New Mexico: Salinas Pueblo Missions Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Administered by the National Park Service, this was once a major trading center and is now the site of mission ruins and Indian pueblo ruins that have survived since the villages were abandoned in the 1600’s.

Site Office:

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

P.O. Box 517

Broadway and Ripley

Mountainair, NM 87036

ph.: (505) 847-2585

Web site: www.nps.gov/sapu/

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, situated in the central New Mexican town of Mountainair, is really three monuments: the ruins of Abó, Gran Quivira, and Quarai stand as reminders of Indian communities that have been abandoned since the 1600’s. The region’s communities were a bridge between the prehistoric Pueblo Indian cultures and the later cultures that arose from contact with Europeans. The ruins there also bear witness to a combination of styles reflecting the architecture of both the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish Franciscans.

Early History

The overlapping of two southwestern Indian cultures in the Salinas Valley planted the seeds for the Salinas Pueblos. Until the tenth century, the Mogollon culture dominated the region, its first dwellers subsisting as hunters and gatherers. At first living in pit houses, they later built above-ground homes known as jacales, pole dwellings covered with adobe plaster.

By the late 1100’s, the nascent pueblo communities got their start with the arrival of the Anasazi from the Colorado Plateau. Their stone and adobe dwellings were home to the society later discovered by Spanish settlers.

By 1300, the Anasazi culture was flourishing. Their homes developed into large stone complexes surrounding plazas dotted with kivas (round, sunken ceremonial chambers). The villagers’ sartorial choices reflected the trade of the time: turquoise and shell jewelry, breech cloths, bison robes, antelope and deer hides, as well as decorative cotton and yucca blankets.

The blending of Anasazi and Mogollon cultures evolved into the Abó, Gran Quivira, and Quarai societies. Quarai, now the smallest of the three monuments, was once home to early Indians who made their living through farming and trade. Abó first became the site of Mogollon pit houses around 1150. The community was distinguished by the gray paste pottery they made, which later gave way to the Anasazi’s glazed, painted pottery. The early pueblos of Gran Quivira were formed in concentric circles using masonry and mortar work. Another pueblo was eventually built on top of the original rooms.

Arrival of the Spanish

When the Spaniards first set foot in the Salinas Valley in 1581, Abó was a prosperous community along a passage opening to the Rio Grande Valley. It flourished as a trading post for the Pueblo and Plains Indians, where salt, beans, squash, maize, and pinon nuts were exchanged for hides, flints, and shells. Mountainair at one time was dubbed the “Pinto Bean Capital of the World.” By the seventeenth century, the population had swelled to at least 100,000.

In 1598, Juan de Oñate, who eventually became governor of New Mexico, led a group of soldiers to the area to establish a permanent colony. There he came upon a valley dotted with pueblos along the eastern side of the Manzano Mountains. Oñate declared that salt–which was abundant in the region–was “one of the four riches of New Mexico.” Salt was valuable worldwide for trading and was a key element for the Spanish in smelting silver. The Spanish named the place Salinas, meaning “salt mines.”

Oñate’s troops, however, did not make a good first impression: Soldiers riled the Indians by trying to collect from them tribute to the Spanish crown. Once Oñate became governor, he sent his nephew, Vicente de Zaldivar, to lead a troop of men to find the South Sea (the Pacific Ocean). Stopping at Gran Quivira, Zaldivar demanded corn. The villagers gave him stones instead. Zaldivar went onward with his expedition, but he was so incensed that his uncle Oñate rushed to the pueblo with fifty armed men.

Oñate demanded that the residents of Gran Quivira give him their handwoven cotton blankets, and they reluctantly presented about a dozen to him. The next day, the governor ordered his troops to set a corner of the pueblo on fire and shoot at a crowd of residents. In the melee that ensued, at least five Indians died, two men were captured and eventually hanged, and others suffered injuries. Throughout the events, Oñate had been talking through an interpreter. He began to suspect that the translator was not speaking in the best interests of the Spaniards. Although Oñate was not sure, he nonetheless had the interpreter hanged. The initial resistance of the Indians to the Spanish soon gave way to reluctant acceptance.

Roman Catholic Missionaries

During the 1620’s, the Franciscans under Francisco de Acevedo and Francisco Fonte began converting some of the eight hundred residents of Abó. By the end of the decade, the friars had begun constructing the community’s first church. The ruins of the San Gregorio de Abó Church are among the few remaining examples of medieval architecture in the United States. The red sandstone and mud mortar ruins are situated on the hilly land of Abó, ten miles west of Mountainair, against the backdrop of the Manzano Mountains. The church walls were supported on one side by two exterior buttresses and a fifty-foot-high bell tower. An Indian kiva was discovered when the mission was excavated. Some believe that Indians had built the kiva surreptitiously but had to destroy it when it was discovered by a Spanish priest.

The mission at Quarai, a village eight miles north of Mountainair, amid cottonwoods and the Manzano Mountain wilderness, was established by Friar Estéban de Perea in the 1620’s. In 1630, he and Friar Juan Gutierrez led the pueblo women and children in building the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Today, the red sandstone walls of the church ruins rise forty feet high. The church was adjacent to a monastery, underneath which a kiva was discovered when the structure was excavated.

