Life on the Margin 2

Jumanos, Sumas and Mansos

In Part 1 of the story about the peripheral tribes, we dealt with Yuman peoples of the western Sonoran desert and the southwestern Colorado Plateau; the Sinagua people of north central Arizona; the Salado people of central Arizona; Pima peoples of the northern Sonoran Desert; and the Trincheras of the northern Sonoran Desert and the western Chihuahuan Desert. Here, in Part 2, we turn to the Jumanos, Sumas and Mansos, who occupied the northern Chihuahuan Desert.

The Jumanos

Jumano peoples, culturally blurry, restless and widely dispersed, lived primarily, it seems, as Puebloans along the Rio Grande from El Paso region to Texas’ Big Bend and as hunter/gatherers from the northeastern Chihuahuan Desert to the southernmost Great Plains. They apparently roamed as far west and north as Flagstaff, Arizona, and as far east as the Texas Piney Woods. "Culturally the Jumanos were peripheral members of the Puebloan culture of the Southwest, but the exact nature of their culture and its relationships with other tribal cultures are for the most part a mystery," W. W. Newcomb said in his book The Indians of Texas. They may have, according to Nancy P. Hickerson, author of The Jumanos: Hunters and Traders of the South Plains, descended from the ancient Mogollon pueblo traditions of the northern Chihuahuan Desert.

The Rio Grande passes through the Puebloan Jumano range in three great arcs, turning from south to southeast at El Paso and from southeast to northeast then back to southeast across the Big Bend. In the course of its passage through the Chihuahuan Desert below El Paso, the Rio Grande receives water from only one significant tributary, the Rio Concho, which flows northward out of Mexico’s Chihuahua to empty into the Rio Grande at La Junta, now Texas’ Presidio. During its journey over the desert, the Rio Grande wanders across open valleys and slices through deep gorges. In the time of the Jumanos, the river hosted dense stands, or "bosques," of cottonwood and willows and abundant populations of fish.


The northeastern Chihuahuan Desert landscape encompasses broad basins filled with the erosional debris from more than 30 mountain ranges. The basins support desert shrub and grass, and the taller mountain ranges stand crowned with Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, maples and aspen. The basin and range country provides forage for game animals such as mountain sheep, black-tail deer, pronghorn antelope, black bear, black-tail jackrabbit and desert cottontails.

The southernmost reach of the Great Plains – sandy prairie grasslands almost as arid as the desert – lists gently, like a slightly tilted pool table, to the southeast. In the Jumanos’ time, it supported vast stands of the short grasses and great herds of buffalo and pronghorns.

Early in the second millennium, the people who would become known as the Jumanos extended a tenuous Puebloan reach down the Rio Grande from El Paso to La Junta then up the Rio Concho from its mouth for some 40 miles. They built masonry-walled villages near open flood plains, where they found land they could use for borderline farming or gardening.

According to Newcomb, the Rio Grande Jumanos – impoverished compared to the Puebloan heartland to the northwest – erected clusters of free-standing single-story lodges and storage rooms over shallow excavations which covered approximately 800 to 900 square feet. They built foundations of adobe bricks and walls of mud-plastered timbers and posts. They constructed flat roofs of timbers and brush, sealing them with mud plaster. They plastered the inner walls, sometimes painting bands of red, yellow and other colors on the finished surface. Near their lodges and storage rooms, they built jacal-type structures with walls made of plastered vertical ocotillo stalks, and they raised huts, or ramadas, of grass as a shade from the desert sun.

In small unirrigated fields and gardens set in river flood plains and perhaps near arroyos and intermittent streams, the Jumanos struggled to raise the classic Puebloan corn, bean and squash crops as well as some other vegetables and, perhaps, cotton. They hunted game, especially rabbits and deer, and harvested wild plants, particularly mesquite beans, agave and cacti fruits, to supplement their farm crops.

Although they often went naked, exposing elaborately tattooed bodies, they developed a high skill in tanning buffalo and deer hides from which they made clothing and moccasins. They made powerful bows, heavy wooden bludgeons and buffalo-hide war shields. Like other Puebloan peoples, they traded for macaw feathers, shells and even copper tinklers, all having origins in Mesoamerica. In her article on the Jumanos in The Handbook of Texas, Hickerson said that, "Men cut their hair short, decorated it with paint, and left one long lock to which the feathers of various birds might be tied. Women may have worn their hair long or in braids."

