29. Pecos

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If the question should be asked, “What was the largest town in the present United States four hundred years ago?” it would seem as if an answer should not be difficult; and yet not one person in a thousand, probably not one in ten thousand, could respond correctly. In most cases considerable investigation would be necessary before the fact was ascertained that the subject of this chapter, the pueblo of Pecos, was that town.

Unfortunately only its ruins remain, but they have much historic interest, and the time is within the memory of living men when it was still inhabited and its great Mission Church stood as one of the most striking monuments of the missionary zeal of the Franciscan friars.

As the traveler from the east, on the “Santa Fé,” after leaving Las Vegas, gradually ascends to the high altitude of the divide at Glorieta, his attention is arrested by the immense sign-board placed by the railroad company on the north side of the track, drawing attention to these ruins, which are then in full view on the opposite bank of the Pecos River. Not much is now to be seen at that distance but the massive remains of the great church, red in color,

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and the long array of large gray stones which mark the foundations of the ancient pueblo and show how extensive was its area.

The history of Pecos is of absorbing interest, from our first acquaintance with it in 1540 to its pathetic abandonment exactly three centuries later, in 1840. The first news of its existence that came to any white man, was when Coronado's little army was resting, in July, 1540, at Cibola, the modern Zuñi, and awaiting the return of the exploring party under Cardenas, that had been sent by Coronado to visit the Moqui towns, and the wonderful Grand Cañon of the Colorado. It was then that a company of strangers from the far east presented themselves, under command of a man of much intelligence and charm of manner, known in history only as Bigotes, because his mustache was his noticeable feature. He came as an envoy to welcome the Spaniards and invite them to his city.

In the different chronicles of Coronado's expedition, we have very. full descriptions of this pueblo, then called Cicuic, and of its people; the former describing the peculiar architecture of the great three-storied communal dwellings built in the terrace form, the circular subterranean estufas, and other characteristic features, and the latter dwelling on the fine character of the people, their personal honesty, industry, and amiability, and the excellence of their local government. Bigotes, their most striking representative, stands out as a man of admirable character; and his imprisonment by Coronado, under the

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influence of the deceptive Turk, is one of the blots on the reputation of that adventurous general.

After Coronado's retreat, forty years passed before another white man visited the great pueblo on the Pecos, and then Espejo came for but a brief visit.

When finally the colonization of New Mexico took place under Oñate, that energetic leader lost no time in making himself acquainted with the most important city in all his wide domain. We have seen elsewhere that the date of the settlement of San Gabriel as the capital of the new province was July 12, 1598, and we find that less than two weeks thereafter, on July 25th, Oñate arrived at Pecos, in order to explore the country and become acquainted with the people. It is in connection with this visit that we find the name “Pecos” first used as the proper title of this town, and Mr. Bandelier explains this by saying that Pecos was no doubt the Queres name of the place, and that Oñate, who approached it from the Queres pueblos and accompanied by persons from those towns, naturally adopted the name which they used. At all events the chief aboriginal town of the Southwest is henceforth always known in history as the pueblo of Pecos.

A few days later, when the Franciscan comisario divided all of New Mexico into missionary districts, Pecos was made the headquarters of the most easterly division and placed in charge of Fr. Francisco de San Miguel. That was the era of rapid church building and Pecos was one of the first missions in which a church was erected. The population being

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large, it was easy to obtain the necessary labor, and thus the building was constructed without great difficulty. All the descriptions that we have of it speak of its large dimensions. In the report of Benavides, in 1630, which we so often quote as the best early authority, he refers to Pecos as follows:


“A pueblo of the Jemez nation and language, situated four leages north from the Tanos pueblos (San Cristobal, etc.) containing more than 2,000 souls and a very splendid temple and convento of beautiful workmanship,” and in another description of the same period we are told that the church had six towers.


At the time of the Revolution of 1680, the priest who had been in charge of the Mission for a number of years was Fernando de Velasco, well advanced in age. We are told that on the fatal 10th of August he left the pueblo early in the morning in order to notify Father Bernal, who lived at Galisteo, that he had received secret information of an impending uprising of the Indians. The rebellious natives who went to his cloister soon after, to take his life, found the room empty, but followed his trail until he was overtaken in a field near Galisteo, and there they killed him with arrows. The church and convento were immediately destroyed and every vestige of the Christian faith exterminated.

During the twelve years of the Pueblo Revolution, Pecos suffered greatly from the constant incursions of the wild tribes of the Plains and the difficulties which arose among the Pueblo Indians themselves;

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and in the reconquest by De Vargas, its people made no stubborn resistance to the Spaniards and finally became friends and allies. As soon as it could be accomplished, the church and surrounding buildings for the clergy were rebuilt and for a long period were the center of one of the most important missions in the province. The structure was very large, with massive walls of extraordinary thickness, and the woodwork was considered at least the equal in the size of the vigas and gateways, and the elaborate nature of the carvings, of any in New Mexico.

Thus it remained until the abandonment of the pueblo by its remaining inhabitants in 1840; but then, being left without even a caretaker, the destruction of the great buildings was rapid. Every “vecino” who desired a massive timber or one with ornamentation upon it, naturally came to the Pecos church as to a mine of wealth; and every stranger who desired a memento of the great building around which clustered such a volume of romance, carried off whatever best suited his aesthetic taste.

The geographical situation of Pecos is really the key to its history and its final destruction. It was the eastern outpost of the Pueblo civilization and exposed to the constant attacks of the warlike tribes of the Plains. Its great buildings, with the storehouses of the products of its industrious people, were naturally objects of the cupidity of the nomadic tribes which raised no crops and possessed no winter supplies. Scarcely a year passed that it was not subjected to attack, and while it could usually repel

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the foe, yet such warfare necessarily entailed a gradual loss, which in time reduced the population from several thousand to a mere handful. At length the time came when there were barely sufficient men left to comply with the most essential points of their religious ceremonials. A universally believed tradition is that the sacred fire in the innermost estufa had never been suffered to die out for a single moment during the long centuries of existence of the pueblo, and that the people believed that the direst of misfortunes would immediately follow its extinguishment. But even the sacred duty of its maintenance had become a burden, and the day seemed near when it would be impossible.

Just at that time of darkness and almost of despair, there suddenly appeared a company of visitors from afar — not strangers, but rather brethren. It was a delegation sent from the pueblo of Jemez, from which the founders of Pecos had originally come; men of the same blood and language and traditions. They came with a message of love and invitation. They had heard how the people of Pecos had suffered from wars and pestilence until reduced almost to extinction, and they had been sent to invite the survivors to leave the scene of their misfortunes and unite with their ancient brethren at Jemez; not as visitors or sojourners, but as part of the same people; and to have equal rights in all things with the old inhabitants of the pueblo so that all might again become one nation. Solemnly the question was debated, as it involved the total abandonment

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of their old life, but finally the warmth of the promised welcome, and the impossibility of sustaining themselves longer, prevailed, and the invitation was accepted.


The once proud pueblo of Pecos had become reduced to thirteen inhabitants, eight men and five women; and in the pleasant days of 1840, taking with them their household gods and most cherished possessions,

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they started on the pilgrimage to their new home, west of the great mountains and the great river, in the land of their fathers. Here they were received with joy and acclamation, homes were furnished for their immediate occupation, fields set apart for their use and they were incorporated into the community in all matters of government. Two of their number subsequently became governors of Jemez, and the lives of all were free from alarms of warfare or fear of extinction. In 1890 two of the thirteen pilgrims still survived, and in 1904 one of their number, Agustin Peco, was yet alive. Their descendants still celebrate one of the distinctive festivals of Pecos and they cherish with great veneration a small statue of the Virgin which they brought with them from the old church of the pueblo, and look upon as their special patrona. A picture on a wooden slab, with a representation in high relief of the Virgin as Our Lady of Light, was carried to Jemez on the migration, and remained in possession of Agustin, until 1882, when it was obtained by the author and has since remained in Santa Fe. This has been photographed several times, and a halftone reproduction is presented among the illustrations of this chapter.

When the American “Army of the West” marched over the Santa Fé Trail in 1846, the ruins of this pueblo excited much attention, and in the report made by Colonel Emory there is not only a description of their appearance but an engraving which shows exactly their condition at that time. This

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engraving is reproduced as one of the illustrations of this chapter. The other illustration is from a photograph taken in 1880, and shows the disintegration that had taken place during the intervening thirty-four years.

Almost at the same date, Adolf F. Bandelier, then beginning his career as an archæologist, spent several months at this pueblo, and made a report, accompanied by plans, which may be said to be exhaustive, and has since been the accepted authority as to these ruins. While this report does not show the breadth of vision and power of comparison which longer experience afterwards made characteristic of its author, yet its scrupulous attention to details makes it a finality so far as localities and measurements are concerned.

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