all signs of Christianity. But, many other Spanish introductions, such as iron tools, sheep, cattle, and fruit trees, had by then become an integral part of Pueblo life.






In 1690, Diego de Vargas Zapata Luján Ponce de Leon was appointed governor of New Mexico and assigned the task of re-conquering the province. With a modest force of fewer than 200 soldiers and three friars, De Vargas left El Paso del Norte in August of 1692. When the group arrived in Santa Fe, they found the old Spanish capital fortified and its inhabitants defiant. Through a mix of diplomacy, soft words, and with threat of siege, De Vargas won over the Indians, and unfurled the Spanish banner over Santa Fe. He continued his tour through the entire province. By year’s end, most of New Mexico's Pueblos were officially restored to the Spanish empire. [Fiesta de Santa Fe]

Any jubilation, however, was short-lived. In 1693, de Vargas returned to begin the re-colonization of New Mexico with 70 families, 18 Franciscan friars, a number of soldiers, and Tlaxcalan (Mexican Indian) allies. But many Pueblo people had second thoughts since the previous year. The returning colonists found Santa Fe once again fortified. After two weeks of futile negotiations, de Vargas took Santa Fe by force in a fierce, two-day battle. He then summarily executed 70 Pueblo defenders and sentenced several hundred men, women, and children to 10 years of servitude.

Most of the Pueblos continued to resist. In the summer of 1696, twenty-six Spaniards, including five missionaries, were killed during a general rebellion, often called the Second Pueblo Revolt. For the next several years, almost continual warfare disrupted life in New Mexico. Many pueblos were abandoned, and some inhabitants fled to the mountains, seeking refuge among the Hopi, Navajo, and Apache. As more Spanish families arrived in Santa Fe, missions were re-established, and Spanish settlements grew. By century’s end, the Reconquest was virtually complete.

An important part of the Reconquest was the Franciscan effort to re-establish Catholic missions. The friars’ labors included new parish churches and chapels in the dozens of communities that developed throughout the province as New Mexico’s frontier expanded and the population grew. The “crown jewels” of the Heritage Area’s churches were built during this period of expansion. El Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Santa Fe, La Iglesia de Santa Cruz de la Cañada in Santa Cruz, San Francisco de Asís in Ranchos de Taos, El Santuario de Chimayó in Chimayó, and San José de Gracia in Las Trampas remain in active use. [Colonial Churches]

Today, the Catholic Church remains strong in New Mexico. During decades of the 18th and 19th centuries when there were few priests, the lay brotherhood, known as penitentes, or The Pious Fraternity of Our Lord Jesus of Nazareth, helped to keep the faith alive. Penitente rituals were held in moradas, fraternity houses. La Morada de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, near Taos, is representative of these houses. Built in a traditional adobe style and fully completed by 1834, the morada, David Fernandez writes, “was the center of nearly all the Hermanos’ activities in the area for many decades.”

In pueblos today, the Mass incorporates elements of Pueblo language and ceremonials into the Roman Catholic liturgy. It is not unusual to attend a Mass during which readings are spoken in Keres, hymns sung in Tewa, or an eagle dance performed as an offertory; in the Cathedral Basilica of Santa Fe, Native lectors will read passages in Tewa on special occasions.

As a result of the suppression of Jewish faith during the 1600s during the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews became conversos (converts) and many of the new waves of Hispanic settlers brought their Jewish rituals and traditions, now kept alive in hidden ways. Indeed, among many Hispanic families in New Mexico, Jewish ritual traditions are established in an unknown cultural reference formed centuries ago.

Religious identity and attendance continues today among the various cultures. In Santa Fe there are two synagogues in addition to the numerous Catholic parishes. Other religions also have a place in the Heritage Area. Protestant missionaries came to New Mexico over the Santa Fe Trail to work among American Indians. A Presbyterian church, the only one in the Territory of New Mexico, was built in Santa Fe in 1867. There is a mosque, Dar-al Islam, at Abiquiu and a Buddhist stupa in Santa Fe.