Presumably, those Jumanos who hunted buffalo and other animals and gathered wild plants in the desert and the southern Great Plains gave up their Puebloan roots because of drought, resource depletion and food shortages along the Rio Grande. "If they did do this," said Newcomb, "the separation may not have continued long enough for the two groups to become culturally distinct. And if the nomadic offshoot made annual visits to the settled group, possibly recruiting new members there, the differences between the two might be long and blurred." Like the Indians of the Plains, the hunting and gathering Jumanos lived in buffalo-hide teepees. Some built "rancherias," or temporary villages of scattered lodges, made from sticks and brush. Likely, they used the powerful Jumano-style bows to bring down buffalo and other large game.


Most notably, the nomadic Jumanos served as middlemen, moving, perhaps, much like itinerant trading caravans, over a wide area of the plains and desert. They "supplied arrows, and perhaps bows as well, from La Junta to the Indians of central and eastern Texas," said Hickerson. "Evidence of trade from the Tompiro region of New Mexico [Puebloan settlements in the central part of the state] may be seen in the large quantities of [Tompiro-style ceramic] potsherds…found over a wide region of the south Plains. Jumanos supplied corn, dried squashes, beans, and other produce from the farming villages, in exchange for pelts, meat, and other buffalo products, and foods such as pinyon nuts, mesquite beans and cactus fruits. Other trade goods included textiles, turquoise, exotic feathers, mineral pigments, shells, salt [from dry, mineral-laden desert lake beds], and possibly hallucinogens (including peyote, which was available at La Junta)."

By the middle of the second millennium, the Jumanos had established a strong trading presence at the Tompiro settlements, particularly the outposts which lay in the Salinas Valley, at the southeastern corner of the Puebloan heartland. They came, especially to the pueblo we call Gran Quivira, as long-term visitors and possibly as permanent residents. In fact, in his National Park Service report, Gran Quivira, Gordon Vivian suggests that the possible reason the people of the village became known as Jumanos in historic times was because "they were in close trading association with a group of Plains Jumanos."

When the first Spanish arrived in the Southwest in the 16th century, the Jumanos stood close to the front of the line among the tribes who greeted the light-skinned, bearded men who spoke the strange, lisping tongue of Castillian Spanish. About 1536, the Puebloan Jumanos met Cabeza de Vaca, who had reached the Rio Grande in the course of his epic adventure across the Southwest. "They are the best looking people we saw," said Cabeza de Vaca in his narrative about the journey, "the strongest and most energetic? We called them the ‘Cow People,’ because more cattle [buffalo] are killed in their vicinity [actually, the southern Great Plains] than anywhere?" Cabeza de Vaca also saw the Jumanos’ challenge in farming in the desert. "We asked how it happened they did not plant corn," he said in his narrative. "So they would not lose what they planted, was the answer: no rain two years in a row; moles got the seed; must have plenty rain before planting again. They begged us to tell the sky to rain?" Nearly half a century later, in 1583, the Puebloan Jumanos near La Junta met Antonio Espejo, who was leading a small expedition to check on Franciscan friars in New Mexico. "This nation," said Espejo in his narrative, "appeared to be very numerous, and had large permanent pueblos. In it we saw five pueblos with more than ten thousand Indians [likely an exaggeration], and flat-roofed houses, low and well arranged into pueblos. The people of this nation have their faces streaked, and are large; they have maize, gourds, beans, game of foot and wing, and fish of many kinds from two rivers that carry much water?"

Over the next century, the Jumanos became prominent in the Spanish colonization of New Mexico, receiving frequent mention in chronicles and diaries, but by the end of the 16th century, they had essentially played out their role on the Southwestern stage. Like other tribes, they probably suffered from Spanish enslavement, European diseases, intermittent drought, increased regional population, dwindling resources and intensifying Apache raiding. The Jumanos who survived the hardships apparently merged with Apaches and other tribes and intermarried with Spanish colonists. The Jumano culture had essentially disappeared by early in the 18th century.

The Sumas

The Sumas, a hunting and gathering tribe of the north central Chihuahuan Desert, emerged from foggy origins. According to a paper published by researcher Thomas H. Naylor in the El Paso Archaeological Society’s journal The Artifact in the winter of 1969, the Sumas could have lived in the region for thousands of years, descended from Archaic hunters and gathers. They might also, he said, have budded off from northwestern Chihuahua’s Casas Grandes culture, which collapsed about 1450. They possibly immigrated into the area with Apache raiders, who apparently came to the region during the first half of the second millennium. More plausibly, it seems, they split away from the Jumanos and wandered westward into abandoned Casas Grandes territory in late prehistoric times. "I am inclined to believe that the Sumas were originally Jumanos?" said Naylor. In his paper in the Garland Series American Indian Ethnohistory, Indians of the Southwest, University of Texas at El Paso, archaeologist and professor Rex Gerald suggested that "?the group known as Suma?were linguistically and culturally similar to a group known as the Jumanos?" Southwest archaeologist Pat Beckett told me that he has researched Spanish documents which suggest that the Suma descended from the Jumanos.

