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Date of visit:
September 30, 2008

For location of this site in NM, click on the map:
Location of Salinas Valley Missions, NM

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Site Highlights:
 Mission Ruins
 Two churches
 Mission gardens
 Dining Hall
 Residence Cells
 La Plazuela


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Abo Mission - Background

Abo Ruins SiteOn an expedition to investigate the Salinas district in 1853, Maj. J.H. Carleton came upon Abo at dusk. "The tall ruins," he wrote, "standing there in solitude, had an aspect of sadness and gloom.... the cold wind ... appeared to roar and howl through the roofless pile like an angry demon."

Carleton recognized the structure as a Christian church but did not know that the "long heaps of stone, with here and there portions of walls projecting above the surrounding rubbish," were the remains of a large pueblo.

Abo MissionLocated on a pass opening onto the Rio Grande Valley, Abo had carried on a lively trade with people of the Acoma-Zuni area, the Galisteo Basin near Santa Fe, and the plains. Salt, hides, and pinon nuts passed through this trading center. Springs provided water for crops, households, and turkeys.

Abo was a thriving community when the Spaniards visited the Salinas Valley in 1581. Franciscans began converting Abo residents in 1622, and by the late 1620s the first church was finished.

A second church was built with a sophisticated buttressing technique unusual in 1600s New Mexico. But the good times did not last. Battered by the disasters that struck the other Salinas pueblos, the people of Abo left sometime between 1672 and 1678 to take refuge in towns along the Rio Grande.

Exploring Abo Mission

Conceptual drawing of 2nd church at Abo

1. MISSION SAN GREGORIO de ABO ... The chanting of voices and ringing of mission bells once echoed down this hushed valley. For over five hundred years, beginning in the early twelfth century, Tompiro-speaking Pueblo Indians prospered here.

From A.D. 1622 until about A.D. 1673 Franciscan priests also lived and worshipped here as they struggled to "civilize" and Christianize the Indians of this remote northern frontier of the Spanish Empire. But, just fifty short years after this encounter of these two vastly different cultures, both village and mission were empty.

Today, the crumbling walls of Mission San Gregorio de Abo stand silent vigil over the cactus-covered mounds of the ancient unexcavated pueblo.


Plan of the Mission at Abo c. 1630

2. TWO CHURCHES ... The church standing today is the second church of Abo. It was completed about 1651 by Fray Francisco de Acevedo. A much smaller first church was built on this site between 1622 and 1627 by Fray Francisco Fonte, Abo's founding father.

In New Mexico it was rare for more than one priest to be stationed at a mission. However, in 1629 Fray Acevedo arrived at Abo to assist Fonte when Abo assumed guardianship of the visitas (preaching stations) at several nearby pueblos. This made Abo the head of one of the largest missionary operations in New Mexico.

Acevedo stayed at Abo for thirty years. When he became guardian (head priest) in 1640, he was already convinced of Abo's need for a church more befitting such an important mission. Having earlier built churches at several nearby pueblos, he was an accomplished designer and builder. Rather than select a new site, as was customary, he chose to expand the existing church.


Plan of the Mission at Abo c. 1670

3. CENTER OF MISSION ACTIVITY ... This is the convento
(#3 on map). This was the priest's home, where he lived, taught Indian converts, and conducted church business.

Through this doorway came produce from the mission gardens which grew just outside this north convento wall. These walled gardens sustained priests and Indians alike, adding to their diet peaches, watermelons, cantaloupes, plums, mission grapes, coriander, chile, and more. Beyond the gardens cattle grazed and fields of wheat rippled in gentle valley breezes.

4. DINING HALL ... Through the years, this room had several uses. It became the dining hall, or refectory, (#4 on map), during Acevedo's renovation. It was located well away from the hot kitchen.This is the the convento .

The pit, with poles across it, may have been a latrine. If so, it was a late addition to the convento. The stonework and use of adobe bricks does not measure up to the workmanship of Fray Acevedo, who left Abo in 1659. The timbers probably supported partitions between stalls. Entry was down a corridor from the ambulatorio.