Changed relationships between the Spanish and the Pueblos characterized the 1700s. Both realized they needed to cooperate to defend themselves against the many raiding tribes. The Spanish abolished abusive Indian labor practices and instituted land grants, which included Indian groups and helped to ensure that Pueblos retained their land base.

Three principal types of land grants were made in New Mexico: to Pueblos, to communities, and to private individuals as rewards for service to the Crown. Dozens of private land grants were distributed within the Heritage Area during the 1700s and early 1800s, but the most prominent type of grant was the community grant, made to groups who agreed to establish a communal settlement and cultivate the land.

Community grants were a significant factor in the expansion of the northern Rio Grande region in the 18th and 19th centuries. Generally, each individual in the group was allotted a plot of irrigable land for cultivation. These allotments were narrow strips (“long lots”) abutting the community’s acequia madre, or mother ditch, so that each lot had access to irrigation. This pattern of fields and irrigation systems, which defined the landscape of every land-grant community within the Heritage Area, is still visible today in the Los Ojos, Tierra Amarilla, La Puente, and Los Brazos historic districts in northern Rio Arriba County. [Acequias]

The remaining land not allotted to individuals was reserved for the common use and benefit of all the settlers. Collectively, they could use this land to pasture and water livestock, gather firewood, cut timber for building their homes, hunt, and conduct activities necessary for subsistence. Under Spanish and Mexican law, the common lands could not be sold away from the community. However, after the American occupation of 1846 and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, U.S. law encouraged the sale of millions of acres of community land.


Land grants expanded and consolidated the frontier, resulting in more growing space for crops, providing grazing for livestock, firewood, timber for building homes and corrals, as well as game for hunting. Sheep and goats provided meat and wool that was spun and woven into cloth and blankets for personal use, sold for cash, or traded for goods. A few cattle provided milk, meat, and hides. Most communities also had ciboleros, men who traveled to the eastern plains every fall to hunt buffalo. Wagons loaded with jerked and dried buffalo meat and thousands of tanned buffalo hides helped many communities survive what were often severe and lean winters.

In 1803, Gov. Fernando de Chacón submitted one of the earliest reports on economic conditions in New Mexico, in which he described agriculture, industry, arts, commerce, and economic conditions. He pointed out that most of the region’s population, which he estimated at almost 36,000, lived along the bands of the Rio Grande. He reported that farmers planted wheat, corn, barley, and a variety of vegetables, but tended to produce only what they needed for subsistence. In contrast, Chacón reported, the Pueblos developed “large fields which they cultivate in common, taking into account the needs of widows, orphans, the sick, those employed elsewhere or absent; in this manner and by saving the harvest from one year to the next, they never feel the effects of hunger. In addition they apply themselves to the cultivation of orchards, planting fruit trees and vines.”

Twenty-six years later the Mexican census gave a snapshot of life in northern New Mexico. Describing the village of Santo Tomás Apostol de Abiquiú (now Abiquiú) and its surrounding inhabitants, the census placed the population at 3,611 and mentioned that residents cultivated wheat, corn, legumes, chile, and onions, and that hunters went northeast to hunt buffalo and trade with Indians. Most important, however, was the wool industry. Residents joined the annual caravan of traders and herders, the strings of pack mules carrying trade items and herds of oxen and sheep, all going south to Mexico City down El Camino Real, the royal road. The sheep ranchers from Abiquiu took great quantities of raw wool to trade for mercantile goods. [Wool & Weaving Arts]





Another report, dated 1840, from the area stretching from the Santa Clara Pueblo north up the Española Valley, gives some detail of the extent of agriculture and the impact of crops introduced by the Spanish. Barley, wheat, and garbanzo beans (abas), all introduced from Europe, were planted in March while native corn was planted in April. The harvests ran from July through October. Wheat and corn were the most abundant and important of these crops; others included peas, lentils, garlic, onions, and melons, (all European imports), as well as chile and punche, the native tobacco. Orchards of apricots, peaches, apples, and plums also were introduced from Europe. Men dug ditches for irrigating the fields, planted, harvested, worked with wool and wove blankets, while women ground corn and wheat, made stockings and spun wool. The report states that the region did not have much in the manner of precious metals or minerals.


