Four Corners, Part 4 (Native Americans)

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.

Taos Pueblo

Taos Pueblo

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

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

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.

Chaco Culture

This was a nice overlook of Pueblo Bonito (map) at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Mesa Verde

And this was part of the scenery at Mesa Verde’s Sun Point View (map)

Articles in the Four Corners Series:

  1. Orientation
  2. Hikes
  3. Towns
  4. Native Americans
  5. Breweries
  6. Reflections

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Dust Bowl Adventure, Part 4 (On the Road)

The race series moved on to Colorado next. We’d intended to check-in to our hotel room in Lamar and sit by the pool, using that as an opportunity for our sole afternoon of rest. The hotel must have been busy the previous evening because our room wouldn’t be available for another three hours. We needed to find a way to fill the afternoon constructively. We consulted a map and noticed a national historic site about an hour away.

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I’d remembered hearing about the Sand Creek Massacre vaguely from history classes decades before. The site of the massacre was now one of the National Park Service’s newest properties, gaining official status in 2007. We decided to drive up to it.

Bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians established a camp along Sand Creek in November 1864. It was an ideal spot with abundant water, plenty of food, and set within a safe floodplain protected from the constant prairie winds. The camp stretched about a mile along the lower-elevated portion of the satellite image, above.

It was a friendly tribal gathering that had reported to a nearby fort on a mission of peace before establishing camp. Most of their warriors, completely assured of their safety, went onto the plains to hunt for bison. They left behind a gathering of mostly unarmed women, children and the elderly. U.S. troops under the command of Colonel John Chivington swept down on the encampment, ignored both a U.S. flag and a white flag of surrender hoisted by the tribes, and slaughtered an estimated 165 to 200 people without provocation.

Sand Creek Massacre
View from the bluff above the Sand Creek floodplain

The massacre receive widespread attention only because two of the U.S. officers refused orders and stood down their troops. Their complaints eventually reached all the way to the United States Congress which ordered an investigation, and which eventually condemned Chivington’s actions. Nonetheless, nobody was ever held accountable. Sand Creek was a turning point in the relationship between the U.S. government and the Plains Indians. There was "before Sand Creek" and "after Sand Creek." Warfare on the plains would last another quarter-century as a result.

The Sand Creek Massacre site has a powerful emotional impact upon those who visit. It marks an ugly, scary part of American history that deserves to be remembered.

Dinosaurs in New Mexico

We moved on to New Mexico the next day. The fifth and final race took place at Clayton Lake State Park the following morning. I’d seen Sauropod dinosaur tracks earlier on the trip at Black Mesa in Oklahoma. Those were a tad disappointing, honestly, a single line of tracks filled with sand and hard to discern even with exact coordinates in hand. (satellite view).

I’d heard about a much better set of tracks at Clayton Lake. Those were completely different from Black Mesa, with hundreds of tracks left behind by at least eight different dinosaur species, primarily varieties of plant-eating Iguanodonts. My photo represented only a small corner of a wide field of tracks. Unfortunately the location is totally washed out in satellite view.

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I’d put out a plea to the 12MC community before I left on my trip, asking for suggestions and recommendations for further adventures. Loyal reader Mike Lowe suggested Capulin Volcano National Monument. I’d never heard of it before although I noticed it was directly on our route and decided to add it to our itinerary.

Capulin Volcano National Monument

I’m glad we stopped. A road corkscrewed around the volcano exterior to the lowest point of the rim. From there, one could park and then venture around the rim on a one-mile hike. The views were stunning.

Thank you, Mike!

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Finally, with all of the races behind us, we ventured out on our own for a couple of days. We made it as far west as Taos, New Mexico the following day.

Rio Grande Taos NM

As featured in a previous article, the Rio Grande River doesn’t simply form a border between Texas and México. It originates deeper within the United States and slices all the way through New Mexico before heading down to Texas. This includes a spectacular gorge west of Taos best viewed from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Here one can stand hundreds of feet above the river as it passes through the canyon that it dug into the solid stone of the valley floor.

We also stopped at the Greater World Earthship Community nearby.

Self-Sufficient Houses

This was an unusual housing development constructed by Earthship Biotechture. Houses are self-sustaining and built of discarded materials such as automobile tires, glass bottles and aluminum cans. Many of them were above-ground although I liked the one in this photo the best. It reminded me of the fictional home of Luke Skywalker on Tatooine.

