Sandoval Signpost

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Mission San Jose de los Jemez

The ruins of Mission San Jose de los Jemez, and a long-forgotten camposanto, those who walk the trail say it is like traveling back through more than seven hundred years of culture and tradition.


A reconstructed kiva at the site of the ancient ruins of the village of Giusewa.

The Giusewa Trail

—Margaret M. Nava, Signpost

A 1,400-foot trail winds through the ancient ruins of the village of Giusewa, located within the Jemez State Monument on Highway 4 just north of Jémez Springs. Passing by crumbled dwellings, collapsed kivas, the ruins of a church, and a long-forgotten camposanto, those who walk the trail say it is like traveling back through more than seven hundred years of culture and tradition. However, although the short trek seems scenic and peaceful, the history of this place is filled with struggle, loss, and sorrow.

One of numerous pueblos scattered throughout the surrounding canyons and mesas, Giusewa (pronounced Gee-éh-she-wuh) was probably inhabited sometime around A.D. 1500. Named after the many natural hot springs or “boiling waters” occurring in the area, the “Hemish” people who lived there cultivated crops; hunted wild game; crafted baskets, pottery, and turquoise jewelry; traded with other tribes; and spoke the Towa dialect of the Tanoan language family. The village they built consisted of a series of earthen buildings, plazas, and subterranean kivas where they held spiritual ceremonies.

For many years, the Hemish lived a serene, almost idyllic life, before Spanish conquistadors discovered their village. The first was Captain Francisco de Barrio-Nuevo in 1541. The Rodriquez-Chamuscado Expedition entered the area in 1581, followed by the Espejo Expedition in 1583 and Juan de Oñate in 1598.

Franciscan missionaries accompanied the Spanish colonizers. One was Father Alonso de Lugo who designed the original mission church at Giusewa. Built with Indian labor, this temporary structure housed a small church, a convento or office, a living room, and the priest’s bedroom. By the mid-1600s, additional rooms were added and in 1621, a massive fortress-like church with an octagonal-shaped bell tower and eight-foot-thick walls was attached to the existing complex.

The Mission San José de los Jémez (also known as San José de Giusewa and San Diego de los Jémez), contained a large nave, a sanctuary and sacristy, and several small chapels. Clerestory windows and limestone pilasters and plinths lined the nave. Brightly colored frescoes were painted on the interior walls and religious figures and wooden statues adorned the altar screen. Overhead, forty-five-foot-long vigas supported the thirty-three-foot-high ceiling and underfoot, puddle adobe functioned as the floor. This was where Giusewans knelt and struggled to integrate Christian beliefs with the traditions of their people, a task next to impossible for many.

Life at Giusewa was never easy. Aside from dealing with unpredictable, often harsh weather conditions, the Pueblo people were forced to endure unjust taxation, religious suppression, and relentless persecution for infractions of Spanish rules. In 1645, a Spaniard was killed at Jemez and Spanish officials retaliated by hanging twenty-nine villagers, whipping others, and selling still others into slavery. In 1680, all the pueblos joined together in the effective execution of the Pueblo Revolt. The people at Giusewa murdered their priest, Fray Juan de Jesus Maria, set fire to the church, and drove the Spaniard invaders from their homeland. But life for the Hemish people was never the same. Twelve years later, the Spanish returned and, shortly thereafter, the people of Giusewa abandoned their village and relocated farther down the canyon to the present-day pueblo known as “Walatowa“ meaning, “This is the place.”

As you walk this trail, take time to consider what life must have been like for the people who lived in Giusewa. Pause at the kiva with its reconstructed roof, ladder, and fire pit and visualize villagers gathered inside. All they all men or are there women there as well? Is there a fire? What does it smell like? Walk through the church, look to where the choir loft once stood, and listen for melodic voices resonating throughout the massive structure. Are the people singing in Spanish or in their native tongue? Do they seem joyous or downtrodden? Look at the bell tower and imagine climbing the spiral staircase that led to the now-silenced bell. Who would have rung that bell—a native or a friar? Listen to the wind blowing through the pines and junipers. Smell their heady fragrance. Watch the birds as they flit from one tree to another. Are these descendants of birds that lived here seven hundred years ago? Enjoy a leisurely picnic beneath the shelter of the surrounding rocks. What would a Giusewan have eaten? Visit the Heritage Center and view exhibits that tell the story of the site through the words of the Jémez people.

Alex Tosa, a ranger at the monument, said, “It is important for people to visit and learn about the monument, because it’s an archaeological site and we want people to know what Jemez and its people are all about.” Remembering the lessons of the past can be a guide to the future.