Raids from Indian tribes outside the area had a devastating effect on settlement during the Spanish period. The Ute and Jicarilla Apache came from the north and raided farms and herds of Pueblos and settlers. From the east, raiders from the Plains tribes, including the Comanche, had been raiding Pueblo fields long before the Spanish arrived. And increasingly, Navajo bands came from the west.

In the spring of 1748, ongoing raiding prompted the settlers of Santa Rosa, Ojo Caliente and Pueblo Quemado (present-day Córdova) to petition the government, successfully, for permission to abandon their homes and move back to more populated communities along the lower Río Chama and Río Grande. Two years later, at the command of Governor Tomás Vélez Cachupín, a small squad of soldiers escorted a handful of settlers back to Santa Rosa to re-establish the settlement. To better defend villages from Indian attack, churches and houses were built around a plaza, but only the hardiest settlers stayed on.

In the Taos region, settlement also was slow and late. Formal resettlement after the Reconquest began in 1715 with the Cristóbal de la Serna grant. Thirty years later, the 1744 report of Fray Juan Miguel de Menchero listed only 10 families of Españoles at the “ranchos de Taos.” Continued raiding, and in particular a Comanche raid in 1760, prompted many Spanish settlers to abandon their ranches and move into the relative protection of the Pueblo of Taos.

Responses to raids varied. Official reports usually include information about what was taken, whether anyone was killed, injured, or kidnapped, and whether a pursuit was organized and what it accomplished. Pursuit usually was futile, but occasionally raiders were caught and livestock and captives recovered. In 1768, Gov. Fermín de Mendinueta reported that a small garrison of presidio troops, along with settlers and some allied Utes, repulsed an attack by 24 Comanches who raided Ojo Caliente in Taos County. After the Comanches charged the plaza and killed a settler, the group gave chase, killed some Comanches and took two prisoners. The following month, intent on revenge, 500 Comanches led by Chief Cuerno Verde (Green Horn) staged a failed attack on Ojo Caliente. Cuerno Verde led his people until 1779, when he was killed and the Comanches decisively defeated by Spanish forces. Today, villagers in Heritage Area towns such as Alcalde commemorate this battle by mounting horses and staging a play. In 1786, New Mexico signed formal peace treaties with the Comanche and Ute.

By the 1790s, new communities moved into land grants at Cieneguilla and Río Grande del Rancho, and, in 1796, the Don Fernando de Taos land grant led to establishment of what today is the town of Taos. [Taos]






When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, it brought to a close more than two centuries of Spanish rule and made New Mexico a part of the Mexican Republic. The change of government had little initial effect on New Mexico except in one important way – it terminated Spanish policies that restricted contact and trade with foreigners. Instead, Mexican rule encouraged open trade with the outside, especially with foreigners from the emerging United States of America. Mexico’s independence ushered in a new era of commerce, once again changing the course of New Mexico’s history.

Beginning in 1821, the 1,200-mile-long Santa Fe Trail, from St. Louis to Santa Fe, became an important international trade route that fostered the exchange of goods between the United States and Mexico. Santa Fe developed into a bustling trade center, with caravans continuing south to Chihuahua along El Camino Real, or west to California along the Old Spanish Trail. During this period, fur traders – many of French-Canadian descent, as reflected in local surnames such as Robidoux, LeFevre, Ledoux, and Jeantet – came to New Mexico, as did merchants of various nationalities. The young Mexican government had its own concerns and internal conflicts, however, and could not allocate much attention or many resources to this frontier province. [National Historic Trails]


In 1835, the Mexican government dispatched Albino Pérez to New Mexico to assume the governorship. In 1836, he was officially required to institute the new Mexican Constitution, which made New Mexico a department of the Republic. The Constitution replaced centuries-old Spanish systems of community-level governments with a departmental Junta, or advisory council.

By the time of Pérez’s governorship, trade along the Santa Fe Trail was well-established and tariffs imposed on American merchants constituted the revenue the Mexican government relied on to support its military garrison, or presidio, in Santa Fe and also to finance operations of the government. Pérez also was required to impose a direct tax. This tax was opposed by virtually all New Mexicans, who had for centuries been granted exemptions from direct taxes in return for bearing the expense – in money and lives – of defending the northern frontier. Nor did the newer Americanos have any fondness for paying taxes.

