Salinas Pueblos

Life on the Fringe

by Jay W. Sharp

Puebloan Times

Puebloan peoples moved into the basin during the second and third centuries of the second millennium, apparently as refugees from a long, epic migration that left vast areas of the Southwest essentially depopulated. Evidently, Anasazi Puebloans – Keresan-speaking peoples from the Colorado Plateau region – occupied the northern part of the basin. Mogollon Puebloans – heavily tattooed Piro speakers from the northern Chihuahuan Desert – settled the southern part. Over time, the immigrants built nine significant communities, with the northernmost three having primarily Anasazi roots and the other six having primarily Mogollon roots, according to James E. Ivey’s richly detailed In the Midst of a Loneliness: The Architectural History of the Salinas Missions.

The new arrivals had chosen a hard land, an arid basin bounded by wooded mountain ranges to the east and west. They may have been attracted, at least in part, by a great salt flat – Lake Estancia – which would yield up the mineral as a seasoning for food and as a lucrative commodity for prehistoric commerce. Otherwise, they found few streams or natural impoundments of water, received only about 12 to 15 inches of rain annually, experienced persistent strong winds from the southwest, and endured winter temperatures of well below zero Fahrenheit and summer temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Archaeologist Gordon Vivian, who excavated one of the southern pueblos, Gran Quivira, in 1951, said in his report Gran Quivira, that he could “remember scarcely a day when the wind was not blowing, either searing hot or freezing cold…”

Profoundly spiritual village farmers, the hardy Salinas Puebloans probably believed (as indicated in the National Park Service’s Internet site Salinas Pueblo Missions: The Native Legacy of Salinas) that their ancestors emerged from five levels of the underworld and that they received the breath of life from their Corn Mother, one of a pantheon of deities. They thought of themselves as integral parts of earth’s natural community. They marked time and the seasons by the passage of the moon and the sun.



They administered the life of their villages through a moiety— that is, two community divisions, one responsible for the activities of summer, the other, for the activities of winter. They belonged to the ancestral clans of their women. They lived a communal lifestyle, sharing resources equally, with little social hierarchy. They depended on masked dancing cults – Katsinas – to link them to the spiritual world and assure the arrival of the rains and the fertility of the crops.

With women serving as builders and stonemasons, the Puebloans constructed stone wall blocks of apartment-style rooms around plazas with semisubterranean ceremonial and social chambers called “kivas.” Over time, they added more room blocks to accommodate a population growth fueled by new immigrants from other pueblos, for instance, from the Zia communities near the border of New Mexico and Arizona. Eventually, the Puebloan population of the Salinas Basin reached some thousands of people.

In everyday life, the women carried a heavy burden. Not only did they build the walls of their villages. They nurtured the children. They shared in the work of the fields, where they raised the traditional Puebloan crops of corn, beans, squash and cotton. They joined communal hunts of rabbits, a major source of meat. They gathered wild plant foods such as pinyon nuts and wild seeds. They prepared food for the family meals, for instance, using stone bowls and hand milling stones to grind corn into flour. They crafted the pottery that served as containers for water and storage, vessels for cooking, and bowls for serving foods.

The men protected their villages from raiders, especially the Apaches from the plains to the east. They worked in the fields. They hunted the larger game, for instance, buffalo, deer, elk and mountain sheep. They directed and performed the rituals essential to cosmic harmony with nature and fruitfulness of their fields. They became master weavers of cotton, working at looms inside the kivas to produce ponchos, blankets, dresses, kilts, socks, sashes and other clothing for their families and themselves and, probably, for trade.

Lying within a network of prehistoric routes of commerce, the Salinas Puebloans and their trading partners traveled well-worn pathways to exchange goods. The more southern villages apparently traded primarily with nomadic people from the Great Plains, including the Apaches and the Jumanos. (The southern Salinas Puebloans may have shared Mogollon cultural roots with the heavily tattooed Plains Jumanos, who became the gypsies of the Southwest, ranging from the Texas/Louisiana border to northwestern Arizona.) According to Alden C. Hayes, in his article in Salinas: Archaeology, History, and Prehistory, the southern Salinas Puebloans likely exchanged ceramics, corn, beans, squash, weavings and salt for buffalo hides, jerked meat, fresh-water mussels and the highly prized Alibates flint (from quarries in the northern Texas Panhandle). The more northern villages traded primarily with the Zuni pueblos to the west, exchanging hides, surplus agricultural products, pinyon nuts and salt for commodities and materials needed for a growing population.

By the middle of the 16th century, the nine Salinas Puebloan villages had reached a total population of perhaps 10,000 people, who participated in a rich and dynamic (and sometimes fractious) stew of Puebloan traditions and customs. They conducted regular commerce and trade with their neighbors. They had attained a measure of prosperity. Undoubtedly, they felt troubled when they heard stories about bearded and light-skinned men who rode strange elk-sized animals, wore hard shiny clothing, and carried booming lances, but the Puebloans of the Salinas Basin could not have imagined what lay in store for them.

