18. Acoma, The City of the Sky
Few travelers who have visited Acoma would fail to agree that it is the most wonderful habitation of man in the United States, and better worth a visit than any other, east or west. It is absolutely unique in its location, and well deserves the name of the “City of the Sky,” so often applied to it. The giant rock on whose summit it has its seat, rises perpendicularly nearly four hundred feet from the great plain below, which is itself over seven thousand feet above the sea. The cliff, or mesa, as every elevation with a level top is called in New Mexico, has been well compared to a lofty rocky island of the sea; the only difference being that one is surroundeded by water and the other by air. The area of its summit is not far from a hundred acres, but it has a remarkably rough and irregular contour, indented by deep bays which almost bisect it, and by a multitude of lesser chasms; so that its circumference resembles
Not far away, a most striking feature of the wonderful landscape which is presented on all sides of this gigantic cliff, is its elder sister, the Enchanted Mesa—Kat-sí-mo—higher even than the mesa of Acoma, and which all believe to have been the site of the original city. Its story, as it has come down by tradition from that fateful day, is that its summit was the impregnable throne of the Ancient People who tilled the beautiful valley below, long centuries ago; and that it was only accessible by the narrow perpendicular pathway, in which the little niches for hands and feet cut in the solid rock made a ladder of stone up the dizzy height. Suddenly, in the time of summer work, when every man and nearly every woman was busy in the fields in the valley far below—only three old women, too feeble for the terrible climb, being left in the deserted town—came a terrific storm; the lightning struck on the edge of the cliff just where the strange stone ladder was indented, and scaled off a great fragment of the mighty rock, which crashed down to the plain, carrying with it this sole method of communication with the great world below.
The industrious Indians in the fields were cut off forever from their ancient homes, and the three sad watchers on the heights lived out their solitary lives, until death once more united them with theirs more fortunate kindred. These latter, finding a return to the lofty summit impossible, built their new city
THE OLD MISSION AT ACOMA
The history of Acoma is perhaps the most romantic of any of the Pueblo Indian strongholds. It was first heard of by Friar Marcos in 1539, by the name of Ahacus. Then came Alvarado, a year later, and we have the first description of its wonderful location. Forty years afterwards came Espejo and his little company and stayed for three days as guests within the pueblo.
After Oñate's settlement at San Gabriel in 1598, he visited Acoma and was received in friendly manner, but the leading chief, Zutucapan, endeavored to have the Spanish governor enter a large estufa, in which he was to be killed; and this plan only failed through the suspicions of Oñate, who declined to make the proposed visit. Within a month after, Don Juan Saldivar, the nephew of Oñate, with a small party, was attacked on the cliff by the Acomas under the same old leader, and after a terrific combat Saldivar was killed, and five Spaniards, driven to the edge of the mesa, were forced to leap for their lives, but by wonderful good fortune, considered by the Spaniards to be miraculous, escaped death, and only received severe bruises.
To avenge the death of his brother, came Vicente Saldivar, with every available soldier, from San Gabriel, on January 21, 1599, and found the Indians massed in great numbers on the heights of the mesa. The natural fortress seemed impregnable, but the Spaniards succeeded by strategy in reaching the summit in the night, and a terrific conflict ensued, lasting almost three days, and resulting in the burning of the houses of the pueblo and the destruction of nearly all of the Indians. It is perhaps the most famous battle in all New Mexican history.