The situation came to a boil in the summer of 1837. New Mexico was besieged by tribal raiders, but the Mexican government was in turmoil and unable to help. New taxes were threatened, municipalities had been stripped of their authority, and tensions with the Americans were high. A “Revolutionary Proclamation” was issued at Santa Cruz de la Cañada near present-day Española. This proclamation declared the citizens’ opposition to the plan to turn New Mexico into a department and made it clear that those who supported the plan were not welcome in New Mexico. The “Revolt of 1837” had begun.

Governor Pérez and a small force left Santa Fe and marched to Santa Cruz. They encountered a large force of rebels just south of present-day Española. After a short, fierce battle, his small force was overwhelmed, and Pérez and a few of his men retreated to Santa Fe. But there was no longer any support or refuge at the capital, and they fled south toward the Rio Abajo. That night, the besieged governor and at least eight of his supporters were overtaken at various points along the road south of Santa Fe and killed. Four months later, the influential merchants and rich landowners of the Río Abajo, led by Manuel Armijo, raised their own army in opposition to the rebels; in January 1838 a squadron of dragoons from Mexico arrived at Santa Fe and the short-lived Revolt of 1837 came to a bloody end.


A quarter-century of Mexican rule in New Mexico ended in 1846. On May 13, 1846, the United States Congress declared war on Mexico, and, three months later, Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny and his Army of the West marched along the Santa Fe Trail into New Mexico's undefended northern frontier. Manuel Armijo, now governor, declared his intention to confront the American army at Apache Canyon, east of the capital, but fled. Kearny entered Santa Fe and took possession of New Mexico on August 18 without firing a shot.

On September 22, 1846, Kearny instituted the Kearny Code, a mix of military and civilian authority under which New Mexico was to be governed. Kearny appointed Taos merchant Charles Bent as the first civil governor of New Mexico and Donaciano Vigil as territorial secretary. For the next several months, while war raged in central Mexico, all seemed quiet in New Mexico.






At the time of the occupation, Mexico and the United States were at war, and New Mexicans were still citizens of the Republic of Mexico. While the Americans were busy organizing a new government in the ancient capital of Santa Fe, quiet plans were being hatched to rid New Mexico of its latest conquerors.


By the end of 1846, rumors of an impending uprising were serious enough to prompt Governor Bent to order the arrest of several suspected "leaders and prime movers" of this covert opposition. These actions, however, did not quell the mounting unrest and, on January 19, 1847, Bent was killed in Taos, as were several other officials at other locations. By the following day, more than a thousand insurrectionists were reported advancing toward Santa Fe, intent on recapturing New Mexico from los Americanos.

To challenge the New Mexico rebels, nearly 400 American troops and a company of volunteers led by Col. Sterling Price marched north from Santa Fe. In a series of battles at Santa Cruz and Embudo, they defeated the rebels. By February 1, the New Mexicans had retreated to the Pueblo of Taos, where they fortified their positions and braced for more fighting. A fierce two-day battle ensued in which the Americans succeeded in breaching the walls of the pueblo church. They routed the New Mexicans and crushed the Revolt of 1847.

A military court was convened at the village of Don Fernando, just south of the Taos Pueblo, to try several dozen men captured following the battle at the pueblo and their leaders, Tomás Romero and Pablo Montoya. Romero was shot and killed by a guard, leaving Montoya to stand alone at the trial. Pablo Montoya was hanged on the village plaza for his "rebellious conduct" against the United States, as were at least 15 other men. Later that summer, six more men were hanged at Santa Fe. A report of these final executions notes the sad tolling of all the church bells in Santa Fe in mourning as the men were hanged. It was a harrowing end to another tragic period in New Mexico history. In all, more than two dozen Hispanic and Indian men were hanged for their resistance to the conquest of New Mexico by U.S. forces.


