New Mexico: Ácoma Pueblo Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This Native American village at the top of a mesa known as the Rock of Acuco is one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in the continental United States.

Site Office

Pueblo Cultural Center

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Albuquerque, NM 87104

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Ácoma Pueblo is impressive for both its physical grandeur and its inhabitants. The pueblo, also known as Sky City, sits atop a 357-foot-high mesa and is barely visible from below. A modern road takes tour buses to the top, but an ancient stone stairway also remains at the site. The pueblo is still home to a small number of the Ácoma people, making it one of the oldest continously inhabited sites in the United States. Its inhabitants have withstood the encroachments of a variety of outside cultures.

Early History

The origins of Ácoma Pueblo and its residents are somewhat mysterious; there is great variance of opinion concerning just how long the area has been inhabited. Many scholars believe the first inhabitants arrived anywhere from 1075 to 1200 c.e. The Ácomas themselves say their ancestors arrived earlier; different legends put the habitation at about 600 c.e. or even before the time of Christ. The word “Ácoma” means “a place that always was.” The Ácomas also dispute scholarly claims that the habitation resulted from migrations. They say that they have always lived on the mesa and have welcomed nomadic tribes there. Another opinion, however, is that the Ácomas migrated from Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado. The Ácomas, this theory goes, were often in conflict with other tribes, so they chose to live on the top of the mesa because of its defensive advantages. Whatever the truth may be, Sky City was once home to thousands of Ácomas, a tribe of the Keres Indians.

The earliest written records of the Ácomas come from Spanish explorers. The first Europeans to have contact with the Ácomas were Hernando de Alvarado, the Franciscan friar Juan Padilla, and their party of soldiers, who in 1540 were dispatched by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado to explore the area east of Zuñi Pueblo, which is near the western edge of present-day New Mexico. Alvarado was impressed by Ácoma Pueblo. “The city was built on a high rock,” he wrote. “The ascent was so difficult that we repented climbing to the top. The houses are three and four stories high. The people [are] of the same type as those in the province of Cíbola [Zuñi], and they have abundant supplies of maize, beans, and turkeys like those of New Spain.” This encounter between the Spaniards and the Ácomas was, by most accounts, peaceful.

Coronado was disappointed in his search for riches in the area that is now New Mexico, and his army returned to Mexico in 1542. Rumors of wealth to be had in the area, however, continued to abound, leading another Spanish party to venture there in 1581. It was organized by a Franciscan, Agustín Rodríguez, and included soldiers commanded by Francisco Sanchez; it made contact with several pueblos, including Ácoma. One member of the party, Hernando Gallegos, recorded a brief description of Ácoma, saying the mesa contained about five hundred houses three or four stories high.

Antonio de Espejo’s Expedition

A member of another expedition in the following year, Antonio de Espejo, described a well-developed society at Ácoma, which he estimated had more than six thousand residents. He observed that the residents engaged in farming fields a few miles from the pueblo and diverted a river to irrigate these fields. The people of Ácoma engaged in trade with nearby communities, exchanging salt, game, and hides for other goods. The Ácomas were cordial to Espejo and treated him to performances of juggling and ceremonial dances.

Still, some Ácomas were suspicious of the Spaniards, and that suspicion was justified: The Spaniards were bent on conquest. The Ácomas did not wish to be conquered, so eventually the encounters between the Spanish and the Ácomas turned violent.

Espejo found evidence of gold mines west of Ácoma, in what is now Arizona, and his reports fueled the Spaniards’ desire to explore and conquer the land they called New Mexico. The Spanish authorities assigned this task to Juan de Oñate, who set out from Mexico in April, 1598, with a party of soldiers, their families, and a few Franciscans. They visited several pueblos and arrived at Ácoma in late October, then held a ceremony in which the Ácomas were asked to pledge obedience to the Spanish Crown. Oñate and his party then moved on, but another group, led by Juan de Zaldivar, his nephew, soon followed. When this group arrived early in December, the Ácomas were initially friendly, but then attacked the Spaniards and killed thirteen of them, including Zaldivar.

A party of seventy men, led by Juan de Zaldivar’s brother, Vicente, came to Ácoma on January 11, 1599, intending vengeance. Three times, the Spaniards asked the Ácomas to accept them peacefully. Because these efforts proved unsuccessful, Vicente de Zaldivar ordered his troops to attack the pueblo the next day. A three-day battle ensued, with the Spaniards emerging victorious and taking more than five hundred Ácomas as prisoners. The adults among the prisoners were sentenced to slavery.