Others have suggested this was a turkey pen. During excavation, archeologists found layers of gray fecal matter with egg shells and pieces of square ceramic "pans" scattered about, but no turkey bones. Indians used turkey feathers for warm cloaks and may have eaten the meat. A European priest would surely have enjoyed fresh eggs and an occasional turkey dinner. But, wouldn't a turkey pen have been better located in the corral area rather than the convento?

5. AMBULATORIO ... A roofed hallway, or ambulatorio, (#5 on map), surrounded the mission's central patio. Sunlight from the open patio filtered into dimly lit passageways through splayed windows and doors.

The KIVA, or Indian ceremonial chamber, in the patio appears to have been built at the same time of the first church and convento. It was later filled with trash, possibly during Acevedo's renovation. It's puzzling to find this symbol of Indian religion in the midst of a Franciscan mission, Why was it here? It may have served to help the Indians in the transition from their kivas to the above-ground church. But no one really knows.

6. CORRAL ... At the far end of this hall steps led down into a corral, (#6 on map), where the priest kept cows, sheep, goats, and pigs in stables along the north wall.

Off this hallway, between the dining room and the kitchen, were two kitchen storerooms. There the priest secured delicacies like spices, almonds, raisins, chocolate, and cigars shipped by supply train from Mexico. Consumption of these tidbits apparently did not violate the priest's vows of poverty. However, having enough available to give visitors might have infringed upon this oath.

7. KITCHEN ... (#7 on map), Here, on the bench to the right, an Indian cook prepared food from the mission's gardens and fields. Cooking was done on comals (stone griddles) atop a large Indian style open hearth along the wall to your left.

8. RESIDENCE CELLS ... Following Acevedo's renovations, the friars lived in these rooms, (#8 on map). Earlier, this was simply a covered walkway, and the friars lived in several small rooms near the kitchen.

Each cell had two rooms; a main room, often used as an office, and a smaller alcove for sleeping. Selenite found here suggests that these rooms had outside windows glazed with this local material. The large cell next to the porteria (enclosed porch) was home for the guardian.

Later a doorway was opened between it and this cell to form a comfortable suite. A porch also appears to have been added to provide a private entrance. However, this porch might instead have been a courtyard chapel, orposa, a common feature of seventeenth century churches in Mexico.

9. HARD TIMES ... The floor of this room, (#9 on map) is much lower than the rest of the convento. Steps leading to what was the roof indicate a hatchway entrance, common in food storage rooms to keep out pests and thieves.

During the severe famine of 1667 to 1672 missions with surpluses shipped supplies to villages where reserves had run out. Each Sunday the priest rationed food to the starving pueblo. This room may have been added or modified at that time to safeguard these food and seed supplies.

10. PORTERIA ... This was the mission's reception area, (#10 on map). Its floor was flagstone, rather than adobe like other mission rooms. Benches eased the wait for those who had business with the priest.

Inside the door from the porteria, in the corner on the right, was a large fireplace. Stone walls radiated heat into the ambulatorio, even after the fire was out.

The mission usually employed several Indian converts. Besides the portero, or "keeper of the gates," there was usually a bell ringer, a few sacristans, a cook, women to grind corn, cleaning boys, and a gardener. Some of the men probably lived in the convento.

11. CHOIR LOFT ... When Acevedo renovated the Abo church, he moved the choir loft, (#11 on map) from its original location inside the entrance of the church, to this location.

As visita headquarters, Abo was accountable for the souls of converts at the neighboring Tompiro missions of Tenabo, Tabira, and Las Humanas (Gran Quivira). Weekly for thirty years the Abo choir accompanied the priest on a day-long hike southeast along Chupadera Mesa to conduct mass at these remote southern pueblos.

12. SACRISTY ... When Acevedo enlarged this sacristy, (#12 on map), he added a small altar along the north wall for private devotionals. Here, the priest donned his elegantly embroidered robes in preparation for the mass. Vestments, vessels, and the communion wine were kept under lock and key. But the wine was reportedly so weak, that it occasionally froze in the chalice.

The sockets high in the wall held roof beams, or vigas. Casts in the mortar revealed that the vigas were carved with geometric floral designs, probably by Indian carpenters from Pecos.