The Spanish Intrusion

They could scarcely have been more shocked when Juan de Oñate, the leader of first colonizing expedition to the Southwest, appeared in the Salinas Basin and informed them that if they did not render immediate and total loyalty and obedience to things called a “church” and a “king” from someplace called “Spain,” that he and his soldiers would, “with the help of God…forcefully enter into your country and…make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and [we] shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church of their highness; we shall take you and your wives and your children and shall make slaves of them, and we shall take away your goods and shall do to you all the harm and damage we can…” (Quote from the National Park Service’s Internet site Salinas Pueblo Missions: The Native Legacy of Salinas.)

Oñate quickly demonstrated just what he meant by “harm and damage.” After warriors from the northern Salinas pueblo of Quarai attacked Spaniards who were harvesting salt at Lake Estancia in 1601, Onate sent his soldiers to retaliate. They burned the community and slaughtered 900 residents.


The Spaniards, as the Puebloans would quickly learn, believed, not in a pantheon of deities, but in a single supreme deity; thought of themselves, not as an integral part of nature, but as the master of nature; marked time and seasons, not by the moon and the sun, but by something called a “calendar;” administered their lives, not through a cooperative moiety, but through a confusing, argumentative and even combative moiety—the Church and the state authorities; thought of women, not as linkage to an ancestral clan, but as vassals to men; lived, not a communal lifestyle, but a socially stratified lifestyle, with aristocrats crowning the hierarchy; depended, not on living masked dancers, but on blue- or gray-robed Franciscan friars with peculiar icons and statues to connect them to the spiritual world.

Through coercion and persuasion, the Salinas Puebloan peoples would soon find themselves bound, spiritually and materially, not to the people of their villages, but to the friars of the Church and the officials of the state.

On one hand, the Franciscans called the Pueblo people to serve the Church, demanding that they abandon the religious beliefs and rituals that had served them for centuries. Using the monastic traditions of Europe as a template, according to Ivey, the friars used the hands of the Puebloan women to construct massive, towering and elaborately decorated churches and labyrinthine conventos (convents) at the pueblos, overshadowing the traditional simple room blocks. They effectively ruled the day-to-day life of the Puebloans, summoning them to attend daily masses and religious instruction and enlisting them to serve as church attendants, craftsmen, cooks, servants, agriculturists, herdsmen and laborers.

“The Franciscans were said to have as many as twenty Indians as cantors [singers] and sacristans [custodians],” said Ivey. “The mission schools could have up to seventy students, some of them adult. More than forty Indians might be used as porters, woodcutters, or millers. …apparently in all the missions, women entered the convento to do the cooking and bread-making. On the farms, the Indians planted and guarded ‘very large fields of wheat and corn for the religious [the friars],’ as well as vegetable gardens and orchards. As well as planting it, the Indians reaped the wheat for the Franciscans. On the ranches, the Indians herded and protected the cattle and horses.”

On the other hand, the authorities of the Spanish state, anxious to capitalize on lucrative opportunities for trade in Mexico, demanded their share of the labor and produce of the Indians. “The governor constantly tried to control mission exports,” said Ivey, including, for instance, salt, hides, pinyon nuts and weavings. The civil authorities tried to undermine the Franciscan missionary work by encouraging the Puebloans to give up Christianity and return to their traditional religions. Land barons – owners of enormous state-approved land grants – demanded “tribute” from the Indians. Spanish slaving parties – with the sanction of the state – raided the Puebloans’ traditional trading partners, the Apaches, sending captives south – human chattel sold at considerable profit – to work in the silver mines of Chihuahua.

By the 1660’s, it had become evident that the people of the Salinas pueblos could no longer carry the weight of the Spanish burden. They could not fill their own basic food stores while serving two Spanish masters—the missionaries on one hand and the state’s land barons on the other. They starved during the course of a drought in the late 1660’s and early 1670’s, with 450 dieing at Gran Quivira alone, according to the National Park Service’s Internet site Salinas Pueblo Missions: The Native Legacy of Salinas. Physically weakened and without natural immunities, they died from Spanish-introduced European diseases. They suffered from punishing raids by vengeful Apaches. In the 1670’s, the people of the Salinas Basin abandoned the region. They walked away from the great Spanish churches and convents. They left their homes to the southwestern winds.

“…their people crept away forever leaving the magnificent churches, their clustered houses and their lyric fields,” said Paul Horgan in Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History.

Somber Reminders

Two centuries later, beginning in the mid-18th century, after the Mexican/American War, Anglos rediscovered the pueblos of the Salinas Basin.
During an exploratory military expedition in the winter of 1853, Major James H. Carleton visited the northern, Keresan-speaking Salinas pueblo of Quarai. In addition to the ruin of the church, Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción, he said, “We found one room here, probably one of the cloisters attached to the church, which was in a good state of preservation,” Carleton said in his report (quoted by Ivey). “The beams that supported the roof were blackened by age. They were square and smooth, and supported under each end by shorter pieces of wood carved into regularly curved lines and scrolls…”

Today, at Quarai – now one of the three pueblos that comprise the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument – you will still find the ruins of the Purísima Concepción church, the most complete of the missions, with a floor plan in the traditional form of a cross. The remains of the outer wall, four to five feet thick, rise to a height of about 40 feet. The nave (the main body of the church interior) measures about 100 feet in length and some 27 feet in width. The transept measures nearly 50 feet in length and half that in width. The ruins of two conventos lie to the east and southeast of the church. The ruins of the pueblo itself have been only partially excavated. It was here that Oñate’s soldiers slaughtered most of the village population, and it was here that three of the friars served as head of the menacing Spanish Inquisition of New Mexico.

