The Upper Pecos Valley in New Mexico has served as a corridor between the Great Plains and the southwestern high country for thousands of years. As a result, Pecos National Historical Park has layer upon layer of history. The park primarily relates the overlapping stories of ancestral Puebloans, European contact and conquest, Santa Fe trail usage and a Civil War battle. Pecos National Monument was established in 1965 because of its archeological importance and, in 1990, was elevated to a National Historical Park and expanded to include landmarks from the Civil War battle.
Probably the first humans to enter the area were nomadic hunters of 10,000 years ago. By 6,000 B.C. a hunter-gatherer culture had filtered in from the far west. By 2,000 years ago northwestern New Mexico was home to Anasazi, also known as ancestral Puebloans, who were early farmers.
Ancestral Puebloans settled in the Upper Pecos Valley around 800 A.D, left abruptly the end of the tenth century and returned in the early 1200’s. Over the next 200 years they built stone masonry pueblos up and down the Pecos Valley. Then, for unknown reasons, these villagers left their pueblos and joined people already living atop the steep-sided mesilla that rises from the east bank of Glorieta Creek.
By the time Columbus reached the Americas, Pecos Pueblo had grown into one of the largest and most powerful city-states in northern New Mexico. Archeologist Alfred Kidder found evidence that the pueblo was designed in advance and constructed as a unit, rather than starting small and growing over time. Lacking doors and windows on the lower stories and encircled by a chest high wall, it was nearly impregnable. Pecos became a gateway and a trading center for people of the pueblos and those of the plains.
The arrival of Coronado and the conquistadors in 1540 heralded the beginning of the decline of Pecos Pueblo. The pueblo welcomed the Spaniards as they had other potential trading partners. A series of events soured the relationship which would alternate between coexistence and confrontation. In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate set forth to colonize New Mexico. Franciscan priests were assigned to the region and rewarded with encomiendas (system by which the Spanish Crown granted a colonist land and the right to demand tribute and forced labor from the Indian inhabitants of the area).
Between 1617 and 1717 the Franciscans built four churches at Pecos. The first church was never finished and was located some distance from the main pueblo. Completed in 1625 using Indian labor, a huge mission church covering 6,000 square feet and built of 300,000 adobe bricks rose fifty-five feet above Pecos; the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciúncula. The foundations of this structure are visible today. During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Indians set fire to the roof and toppled its massive walls.
Don Diego de Vargas led a small army up the Rio Grande to retake New Mexico in 1692. Pecos was under Spanish sovereignty again, and a temporary church was erected. By 1717, the fourth church was completed atop the ruins of the massive mission. However, the Pueblo was in decline due to famine, European disease, the threat of Apache raids and Hispanic settlement in the area. By 1838, fewer than thirty members of a pueblo that once numbered two thousand remained. These individuals left to join Towa-speaking relatives at Jemez Pueblo. The ruins of this fourth church and of Pecos Pueblo stand silent on the mesa.
In 1821, William Becknell headed west from Missouri to Santa Fe with a mule train of merchandise. The Santa Fe trail was born and for sixty years, wagon trains and stage coaches traveled the trail, passing Fort Union and Pecos through Glorieta Pass to Santa Fe. Two stagecoach stops on the trail are preserved within the park: Kozlowski’s Stage Stop and Pigeon’s Ranch. Much of the old Santa Fe Trail is now part of I-25.
The Upper Pecos Valley also served as a corridor for wars. In 1846, the first year of the Mexican-American War U.S. troops marched through the area on their way to seize Santa Fe.
In the last half of 1861, Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley raised a volunteer Texas force to invade New Mexico Territory. The plan was to capture military supplies at Union forts, recruit westerners to the Confederate cause, and take control of the mining riches of Colorado and the key ports in the California Territory. Sibley’s forces clashed with Union forces under the command of Col. Edward R.S. Canby near Fort Craig and were triumphant in what became known as the Battle of Valverde. Sibley then marched northward, occupying Albuquerque and taking Santa Fe. From there, they began moving eastward with the intent of capturing Fort Union, northeast of Pecos.
On March 25th, 1862, unbeknownst to each other, Union and Confederate forces were camped on opposite sides of Glorieta Pass. Advance pickets soon discovered each other’s forces. Over the next three days, they engaged in the fighting that became known as the Battle of Glorieta. With approximately 1200 soldiers on each side, the casualties were high. Union forces suffered 51 killed, 78 wounded and 15 captured. Confederate forces had 48 killed, 80 wounded, and 92 captured.
We hiked the trails over the battlefield area which was quite hilly. Rangers reminded us that in 1862 it looked very different as it was not so heavily vegetated. March 26 – 28th the Union and Confederate troops were engaged in artillery duels, sharpshooting and fighting at close range with several advances and retreats. On March 28, Maj. John Chivington and his men surprised the Confederate rear guard by marching over the steep Glorieta Mesa and destroying their food and ammunition supplies. This forced the Confederates to quit the battlefield they had won and retreat to Santa Fe.
The Battle of Glorieta is referred to as “The Gettysburg of the West.” Tom and I felt that was a bit of a stretch but much as the Confederates never invaded the North again after Gettysburg, they also never attempted a significant action in the far West after Glorieta, so it was significant.
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