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Pecos Pueblo Ruin

Light streams into the reconstructed kiva, emphasizing the mystery of the kacina ceremonials that took place there.

Pecos Church

Remains of the church, now more than three hundred years old, sit south of the pueblo.

Pecos Pueblo: A ruin that still speaks to us

—Bud Russo, Explore! New Mexico

It’s Sunday morning. I am standing on a broad bench of land in the Pecos River Valley. I can trace Glorieta Creek below by the string of leafy cottonwoods. The Pecos is farther east.

A half moon lies like a mother of pearl shell in the flawless, silken blue tapestry of the sky. The sun is unabated by clouds.

There are forested mountains nearby: the Santa Fe Mountains to the north and Glorieta Mesa to the south. But in the swale of the valley, there’s grassland punctuated by juniper and piñon, like phrases in a concerto. I listen to the voice of the wind in the trees; inhale the heady scent of pine. In the distance, ravens congregate and dance on thermals, calling to each other, discussing the day’s events.

I am not alone. The spirits of the ancient ones are watching.

On a ridge, a quarter mile distant, stands the remains of the Pecos pueblo, just a mound of drifted sand and soil. The buildings in which these Puebloans once lived now sleep beneath this vague earthen ridge covered in gamma grasses, chamisa, and cholla cactus.

I came to the Pecos National Historic Park for a Civil War history lesson. This was where the last Civil War battle in New Mexico was fought. But I found much more—a broader history, one carrying me back in time, some twelve thousand years ago.

In the visitor center, there is a short video highlighting the history of the people who have lived here. There is also a museum with an excellent summation of this history. Panels, intricate dioramas, and exceptional artifacts lead the visitor from the Paleo-Indians of 10,000 B.C., through the arrival of the Spanish, the Comanche threat, and the American Period emphasizing the Santa Fe Trail, Civil War, and arrival of the railroad.

The earliest people at Pecos were hunter-gatherers who eventually learned the rudiments of farming and settled on the land, living in pit houses. Conflicts with other tribes forced them to move to the bench of land high above the river. Here they could defend themselves. Here they began building their pueblo.

These were the Towa people, related to the Jémez, and they called their home cicuye. Because of its location between the Puebloan nations to the west and the nomadic Plains tribes to the east, Pecos became a trade center. With trade came wealth and, with wealth, growth.

By the time the Spanish arrived, Pecos was perhaps the largest pueblo in New Mexico. A quarter mile long and a couple hundred feet wide, the pueblo had as many as three thousand rooms forming a perimeter around a large central plaza.

The Spanish came to “pacify“ and “civilize“ the native people. The Franciscans traveling with the army and colonists came to convert the natives from their kacina religion to Christianity. There was nearly as much conflict between the secular and religious segments of Spanish society as there was between the Spanish and Towas. Unfortunately for the natives, the government and church joined ranks in subduing them. Bows and arrows were no competition to arquebuses and cannon and swords.

Having subdued the Towas, the Spanish commenced building a church. The first was constructed around 1620, and it wasn’t your typical mission chapel. The friars wanted something grand and built the equivalent of a cathedral, 150 feet long from entrance to alter. It required three hundred thousand adobe bricks and had walls twenty-two feet thick and roof beams as long as forty-one feet. With six towers and a crenellated parapet, the mission looked more like a fortress. And, of course, all the labor was supplied by the Puebloans, who had been reduced to virtual slavery.

The Puebloans threw the Spanish out of New Mexico during the revolt in 1680, but they came back twelve years later. And stayed. They built another church in 1717 on the foundation of the first, it having been burned to the ground, and they allegedly provided security and justice. In some measure, they did.

As the two cultures were integrated, new threats emerged. The Plains Indians had learned how to use horses, and the Comanche raided the Pecos pueblo frequently. The constant pressures of new diseases introduced by Europeans, predation by the Comanche, and migration to other pueblos reduced the population of Pecos until at the turn of the nineteenth century, fewer than three hundred people remained. By the time Anglo settlers arrived along the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, Pecos was a virtual ghost town. The last survivors left the pueblo in 1838, joining their Towa-speaking relatives at the Jémez pueblo, where their descendants live today.

I walked the pueblo and mission ruin trail. It is gravel and wheelchair accessible. From the visitor center, the trail rises toward the high ground, carrying me through trees I suspect have been planted to landscape the grounds. But they also hide the church from view, and it seems to burst into existence as I clear the last of the junipers. Sitting on the south end of the bench, its massive, ruddy-red walls intrude into the natural surroundings. It seems out of place as much as it is out of time.

The trail circles the pueblo. Parts of it were skillfully excavated by Alfred V. Kidder over twelve field seasons beginning in 1915. But it’s been eighty years since Kidder’s work, and the land has returned to what it has looked like for more than a century—a grass- and cacti-covered mound.

Some of the pueblo has remained restored so I get a sense of how large the block rooms were and how many could be conjoined.

One of the kivas, most of which had been filled in by the friars, has been excavated and restored. I climb the ladder into the subterranean chamber. It’s dark and mysterious. I can see the fire pit and the ventilation hole. I can also see the sipapu, the hole from the interior of the earth through which the first people emerged—a basic tenant of the kacina creation story. The bright sunlight forms a halo around the entrance, and I am left with the impression of climbing from the underworld into a day bright with light and life.

Along the trail there are information panels explaining the structure of the pueblo and what activities may have occurred in various places within it. The last stop on the trail is at the church. It’s been there now nearly three hundred years. I can see why. The long side walls are massive with only one north-side and three south-side clerestory windows. There were twin bell towers defining the façade. They hardly rose above the roof, and between them is a narrow wooden balcony accessed by climbing through a choir loft window.

Much of the front of the church has fallen into ruin, leaving jagged, exposed walls that remind me of the stairways of Aztec temples. The building is sited in an east/west direction, with the sanctuary at the east end, typical of European cathedrals of the period. I walked the length of the nave and three steps up into the sanctuary.

On either side are two doorways with semi-circular arches that must have been difficult to construct through the thick walls. These doors led to the convento or the priest’s quarters. I can see the remains of those quarters along with workshops, corrals, kitchen, and gardens. They are quite extensive and speak of the permanence of the Franciscans’ intentions in converting and “civilizing” the Tano.

As I return to the visitor center, my mind is flooded with questions. In the stillness of this ruin, I wonder what it must have been like at its peak—a time when men and women labored for their families, traded with other bands, preserved their beliefs through their ceremonies. I could almost hear the chatter of people full of life, children laughing and playing, flutes and drums leading the dancers. There seems to have been a balance, a harmony, a oneness with nature. And I sense, although the Tano are gone, that harmony persists, as if it will once again emerge as if from a sipapu to guide the people—but then, maybe that’s just me on a beautiful New Mexico morning.

Travel writer Bud Russo is co-host of Explore! New Mexico, which is aired on radio stations around the state. For more information,  www.explorenm.blogspot.com.
© Explore! New Mexico 2009

When You Go…

Contact Information:

Pecos National Historical Park
PO Box 418
Pecos, New Mexico 87552
(505) 757-7200
Tours and special use permit: (505) 757-7212

How To Get There:

Pecos Pueblo is twenty-five miles east of Santa Fe, off of Interstate 25. Visitors travelling north on I-25, take exit 299 onto New Mexico Highway 50 to the Pecos village and south two miles on New Mexico Highway 63. Those travelling south take exit 307, five miles north to the park on Highway 63.

Fees and Hours:

There is a $3 fee per adult (eighteen years and older), allowing a seven-day visit.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the ruins trail and visitor center are open from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. During winter hours, the trail closes at 5:00 p.m. The visitor center is open until 4:30 p.m. during winter.

Facilities:

The visitor center offers exhibits, a short interpretive film, a museum, and a bookstore. It’s a good place to stop first and get oriented.

The nearby town of Pecos offers several places to eat or obtain the fixings for a picnic lunch. The nearest hotels and restaurants are in Santa Fe or Las Vegas.

 

     

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