During his expedition of 1853, Carleton also visited the pueblo of Abó, the westernmost of the Salinas villages, located in the pass between the Manzano and Los Piños ranges. “The tall ruins,” he said (in a quote published by James Abarr in his article “Miracle in the Wilderness” published in the Albuquerque Journal), “standing there in solitude, had an aspect of sadness and gloom. The cold wind seemed to roar and howl through the roofless pile like an angry demon.”

Today, at Abó, the second pueblo in the National Monument, you will discover the ruins of a cross-shaped church, San Gregorio, that is perhaps a third larger than Purísima Concepción. The convento ruins lie immediately east of the church. Most of the pueblo ruins lie, unexcavated, beneath mounds of rubble. Abó traded extensively with the pueblos to the west and along the Rio Grande, and it served as the headquarters for the missionary work in the Piro-speaking pueblos.

In a travel adventure that took him to Gran Quivira, one of the southernmost of the Salinas pueblos in the summer of 1859, Samuel Woodworth Cozzens reported, in his book Explorations & Adventures in Arizona & New Mexico: “The ruins…consisted of old adobe houses, some of the walls standing from four to six feet high, others showing a line only a few inches above the earth. We also found the ruins of massive churches. Over the main entrance of two of these were sculptured the coat-of-arms of old Spain… We found the ruins of what seemed to have been a large cathedral or temple…”

Today, at Gran Quivira, the third and the largest of the three pueblos in the monument and the most extensively excavated, you will find the ruins of a small chapel, San Isidro, and of a cross-shaped but never finished church, San Buenaventura. The convent lay immediately south of San Buenaventura. You will also find that a significant percentage of the pueblo, including several kivas, have been excavated by archaeologists and opened to view. You may also hear the story of a lost Spanish treasure of valuable church bells and silver and gold, reputedly hidden within the walls of the San Isidro chapel, according to Vivian. The tale proved so compelling that generations of one family, named Yrisarri, searched for the treasure for a century and half, from the 1780’s until 1933, following a map carved onto the surface of a white stone. The great Grand Quivira treasure hunt finally ended in the 1940’s, when the National Park Service finally filled in excavators’ shafts and hauled away the tailings.

Exploring the Salinas Pueblo Missions

My wife Martha and I had just put up our tent beneath a canopy of ponderosa pines in the Manzano Mountain State Park, located on the eastern flanks of the Manzano Range in central New Mexico. We had come, with our strawberry blond cocker spaniel Pokey, to spend a couple of summer days exploring the pueblos of the Salinas Basin. We had just unloaded groceries and an ice chest from our old Ford Bronco. Darkness had begun to fall. A park ranger stopped by.

“Be sure to stash all your food in your vehicle tonight,” he said. “We have a rogue bear in the park.”

“A rogue bear?” Martha said.

“He’s been raiding campers’ groceries and the trash cans,” the ranger said.

“Has he attacked anyone?”

“He sat down on the side of a tent the other night. Kind of mashed a lady.”

“Pokey and I are sleeping in the Bronco tonight,” said Martha.

She and Pokey spent a restless night in our Bronco. I spent a restless night in our tent. The rogue bear spent a perfectly restful night in his woods. The next morning, Martha, Pokey and I set out to visit the pueblos.

From our campsite, in the Manzano Mountain State Park, we visited Quarai, Abó and Gran Quivira, which surround the quaint little town of Mountainair (where, incidentally, my great aunt, born in a dugout in Kiowa country, Oklahoma, served as postmistress for many years). As Martha and I wandered through the ruins recalling the history, Pokey, with eminent good sense, walked close to the sandstone walls, seeking shade from the summer sun.

Mountainair, where the National Park Services maintains administrative offices (Ph 1-505-847-2585) for the monument, is located on US Highway 60, about 40 miles east of the intersection with Interstate Highway 25. Quarai is located about eight miles north of Mountainair, just east of State Highway 55. Abo is located about nine miles west of Mountainair, just north of Highway 60. Gran Quivira is located about 25 miles south of Mountainair, off Highway 55. All three ruins have visitor centers.

If, like us, you choose to camp, you will find seven or eight state or federal campsites. For additional information, call the Manzano Mountain State Park (1-505-847-2820) in Mountainair or the U. S. Forest Service, Cibola National Forest (1-505-346-3900) in Albuquerque.

If you prefer a hotel, you will find accommodations in Belen, on Highway 25, a few miles north of the intersection with Highway 60.

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