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Ceremonial dancers at Jemez Historic Site

Buffalo dancer

Corn dancers

Shield dancers

Photo credit: —Photos courtesy of Jemez Historic Site

Demography in Jemez Province

—Matthew J. Barbour, Manager, Jemez Historic Site

One of the questions mostly commonly asked by those visiting a Native American Pueblo is “how many people lived here?” Many guides will give numbers of villages in the area. Some will quote archaeological estimates of the number of rooms in a given village. Others still will attempt to convert those room numbers into a population estimate using some sort of arcane formula or ratio. Perhaps one room equals 1.5 people? The real answer is that we do not know.

Demography is the study of human populations. It is a difficult research topic when dealing with Pre-Columbian (before Columbus) Native American populations. Most New World societies did not have a written language. Those that did rarely left census records. Hence, most demographers are left with only outsider accounts. These accounts are typically biased and only relay the populations at or after the time of European contact. However, it is in these numbers that we can see the very real consequences of New World colonization.

In the area known to the Spanish as Jemez Province, population estimates by sixteenth century explorers vary widely from about fifteen- to thirty-thousand Native Americans. This fluctuation in estimates could be the result of any number of factors, including exaggeration, underestimation, migration, population instability, or even variation in what was considered part of the geographic region. Interestingly, the largest estimate is given just prior to Spanish Colonization. If the number provided by the Beltran-Espejo Expedition of 1583 is to be believed, it is possible that the surge in numbers was a result of Jemez taking in refugees from Tiguex Province. Tiguex Province, once the most populated of Pueblo regions, had been decimated by the Coronado Expedition a generation earlier.

After Spanish Colonization (1598), the number of Native Americans living in New Mexico began to drop dramatically. In Jemez Province, the population as recorded by Fray Geronimo Zarate Salmeron, in 1622, was 6,566 “baptized souls.” In 1629, Benavides puts the Jemez people at three thousand, and by 1692, that number had plummeted to roughly one thousand individuals. In 1704, it had further declined to three hundred. Within the span of approximately one hundred years, only one to two percent of original Native American population remained.

The causes for this decline are many. Migration certainly played a role. Archaeologists working in the gas and oil fields of northwest New Mexico often come across pueblitos (little pueblos) scattered widely across the landscape. These pueblitos are sometimes interpreted as Proto-Navajo communities but the presence Jemez Black-on-white pottery suggests close contact with Jemez Province. It is possible many Jemez people fled to these sites as the Spanish began to colonize along the Rio Grande.

Warfare was also part of the dynamic. A single day of fighting on July 24, 1694, left 84 Jemez dead. Given that the entire Jemez population was only estimated to be roughly one thousand at the time the battle occurred, this is the equivalent of losing eight percent of the population in a single 24 hour period. This does not even take into account that another 36 percent (361) were taken prisoner, primarily women and children. While some these prisoners of war would have been returned to Jemez, others would have undoubtedly been sent to work the mines or labor in the fields of the Spanish aristocracy. This was not the only battle. In 1696 alone, at least two more major engagements were fought, resulting in the deaths of 64 Jemez men.

However, the biggest factor, by far, appears to be the spread of infectious disease. The greatest decline occurs within the first thirty years of Spanish and indigenous people living side by side. As any classroom teacher will tell you, close prolonged contact will cause ailments to spread rapidly. The Native Americans had no, or extremely limited, contact with European infectious disease prior to this time, and the effects of prolonged exposure were catastrophic.

Demographer Daniel Reff (1992) estimates an overall decline in population of roughly 75 to eighty percent for the southwest as a whole. Much of this he attributes to infectious disease. Certainly, we see this at Jemez. There is roughly an eighty to ninety percent population reduction between the years 1598 and 1629. In comparison, the Black Death of fourteenth century Europe, considered by many westerners to be the worst outbreak in recorded history, only killed between thirty and sixty percent of the population.

Exactly what disease—or more accurately, diseases—hit the Southwest during the seventeenth century remains unknown. Historic documents are vague and skeletal remains found in the archaeological record often do not show evidence of diseases, which die rapidly. Suspected ailments believed to have swept through Native American populations in the seventeenth consist primarily viruses such as small pox, measles, yellow fever, chicken pox, influenza, and cold. Some bacteria are theorized as well: anthrax, whooping cough, and typhus. Parasites also could have played a role—malaria and schistosomes.

What is known, or can be easily inferred through historic records and archaeological remains, is the impact of this decline. Villages were abandoned; languages were forgotten; and long-held customs were lost. Much has been written regarding these impacts. Indeed, it is amazing that any cultural construct could survive such a calamity. However, some did.

Today, the Jemez people are flourishing. Towa, the language of the Jemez, is still spoken among tribal members; dances are still performed; and the present day population of Walatowa is growing. Their story is one of resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. Jemez Historic Site tells some of this story.

Jemez Historic Site is located just north of Jemez Springs along Highway 4. It is open five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admittance is three dollars per adult. There is never a charge for children, and it is free to New Mexico residents on Sunday.
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