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Ancestral Puebloan Indians, Anasazi, Conquistadors, Franciscans

Quarai and the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument New Mexico

John Treadwell Dunbar image

By —— Bio and Archives July 17, 2011

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imageI’d never heard of Abo, Gran Quivira or Quarai when we visited New Mexico during a recent blustery May, and I wasn’t inclined to make that lonesome detour up the 55 to Estancia Basin that lies east and southish of the Manzano Mountains.

Dark green and low on the horizon, the Manzanos form a welcome barrier separating broad grassy plains the color of sand, and juniper-studded mesas, from Albuquerque’s urban dysfunction.

Leaving Billy the Kid’s Lincoln County in the side-view mirror, we barreled north toward those mountains and the Turquoise Trail, but as things go in this life of mine, I succumbed to a bad case of curiosity that flares up now and then like that itchy red rash I picked up off a toilet seat at the Lonesome Steer Grill and Swill outside Truth or Consequentials.

I blame that rash on my last minute left-hand turn off the main highway, and let the power of the unknown lure me to the flat horizon and around the next bend, and the next, and all the other bends in life that demand exploring. Reason dictated: If the United States government in its bureaucratic wisdom bestowed national monument status on anything it’s probably worth a look.

Turns out my hunch paid off, eventually, and the National Park Service spent our money well, this time around.


Late afternoon with the bright sun in and out of our eyes, we navigated sharp left and right turns through the countryside, large swaths of public land and sprawling ranches devoid of people with few cattle in sight; big, dry, open country that rolls on forever every-which-way. Short tree-shadows keeping pace with the setting sun, growing long across tan fields, the juniper scattered in patches, then densely clustered as we drew closer to the Salinas Valley.

Sparsely populated now, this land once sustained a thriving civilization with roots dating back at least 6,000 years. Ancestral Puebloan Indians (Anasazi) evolved in to a complex society, relatively speaking, of hunters and gatherers and farmers. By the 1600s, when the Spanish shoved their way into the New Mexico region and claimed it as their own, as many as 10,000 inhabited the greater Salinas Valley. Commercially vibrant, the ancient people and pueblos were strategically located along major trade routes that connected villages along the Rio Grande to the west, with eastern plains tribes who in time became a bloody-thirsty nemesis. Cotton products, squash, salt, beans and pinion nuts were traded for coveted shells, hides, flints and dried buffalo meat. All this commercial activity was conducted in part from the comfort of sprawling stone and mud, multi-storied, apartment complexes boasting hundreds of rooms with flat roofs and shared walls.


From the Conquistadors’ and Franciscans’ point of view, the Kachina dancers and false-god worshipers they “conquered” might have been illiterate heathens destined for the fiery furnace reserved for Lucifer and his minions, but round-shouldered, hairy-backed, club-swinging Neanderthals they most certainly were not.

I didn’t know any of this on the drive to Gran Quivira, concentrating instead on abrupt left and right turns that popped up out of nowhere as the sky shaded orange, then red, then purple, and stars began their twinkle. The day had been long and I was tired but I kept my blurry eyes peeled for crossing mule deer bounding gracefully toward death on this lonely ribbon of asphalt. Then, feeling greatly relieved at traversing the big empty unscathed, we pulled up to the monument and a very locked gate, with no place to camp, and no lodging to be found. Sensing a slow burn coming, we continued north another 40 miles to Quarai, which is still part of the same monument though miles apart.

Watching for stray dogs now and slow cats, we drove into the dark void of the night spotting in the periphery of our headlights little ranches ticking by and simple homes and long trailers on small plots, then continued on through the vacant slumbering streets of Mountainair, ever north toward Manzano, the Spanish village in the foothills of the same name.

imageIn light of that day’s turn of events, I’m surprised I had the wherewithal to pull off the country road late that night as four bright headlights raced down the two-lane highway from Manzano; two pick-up trucks racing side-by-side, fishtailing and wobbling at 90, 100, maybe 300 miles an hour and at the last plausible moment taking that big drunken turn south as tires squealed, Mariachi music blared and young males yipped and howled and gravel and dust clouded their wake as they slipped and slid off the road and back on, ripping by my open window in their oblivion into the dark mysterious New Mexico night as red taillights grew small and vanished, and I’m checking my pulse and looking for a mop and digging through my pack for a clean pair of pants.

Don’t let the fear of death by drunks keep you from visiting Quarai, during daylight hours. Bright and early the next morning, we left the frosty pine forest of high country and drove back down through green fields under a deep blue Southwest sky. Even from a distance across the meadow the abandoned church and mission ruins at Quarai impress. Having lived up and down Germany’s Rhine River Valley and toured my share of crumbling castles, I’d have to agree with Charles Lummis, whoever he was, when he referred to this 40-foot-tall hulking mass of red and gray rocks and bulging walls as, “An edifice in ruins … but so tall, so solemn, so dominant of that strange, lonely landscape … On the Rhine it would be a superlative; in the wilderness of Manzano it is a miracle.”


Unlike those crowded Rhine River castles, we had the place to ourselves, the quiet lending itself to hushed religious undertones. Strolling down the path toward the remnants of that massive church, we passed hilly mounds of dirt. Largely unexcavated, these innocuous piles of rubble contain the collapsed remains of large, stone-and-mud pueblos that might have housed and served 400 – 600 people in hundreds of rooms and dozens of ceremonial Kivas over the years. To better envision the probable scope of this 350-year-old community, the monument’s visitors center and museum offer a model replica plus a wealth of information that brings the ruins and their long-departed inhabitants to life.

The beginning of the end of the Salinas pueblos’ Indians can probably be traced to Spain’s conquest of New Mexico, specifically 1598 when Governor Don Juan de Onate had the Indians of a nearby pueblo, possibly Quarai itself, sign an “Act of Obedience and Vassalage” to the Spanish Crown. Things skidded downhill from there. In 1601 Indians at Acolocu attacked some Spaniards who reciprocated, allegedly, by killing 800 natives. This bloodletting set the tone for the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Vast mineral wealth didn’t pay off as the Spanish Crown had hoped, so the Crown and Catholic Church turned their energies to converting pagans. By 1610 Franciscan missionary activity escalated throughout New Mexico, and by 1628, Fray Juan Gutierrez de la Chica is believed to have begun the massive church at Quarai, called the Church of Nuestra Senora de La Purisima Conception de Cuarac (La Purisima Conception).


Forty-foot walls rest on foundation footers six feet wide and seven feet deep. The inside of the church is 100 feet long, the transept 50 feet wide and the nave 27 feet. It even had an apse, some gorbels and vigas, a mess of herringbone latillos up on the roof, a Clerestory window to brighten up the altar, and a whole bunch of other words I’ve never heard of.

As you enter the grand opening, think white, not red or gray, because the surrounding masonry and sandstone walls were probably plastered and adorned with colorful yellow, blue, black and red dado patterns and stripes painted waist high to spruce up the place. Near the back of the church a choir balcony hovered overhead, religious paintings hung from the walls, and flagstone covered the dirt floor beneath your feet. Attached to the church are the remaining walls of the convento, a slew of rooms offering supporting roles to the mission’s mission. You’re allowed to wander about this maze of interior patios, waiting rooms, reception areas, the kitchen and refectory and store rooms and sleeping quarters for the mission workers. With a lot of imagination you can almost plant yourself 350 years in the distant past.

At least 400 Christian converts mulled about the pueblo and mission grounds, and apart from the church proper it must have been a bustling place and somewhat noisier than our quiet early morning stroll through the hallowed remnants of 17th century ecclesiastic life under the watchful eye of a small owl perched high on the wall near the front entrance. But as impressive as these ruins are, the real story is about the people, not the rocks; the clash of cultures and ideologies, all-out warfare and the fundamentals of survival in a hostile wilderness environment deemed harsh at best.


Conflicts festered to the boiling point and beyond between church and state, who vied respectively for the Indians’ free labor and tribute like cotton goods, weavings, and maize. A much abused arrangement called the “encomienda” system allowed high-ranking Spanish citizens to extract a burdensome tribute from the indigenous vassals in exchange for protection and the government’s military support, with a little education thrown in on the side. In contemporary mob parlance, the deal was: “Pay up or die,” a form of sanctioned extortion. Blessed by the Spanish Crown, this mafioso lifestyle proved highly lucrative. Problem was, the Church and Franciscans extracted their own form of tribute, or privileges, that overlapped those of the secular authorities, and there was only so much Indian pie to go around. It was the Indians who were saddled with supporting the mission, and it was their short, brutish lives and sweat and toil that built the church and mission proper at Quarai.

Regardless of your religious proclivities, the Franciscans deserve credit for living up to their beliefs. Life at Quarai was no cakewalk for the clergy. Building, let alone running, Quarai meant hard work, long hours, Tiwa language barriers and centuries of pagan superstition to overcome which must have taxed those self-sacrificing, dedicated monks’ minds and souls to the breaking point. The hairy halo with the bald spot and those long brown skirts only made matters worse, and did little to impress the chicks on Friday nights.


But of all the challenges facing the Franciscans, it wasn’t the cold winter nights, or raging May winds,or those agonizingly long waits for supplies to roll up every three years from Mexico, or the pinion nuts that got stuck in their molars. It was the stubborn heathens’ belief system and their pagan rituals that kept the friars up at night; Kachina dancers who played such a vital role in the Indians’ demonic theocracies, masked men in strange garb representing spirit messengers to their many gods in elaborate dances which were intended to ensure the continuance of natural cycles that permitted human and plant life to flourish, in their minds. That’s where the real battle took place for Frays Esterande Perea, Geronimo de la Llana, Juan de Salas and others. That’s what the mission at Quarai was ultimately all about. Technically.

In all fairness to New Mexico’s Catholic clergy, records indicate the friars were generally compassionate and caring, and took great strides to protect the Indians from the brutal Spanish encomienda thug overlords. On the other hand, the dreaded Spanish Inquisition was in full swing during Quarai’s heyday. Three New Mexico inquisitor priests hailed from the Church at Quarai, and though one conjures up loud images of a disgruntled middle-aged witch roasting on a spit and heretics’ slippery tongues yanked out of their blasphemous mouths with a pair of rusty pliers, the priests at Quarai conducted nice inquisitions. Offenses against God and Church were too often based on flimsy evidence. Accusations of the misdemeanor variety included unfaithfulness, blasphemy, lukewarm witchcraft and the generous application of love-potions, but none of these accusations resulted in a formal trial or torture.


Standing within the ancient realm of the Inquisition that morning, the mere thought of religious pain sent me in to mild convulsions at the guilty thought of my own love-potions, or were those lotions, I forget, but a frightful panic engulfed me as I saw myself in a bang and a flash transported back 350 years, stuck in a trance-like vision of biblical proportions as real and sweaty as any nightmare my subconscious could conjure up. There I was in a dark dungeon smelling roasted flesh, hopefully not mine, as flickering torchlight fluttered off damp walls and my hooded tormentor lashed my half-naked body to “The Rack.” The charge? Irreverence and bad breath. With a gentle turn of the screws and a sinister snicker, the fat man in the black hood stretched my shrinking frame back to six feet where it belongs as I bellowed in heavily-accented Tiwa for mercy. And when that didn’t satisfy them, they tattooed the fear of God back in me with a red hot poker in keeping with the tenor of those terrible times.

All good things must come to an end and it was no different with the Salinas pueblo missions. Sadly, a perfect storm of catastrophes swept away the remaining vestiges of Indian life as well. Allocating blame is problematic, but Pueblo Indians trading with eastern Apaches had a nasty habit of seizing captives to be sold as slaves in northern Mexico’s mines. Understandably, sort of, the Apaches retaliated in force, pillaging and burning and creating untold havoc and stealing captives of their own in a tit-for-tat war that raged out of control for years. As Friar Juan Benral wrote, the Apaches killed any Christian Indians they could find. No road or trail was safe as the fearsome Apaches murdered in a lunatic frenzy with seeming impunity.

To make matters worse, in the latter part of the 1660s drought struck, famine ensued, and hundreds dropped dead along roads and in their homes having exhausted their remaining morsels and roasted hides and scraps of marinated leather. Then came pestilence. Then came more Apaches pillaging and plundering and shooting arrows into the missionaries at Piro pueblo at Senecu. It was no exaggeration that the Indians of Salinas were destroyed, wiped out, cleansed from the land. By “1678 the six pueblos in the Salinas province were abandoned.”

Some migrated west and were assimilated with pueblos along the Rio Grande, others moved south with the retreating Spaniards to the El Paso region. No Indians returned, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that a few Spanish re-settled the Salinas area. Over the last 200 years a mere trickle of visitors and occupants dribbled through. Needless to say, the place has changed.

I wish I had known all this before I visited Quarai of the Salinas Pueblo Mission National Monument. Armed with a few simple facts beforehand the red and gray stonework and lumpy mounds of dirt and waist-high walls standing for posterity, and that square, misplaced Kiva takes on a collective life of its own. Standing between those massive church walls under the steady gaze of that spooky owl left me feeling, I don’t know, humbled I suppose. Watched, definitely, and suddenly itching once again from that ruby red rash I picked up off that toilet seat down at the Lonesome Steer. Like little ants in my pants, that annoying rash started working its way east through my dirty Levis, and I could think of only one cure for this itch. We would just have to take another drive.


John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer