Detour: Pecos National Historical Park

Established as a National Monument in 1965 and then expanded and reestablished as a National Historical Park in 1990, Pecos National Historical Park protects roughly 6,700 acres in three parcels at the very southern tip of the Rocky Mountains. The Park’s primary focus is protecting and interpreting the remains of Pecos Pueblo, perched above Glorieta Pass in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Glorieta Pass it the primary gateway between the Great Plains to the east and the Rio Grande Valley to the west. The Park also preserves the site of a crucial 1862 battle in the Civil War, when American troops rebuffed a Confederate attempt to expand beyond Texas into the Southwest.

On Saturday, November 13 [2021], Pecos was the first of three National Park units near Santa Fe that Sean and I visited.

In the light of morning, we were even more delighted with our little casita than when we’d arrived in the dark the night before.

We’d set alarms, but still rose slowly. We needed to get going, though, because we wanted to get to go on the morning tour at 10:30am.

We drove down to Dolina to get breakfast before driving out to Pecos, but it was completely packed. Instead of dining in, I waited with the car while Sean ran in and grabbed coffees, a slice of quiche, and a couple scones.

I managed to get onto I-25 going the wrong direction. Between that and a wait at Dolina, we were lucky to make it to the Park for the tour.

But we did make it with just a couple minutes to spare.

That morning, volunteer Susan led the Ancestral Sites Tour, which was scheduled to last about an hour.

Of our group of about a dozen, we were from the farthest away. There was a family of Utahns, but otherwise everyone was fairly local.

North Pueblo

Susan oriented us to the landscape before we walked up the short, paved trail to the remains of the pueblo. Because of its geographic location at Glorieta Pass, Pecos Pueblo (also called Cicuye) was one of the largest and most powerful of the post-Chaco Ancestral Puebloan communities. The pueblo functioned as a trading hub between the agriculturally oriented Ancestral Pueblo people of the Rio Grande Valley and the hunters of the Great Plains.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Tree Cholla

With objects and artifacts, Susan described the larger networks of the Ancestral Puebloan world, which stretched through trade deep into Mexico even as new peoples arrived to the northwest and east.

Common Raven

Remains of the fourth and final mission church at Pecos

While the hulking ruins of the mission church loomed off the the left, Susan led us over to where the primary pueblo structure had been.

The main complex once rose five stories and was home to 2,000 people. It was active from about 1350 until 1838, almost five hundred years stretching from the decades following the consolidation of the Puebloan world along the Rio Grande in what is now New Mexico through the arrival and occupation of the Spanish and on into Mexican independence and almost to the conquest of northern Mexico by the United States.

It was something to think how Pecos Pueblo bridged most of the gap in time between the emptying of Mesa Verde around 1280 and the area’s annexation into the expanding United States.

A few of the large kivas at Pecos have been restored. Susan invited us to enter one of them. (The other we could not enter because a family of rattlesnakes had recently taken up residence in it.)

We took turns a few at a time descending a sturdy ladder into the subterranean kiva.

An unrestored portion of the wall revealed the structure beneath the plaster.

The kiva would have been used for ceremonial purposes, its structure referencing both the pit houses of early Ancestral Puebloan peoples (which we had seen at Mesa Verde) and Puebloan cosmology, in which the world we inhabit is one plane of existence between the emergence of people from a subterranean realm and a realm higher still.

Glorieta Mesa

Back on the surface, we gazed out at Glorieta Mesa to the south across the pass.

Sean remarked, “This is a very cool, interesting place.”

Juniper and Tree Cholla

We chatted a bit with some of the other visitors on the tour. One couple recommended a kiva near Hernandez, New Mexico that was particularly impressive.

Another couple quietly critiqued Susan. “She should ask, ‘What are your questions?’ not ‘Do you have any questions?'” That was a bit much to me. I thought Susan was doing just fine.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Susan passed around a container with pottery sherds. It was very cool to get to touch them, after seeing so many examples at Mesa Verde.

Then we walked over to the remains of the fourth church.

