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Hand-drawn topographical map from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) era (late 1930s to the early 1940s) shows forgotten details of Placitas.

1940 Works Progress Administration map gives clues to earliest Placitas history

—Sherrill Cloud and Bob Gajkowski

On October 9, at 12:30 p.m., at the Placitas Community Center, Las Placitas Presbyterian Church historian Sherrill Cloud and Bob Gajkowski of the Placitas History Project will give an interactive presentation about the early history of Placitas Village.

A hand-drawn topographical map from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) era (late 1930s to the early 1940s) shows the names of some of the Placitas area arroyos. Few roads existed then, and names were not given to roads until the 1970s. Many current roads reflect the early names given to arroyos and places by the settlers. Also drawn on the map were legends, identifying locations of houses and landmarks from the 1800s and early 1900s. As an example, two legends reference a location “ the house that Juan built.” Unfortunately “Juan” was a very common name back then and no family name is given. However, through some detailed and often frustrating detective work, many of the cryptic references have now been identified.

During the WPA era, Ms. Lou Sage Batchen, who was part of the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project, lived in Placitas. She collected stories from descendants of the earliest Placitas settlers—descendants who often had heard the stories from the actual participants. Batchen’s stories were archived by the WPA and, in 1972, several of them were published in Las Placitas Historical Facts and Legends. In 2000, a greater number of the Batchen stories were published in Women’s Tales from the New Mexico WPA. By reading through the 328 pages of this “La Diablo a Pie” (WPA) text that included the Batchen stories, some of the map’s riddles were solved. “Juan” became “Juan Armijo” after his family history developed. Thus it appears that the map may have been drawn by someone familiar with the Batchen stories, someone who recognized the interest in, and the importance of, preserving the history of the community.

Despite the research that has been done with the WPA map, many unanswered questions remain. Where was the Village torreon (watchtower) located in the 1830s to 1840s? Do its foundations still exist? What was the location of the small, one-room structure that served as the earliest Catholic house of worship in the Village from about the 1840s until the San Antonio Mission was built? When did the area identified on the map as “the plaza,” and described as an open area in the center of the Village, cease to be a plaza? Where was the penitente morado (house of worship) located?

The answers to these questions, as well as many others, have been raised by this WPA map. Join us to share your interest and knowledge, your family’s stories and memories, so that the history of this remarkable place called “Placitas” will not be lost to future generations.

Flat top highlands like Virgin Mesa in the Jemez Mountains, pictured above, were ideal for farming
Photo credit: —Matthew J. Barbour

Agricultural ingenuity and expertise among the Jemez People

—Matthew J. Barbour

The Jemez Mountains with its forested slopes, narrow valleys, and rocky crags appears at first glance unsuitable for agriculture. Certainly, no large-scale agricultural production exists there today. Yet, some of the earliest evidence of maize (corn) in the New Mexico is found there and an early Spanish account from 1583 estimates that this rugged terrain may have produced an agricultural yield large enough to support a population of as many as thirty thousand people. How is this possible?

Archaeologists have always maintained that Pueblo Peoples were masterful farmers. This is obvious even to the layperson when looking at the monumental architecture of places like Chaco Canyon or Canyon de Chelly. The high desert landscape of the Colorado Plateau is a harsh and unforgiving place, particularly for agrarian pursuits.

Yet even among other Pueblo Groups, the agricultural adaptations of the Jemez People are nothing short of extraordinary, and to some extent, unique. The Jemez People focused their agriculture away from streams and washes. They chose to farm the uplands instead of the lowlands. Even while the Jemez built large villages like other Pueblo Peoples, much of their emphasis was on disperse settlement and the utilization of the field house. All of these attributes make sense when viewed in relation to the distinct environment in which the Jemez People lived.

The Jemez Mountains have a number of small creeks and streams including the Guadalupe, Jemez, and Vallecitos Rivers. There are also many natural springs and almost an uncountable number of arroyos and washes. However, all of these water sources are located in rather narrow valleys that restrict the amount of arable land. Moreover, monsoon rains at the height of growing season often cause catastrophic flooding in these drainages, even now. These areas, while targeted for some agriculture, were risky ventures.

Instead, Jemez People chose to focus on the upland mesas. Compared to other portions of the American Southwest, rainfall is relatively abundant in the Jemez Mountains. While by no means plentiful, rainwater alone was adequate to grow locally adapted versions of maize, beans, squash, and cotton, among other agricultural products. The technique is known as dry farming and the Jemez Mountain mesas provided the greatest amount of flat, arable land.

