Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

In the middle of New Mexico are three distinct sites which make up Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. The visitor center for the monument is located in the town of Mountainair.

Three large groups of ruins at Gran Quivira, Abó, and Quarai were populous communities at the time of the Spanish entrada. All three sites include Indian pueblo ruins and impressive remnants of seventeenth-century Franciscan missions.

We visited these three sites in the fall and our first stop was Abó. From there we continued on to the visitor center in Mountainair and then to the Quarai and Gran Quivira sites. There were similarities at each site but each had its own story to tell. Being in the fall and during the pandemic, we pretty much had the sites all to ourselves.

Salinas is a Spanish word meaning saline or salt lagoons. This narrow, interior drainage where the runoff flows into lakes ringed with salt, alkali, and other mineral deposits supported a stable Pueblo agricultural society. Migrations from the Rio Grande and ancient Mogollon and Ancestral Puebloan traditions overlapped in this area. From minimal agriculture supplemented by hunting and gathering and living in pithouses advancing to jacales and then to stone and adobe pueblos the people adapted and drew what was useful from other societies. Located along major trade routes between the Rio Grande villages and the plains tribes to the east they were well-positioned. The Salinas Valley became a major trade center with perhaps 10,000 or more inhabitants.

Even though several Spanish explorers ventured into this area earlier, the first significant contact between Europeans and Salinas natives came in 1598 when the Spanish arrived with the intent of planting a permanent settlement. The first governor, Juan de Oñate, convinced several hundred Salinas Indians to take oaths of allegiance to the Spanish crown. They probably did not understand what this would entail and relations went south when soldiers attempted to collect tribute to the crown. Oñate set out to punish those who refused and triggered violent confrontations in which villages were burned and both Natives and soldiers were killed. In order to exist, the early Spaniards imposed countless levies of food and clothing against all the Pueblos, creating tremendous hardship on them.

At the same time, with support from the royal treasury, the church grew in power. All parties vied for control of the Natives who provided most of the labor and necessities. A 1609 order from the viceroy to concentrate the Native population into fewer settlements accelerated missionary activities. By 1630, using native labor, missions had been erected in six of the larger towns, including the three sites of Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. To varying degrees, priests carried out an edict to eliminate all traces of native religion. Civil authorities and encomenderos who had been granted land near pueblos and were allowed to collect tribute in the form of labor and products also exploited the natives.

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Before Spanish occupation, the Salinas pueblos had a friendly trading relationship with the Apaches but when the Spanish began trading Apache slaves that relationship broke down and led to bloody retaliation.

All these factors, as well as recurring droughts, crop failures and epidemics, made it untenable for the Salinas Puebloans to continue there. Several years before the general uprising of all the pueblos, the survivors moved west and south and abandoned the area.

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The Abó unit of the Monument is west of Mountainair and contains approximately 370 acres. The number and size of unexcavated pueblo mounds suggest a thriving community when the Spanish arrived in 1581. In 1622, Fray Francisco Fonte was assigned to Abó Mission and church and convento building began. By 1628 construction was complete but a second missionary, Fray Francisco Acevedo arrived and in 1640 began to renovate and enlarge the church and convento. This was completed in 1658. By 1673 a combination of disease, drought, famine and Apache raiding led to the abandonment of Abó. In 1815, Spanish sheep herders returned to the area but by 1830 were pushed out by Apaches. Settlers permanently returned in 1865 and remains of the reoccupation structures are a part of the Abó site.

The Quarai unit is north of Mountainair. Established in 1626 and overseen by Fray Juan Gutierrez de la Chica, construction began in 1627 and continued until 1632. Curiously, a square kiva was built within the convento. The same combination of factors as at Abó led to the abandonment of Quarai in 1678. In the early 1800’s settlers returned but that attempt also failed.

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The Gran Quivira unit is south of Mountainair and is the largest of the three units at 611 acres. Prior to Spanish contact, Gran Quivira was a vast city with multiple pueblos and kivas. The largest and only fully excavated pueblo, Mound 7, was a 226 room structure from the Pueblo IV period (AD 1275/1300-1600).

During excavation, an even older pueblo was discovered under Mound 7. Although Spanish contact was probably earlier, colonization and establishment of the mission system began in 1598 with the arrival of Juan de Oñate.  In 1639, under the supervision of Fray Francisco Letrado, construction began on the first permanent mission at Gran Quivira. Letrado was reassigned in 1631 and Gran Quivira came under the control of Fray Francisco de Acevedo at the Abó mission. Construction on the church was completed in 1635 and in 1659 Fray Diego de Santander was permanently assigned there and construction began on a new larger church. By 1672 the combination of disease, drought, famine and Apache raiding led to the abandonment of Gran Quivira.

The Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument provides a glimpse into times in the history of the Southwest during which different cultures met, sometimes borrowing from each other and sometimes creating conflict. These sites stand as reminders of the Spanish and Pueblo peoples’ early encounters. The ruins of the mission churches looming over the remains of the pueblos feel symbolic of one culture overpowering and destroying another, ultimately resulting in being unsustainable.

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