New Mexico: El Morro Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This natural outcropping or mesa of sandstone carries inscriptions dating from prehistoric times to the early twentieth century by people who have lived there and by those who passed by. It is also called Inscription Rock.

Site Office

El Morro National Monument

Route 2, Box 43

Ramah, NM 87321-9603

ph.: (505) 783-4226

Web site:

El Morro thrusts some two hundred feet from the floor of the New Mexican desert and seems solid and stalwart, with castle-like embattlements. At first glance, it looks like the hundreds of other mesas in the U.S. Southwest. However, El Morro is not what it seems to be. It is hollow, actually V-shaped, with a box canyon carved into its center. This canyon can be seen from the top of what has come to be known as Inscription Rock, so named because people, from prehistoric times to about 1906, carved messages into the soft sandstone. Normally, the inscriptions in the sandstone would have eroded away over the centuries, but not at El Morro. This mesa has a cap of hard rock, which has protected the inscriptions to a large degree.

Mysteries of El Morro

One of El Morro’s mysteries is the identity of the prehistoric people who carved petroglyphs, or rock art, of mountain sheep, bear claws, and people into the rock some seven hundred years ago. Another mystery is how they built two fortified villages atop the rock. The only clue as to how they ascended and descended from their stronghold is well-weathered toe holds. The top of the mesa also contains several cisterns that can hold rainwater, but some water must have been carried up from the feature that made El Morro such a well-visited spot: a pool of fresh water in the middle of the desert. The pool is formed from runoff rain and melted snow and is seldom dry. It was on an ancient trail between the Indian villages of Zuñi and Ácoma.

The Zuñi have named the larger mesa-top town A’ts’ina, meaning “writing on the rock.” The ruins suggest that the pueblos there rose as high as three stories and enclosed five hundred rooms. Some fifteen hundred people were housed there, and by 1990, sixteen rooms and two kivas, or sunken ceremonial chambers, had been excavated. One of the kivas is unusual because it is square (most extant kivas are round).

The Anasazi People

The builders of the city are believed by modern archaeologists to have been a people called the Anasazi, hunter-gatherers who moved into the area some two thousand years ago. Even nineteenth century Indians knew nothing of the Anasazi writings. The Anasazi are usually referred to by archaeologists as ancestors or predecessors to the Zuñi and other Pueblo Indian tribes. Today’s Zuñi still consider the mesa and its cities as sacred places.

Atop El Morro, the Anasazi gradually changed from hunter-gatherers to middlemen trading with neighboring peoples of the Southwest. The Anasazi themselves grew corn and other products in irrigated fields, harvested the crops, and stored the surplus in sealed rooms in the pueblo. As builders, the Anasazi used the flat sedimentary rock that surrounded them as building materials. A mixture of clay and pebbles was used as mortar. The buildings were cool in summer and warm in winter.

After building the pueblos in the late 1200’s, the people left suddenly. Many historians ascribe their flight to a drought that afflicted the area from 1276 to 1299, but the evidence is obscure. The exodus could also have been due to invasion by the Athabascan to the north or by other pueblo peoples. The pueblo ruins not too distant at Sand Canyon contain burned kivas and the remains of bodies with their skulls crushed.

The Arrival of the Spanish

By 1517, Spaniards had reached Mexico and Florida; A’ts’ina was soon to bear inscriptions by a new people and receive three new names. The first dated inscription by a Spaniard was made in 1605, but archaeologists believe other, undated Spanish inscriptions preceded it. Some might have belonged to the party of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who most likely passed by El Morro in 1540 during his search for the fabled golden cities of Cíbola.

The site first appears in an outside record in 1583 in the journal of Diego Pérez de Luxán, who stopped there twice that year as part of a company led by Antonio de Espejo. He gave the site its first Spanish name, El Estanque del Peñol (the pool by the great rock). The site would be visited by Spaniards again in 1598, when Captain Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá accidently fell into the pool after becoming lost in an October snowstorm. After several days he was found and rescued by his men. Villagrá went on to publish his account of this experience in his verse history, Historia de la Nueva México, published in 1610. The story of his encounter with El Morro was also noted by Juan de Oñate, governor of New Mexico, to whom Villagrá was brought after his rescue:

Captain Villagá arrived, being brought in by three soldiers who had gone to round up horses which the snow storm had scattered and found him almost dead at El Agua de la Peña, without horse or arms, and not having eaten for two or three days. . . . Only the mercy of God prevented him from perishing.

Oñate thus gave the mesa its second Spanish name, El Agua de la Peña (the water by the rock).