In 1540, Spanish conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado arrived at Pecos Pueblo while he was searching for the mythical lost cities of gold. When he returned in 1542, still searching for those cities, the people of Pecos sent Coronado and his entourage on a wild goose chase far out into the Great Plains.

In 1598, the Spanish returned under Don Juan de Oñate to colonize New Mexico. Franciscan missionaries established themselves at Pecos and built the first of four successive churches.

Dakota Mock Vervain

As at other Pueblo communities, conversion to Christianity was often only for show, or if it were genuine, incorporated many elements of Pueblo religious practice.

Glorieta Mesa

In 1621, using Pueblo labor, the Franciscans built an enormous church at Pecos. It was the largest church in New Spain at the time and had an attached convent, garden, and school. With Spanish control of Glorieta Pass, more settlers arrived from the southern reaches of New Spain, what is now Mexico. The Spanish consolidated their control of the many diverse Pueblo communities of the Rio Grande Valley.

By 1680, as Spanish suppression of Puebloan lifeways and religious practices increased, the Pueblo people had had enough.

Po’pay, a Pueblo religious leader from San Juan Pueblo, traveled to the northernmost (and one of the oldest) of the Pueblo communities along the Rio Grande, Taos, to develop a plan to drive the Spanish out. Despite their long-established communities along the Rio Grande, the Pueblos were at a disadvantage since they spoke an array of distinct languages. Po’pay and the other revolutionaries overcame this by using knotted cords as a way to communicate, indicating the number of days until all the Pueblo communities should rise up and attack the Spanish at dawn. Youthful runners delivered the ropes to the various communities.

In a masterstroke of planning, the revolutionaries allowed two runners to be captured with inaccurate ropes, indicating that the revolt would take place several days later than what was actually planned. The Spanish authorities thought they had more days until the revolt, so they took their time preparing. Then on the morning of August 10, 1680, Pueblo people rose up simultaneously across the Rio Grande Valley to violently expel the Spanish and the hated priests.

It was a stunning success, with layers of tactical brilliance. As Spanish survivors from outlying communities fled to the capitol at Santa Fe, they took shelter in the governor’s palace, which was soon under siege, waiting for reinforcements. Those reinforcements never arrived because the revolutionaries were able to successfully spread a rumor that Santa Fe had already fallen.

Eventually, the Spanish surrendered and departed New Mexico entirely, retreating south across the Rio Grande at what is now El Paso/Juarez.

At Pecos, the gigantic church was dismantled stone by stone, erasing it entirely from the landscape.

This first successful revolt in the Americas would substantively last twelve years, but would have reverberating impact through today. When the Spanish did return to New Mexico in 1692, it was with considerably more humility. Yes, they were still colonizers, but the widespread forced labor and brutal suppression of religious traditions and lifeways were gone. The revolt of 1680 is a major reason why Pueblo cultures are so vibrant, even in the face of Spanish and Anglo colonization and control.

The final church at Pecos, dedicated in 1717, was much smaller. It’s the remains of this church that visitors to the Park encounter today.

Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Pecos Pueblo declined, both in the face of Comanche raids from the Plains to the east and in shifting socioeconomic and trade patterns that centered commerce west in Santa Fe. In 1838, the final inhabitants of Pecos Pueblo departed and joined the community at Jemez Pueblo, where their descendants still mark holidays and rituals from Pecos.

Our tour complete, Sean and I wandered around the remains of the pueblo, reading the interpretive signs and taking it all in.

Rubber Rabbitbrush

Glorieta Mesa

On the way back to the Visitor Center, we passed a woman who was complaining mightily about how far she had to walk from the Visitor Center to the historical sites. (It’s like an eighth of a mile. And it’s paved.)

The Visitor Center has a robust collection of artifacts from Pecos, including gorgeous examples of pottery.

We spent a while browsing the collection and the bookstore.

Sean loves a diorama.

Before we departed, we watched the Park film, which is…something. It has the feeling of a historical reenactment documentary video from the 80s. Lots of yelling, dramatic music, and bombastic voiceover. It might be time to send this one to the archives and create a new interpretive film for the twenty-first century.

After our rich morning at Pecos, we were headed to a very different Ancestral Puebloan site to the west across the Rio Grande: Bandelier.

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