It would be difficult for anyone to travel through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado without encountering signs of its original inhabitants. Archaeological evidence stretched back for millennia. Ruins defined an era of large, complex settlements beginning more than a thousand years ago. Their descendants still lived in the area, preserving a rich tradition and culture. The clash between archaic and modern bewildered me at times. It differed so completely from my experience on the Atlantic coast where a building from the Seventeenth Century would be considered "ancient."
Our journey went backwards in time, from the current day to successively older epochs. I hadn’t planned it that way. It simply unfolded as we drove along.
People still lived in Taos Pueblo, perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. I didn’t see the Pueblo during my visit to Taos in 2013 so I made a special point to get there this time around. My older son accompanied me. My wife and younger son decided to take a rest day back at Angel Fire, at a higher altitude with lower temperatures. The desert climate of Taos climbed into the mid 90’s that day (35° Celsius). Our first contribution to the pueblo economy got us two bottles of cold water.
Taos Pueblo (map) stood distinctly apart from the nearby town of the same name. Native Americans speaking a variant of Tiwa, a Tanoan language, first settled there about a thousand years ago. They built multistory adobe structures, from mud and straw supported by log beams, on both sides of a gently flowing stream at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The called themselves the Red Willow people and they prospered in a large farming community. The Coronado expedition arrived there in 1540, beginning a long era of Spanish contact. Pueblo structures that Coronado would have recognized appeared much the same to modern visitors. Only the addition of a church sometime around 1620 changed the landscape inside its walls dramatically.
Somehow, against all odds, descendants of the original inhabitants still occupied and owned Taos Pueblo. Little shops selling traditional crafts occupied many of the ground floor rooms today. However, no electricity or plumbing served these ancient places. I’d heard that a few people still lived within the pueblo although most occupied modern homes just beyond its gates. Its buildings also needed constant maintenance to keep their earthen walls from washing back into the desert during summer storms. The whole experience seemed otherworldly. No wonder it made the UNESCO World Heritage site list.
Pecos National Historical Park
The residents of Pecos Pueblo (map) didn’t fare as well. Their settlement started around the same time as Taos, about a thousand years ago, and it prospered for centuries. Perhaps two thousand people filled its towering adobe structures during its apex. They chose their location well. This high ground separated the Rio Grande valley from the Great Plains. That allowed the people of Pecos, known as the Cicuique, to become middlemen in a vast trading network. They controlled contact between the Pueblo tribes to which they belonged, and various migratory tribes of the plains. This brought wealth, prosperity and power to the village. The Coronado expedition encountered Pecos at its peak, at a time when it dominated the region.
However, the situation slowly changed over the next couple of centuries. Spain eventually consolidated its governance in nearby Santa Fe, about eighteen miles (30 kilometres) to the northwest. Previously unknown European diseases such as smallpox ravaged the population. Great Plains tribes like the Comanche raided and harassed its inhabitants. Only a handful of people remained by 1838 when they finally abandoned their ancestral home and moved to Jemez Pueblo.
Pecos Pueblo became a ghost town, crumbling slowly back into the mesa. The largest remaining structure actually reflected Spanish rule, a church dating back to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Only the bare outlines of residences and ceremonial kivas remained elsewhere throughout the site, accompanied by a couple of modern reconstructions hinting at its former glory. The few surviving ruins of Pecos Pueblo became a national park property in the 1960’s.
I loved this photo by the way — perhaps my favorite from the trip.
Bandelier National Monument
Another pueblo rose during that same era near the present city of Los Alamos. Unlike Taos and Pecos, the people at Bandelier (map) did not build their village upon an open plain. Instead they used local geology to their advantage. Sheer cliff walls defined nearby mesas, with layers of soft volcanic stone called tuff. People could dig into the tuff to create rooms. They could also carve holes that anchored logs to attach external buildings. Thus, the pueblo grew in three directions, out from the cliff, into the cliff, and up.
However, the ancestral Pueblo residents left Bandelier before Europeans arrived. Early Spanish explorers found only ruins, long abandoned. Oral tradition and archaeological evidence pointed towards overpopulation and an extended drought. The people who lived there likely migrated from their Frijoles Creek homeland to more successful pueblos in the Rio Grande valley.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Mesa Verde National Park
Pueblos in Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde also rose and fell before Spanish explorers arrived. I’ve written about Chaco and Mesa Verde previously based upon my visits there many years ago, so I won’t repeat their stories again. However, for the sake of completeness, I offer a couple of pictures I took during my recent trip.
This was a nice overlook of Pueblo Bonito (map) at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
And this was part of the scenery at Mesa Verde’s Sun Point View (map)
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See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr