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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
 Indian Culture
 Spanish Influence
 Partially restored
 Many excavations
 National Monuments


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Salinas Pueblo Missions
Pueblos of the Salinas Valley

In the stones of the Salinas Valley pueblo ruins are faint echoes of the communities that lived there 300 years ago. Before they left the area in the 1670s, Pueblo Indians forged a stable agricultural society whose members lived in apartment-like complexes and participated, through rule and ritual, in the cycles of nature.

Two ancient southwestern cultural traditions, the Ancestral Puebloans-often called Anasazi-and Mogollon, overlapped in the Salinas Valley to produce the later societies at Abo, Gran Quivira, and Quarai. These groups had roots as far back as 7,000 years ago and were themselves preceded by nomadic Indians who may have arrived as early as 20,000 years ago.

As the southwestern cultures evolved, better agricultural techniques from Mexico and the migration of Tompiro- and Tiwa-speaking peoples from the Rio Grande spurred the growth of settlements in the Salinas Valley. By the 900s substantial Mogollon villages flourished here. The dwellers practiced minimal agriculture supplemented by hunting and gathering, made a simple red or brown pottery, and lived in pit houses and, later, above-ground jacales of adobe-plastered poles. By the late 1100s the Anasazi tradition from the Colorado Plateau, introduced through the Cibola (Zuni) district and Rio Grande pueblos, began to assimilate the Mogollon.

The contiguous stone-and-adobe homes of the Anasazi represented the earliest stage of the pueblo society later encountered by the Spanish. Over the next few hundred years the Salinas Valley became a major trade center and one of the most populous parts of the Pueblo world, with perhaps 10,000 or more inhabitants in the 1600s. Located along major trade routes, the villagers were both producers and middlemen between the Rio Grande villages and the plains tribes to the east. They traded maize, pinon nuts, beans, squash, salt, and cotton goods for dried buffalo meat, hides, flints, and shells.

By 1300 the Anasazi culture was dominant, although the Salinas area always lagged behind the Anasazi heartland to the north in cultural developments. Brush-and-mud jacales had evolved into large stone complexes, some with hundreds of rooms, surrounding kiva-studded plazas. Besides the plants already mentioned, the inhabitants ate wild plants, raised turkeys, and hunted rabbits, deer, antelope, and bison. They wore breech cloths, bison robes, antelope and deer hides, and decorative blankets of cotton and yucca fiber. Turquoise and shell jewelry, obtained by trade, brightened rituals.

The Spaniards were impressed by the Pueblos' weaving, basketmaking, and fine blackon-white pottery, a technique the Salinas people borrowed from the Rio Grande pueblos. The Salinas pueblo dwellers were an adaptable people who drew what was useful from more advanced groups. But strong influences from the Zuni district, the Spanish explorers, and deteriorating relations with the Apaches to the east radically altered pueblo life. In the 1670s the Salinas villages were abandoned, and their peoples dispersed.

Native Southwestern Architecture

Native architecture The Salinas peoples' communal life was reflected in their shared-wall, stone-and-adobe pueblos. The earliest pueblos at some sites were concentric circles of wedgeshaped rooms surrounding a kiva. These were later covered by rectangular complexes with hundreds of rooms for living and storage. Daily chores were performedon roofs and in the plazas, which on religious days were stages for ceremonial dances.

Pit house
For centuries before pueblos were developed, Indians lived in pit houses covered with pole-and-mud frames.

The Coming of the Spaniards

Soon after Spain had conquered and colonized Mexico, tales of great wealth to the North drew explorers to New Mexico. Coronado's expedition in 1540 failed to turn up the fabled land of Quivira although the name and story lingered on. In 1598 a party led by Juan de Ornate came to New Mexico to plant a permanent colony. He called salt, which was abundant in Salinas, "one of the four riches of New Mexico," but the other expected riches-especially mines-failed to materialize. Agriculture too proved difficult in the harsh climate.

Relations with the Indians soured when the soldiers attempted to collect tribute to the Crown. Spain finally concluded that New Mexico would never be profitable. However, the Pope had charged the Spanish Crown with Christianizing the natives of the New World. Philip II therefore decided to maintain the colony, partly at the Crown's expense, as primarily a missionary effort. While many of the Franciscan missionaries were sincere and wellintentioned, the overlapping privileges granted to the church and civil authorities inevitably led to conflict between the Franciscans and the governors.

Relations with the pueblos were determined mainly through the encomienda system, in which ranking citizens (encomenderos) were appointed by the governor to provide protection, aid, and education to Indians and military support for the government in return for the privilege of collecting tribute. But the system was abused, and New Mexico was too remote for the exploitation to be checked by higher authorities.

The Franciscans tried to lighten the burden on the Indians, but the settlers and government refused to give up the profitable arrangement, and in any case, the friars themselves placed heavy demands on the pueblos to support the missions. Still, some changes brought by the Spanish were beneficial. Wheat and wheat bread, fruit trees, and grapes were introduced. Cattle, goats, and sheep became a fixed part of the economy. Craftsmen began working metal.

In the end cultural conflict and natural disaster devastated the Salinas pueblos. The Apaches, formerly trading partners, now raided the pueblos for food and in retribution for Spanish slave raids in which Pueblo Indians had participated. The Pueblos might have survived the raids, but they - and the Apaches and Spaniards - were hit during the 1660s and 1670s with drought and wide-spread famine that killed 450 people at Gran Quivira alone.

Recurring epidemics further decimated the populace, which had little resistance to introduced diseases. The ability of the pueblos to withstand these disasters may have been weakened by the disruption of their culture under Spanish rule.

In any event, the Salinas pueblos and missions were abandoned during the 1670s, and the surviving Indians went to live with cultural relatives in other pueblos. In 1680 the pueblos north of Salinas, in an uncharacteristic show of unity, revolted and expelled the Spaniards from New Mexico.

In the general exodus of Indians and Spaniards, the Piro and Tompiro survivors of the Salinas pueblos moved south with the Spaniards to the El Paso area. They were absorbed by Indian communities there, making them the only linguistic group among the Pueblo Indians during the historic period to lose their language and their homeland.

A Clash of Religions

Spanish PadreThe Spanish and Pueblo priests viewed each other's religions through the lens of their own cultures.

To pueblo leaders who directed collective rituals to influence a pantheon of gods, the Christian stress on the relationship between one god and one human was alien. The Franciscans, regarding the pueblo religion as idola try, told the Indians that their salvation depended on their willingness to undergo religious instruction.

The missions for this purpose were self-sufficient communities that included the pueblo, church, friars' quarters, work areas, and the pueblo's fields and hunting and gathering areas.

Indians were instructed in European crafts and husbandry in an attempt to bring them into the Spanish society. The process was intended to culminate in citizenship in the Spanish Empire.

But suppressing the masked Kachina dances and kiva rituals proved difficult for the priests. They were thwarted by the local civil authorities, who pressured them to speed up the conversion so the new Christians could work for the settlers, then encouraged the Indians to continue the ancient dances.

The Inquisition came to the priests' aid. The Indians, caught in the middle, were not subject to the Inquisition, but a Spaniard who encouraged idolatry did so at great risk.

European style to native materials Priest-architects in New Mexico adapted European styles to native materials.

Kachina DancerEvery Pueblo Indian was a member of one of the religious kiva societies into which the pueblo was divided.

The rules were stringent in these highly organized theocracies, but in times of illness or need the individual could expect aid from his or her groupand was obligated to offer it to others. The survival of the group was the motivating principle of the Pueblo religion.

A communal effort was needed to bring rain, seed fertility, and dependable harvests. Participation in the rituals by the entire group maintained the universal harmony that allowed plants-and humans-to flourish.

Kachina spirits, who no longer lived on Earth, were crucial to the Pueblos, for they carried human prayers to the gods.

When the Kachina dancers performed the correct movements the Kachinas heard them, and if the people were leading good lives, the gods heeded their requests.

The Pueblo priests at first were willing to accept the new Christian god and saints into their pantheon, but soon concluded that these deities wouldn't heed -or weren't powerful enough - to grant their supplications for summer rain and fruitful harvests.

When some Franciscans destroyed the Kachina masks and burned the sacred kivas, the break was complete. In the century after the Reconquest of 1692, Spanish officials relented and allowed the practice of native religions alongside Christianity, but the change of heart came too late for the Salinas pueblos. They had been abandoned a few years before the revolt.

Above text and image source: Site brochure, National Park Service, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, New Mexico

Salinas Pueblo Missions - The Book

In the middle of New Mexico, the grama-grass plains of the Estancia Basin spread like a tan carpet between desert mountain ranges. A lone bee patrols the purple cholla cactus blossoms, and the red and yellow "firewheels" turn slowly to follow the sun. Broad pastures, with fences that disappear in the distance, rise to the gentle highlands surrounding this basin.

Here in this remote, quiet valley, the weathered ruins of three Indian villages and their Spanish colonial missions are preserved in the three units of Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. The silence belies the remarkable human history of this place, and the ultimately tragic drama that unfolded here in the seventeenth century, when the expanding empire of Spain finally reached these peaceful Indian towns.

The bedrock that rims this basin lies almost hidden beneath the dark green pinyon and juniper trees. Part of it is the dark red shale and sandstone of the Abo formation, laid down on coastal plains 250 million years ago. To the south the outcrops are gray, slightly younger San Andres limestone, formed when Permian seas swept over southern New Mexico. To the west rise ....

To read the full book, section by section, open the following PDF files:

Section 1 - Beginnings Open file 146 Kb
Section 2 - Settling Down Open file 155 Kb
Section 3 - Towns On The Landscape Open file 409 Kb
Section 4 - Men From Across The Sea Open file 157 Kb
Section 5 - Building The Churches Open file 482 Kb
Section 6 - Life In A Mission Open file 143 Kb
Section 7 - The Church And State In Conflict Open file 149 Kb
Section 8 - Drought, Famine And Departure Open file 141 Kb
Section 9 - Epilogue Open file 124 Kb

The Salt Missions Trail ... New Mexico's Scenic Byways

The Salt Missions Trail Scenic Byway is one of 24 state designated Scenic and Historic Byways and six of these are National Scenic Byways. The Salt Missions Trail is approximately 140 miles long and roughly follows NM 333, NM 41, US 60, NM 513, NM 55, NM 337 and NM 131. Map of this trail may be viewed
Map source: http://www.heartnm.com/english/trip4_saltmission_lgmap.html.

The tour should start at the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument Visitors Center at the headquarters in Mountainair. This is located one block west of the U.S. 60 and N M. 55 junction. The Visitors Center is open 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM daily. Phone: 575-847-2585. Once you are finished at the Visitors Center and have armed yourself with maps and information, head nine miles west of Mountainair on US 60 and one-half mile north on N.M. 513 to Abo.

Abo MissionAbó ... The unexcavated pueblo ruins at Abo date back to the 1300s though there is evidence that Mogollon pit house builders had occupied the area beginning around 1150 AD.

Located in a pass that opens to the Rio Grande Valley, this was a major trading center for the area. Fray Francisco Fonte built a small church at Abo beginning in about 1622. Then in 1629, Francisco de Acevedo, who was assigned to the Salinas district by officials in Santa Fe, enlarged the Mission of San Gregorio de Abo to reflect its importance as the headquarters church of the Salinas district.

This church, which was completed in 1659, employs buttresses on the 40-foot high walls. It is one of the few remaining examples of medieval architecture in the United States.

At Abó and at Quarai, kivas or underground ceremonial chambers were built in the patios of the conventos. The presence of both Christian and Pueblo sacred buildings and symbols indicates that both belief systems were being maintained at these sites.

For detailed information on this Mission follow the link below ...

"The Abó Mission"

Quarai MissionQuarai ... Quari is located eight miles north of Mountainair near the village of Punta de Aqua on N.M. 55.

Sitting in a grassy meadow in the shadow of 10,000-foot high Manzano Peak are the ruins of the Mission La Purísima Concepción de Cuarac (Quari). The magnificent red sandstone ruins of the mission at Quari have walls five feet thick and 40 feet high. Quari is smallest of the three ruins but the church here is the most complete.

In 1630, Fray Estevan de Perea who was one of the most influential figures in the colonial New Mexican church directed the construction of the mission. The cruciform church was 50 by 104 feet. The adjoining convent and pueblo enclosed three plazas and a number of kivas or underground ceremonial rooms used by the Indians of the pueblo.

For detailed information on this Mission follow the link below ...

"The Quarai Mission"

Gran Quivira MissionGran Quivira ... Gran Quivira lies 25 miles south of Mountainair on N.M. 55.

At Gran Quivira, two missions were constructed high on a barren, wind-swept hill along side the Pueblo de las Humanas. The first church was called San Isidro and was built in 1629 by Fray Juan Letrado and thirty years later a much larger and more imposing mission was built by Fray Diego de Santander. This church, which was called San Buenaventura, was never finished.

Unlike the missions at Abo and Quari that were constructed of red sandstone, the pueblo and missions at Gran Quivira were built using thousands of pieces of carefully fitted limestone bound together with adobe mortar.

Prior to the coming of the Spaniards the Pueblo de las Humanas was an important trade center and the largest of the Salinas Pueblos and the only one that has been excavated.

For detailed information on this Mission follow the link below ...

"The Gran Quivira Mission"

All three units of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument are open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day from 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM. There are no entrance fees. Picnic facilities are available but there is no camping within any of the units. More information about the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument can be found on their home page at http://www.nps.gov/sapu/.

Above Mission text source: http://www.heartnm.com/english/trip4_saltmission_lgmap.html.
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