On February 2, 1848, the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement, commonly referred to as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (after the village in Mexico where the treaty was signed), brought a formal end to the war between Mexico and the United States. It not only ended the war, but also changed the maps of Mexico and the entire American Southwest. Under the principal provisions of the treaty, the United States paid Mexico $15 million and assumed several million dollars of claims brought by U.S. citizens against Mexico. In exchange, Mexico ceded to the United States nearly half of its territory – all of its holdings north of the Río Grande and west to California. On September 9, 1850, New Mexico was recognized officially as a territory of the United States.


Kearny’s Code of 1846 organized “circuit,” or district courts, for seven loosely defined counties – including Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and Taos counties -- based on the political subdivisions or partidas designated by the earlier Mexican government. The boundaries of Río Arriba and Taos counties formed two long, adjacent strips, running east-west and extending from the border of Texas to California. The narrow boundaries were shortened substantially in 1863 when Arizona was created as a separate territory. The 1880 legislature created a north-south boundary that ceded all of western Taos County to Río Arriba County.


New Mexico played a small but significant role in the Civil War. Early in the conflict, the Confederacy set its sights on the Santa Fe Trail to gain access to the gold fields of Colorado and the ports and gold fields of California. In February 1862, Confederate forces from Texas marched up the Río Grande to take the towns of Albuquerque and Santa Fe and, most importantly, the military supply depot at Fort Union in neighboring San Miguel County. They then planned to move on to the gold fields of Colorado. Along the way, they battled Union troops, captured the towns of Socorro and Albuquerque and the abandoned capital of Santa Fe; for more than two weeks the Confederate flag flew over the ancient Palace of the Governors.

A pivotal battle, the “Gettysburg of the West,” at Glorieta Pass began on March 26, 1862. A Union force comprising Fort Union regulars, and volunteers from New Mexico and Colorado, first confronted the Confederate Army (Texas volunteers) at Apache Canyon, east of Santa Fe. After three days of fighting in the region, Union raiders destroyed the nearly unguarded Confederate supply train, forcing the Texans to retreat, ending the Confederate threat to the West. [Gettysburg of the West]


In the mid-1800s, two technologies – the telegraph and the railroad – brought changes as broad as those resulting from the Spanish introduction of new crops and animals. Telegraphic communications were established in Santa Fe on July 8, 1868. Rail lines followed. By 1877, two competing companies, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF) and the Denver and Rio Grande Railway (D&RG), started to build railway lines into New Mexico. The railroad made travel easy and brought increasing numbers of tourists to the northern Rio Grande, especially to visit archaeological sites and pueblos. Equally important, the railroads moved goods and freight cheaply for wool and sheep, two important local products.

The AT&SF Railway
On February 14, 1880, Santa Fe’s principal newspaper, The New Mexican, reported the arrival of the first Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe locomotive in Santa Fe. Rail service continued, more or less, for the next 100 years. In 1996, the AT&SF merged with the Burlington Northern Railroad, now operating as the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway. Some of the freight and passenger operations of the AT&SF were taken up in 1992 by the Santa Fe Southern Railway. The old AT&SF depot near downtown Santa Fe, a state register-listed building, took on additional life in 2006 when a commuter service, the “Rail Runner,” run by the State of New Mexico, began operations between Santa Fe and Belen, just south of Albuquerque.

The D&RG Railway
The Denver and Rio Grande built tracks west from Walsenburg, Colorado. Its narrow-gauge tracks (36 inches wide as opposed to the standard 56½ inches) were better suited to navigate the steep slopes and squeeze through the narrow canyons of Rocky Mountain ranges. The D&RG ran its narrow-gauge line over La Veta Pass – at an elevation of 9,242 feet – and across the San Luis Valley to Antonito, Colorado.

Two D&RG routes diverged at Antonito and created the principal railroads in northern New Mexico. The “Chili Line,” so-called after the native grown chile crop of the Española Valley and the colorful ristras (strings of chile pods) that draped the homes of valley residents, went between Antonito and Santa Fe. The other line, the D&RG West, now known as the Cumbres and Toltec, went southwest over Cumbres Pass into the town of Chama, New Mexico, and then on to Durango, Colorado.