Surviving Ruins

Twenty-six miles south of Mountainair is the pueblo of Gran Quivira, once home to fifteen hundred people, making it the largest of those abandoned by the Indians. Only the isolated ruins remain today. The origins of the village’s name remain unknown. Oñate named it Pueblo de Las Humanas, or the Pueblo of the Striped Ones, after the Indian residents who had stripes painted on their noses. After it had been abandoned, it was confused with Quivera, the mythic city of gold and silver that Francisco Vásquez de Coronado had sought in vain.

The ruins include two mission churches, the Chapel of San Isidro and the Mission of San Buenaventura. San Isidro was built between 1630 and 1636 and destroyed during an Apache raid about forty years later. San Buenaventura was started in 1659 but was never used or finished. The massive church building stretched 138 feet long, with walls that were 5 feet thick. The writer Charles F. Lummis described the ruins in the late 1800’s as “an edifice in ruins, it is true, but so tall, so solemn, so dominant in that strange, lonely landscape, so out of place in that land of adobe box huts, as to be simply overpowering. On the Rhine it would be a superlative, in the wilderness of the Manzano it is a miracle.” The ruins are distinguished by their blue-gray limestone. A number of kivas, as well as seventeen house mounds, are at the site. While excavating and repairing the ruins, researchers discovered small reservoirs and ditches used for irrigation.

While the area was burgeoning with trade and construction, tension was escalating with the Spanish settlers–particularly from their attempts to convert the residents to Christianity. The cultural differences between the Spanish missionaries and the Pueblo priests were vast. To the pueblo leaders, the Christian ideal of an individual relationship with one god was incomprehensible. The Pueblo Indians’ religious customs–which included costumed dancers sending messages to their various gods–were equally bewildering to the Franciscans. The Spanish banned the native ceremonies, but the Indians continued them in secret. In turn, the Spanish burned and filled some of the below-ground kivas where the Pueblo Indians had conducted many of their sacred rites.

The Pueblos, the Apaches, and the Spanish

Adding to the Pueblos’ troubles, the Apaches started pillaging them for food and herds of livestock. The Apaches had become more and more frustrated with the Pueblo Indians, whom they considered accomplices of the Spanish in their ongoing raids among the unconverted Indians for slaves to send south to work in the mines of Mexico.

Despite the tension that had existed between them, during the 1660’s the Pueblos joined forces with the Apaches to plan a revolt against the Spanish. The plan was discovered before the uprising could be carried out, and the person who organized it was put to death.

The combination of drought and widespread famine during the 1660’s and 1670’s devastated the Salinas pueblos. At Gran Quivira alone, 450 people starved to death. The Spanish settlers had brought with them European diseases that swept through the pueblos, killing off still more of the residents. During the 1670’s the Salinas missions and pueblos were entirely abandoned; surviving Indians moved in with relatives in other pueblos. The new church that had been started at Gran Quivira was never finished. The emptying of the pueblos was so sudden that the communities became known as the “the cities that died of fear.”

Pueblo Revolt of 1680

The friction that had been simmering for so long eventually boiled over into the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which occured to the north of Salinas and temporarily drove the Spanish out of New Mexico. In the aftermath, the Piro and Tompiro Indian survivors of the Salinas pueblos moved south to El Paso, Texas. There they adopted the culture of their new Indian neighbors, making them the only group among the Pueblo Indians to permanently lose their language and homeland.

In 1821, Mexico wrested control of New Mexico from the Spanish, and governed the territory for the next twenty-five years. The loose reins that Mexico assumed during that period resulted in a surge of raids by the Navajo and other tribes on the Pueblos.

In 1853, Major J. H. Carleton stopped at Abó while on an expedition to the Salinas district. “The tall ruins standing there in solitude, had an aspect of sadness and gloom,” he wrote. “The cold wind . . . appeared to roar and howl through the roofless pile like an angry demon.”

In 1909, Gran Quivira was proclaimed a National Monument. In 1980, the two state monuments of Abó and Quarai were combined with Gran Quivira as Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. The park headquarters and orientation center are situated in the Shaffer Hotel in Mountainair.

For Further Information
  • Hewett, Edgar L., and Reginald G. Fisher. Mission Monuments of New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1943. Offers a colorful, thorough description of the history surrounding the various monuments of the state. The extremely detailed descriptions of renovations at the end of the book are, however, now out of date.
  • Jaffe, Matthew. “The Enchanted Road: Las Cruces to Albuquerque.” Sunset 199 (October, 1997): 34-35. This article describes a back-road route that passes through Salinas Pueblo National Monument.
  • Kenner, Charles L. A History of New Mexican-Plains Indian Relations. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. Examines the often contentious relations between the Spanish settlers and Indians.
  • Simmons, Marc. The Last Conquistador. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991. Offers a more detailed look at the expeditions of Juan de Oñate throughout the Southwest.
Categories: History Content