In 1935, the Act for the Preservation of the Scientific Resources of New Mexico designated the seven-acre ruins of Giusewa as “historic and prehistoric structures,” entitled to proper care, management, and protection. One of the first state monuments, it is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Wednesday through Monday, but is closed on Tuesdays. Although there is a small entrance fee, Sunday admission for New Mexico residents is free, as is Wednesday admission for New Mexico seniors. If you go, enjoy your visit—take nothing but memories; leave nothing but footprints.


Al Packer

Packer was an American gold prospector and convicted cannibal. On February 9, 1874, he left with five others for an expedition in the Colorado mountains. Two months later Packer returned from the expedition alone.  

Winter camping can be hazardous to your health

—Andrew Gulliford, Writers on the Range

One hundred thirty-five years ago this spring, a six-week ordeal began for Alferd E. Packer. The starving and disoriented man stopped eating wild rose hips. Trapped in the deep snows of the San Juan Mountains of western Colorado, he began gnawing on the corpses of his deceased comrades. Thus began one of the West’s most grisly and enduring legends and murder mysteries.

Packer had been part of a larger band of 20 gold-seekers who left Utah and split up into two groups. On Feb. 9, 1874, he and five other prospectors departed Chief Ouray’s winter camp. Instead of accepting the chief’s gracious offer to stay, the would-be miners foolishly headed out into deep snow.

Packer later stated, “Three or four days after our provisions were all consumed, we took our moccasins, which were made of raw hide, and cooked them. . . . Our trail was entirely drifted over. In places, the snow had blown away from patches of wild rose bushes, and we were gathering the buds from these bushes, stewing them and eating them.”

Packer left Utah with few provisions and no weapons. Nine weeks later at the Los Pinos Indian Agency south of present day Gunnison, Colo., he arrived with a Winchester rifle, a skinning knife and a coffeepot containing live coals. He looked surprisingly fit.

Packer drifted over to Dolan’s saloon to play high stakes poker and bought a $70 horse. Another of the original gold-seekers arrived and asked him where he had gotten his spending money. Packer reluctantly admitted that the small band had starved in the San Juans. After Israel Swan, the oldest member of the group, died from hunger and exposure, Packer admitted they had eaten him.

Jailed in Saguache, Packer escaped, changed his identity and was arrested in Wyoming before being returned to Hinsdale County for trial. The area northeast of Lake City where Packer’s party became lost is now listed on maps as Cannibal Plateau. The site where the bodies were found five miles beyond town is known as Deadman’s Gulch.

After being recaptured, Packer said that while he was out trying to find the Indian Agency, Shannon Bell killed James Humphrey, George Noon and Frank Miller as they slept around the campfire. Packer had been out searching for food, and when he returned to camp, a raging Shannon Bell accosted him with a hatchet. Packer said he fired twice with a pistol, shooting Bell in self-defense.

He explained that after killing Bell, “I tried to get away every day, but could not, so I lived on the flesh of these men the greater part of the 60 days I was out. Then the snow began to have a crust and I started out up the creek….” His lawyer mounted a spirited defense but Packer went off to prison for 17 years before the Denver Post petitioned to have him released. In the penitentiary he made horsehair bridles and built elaborate Victorian dollhouses. Though Packer died in 1907, his misspelled name and his reputation lives on. You might say he’s evolved from Old West infamy to New West celebrity.

The Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction contains a rusted 1862 Colt Police Model, .32 five-shot revolver with two shots fired. Mesa State College’s Electron Microscopy Facility proved that bullet fragments exhumed from the burial site match lead from the old pistol found in the 1950s on the Cannibal Plateau. Perhaps Packer really did shoot Shannon Bell in self-defense. Museum curator David Bailey believes so: “Alferd didn’t deny he ate the bodies, but he killed only in self defense. It’s never too late for the truth. He was wrongly convicted.”

His memory is alive and well in Lake City as well, where “Al Packer Days,” the Packer Burger at the Cannibal Grill and a large wooden marker proclaiming the Alferd Packer Massacre Site are popular attractions. Students at the University of Colorado in Boulder renamed their student union restaurant the Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grill, and in print there’s Alferd Packer’s Wilderness Cookbook. Two students at the University of Colorado’s film school, who later created the TV hit South Park, produced Cannibal! The Musical! But like Packer’s companions, the film was short-lived.

Prospectors nowadays rarely trudge through deep snows searching for gold mines. Still, we have lots of backcountry skiers, boarders and snowshoers heading for deep powder. However you choose to enjoy the high country, take a lesson from the Al Packer story: Keep your gear in good condition, carefully choose your companions, and take a few extra granola bars -- just in case.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.






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