The Chili Line
On December 31, 1880, the Chili Line arrived at the site where the new town of Española was established. To complete the trip to Santa Fe, train passengers boarded a stagecoach. In 1887, through the efforts of another railway company (the Texas, Santa Fe & Northern), the rail line was extended to Santa Fe. On its way north from Santa Fe, the train carried passengers, mixed freight, and mail through Española and past the farms and orchards of the northern Río Grande Valley. The Chili Line stopped at Embudo Station, then continued on to Antonito, where connections could be made to destinations throughout the United States. In Santa Fe, excursion trains were popular with tourists who rode to the neighboring pueblos, especially on pueblo feast days. But most of all, the Chili Line served as northern New Mexico’s link to southern Colorado and the important commercial and banking center of Denver.

The Chili Line operated daily for three decades, but lacking revenue, made its final run from Santa Fe to Antonito on the morning of September 1, 1941. Within a week, the company began scrapping the line. Today, traces of the track are visible along New Mexico 68 between Velarde and Pilar.

The Cumbres and Toltec (D&RG San Juan Extension)
Simultaneously with construction of the Chili Line, the Denver and Rio Grande Railway began laying track westward, over Cumbres Pass (elevation 10,015 feet) to Durango, Colorado. Known as the San Juan Extension, the line reached Chama, New Mexico, in early 1881, then went across the Continental Divide to Durango. Within a few years, the mining and timber towns of Monero and Lumberton, as well as Dulce, were well-established stations. The San Juan Extension served Rio Arriba County for nearly a century, moving people and two major products, timber and sheep. At one time, there were so many sheep camps in the area that Chama shipped more wool and lambs than anywhere else in the country.

By the 1930s, competition from the expanding operation of freight trucks and passenger buses cut into the rail business. The final run from Chama to Alamosa, Colorado, was made on January 31, 1951. From the late 1950s through the fall of 1966, special excursion trains ran from Antonito over Cumbres Pass to Silverton, Colorado. [Cumbres & Toltec RR]


The massive forests of northern New Mexico, particularly those in Rio Arriba County, impressed travelers and entrepreneurs, alike. In 1832, forests covered almost the entire Tierra Amarilla Land Grant made by the Mexican government to Manuel Martínez, his sons, and several dozen settlers from the Abiquiú region. Following the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, adjudication of the grant resulted in land sales to private interests. By 1880, attorney Thomas D. Catron, whose name often is associated with politicians and land speculators, held most of the vast land grant. By 1886, with the presence of the railroad making the timber easily accessible, Catron lost no time in exploiting the forests.

He drew in companies to expand timber operations and, by the early 1890s, at least a dozen mills were making inroads into timber tracts west of Chama. Spur lines were built to the county seat at Tierra Amarilla and south from Lumberton into forests in the Gallinas Mountains. The company town of El Vado and its sawmill began operations in 1904, and for several years timber was cut along rail lines and spurs beyond Dulce Lake. By the mid-1920s, the stands of virgin timber on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation had been clear-cut, and a mill and the rail line shut down. Operations at El Vado also closed as towns disappeared as quickly as the forests. The region’s intensive logging industry and the railroads associated with it was short-lived.


In addition to Pueblo-owned lands, which are based on land grants made to Pueblos following the Reconquest of 1692, there were at least 90 Spanish and Mexican grants made within the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area between 1695 and the 1840s. Of these, fewer than 10 still retain the formal status of community land grants. The city of Santa Fe, for example, still functions within the municipal character of a community land grant, and the Pueblo of Abiquiú in Río Arriba County still retains ownership of and manages a significant portion of its original common lands. In addition, a portion of the Sangre de Cristo grant in Taos County retains much of its original acreage as a private land grant operating as a livestock association.

Most of the federal and state land within this region, however, was assembled from community land grants whose claims were rejected by the U.S. surveyor general and the 1891 Court of Private Land Claims. Community land grants also lost a significant portion of their land when their community property was individualized, often through errors in adjudication or fraud. Individual heirs were separated from their portion of the grant lands by various means. The 600,000-acre Tierra Amarilla land grant is one of the best examples of the latter.