It was Oñate who carved the first known dated inscription at El Morro. It reads:

PASO POR AQUI EL ADELANTADO DON JUAN DE OÑATE DEL DESCUBRIMIENTO DE LA MAR DEL SUR A 16 DE ABRIL DE 1605 (The governor Don Juan de Oñate passed by here from the discovery of the Sea of the South on April 16, 1605)

The Spaniards had been looking for a route from the interior to the “South Sea,” or Pacific Ocean, for some time. Historians believe that if Oñate discovered anything on his 1604-1605 expedition, it was the Gulf of California. Many of the subsequent Spanish inscriptions begin with the literary convention paso por aquí, or “passed by here.”

Some of these inscriptions tell of expeditions to punish or avenge the killings by Indians of priests and Spanish officials. Contrary to Oñate’s written orders, Spaniards robbed, killed, and enslaved Indians. The Indians finally rose in rebellion in 1680 and massacred the Spaniards. Twelve years later, the conquistadores returned. An inscription by the commanding general reads, “Passed by here was General Don Diego de Vargas who conquered for our Holy Faith and the Royal Crown all New Mexico at his own expense in the year 1692.” Like many conquistador carvings, it contained more bombast than truth. New Mexico was hardly tamed. An inscription dated 1716 reads, “Passed this way Don Feliz Martinez, Governor and Captain General . . . to the reduction and conquest of Moqui [Hopi Indians].” At some point the name of the site was changed to El Morro (the headland).

About 1730, the number of Spanish carvings began to decline, indicating less travel, perhaps because of fear of attacks by Indians. There was a brief spurt of travel and rock signatures in the reign of King Carlos III of Spain (1759 to 1788). After that, the number of inscriptions faded along with the Spanish Empire.

American Intrusions

The time was approaching for the new invaders: Americans. In 1803 the United States acquired a vast, undefined area known as the Louisiana Territory, bounded roughly by the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. This acquisition brought U.S. surveyors such as Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike to New Mexico in 1806 to define Louisiana’s western boundary. American traders and mountain men had been infiltrating New Mexico for some time. Neither group was welcome by the Spanish or, later, by the Mexicans, who acquired New Mexico when they gained independence from Spain in 1821.

This hostility could explain the ambiguity of the one El Morro inscription of the period: “O. R. 1836.” Whoever carved it had the ego to memorialize himself in rock but did not want Mexican authorities to know who wrote it. One mountain man, and later soldier, who probably saw Inscription Rock many times beginning in 1829 was Kit Carson. Someone, possibly Carson himself, inscribed his name on the rock and dated it 1863.

Ten years after the anonymous scout left his initials, the United States and Mexico went to war. In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded California and much of the Southwest, including parts of New Mexico, to the United States. El Morro was now U.S. property. The U.S. Army sent expeditions into Zuñi country almost immediately. Lieutenant James H. Simpson of the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers and artist Richard Kern arrived at El Morro in September, 1849. They were so impressed with what they saw that they stayed two extra days copying the inscriptions. Simpson also named the site “Inscription Rock” in his report. Like so many before them, they could not resist the temptation of adding their own mark there. They carved their names in neat, legible letters: “Lt. JH Simpson USA & RH Kern Artist visited and copied these inscriptions, September 17th 18th 1849.” (Ironically, they left the letter “R” out of the word “inscription” and had to caret it in afterward.) They are the first known Americans to carve their names upon Inscription Rock.

American soldiers came to El Morro again. In 1857, the U.S. Army Camel Corps arrived. The camel experiment had been planned for some time by Major Henry C. Wayne and Edward (“Ned”) Beale. Beale at that time was superintendent of Indian affairs in California, an old friend of Kit Carson, and a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. He hoped the camels, designed by nature for desert survival, would solve the problem of transporting California-bound Americans across the deserts of the Southwest. Beale’s name is inscribed on El Morro, as is that of P. Gilmer Breckinridge, who was in charge of the camels in 1857. Beale had carved his name sometime earlier. The U.S. Army Camel Corps became extinct when Confederate soldiers captured its base at Camp Verde, Texas.

In 1858, two persons on a wagon train took the time to engrave the only names known to be those of women: “MISS A. E. BALEY” and “MISS A. C. BALEY.” In 1868, surveyors for the Union Pacific Railroad examined the trail past El Morro but decided on a route twenty-five miles north instead. By 1906, the government declared El Morro a National Monument and prohibited any more “guest signatures.”

Today visitors can get acquainted with El Morro at a visitors’ center and take two self-guided trails. Inscription Rock Trail passes the carvings at the base, and Mesa Top Trail takes the more energetic visitors to the top. The latter is two miles round trip, steep, and requires sturdy shoes, water, and stamina.

For Further Information
  • Dodge, Bertha S. The Road West: Saga of the 35th Parallel. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980. Mentions many appearances of El Morro in New Mexico history.
  • El Morro Trails: El Morro National Monument, New Mexico. Globe, Ariz.: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1998.
  • Park, Edward. “El Morro: Story in Stone.” National Geographic, August, 1957. Covers El Morro.
Categories: History