Like other marginal nomadic tribes of the northern Chihuahuan Desert, the prehistoric Sumas moved across their range in widely dispersed bands of perhaps 50 to 75 persons in a relentless search for food and other resources, said Naylor. (The bands may have numbered as many as 150 to 300 according to Gerald.) They camped in rancherias of scattered brush shelters and slept on beds of grass. Like the Apaches, they raided other tribes and, in historic times, Spanish settlements, taking plunder and scalps. They danced in celebration of their victories and, in at least one instance, ate the body of a victim in a ritual quest for courage. They hunted small game, usually black-tail jackrabbits and desert cottontails, in the desert basins; they netted fish from the Rio Grande and other, smaller streams; and they harvested the fruit of cacti and agave and the beans from mesquites and other plants.

Late in the 17th century, the Sumas people apparently splintered. Some bands joined with other desert tribes, especially the Apaches, to fight the Spanish, according to Naylor. Other bands gave up the hunting and gathering life to take up mission life. Battle casualties, severe drought, a smallpox epidemic and assimilation depleted the Sumas population and greatly diluted the culture within a matter of a few decades. The Sumas virtually disappeared early in the 18th century, although a few descendents survived until well into the 19th century.

The Mansos

May 4, 1598. Juan de Onate’s colonizing expedition, Spain’s first into the Southwest, had encamped on the south bank of the Rio Grande near its great turn from south to southeast, preparing to ford the river on the following day. "Forty of these Indians [Mansos] came to the camp," said a chronicler of the expedition (see Don Juan de Onate, Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595-1628 by George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey). "They had Turkish [powerfully reinforced] bows, long hair cut to resemble little Milan caps, headgear made to hold down the hair and colored with blood or paint. The first words were manxo, manxo, micos, micos, by which they means ‘peaceful ones’ and friends… We gave them many presents, and they helped us to transport the sheep across the river…" (Onate’s party of some 400 colonists drove more than 7000 head of livestock northward, toward their new home.)

As the Onate expedition moved up the river, "We met many of the natives of these regions…" said another chronicler, Gaspar Perez de Villagra, in his History of New Mexico, translated by Gilberto Espinosa. "They have no knowledge whatsoever of agriculture, have no fixed homes, or ranches, and live a carefree life…living entirely by hunting and fishing, and also by the roots they dig."

According to Beckett and Terry Corbett in their monogram The Manso Indians, the tribe’s relatively small range spanned roughly 4000 square miles, primarily in the scrub brush desert basin and barren sierras of south central New Mexico and far western Texas. The authors believe that the Mansos descended from the Mogollon Puebloan tradition following an "abandonment of permanent adobe villages sites and [a shift in] settlement pattern to a more mobile rancheria type of dwelling."

Although archaeologists have never found (nor even looked very much for) an indisputable prehistoric Manso site, the famed Franciscan friar Alonso de Benavides gave us a sketch of the tribe in his Memorial of 1630. "…Mansos… are commonly known among us," Benavides said. "This…is a people which has no houses, but only huts of branches. Nor do the [men] wear any clothing in particular, but all [go] naked. And the women only cover themselves from the waist down with two deerskins, one in front and the other behind… …between a few of them they eat a cow raw, leaving nothing of the paunch—since they do not even pause to clean it of its filth but swallow it as it is, like dogs, grabbing it with the mouth and cutting it off with knives of flint, and swallowing it without chewing." (This recalls southwest Texas’ Coahuiltecans, who ate seeds recovered from the dung of deer.)

In a later, revised Memorial, published in 1634, Benavides said that the Mansos "sustain themselves on fishes from that river [the Rio Grande], which are plentiful and good, devouring them raw, just as they do the meat of all the animals they hunt, not leaving even the blood." Surprisingly, Benavides seemed to somewhat admire the appearance of the Mansos. "They are a robust people," he said, "tall, and with good features, although they take pride in bedaubing themselves with powder of different colors which makes them look very ferocious."

The Franciscans recruited Mansos to Christianity and, in the 1660’s, built them a mission church, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de los Mansos (today an unfailingly quiet and charming refuge in the center of the frenetic border city of Juarez). In the following century, which was marked by unaccustomed religious currents, abrupt social change, revolution, warfare, other tribal infusions, intermarriage, Apache raids and epidemics, the Mansos melted into the new cultural landscape. "By the mid 1700s," said Beckett and Corbett, the Mansos "had ceased to exist as a separate ethnic group…"

Many Others

Aside from the Yumans, Sinagua, Salado, Pimas, Trincheras, Jumanos, Sumas and Mansos, we see in the prehistoric and historic records a quagmire of fragmentary evidence about numerous other tribes and groups who lived in the northern Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts. At ancient campsites, we find the remnants of fire hearths, stone tools, living surfaces, bone and shell jewelry, ceramics and rock art left by people whose history, or even identity, we shall never know. In the chronicles from Spanish colonial and mission times, we see tantalizing, but usually incomplete and often contradictory clues about shadowy peoples who have now vanished from the desert.

One example of the missing pages in the history of the Native American peoples of the desert lies several miles west of the community of Caborca, in north central Sonora. Here, some apparently late unknown prehistoric group carved a stunning array of images into the surfaces of boulders along the flanks of several low hills. They include, for instance, figures of life-size humans, sometimes whole families; images of big game, evidently entire herds; and elaborate engravings of symbols and intricate designs, clearly a sophisticated iconographic system. Several years ago, my wife and I visited the Caborca site with several friends, including Tom Naylor and archaeologist and Spanish colonial period authority, Mardith Schuetz. These images were different from anything I had ever seen, nothing like those produced, for instance, by the Mogollon in southern New Mexico and western Texas, or by the Anasazi on the Colorado Plateau, or by the Navajos in their homeland, or by the Salado in west central Arizona, or by the Casas Grandes people in northwestern Chihuahua. I asked Schuetz, what group produced this rock art? "We just don’t know," she said, a bit sadly. "We just don’t know. There has been so little archaeological research done here."

The Spaniards – their journals widely separated by space and time and purpose – left a wake of mind-numbing confusion about the tribes of the deserts. They often applied different names to the same tribes, for instance, using "Pataros," "Patarabueyes," "Otomoacos," "Rayados," "Sumas," "Chomas," "Rayas" and "Cabri to apparently refer to Jumano bands, according to Albert H. Shroeder in a paper in The Artifact of the winter of 1969. Conversely, the Spaniards applied a single name to different tribes, for instance, using "Jumano" to refer to culturally different tribes in widely separated locations.

Adding to the confusion, many of the marginal Native American groups occupied overlapping ranges and moved frequently. Some groups fought. Some formed alliances and intermarried. Some spoke languages from different stocks, and others spoke different dialects from the same stock. None, obviously, spoke Spanish when the mounted and armored caravans from the south arrived in the desert. Some groups lived primarily as nomadic hunter/gatherers, others, as village farmers, others as a mixture of the two.

"The situation has been plagued with a feeling of hopelessness…" Naylor said in his paper in The Artifact. The Spanish documents are "in all cases sadly incomplete, especially in descriptions of the native cultures. Besides being sketchy, the documents are often contradictory and inconsistent. Band or tribal names are an ever present problem. We are to a large extent in the dark concerning how and why names were applied… The result is a baffling array of names whose meanings and associations are little understood." We have lost forever the history of many of the marginal tribes of the deserts of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.



"Paleo-Indians" (Part 1)
Desert Archaic peoples( Part 2)
Desert Archaic peoples - Spritual Quest (Part 3)
Native Americans - The Formative Period (Part 4)
Voices from the South (Part 5)
The Mogollon Basin and Range Region (Part 6)
The Mogollon - Their Magic (Part7)
Hohokam the Farmers (Part 8)
The Hohokam Signature (Part 9 )
The Anasazi (Part 10)
The Anasazi 2 (Part 11)
The Great Puebloan Abandonments (Part 12)
Paquime (Part 13)
When The Spanish Came (Part 14)
Life on the Margin (1) (Part 15)
Life on the Margin (2) (Part 16) this page
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 1 (Part 17)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 2 (Part 18)
The Outside Raiders (Part 19)
The Enduring Mysteries (Part 20)
Some Sites to Visit (Final Part)

Profile Of An Apache Woman
Pueblo Rebellion
Cochise and the Bascom Affair
Geronimo's Last Hurrah
Books on Native American healing


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