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established a process by which Mexican citizens residing in the ceded territories could gain U.S. citizenship. Mexico attempted to provide a section in the treaty that would protect the property rights of its former citizens, but it was rejected by the U.S. Senate out of misplaced concern that it also would confirm invalid property claims. In 1854, Congress appointed a surveyor general for New Mexico to investigate the validity of claims to land grants made by the Spanish and Mexican governments and to make recommendations to Congress. If Congress confirmed a claim, a survey was ordered, and eventually, a patent, or title, to the property was issued. Between 1854 and 1891, 180 land grant claims were investigated. Of these, 135 were transmitted to Congress, but only 46, plus 18 Pueblo grants, were confirmed. Congress created the Court of Private Land Claims, which reviewed an additional 282 claims, but approved only 82. The process has been widely criticized by generations of Heritage Area residents and is a source of contention to this day.


As the same time that community grant lands were being redistributed, the Homestead Act of 1862 made public lands available to settlers at low prices. Other acts followed, expanding the availability of public lands for homesteading. A study of land-use patterns in north-central New Mexico found more than 9,000 homestead applications in a region that included Rio Arriba, Santa Fe, Taos, and Sandoval counties. Approximately half of the homesteads, totaling almost 1.2 million acres, were patented when the applicants completed the required residency and usage requirements. Slightly more than half of the patented entries were issued to Spanish-surnamed individuals.

Homesteading played a major role in the settlement of western Rio Arriba County. Lindrith and other small communities were established in this region by large numbers of homesteaders in the early 20th century. Many homesteaders moved on to seek better opportunities elsewhere, but those who endured benefitted from oil and gas fields discovered in the late 1940s and 1950s. Farmer/ranchers also planted crops to attract elk and deer to their property, generating income from private hunts.

Homesteading also was important to the settlement of southern Santa Fe County, especially in the early 20th century, when settlers from Texas and Oklahoma came to take up dry-land bean farming. Stanley, for example, was established along a railroad siding and prospered until agriculture declined in the area. In Taos County, the town of Carson developed in the midst of homesteads dating to around 1910. Within two decades, however, the town was abandoned when drought in the 1930s exacerbated the difficulties of dry-land farming. Today, Carson exists on the map but consists mainly of a post office, which serves the livestock ranches that developed after the farmers left the area.

Homesteading illustrates several themes advanced by the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area: the challenges of land and climate, the successful strategies and continuing traditions of the original Pueblo farmers, and the persistence of the early settlers and their own traditional labor intensive methods. [Food & Agriculture]


Native Americans, Spanish colonial settlers, and Americans all have mined for various products in Rio Arriba, Santa Fe, and Taos counties. Pre-Columbian mining, though slight, focused on turquoise, obsidian, mica, and, especially, clay for pottery, for which the Pueblos are justly famous. Spanish Colonial settlers mined for lead, coal, silver, gold, copper, and iron. American miners, taking advantage of rail transport and technology, have produced lead, silver, gold, turquoise, copper, iron, garnets, mica, pumice, perlite, humates, coal, and molybdenum.

Rio Arriba County
In the early 1870s, numerous strikes of high-grade gold ores were made in the Bromide-Hopewell District, in the northern part of the county, including the town of Good Hope, now known as Hopewell. Other operations at mines with colorful names such as the Red Jacket, Dixie Queen, and Whale produced gold, copper, and silver ores, but were played out by 1920. There was a short-lived gold placer operation at Rinconada near the Río Grande Gorge.

Small-scale mining of high-quality mica used principally for window panes was done in the Petaca region south of Tres Piedras, mostly in the late 1800s. These mines were near ancient Pueblo and Jicarilla Apache sources of micaceous pottery clay, used for centuries to produce pottery with a unique, glittery appearance that is still made and much-prized today.

Recently, mining has been overshadowed by the large-scale development of oil and gas fields in western Rio Arriba County, mostly on Bureau of Land Management land. Discovered in the 1920s, it was not until the 1950s that the demand for petroleum products fundamentally changed the