Published on January 21, 2012 by Amy
On the historic Santa Fe Trail, where the Pecos Indians once commanded the trade path between Pueblo farmers of the Rio Grande and hunting tribes of the buffalo plains, lie the ruins of the Pecos pueblo and Spanish missions. This old frontier brought war and trade, and witnessed the rise and decline of the powerful Pecos, the development of Spanish churches, the creation of the Santa Fe Trail, and the Civil War. Today, Pecos National Historical Park preserves over 12,000 years of history including the ancient pueblo of Pecos, colonial Missions, Santa Fe Trail sites, 20th century ranch history of Forked Lightning Ranch, and the site of the Civil War Battle of Glorieta Pass.
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The Pecos Indians were an advanced tribe with a heritage deeply rooted in the Puebloan culture of the American Southwest. Like their Pueblo ancestors, the Pecos practiced ancient customs in agriculture, religion, and architecture. Farming was essential to their livelihood. By applying an ancient agricultural technique that had originated in Mexico, the people of Pecos were able to supply most of their diet of corn, beans, and squash. Farming also influenced the architectural design of the Pecos village, and like many Pueblo tribes of the American Southwest, the Pecos built storerooms to set aside food for the winter and check dams to regulate the water that flowed to their crops. Their impressive architecture also included large multi-story houses built above the storerooms using adobe–a mud and straw-based material they mixed and molded together to look like bricks. To protect the village, the Pecos erected a large wall, which according to one Spanish conquistador, was visible from a far distance.
The most impressive structures were the kivas, subterranean pit-houses used for religious and ceremonial purposes. Although they varied in shape and size, they were traditionally circular with a hole in the floor. The hole in the ground represented the connection to the underworld, which the Pecos and other Pueblo tribes believed was their people’s place of origin. Kivas connected the world above to the spirits of the underworld, and the floor opening allowed the people to have a closer communion with the spirits below. The Pecos routinely prayed to the underworld through ceremonies and brought offerings to the spirits to receive good fortune. They feared that failing to perform these rituals would upset the spirits, which in turn would cause their crops to die and their overall world to become unbalanced. The Pecos continued to hold onto these beliefs after the Spanish came.
The Spanish first encountered the Pecos when Francisco Vasquez de Coronado traveled to northern Mexico in search of the seven golden cities. The legendary cities, known as Cibola, attracted many explorers to the American Southwest once Cabeza de Vaca spoke of their existence after returning from his expedition in 1536. Hearing the tales of Cabeza de Vaca’s travels, Coronado set out in 1540 to New Spain’s northern frontier with an army of 12,000 to claim these Native American cities. When Coronado and his men reached the village of Pecos, they did not find Cibola. Instead, they encountered a Plains Indian held captive at Pecos who told Coronado and his men about a land filled with the riches that the Spaniards sought. In the spring of 1541, Coronado and his men followed the Plains Indian to this mystical land called Quivira. After wondering for days through present day Kansas, Coronado killed the Plains Indian when he learned that the guide tricked them. Having failed to find Cibola, Coronado and his men turned back and returned to Mexico empty-handed.
Although Coronado’s expedition failed, the Spanish were still determined to colonize the Pueblo lands and convert the American Indians to Christianity. By 1598, the Spanish had crossed the Rio Grande, and under the leadership of Don Juan de Onate, the Franciscan friars began to convert the people of Pecos. Initially, the Spanish missionaries failed. When veteran missionary Fray Andres Juarez arrived to Pecos in 1621, the relationship between the natives and the missionaries improved. The Franciscans gained the trust of the Pecos Indians and under the direction of Juarez, the Pecos and the Franciscan friars built an adobe church that was the most prominent of all of the New Mexico mission churches. The mission succeeded under the ministry of Fray Juarez, and from 1621 to 1634, the Franciscan missions continued to expand throughout New Mexico. Eventually, the missions would fail when church and civil officials began to compete for the labor and loyalty of the natives, which bred Indian resentment that led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
After decades of Spanish demands, numerous tribes of Pueblo Indians united to drive the Spaniards from their ancestral lands. Although some Pecos Indians were still loyal to the Franciscans, most followed their tribal elders in the revolt and killed the priests. The survivors of the struggle moved back to Mexico. The Spanish would not return to Pecos for another 12 years. When Diego de Vargas revisited the lost Spanish colony in 1692, he was awed by the warm welcome at Pecos and by the Indians’ willingness to assist the Spaniard in his quest to reclaim the American Southwest.
After the people of Pecos supplied Vargas with 140 warriors, the Spanish recaptured Santa Fe, and began to rebuild the mission. The Pecos and the Spanish erected a smaller church on the ruins of the old mission church, and together established a peaceful Spanish-Pueblo community. The serene environment in Santa Fe lasted until the 1780s, when disease and Comanche raids destroyed Pecos and reduced the population to less than 300. Survivors eventually left their decaying community, and in 1838, the Pecos joined their kinfolk at Jemez pueblo.
Pecos National Historical Park remains rich in Pecos culture and history. Visitors to the park can climb down into two kivas, the ceremonial and social spaces that the Pecos believed allowed them closer communion with the spirits of the underworld. Kivas continued to be a significant part of Pecos life even after the Spanish Franciscan friars established their first church, “The Lost Church,” in the early 17th century. Guided tours of the original structure of the Lost Church are one of the key attractions in the park. Tourists can also see the ruins by following the self-guided trail to parts of the Pecos Pueblo, Mission Churches, and the two reconstructed kivas.
Those interested in Pecos Civil War history can stop by the site of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which scholars often refer to as the Gettysburg of the West. Pecos National Historical Park is also the site of the Forked Lightning Ranch House made famous by its occupants, Tex Austin “Daddy of the Rodeo,” oilman and rancher E.E. “Buddy” Fogelson, and his wife, actress Greer Garson.