There were other advantages conveyed by the mesa tops, as well. In the mountains, growing seasons can be short with cold weather coming earlier in the fall and lasting later into the spring. The mesa tops were at a higher elevation than the surrounding landscape. Instinctually, this would seem to suggest a cooler climate. However, cold air falls and hot air rises. The mesa tops provide a more moderate climate without the extreme highs and lows of the valleys below.

Furthermore, the Jemez did not just farm any mesa. They specifically chose those mesas with a south facing exposure to maximize solar gain. These mesas were environmentally optimized to provide the longest growing season possible within the mountain range.

There were setbacks to mesa-top farming. Most of the mesas selected were forested and the soil was relatively poor. Yet, the Jemez met these challenges through a disperse settlement pattern. Extensively clear cutting the foliage and intensively planting a particular plot of land would have required not only a large amount of labor, but would have depleted the nutritional value of the soil relatively quickly. Instead, they farmed among the trees. Their field houses, small single room structures, dotted the landscape with each family working a separate section of the woodland.

Admittedly, this is not the dogwood forest of mixed conifer we see today. Much of the current ecological state in the Jemez Mountains is a result of logging industries and fire suppression in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. Past forests of the Jemez Mountains would have consisted primarily of mature ponderosa pine. One environmental reconstructionist estimated a count of only twenty trees per acre during the prehistoric era.

The Jemez agricultural system was so successful that technological innovations brought in with the Spanish, such as the plow, did little to disrupt the traditional cultural practices. New crops were incorporated into the fields as were livestock—particularly sheep. Archaeologically, the greatest shift appears to have been in the layout of the field house, which shifted towards a two-room structure: one for living quarters and the other for domesticated animals. Yet, these changes were relatively minor. Unlike their fellow Pueblos, there appears to have been little desire among the Jemez for acequia-based irrigation or crop intensification.

Yet, change did come. Disease and warfare swept through the Jemez Mountains during the seventeenth century, culminating with the Pueblo Revolts of 1680 and 1696. Jemez resistance to change ultimately led to the systematic destruction of their way of life under colonial rule. By the turn of the eighteenth century, the Jemez People were forced, under penalty of death, from their mountain fields and homes to settle at the current day Jemez Pueblo of Walatowa. Since then, the mesa tops have laid fallow.

The expertise and ingenuity the Jemez People demonstrated in their traditional agricultural practices stands as a great example of what can be accomplished when the proper technique is applied to the appropriate environment. In an age where sustainability is in question, climate change inevitable, and our population continuing to increase at an alarming rate, the Jemez example can teach us a valuable lesson. Agricultural success begins with us knowing and understanding the environment that surrounds us.

Placitas Sage to host community meeting

Do you love living in Placitas? Do you want to age in place here? Do you also want to downsize from your large home? Placitas Sage Cohousing has the answers. Our next public meeting will be on October 4, from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m., at the Placitas Community Center, at 41 Camino de las Huertas.

Placitas Sage is developing a community of town homes on an eight-acre site for proactive seniors. A centralized common house will enable residents to share some meals, do arts and crafts, and watch big-screen TV or movies. Having guest bedrooms in the common house means that individually-owned residences, ranging from eight hundred to 1200 square feet, will no longer need to include infrequently used space.

Our site, on Highway 165 at Camino del Torreon, offers beautiful views of the Sandias, lovely cottonwoods in the arroyos, and a distant vista toward the Jemez Mountains. Fifty percent of the site will be preserved as open space.

Nine of the twenty homes have already been reserved by an eclectic mix of artists, teachers, engineers, and business people, mostly retired. Early commitment to Placitas Sage reserves a choice of location, as well as a discount on the price of the home.

A day-long Home Design Workshop will be held on October 12, with Bryan Bowen, a leading cohousing architect. Nonmembers are invited to participate with a three-hundred-dollar registration fee. For more information, call Joyce at 404-8553 or go to our website at

Movies made in New Mexico returns

—Bob Gajkowski

Lights! Camera! Action! On November 2, at 2:00 p.m., the Collins “Theatre,” at the Placitas Library, will host film historian Jeff Berg as he presents another in his ”Movies Made in New Mexico” series.

After a triumphant premiere at the Placitas Library earlier this year, Mr. Berg invites his audience to again return with him to the recent past as he wanders through many films shot here in the Land of Enchantment. With film clips dating from an early 1897 Thomas Edison short feature through the War epics, and Westerns of the 30s and 40s, to the dramas and Blockbusters of today, Berg will entertain you with his behind-the-scenes stories, trivia, irreverent comments, and caustic wit.

Mr. Berg presents his programs statewide as he travels from his base of operations at the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe to the far reaches of the Land of Enchantment. Popcorn will be served.

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