I have one more wrap-up article on the Dust Bowl Adventure and then I’ll return to the normal diet of geo-oddities.

The Dust Bowl Adventure articles:

The Country Club Dispute

The Country Club Dispute has been mentioned a couple of times in reader comments over the years. It’s one of those situations I’ve known about for awhile, placed in my pile of unused topics, and finally summoned enough motivation to write about today. It sounds like two snobby gentlemen with upturned noses and green blazers whacking each other with 5 irons after learning they’re dating the same debutante. That’s what comes to mind every time I spot a passing reference to the Country Club Dispute, and it never fails to bring a little chuckle to my lips, even though I’m fully of the disconnect between reality and stereotype here.

It’s the reason why Texas and New Mexico have such a seemingly haphazard border northwest of El Paso. It also accounts for the only part of Texas on the "wrong" side of the Rio Grande River.

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Look at me! Wrong-side Texas!

I’ve discussed the formation of Texas so many times (for example) that I can’t stand to do it again. Let’s just say that Texas split from México, became an independent nation, then joined the United States. Later the U.S. purchased a slice of México that includes southern areas of modern Arizona and New Mexico, called the Gadsden Purchase (map). Are you with me? The Country Club Dispute revolved around the tiny 15-mile portion of border added between New Mexico (then a Territory) and Texas as a result of the purchase.

New Mexico became a state in 1912 and brought suit against Texas in 1913, disputing the border. The case went directly to the Supreme Court because it has original jurisdiction for interstate disputes as provided in Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. The Court appointed a "special master" who investigated the situation and filed a report. Ultimately this led to the Supreme Court case New Mexico v. Texas (1927).

I’ll let Justice Sanford explain.

Each State thus asserted that the true boundary line is the middle of the channel of the Rio Grande in 1850. Neither alleged that there had been any change in this line by accretions. And the only issue was as to the true location of the channel in that year… That is, broadly speaking, New Mexico contends that the river then ran on the eastern side of the valley, and Texas, that it ran mainly on the western side. The distance between the two locations midway of the disputed area is about four miles.

It’s quite visible on a terrain map.

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Notice the Franklin Mountains to the east and a slight rise in the terrain to the west. The Rio Grande has a history of sloshing between those two natural barriers which, as Justice Sanford noted, are about four miles apart. Both sides agreed that the border should follow the path of the Rio Grande as it existed in 1850. That wasn’t in dispute. The precise location of the river in 1850 was in fact the dispute.

New Mexico relied upon less precise witness evidence. The Court used what would now be considered unfortunate terminology — there’s mention of illiterate Indians and Mexicans — to make a larger point that witnesses relied upon imprecise memories of events occurring more than fifty or sixty years earlier. Texas relied upon "the Salazar-Diaz Survey of 1852, the Texas surveys of 1849 and 1860, the maps of the surveys made in 1852-1855 for the Joint Boundary commissions, and the Clark map of 1859."

The Court dismissed New Mexico’s claim. The Rio Grande separates a corner of Texas from the rest of the state to this day. There are also small slices of New Mexico placed similarly on the opposing side of the river.

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The resolution of the dispute, tracing a riverbed that no longer existed, created a modern situation overflowing with all sorts of wonderful practical exclaves. I think my favorite example is the vineyard in Canutillo, Texas "nestled between the majestic Franklin Mountains and the high plains where the Rio Grande cuts a lush green valley through the desert creating the Mesilla Valley Appellation.". Zin Valle Vineyards on Canutillo-La Union Road can be accessed only via New Mexico either from the north or the south. The same situation exists just to the east on Westside Road and several smaller lanes that emanate from it. The southernmost of the smaller lanes, Green Cove Drive, can be accessed from the outside world starting in New Mexico, driving into Texas, clipping New Mexico again, and ending in Texas (map). Lucky residents.

Why was it the Country Club Dispute, though?

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The disputed lands were referred to generally as the Country Club Area because that’s where the El Paso Country Club established itself in 1906 (its current location dates to 1922). That, in turn, increased the desirability of the land which was sold in lots. Paradoxically the Country Club’s history page does not mention its prominent role in sparking an interstate dispute and a Supreme Court case.