13. A NEW SANCTUARY ... Acevedo demolished the sanctuary wall, (#13 on map), of the first church and lengthened the nave nearly fifty feet. The National Park Service has reconstructed the foundation of that sanctuary wall to help us visualize the size and appearance of Fonte's earlier church, which measured but twenty-five feet wide by eighty-three and one-half feet long.

Three raised stone altars and two transept-like side chapels were built into the enlarged sanctuary. The new apse probably contained a high altar on a central platform backed by a reredo (ornamental panel) shipped from Mexico City. Behind a railing in each side chapel was another altar. Look high on the wall above the east side chapel for some original plaster. High above the west side chapel an elaborate system of catwalks and balconies led to the bell tower.

By raising the ceiling of the sanctuary eight feet above that of the nave, Acevedo flooded the main altar with shafts of brilliant New Mexico sunlight. These transverse clerestory windows were unique to New Mexico churches.

14. NAVE ... Here, (#14 on map), the congregation stood or knelt to pray - there were no pews and the floor was packed earth. These three-foot-thick walls were part of the early church. They originally stood twenty-eight feet high. Using an elaborate reconstruction design, Acevedo raised them to thirty-four feet. Plastered white, they were probably decorated with red, blue, and black European and Indian motifs.

Nave detailsThe three sockets high in the nave wall held vigas (A) which supported the roof of the church.

These massive beams consisted of six logs, each one foot square, stacked three pairs high.

The lower pairs were probably corbels (B). The horizontal timbers served as bearing plates (C) to distribute the roof's weight, a strong arrangement requiring only nine sets of beams to hold the heavy roof.

Wooden gutters called canales (D) drained a packed dirt roof (E).

15. BAPTISTERY ... Baptismal ceremonies were performed here, (#15 on map), for new Christians. Centered in the floor were the font and sacrarium. The font caught the baptismal water and oil, which was then poured into the sacrarium, a small underground cistern. Below the wooden wall niche was a gypsum-plastered altar.

Prior to Acevedo's renovation, baptisms were performed in the nave, beneath the choir loft. The two round stone footings in the floor held pillars which supported the choir loft. Before the 1640 expansion, the choir climbed a wooden ladder here in the nave to reach the loft.

16. CHURCH FACADE ... (#16 on map), European design and Indian construction methods and materials dictated the style of early Spanish missions. A splayed entryway allowed double doors to swing open on iron pivot hinges, letting in more light and providing easy access. Outside was a portal (roofed porch).

Above the entrance was a balcony with a window to light the choir loft located inside. Wooden shutters covered splayed window openings.

During renovation, Acevedo first added two exterior buttresses and a baptistery to support the thin sandstone and mud-mortar walls as the roof was removed. A third buttress, the bell tower, was also added. On the east, the convento was modified to provide support.

This was a more sophisticated design than the brute mass of most missions of the period. A crenelated roof parapet gave the appearance of a medieval castle (shown on Second Church sketch, above).

17. SPANISH ROOMS IN THE PUEBLO ... (#17 on map), When Fray Francisco Fonte arrived at Abo in 1622, needing a place to live, he purchased several rooms in the pueblo. These rooms reveal Spanish influence. Was this Fonte's first convento?

Later, Abo may have been a center of Spanish trade. The road from Quarai and other mountain Tiwa Pueblos probably passed between the church and this compound, then headed west through Abo Pass to join the 1,500 mile-long El Camino Real (The King's Road) near the Rio Grande.

These rooms, along with the walled yard to the north, may have been the storage and staging area for this Spanish trade. Every three years wagons loaded with mission supplies arrived from Mexico City. Trade goods for the return trip were stockpiled at Abo.

An important commodity was salt from the saline lakes to the east. Salt was much in demand at Santa Barbara in Mexico, where it was used in silver smelting. One item purchased with trade income was an organ for the church.

The pueblo has not been excavated, so it requires some imagination to visualize.

18. ANCIENT VILLAGE OF ABO ... These rubble hills are the collapsed pueblo house mounds shown on the map (#18 on map). First occupied by 1150, Abo became a pottery and trade center after 1400. The Tompiro Indians traded pots, salt, nuts, and surplus agricultural products to nearby Pueblos and Plains Indians for supplies needed by a growing village. By 1640, a Spanish census recorded more than 1,500 people at Abo, but this number may have included the visitas as well.