There were further Spanish explorations in New Mexico during the next several years. The Ácomas’ relations with the Spaniards were peaceful but aloof, and their community was rather isolated. This isolation changed in 1629, when a priest named Juan Ramírez arrived at Ácoma. He was well liked by the Ácomas and helped them rebuild the pueblo, which the Spanish had set afire during the battle in 1599. He also oversaw the construction of the San Esteban del Rey Mission, which still stands at Ácoma. The Ácomas gradually adopted the Catholic religion and Spanish agricultural methods. This situation was not to last forever.

Growing Resentment of the Spanish

Resentment of the Spaniards by the native peoples of New Mexico led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680; Ácoma’s distance from the other pueblos meant that it was not heavily involved. Evidently the Ácomas supported the goals of the revolt, as one account says they burned all the Christian emblems at the pueblo and killed their priest, Lucas Maldonado, one of Ramírez’s successors.

Following the revolt, Spain made several attempts at reconquest. An expedition led by Don Diego de Vargas arrived at Sky City in November, 1692. The Ácomas at first refused the Spaniards admittance, but surrendered after the Spanish force climbed the mesa. There were battles between the Spanish and various native tribes over the next few years, and the Spanish reconquest of New Mexico forged ahead; a major event was the surrender of Taos Pueblo in 1696. A few isolated skirmishes followed, but the reconquest was complete by 1699.

During the eighteenth century the small mission staff at Sky City converted many Ácomas to Christianity. The Ácomas continued farming, although increasing drought made this enterprise difficult. Disease decreased the Ácoma population during this period; the Spanish also blamed Apache raids. Whatever the causes, the population of the pueblo was estimated at fewer than one thousand near the end of the century. At this time the Ácomas had distinguished themselves as blanket makers; their blankets were said to be the finest in New Mexico. Pottery making was another significant craft. In the late eighteenth century, Ácomas began assisting the Spaniards in raids against the Navajo Indians.

Under Mexican Rule

When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the Ácomas’ way of life changed very little. The Mexican government accepted the Ácomas as citizens, and the Ácomas went on farming and hunting. Like the Spanish before them, the Mexican authorities continued to have trouble with the Navajo. Whether or not the Ácomas assisted the Mexicans in their battles is not documented, but it is possible they did assist. Some authorities, however, claimed the Ácomas were “in collusion” with the Navajo.

When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, U.S. troops occupied New Mexico; when the war ended, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought the territory into the United States, and the Ácomas had to deal with yet another government. U.S. military engineers who surveyed Ácoma Pueblo were impressed with the residents’ agriculture and craftsmanship. There were threats to the Ácomas’ way of life. There were land disputes with Mexicans and with other native tribes, including the Lagunas.

Under U.S. Rule

The U.S. Indian agent for the territory supported, in theory, the rights of the Ácomas and other peaceful pueblo dwellers to retain their traditional lands and to receive assistance with trade and agriculture; in practice, however, U.S. authorities were not able to keep out encroaching settlers. Boundary disputes continued throughout the nineteenth century. Finally, in 1913, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Ácomas and other pueblo dwellers were protected against unauthorized settlement on their lands. By this time the Ácomas had lost much of their traditional land. In 1948 they began working on legal action to seek compensation for the land losses; the proceedings were lengthy. In 1970 the U.S. government agreed to pay the Ácomas slightly more than six thousand dollars.

Growing crops and raising livestock, especially sheep, remained principal activities of the Ácomas until World War II. Since then, the increasing dryness of their land has made agriculture less feasible. More and more Ácomas live and work away from the pueblo, particularly in the nearby villages of Acomita and McCartys, with the pueblo now functioning as something of a ceremonial home. For the handful of Ácoma families who live at Sky City, tourism has become important. They allow visitors to take guided trips around the pueblo; the mission church also is open for touring. At the foot of the mesa there is a visitor center that features an extensive, permanent exhibit of Ácoma pottery.

For Further Information
  • Minge, Ward Alan. Ácoma: Pueblo in the Sky. Rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991. A thorough and sympathetic examination of the Ácomas, their history, and their culture.
  • Sedgwick, Mrs. William T. Ácoma, the Sky City. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927; reprint, Chicago: Rio Grande Press, 1963. An extensive work, but, perhaps because of its age, is a bit precious in its language and somewhat condescending toward Native Americans.
  • Sturtevant, William. Handbook of North American Indians. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1983. Contains detailed sections on the Ácoma people.
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