30. The Salinas Pueblos

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The great Mission Churches which were built in this half desert region east of the Rio Grande Valley, in the first half of the Seventeenth century, exist now only in their ruins; but as such they are the most majestic existing monuments of the zeal of the mission-builders of that day.

In fact the ruins of Abó, Cuará, and the so-called Gran Quivira, are altogether the most striking that are found in the Southwest, and a visit to any one of them will well repay a transcontinental journey, even if nothing else is accomplished.

The section of the country in which they are situated is a region by itself, separated from the valley of the Rio Grande by the almost continuous range of the Manzano Mountains, and from the more distant valley of the Pecos by the great stretch of plain conraining no running streams and so little surface water in any form that for a long time it was regarded as a desert. This Salinas region is about fifty miles in length from north to south, with Chililí as the northern point and Gran Quivira as the southern, and about twenty miles in width. On the east are the Salinas or Salt Lakes, which have been the main source of salt supply for a great extent of

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country, not only ever since the Spanish occupation, but from time immemorial among the native Indians.

The first definite mention that we have of them is during Oñate's celebrated march up the Rio Grande Valley in June, 1598. After the arduous journey from Paso del Norte, the little army rested in an Indian village a short distance above the pueblo of Teipana, which they had renamed Socorro; and, during that period, a small party was sent out under the Zaldivar brothers, Juan and Vicente, who were the nephews of Oñate and his trusted lieutenants, to explore the country across the mountains to the eastward and especially Abó and the region of the Salt Lakes. The Indians there were of the same Piro family as those in the Rio Grande Valley from Senecu (now San Antonio) to Sevilleta, though in subsequent histories they are generally distinguished from their Rio Grande brothers by the name of Tompiros.

Benavides, writing about 1630, calls all the people of the Salinas region Tompiros, even including Chililí. In the section of his great work devoted to the “Nation Tompiros,” he commences as follows: “Leaving the Rio del Norte and proceeding from the Queres nation ten leagues to the eastward, the Tompiros nation commences at its first pueblo of Chililí and extends more than fifteen leagues, with fourteen or fifteen pueblos in which are more than ten thousand souls, with six very good churches and conventos.” But subsequent historians draw a line between the north and south pueblos, and class the

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former as belonging to the Tehuas and the latter to the Tompiros. Escalante, writing in 1778 of the destruction of these towns, says that it was brought about a little before the Pueblo Revolution of 1680 by the continual invasions of the wild Apaches, who


destroyed “Chililí, Tajique and Quarac of the Tehua Indians, and Abó, Jumanos and Tabira of the Tompiros.” The probability is that the Piros had settled to some extent in the northern towns, even if

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they were nominally Tehuan, for Benavides could not well have been mistaken; and their churches, judging from the great ruins, were similar in material and construction to those of the Piros, and entirely different from those of the more northern Tehuas.

These churches were all established between 1625 and 1630. In the latter year Benavides spoke of six large churches with “conventos” adjoining for the priests, and that is as many of that class of central stations as existed at any time; Escalante, nearly a century and a half after, enumerates the same six, with their names.

They were exposed continually to the assaults of the nomadic tribes from the eastern plains, and in this respect were situated quite similarly to the pueblo of Pecos. Year after year the Salinas region was invaded by the restless Indians of the Plains, who looked with covetous eyes on the accumulated stores of grain and other provisions which the patient industry of the Pueblos had succeeded in gathering from their semi-arid fields.

All the authorities credit Father Francisco Acevedo with the building of the churches at Abó, Tenabó, and Tabira. He came to New Mexico with Father Perea in 1628, and must have begun his work immediately, for Benavides went to Spain and made his report to the king in 1630, and he mentions these churches as having been built already. Abó was the center of the parish and the residence of the priest, Tenabó and Tabira being “visitas” which

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the priests visited at regular intervals. In the only description that we have which gives any estimated population, Abó is credited with 800 inhabitants.

The great ruins existing at Abó, Cuará, and Tabira are all of the same character, and they are different in their architecture from any others built under Spanish influence in New Mexico. The walls are constructed of comparatively small, thin stones, and there is a notable resemblance between them and the walls found in the ruins of northwestern New Mexico, in the Chaco Cañon and at several places in San Juan County. The latter ruins all antedate the Spanish occupation, they are purely aboriginal, and the Indians of the Salinas region, when called upon to build the great churches which are now their monument, perpetuated the aboriginal style of architecture instead of adopting anything from the Spaniards. An illustration is presented showing the style of construction which is practically the same throughout all that region, where stone suitable for the purpose was abundant and easily obtained.

The great size of their churches has led to the belief that large cities existed there at the time when they were erected, and from this has arisen much discussion as to the means of livelihood of a large population in such a semi-arid region, and especially as to the supply of water. Much ingenuity has been employed in devising theories to suit the supposed circumstances; but the explicit statement in the “Cronica” of Vetancur, that Abó only contained 800 inhabitants should put an end to the discussion. A

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population no larger than that could subsist very comfortably on the amount of water that was available.

A description of the three great ruins which constitute the special attraction to this Salinas region is reserved for separate chapters.



On account of the constant danger of attack from the wild Indians of the Plains, the greatest vigilance had to be observed in the Salinas Valley as well as in other frontier settlements. Even the towns in

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the valley of the Rio Grande were not safe from their attacks, although so much better protected by mountain ranges and by their more compact population. Thus Tomé, though in the very center of the settlements in the Rio Abajo, was suddenly attacked and practically the entire population killed or carried into captivity, and the Apaches who afterwards destroyed the Salinas towns penetrated to Senecu in 1675 and left it a desolation. The pueblo of Tajique was destroyed about the same time, the priest escaping with some difficulty.

As the best available protection, the people in exposed localities built torreons, or round towers, to serve both as lookouts and as places of refuge. These are still found in various places which were on the frontier of the old settlements, always carefully located in commanding positions from which a wide expanse of territory could be kept under observation. Generally they were built of stone, but in some cases of adobe, and they were invariably circular with but a small door for entrance and holes in the wall near the top for the sentinel's watchful observation and for firing on the approaching foe when he came within reach of the firearms of that day. In northwestern New Mexico, where the pioneer settlers on the exposed frontier along the line of the Chama were constantly suffering from the raids of the Utes and the Navajos, many of these torreons were built and their remains are still to be seen either in ruin or transformed into storehouses or granaries to meet the changed condition of these days of security and peace.

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On all of the exposed frontiers these old torreons are found, telling of the anxious life of the Spanish pioneer, and forming an interesting and picturesque addition to rural scenery. From its dangerous situation on the border of the Great Plains, the Salinas region had especial need of these watchtowers of defense, and the illustration, which is from a photograph of a torreon near Manzano, gives an excellent idea of the appearance of those which were built of stone, the only modern alteration being the large door in place of the small original entrance.

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