19. LA PLAZUELA ... This was the central plaza (#19 on map), of the Late Phase or Historic Abo pueblo where construction began around 1600. Judging from the size of these mounds, most of the buildings were probably two stories high.

Abo was a pottery manufacturing center. Overtime pottery styles changed, mirroring the cultural transformations surrounding Abo. Prehistoric gray pots indicate close ties to the Mogollon farming culture which prospered between 200 B.c. and A.D. 1450 around what is now the Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico borders.

he Mogollon influence eventually gave way to a more advanced Anasazi culture. Abo's pottery reflected this new Anasazi influence, which was evident in the increased quality, complexity, and color of their craft. Still later, Spanish missionaries encouraged production of utilitarian soup bowls in Salinas redware. Potsherds found today are important clues to Abo's past.

20. NATIVE RELIGION ... This circular depression (#20 on map), was a kiva. Kachinas, wooden figures or masks carved in the likeness of supernatural beings, were a major part of the Tompiro religion. At first priests were prudently tolerant of native religious activities, referring to the kivas as estufas, or sweat rooms.

By the 1660s, however, they could no longer abide the "pagan" rites. Serious conflicts occurred as Kachina masks were smashed, dances were forbidden, and kivas were destroyed.

21. ARROYO EMPEDRADO ... (#21 on map), For over one thousand years nature has drawn people to Abo. Some say the name, pronounced ah-Bo, means "poor place," while others say "water bowl." There were permanent springs, perhaps even within the pueblo. But flow varies in this semi-desert climate.

More water was captured by a series of small catchment basins along this "arroyo paved with stone." The Tompiros often made rock dams to conserve these intermittent pools and to trap fertile soil, creating agricultural terraces where beans, squash, and corn were grown.

The red sandstone and shale of the Abo Formation breaks easily into rectangular blocks. These blocks, which provide the basic building material for the mission and pueblo, are exposed here and throughout the area.

22. PREHISTORIC PUEBLO ... (#22 on map), By the year 950, Abo Pass was inhabited by Mogollon pithouse builders from the south. By 1150 these wanderers began to congregate into small scattered villages in places like Abo.

They made a gray-paste pottery called Chupadera Black-on-White, and a brown corrugated utility ware.

Ancient dwelling - a kivaAnasazi groups from the west apparently "invaded" Abo Pass around 1350.

At that time a hybrid form of jacal/ Anasazi-style masonry pueblo suddenly appeared, and Chupadera Black-on-White was replaced by glaze painted pottery.

The people banded together into a few large pueblos, one of which was here. Beyond the arroyo are the unexcavated mounds of the earliest Abo pueblo.

Whether the Anasazi blended with the local population or returned west is unclear.

23. HISTORIC PUEBLO ... The earliest pueblo house blocks, (#23 on map), at Abo were "I-" and "L- shaped" structures built on the other side of this arroyo. Later house blocks were "E- shaped" and, ultimately, rectangular.

You have been walking through "Mound J," which is actually a plaza surrounded by several rectangular house blocks.

When the Spanish arrived in 1622, they found an estimated eight hundred Indians living here on the east bank of the arroyo. "Mound I," where Fonte purchased his early convento, was also occupied. Thus, this area is known as the Historic pueblo. It was occupied from about 1500 until the mission and village were abandoned in 1673.

ABANDONMENT ... The decision to abandon Abo was not an easy one. For the priest it meant possible loss of Christianized Indian souls. For the governor it meant lost revenue and loss of control.

But, by the 1670s, the combined pressures of drought, famine, disease, and Apache uprisings made life here intolerable. Many of the Tompiro refugees moved to the Piro pueblos on the Rio Grande, near present-day Socorro.

During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, most of them accompanied the Spanish south to El Paso del Norte. There they established the pueblo of Socorro del Sur, never again to return to Abo.


HINT: If video starts/stops often, PAUSE the playback for 45-60 seconds to allow the video buffer memory to fill. To resume playback press PLAY.

HINT: If video starts/stops often, PAUSE the playback for 45-60 seconds to allow the video buffer memory to fill. To resume playback press PLAY.

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Mission text source: Abo Trail Guide Brochure, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, published by Southwest Parks and Monuments Association,
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