The small remaining population accepted the sovereignty and the religion of the Spaniards, and a large church was built about 1629 by Friar Juan Ramirez. Some historians insist that this is the church which still exists, and that it is almost the only original edifice that survived the Revolution of 1680. Others contend that the original structure was destroyed at the time of that revolution, when the Franciscan missionary, Lucas Maldonado, was ruthlessly martyred by the people he had come to serve. The church itself, whether the original edifice or reconstructed after 1693, is one of the most remarkable of all the ancient missions which have survived the ravages of time; and has recently been selected as the model from which the New Mexico building at the Panama Exposition at San Diego has been designed. The building is of enormous proportions, one hundred and fifty feet long and forty feet high, and exceedingly massive. The pictured
The crowning wonder, however, of this great adobe Mission—that which makes it absolutely unique among the churches of the land—is that every particle of its substance was brought, painfully and laboriously, up from the plain below. The great rocky mesa on which Acoma stands is utterly devoid of earth. There is no soil for vegetation, far less for timber; there is no clay for adobes; not even common soil to form a graveyard, where the dead may meet their mother earth. The rock of the great cliff has been worn to smoothness and polish by the storms of heaven and the feet of man; any foreign substance is quickly washed away by the summer showers; the whole surface is as hard as adamant. So every ounce of material in the great adobes which form the massive walls, has been brought up from the depth of the valley below, and in the most laborious way ever known to man. For in those days there was no road or trail but the almost perpendicular passage in the cleft of the great cliff; no animal could possibly ascend, and every burden was brought on the backs of men, to whom one misstep would bring destruction. No one who has not seen the ancient places of ascent can understand
Where in the world is there such a monument of zeal and self sacrifice! And more than this. The graveyard is a greater miracle than the church itself. There was no earth on the storm-swept mesa in which to bury the dead, and to inter them in the valley would be far from consecrated ground; and even if there had been earth, the square in front of the church sloped off too rapidly to hold it for a single year. And so these same Indian wonderworkers built a stone wall around a square two hundred feet across, a wall forty-five feet high at the outer edge, like a giant box, and then little by little brought up from the depth below, in sacks on their bare backs, the precious earth, so common everywhere else, so greatly needed here. Think of those burdens borne up the dangerous height, where only shallow niches gave a foot-hold, and where a loss of balance meant swift destruction!
The view as you approach the mesa from the plain is as novel as it is inspiring. Long lines of Indian girls are passing up and down the trails all day, carrying water from the springs on the plain below. There is no water on the top of the mesa, except that which is collected in the vast communal basin scooped in the sandstone. In time of drought this basin is actually dry, and all the water that is used by the Acomans is brought up from the plain below in gaily decorated water jars that are balanced on the heads of the Acoma maidens. The town itself, when once you have reached the top of the mesa, is something never to be forgotten. There are the three long rows of buildings, with ten large communal houses. The streets and alleys are very narrow, and when looking down between their walls one always gets a wonderful effect of distance, for the vision leaps off the edge of the mesa and out on the plain, no matter which way you look. Some of the houses are built right on the edge of the cliff, and as nearly all Acomans sleep on the roof, especially
The Annual Festival in Acoma is on the second of September, the day of St. Steven, who is the patron saint of the town. The exercises, which are in dramatic form, are different from those in any other pueblo, and very interesting. Early in the morning a procession is seen appearing several miles away on the plain below. This gradually approaches the foot of the mesa, and is met there by officials of the pueblo; after a conference, the strangers are welcomed to the town and escorted up the mesa to its top, and then, after certain ceremonies, enter the church with their hosts. A peculiar feature is a small horse which is conducted into the church and up to the altar. Here there are more semi-religious ceremonies, and afterwards a variety of characteristic games.
OLD MISSION CHURCH AT ACOMA—INTERIOR
The town is full of interesting places, to many of which historic legends are attached. The visitor will be shown the famous “Camino del Padre” where Padre Ramirez, in 1629, succeeded in ascending the trail in spite of a hail of arrows; and the place where another padre, forced to fly for his life, was compelled to leap off the edge of the cliff to what was apparently sure destruction, but by opening an umbrella, which he was fortunately carrying, it acted as a parachute, and afforded him a safe descent and comfortable landing on the plain below.
In the summer of 1897 Professor Libbey of Princeton organized an expedition which was equipped with everything necessary for the ascent, and succeeded in reaching the summit. He reported that he found nothing there to corroborate the general belief that the great cliff had been occupied by human beings a few centuries ago; that there was no evidence of man's residence or handiwork.
Six weeks later came Frederick W. Hodge of the Smithsonian Institute, and made the ascent with much less apparatus and much less difficulty than that experienced by Professor Libbey; and found what in his opinion were positive evidences of the habitation of the summit by a large number of people at some remote period of the past.