New Mexico: Taos

This artists’ and ski resort town in New Mexico was inhabited originally by Native Americans and later by Spanish settlers. The Taos Pueblo has been home to Taos-Tiwa Indians for one thousand years.

Site Office

Taos County Chamber of Commerce

229 Paseo del Pueblo Sur

Post Office Drawer 1

Taos, New Mexico 87571

ph.: (800) 732-8267; (505) 758-3873

Web site:


At the base of the Sangre de Cristos Mountains in northern New Mexico lies the community of Taos, where Native American and Spanish influences remain strong centuries after the first settlers arrived there. The town’s rich history and distinctive culture are still apparent in its terra-cotta colored adobe buildings, restored haciendas, narrow streets, and pueblo dwellings.

Early History

Paleo-Indians are believed to be the first people to have visited the Taos area, more than nine thousand years ago, passing through after hunting the buffalo that were prevalent in northern New Mexico. Throughout the Taos area there are prehistoric ruins dating from 900 c.e., when farmers and hunters known as the Pit House People permanently settled in the area. The Pit House People were so named because they dwelled in round pits that they had dug into the ground. At first they built storage areas for their crops of beans, corn, and squash, but later expanded the buildings by adding rooms for their families. By 1200 c.e. the Pit House People had started organizing their buildings into small communal dwellings known as pueblos, to avert the constant attacks by Plains Indians for food and slaves, and to serve as a site for trading with other tribes. The Taos Pueblo serves as a reminder of those early settlers; it is one of the oldest continually inhabited communities in the United States, one of New Mexico’s nineteen Native American pueblos still in existence.

The pueblo’s two main buildings, divided by the Taos River, are believed to have been built sometime between 1000 and 1450 c.e. With adobe walls made of mud and straw, the pueblo has maintained its traditional appearance for hundreds of years. For nearly one thousand years, Taos-Tiwa Indians have lived at the site.

The Arrival of the Spanish

Europeans first set foot in Taos in 1540, when Captain Hernando de Alvarado was exploring the area for Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s expedition. By 1615, Spanish settlers had founded a trading post in Taos, attracted by the well established Taos trade fairs, abundant water, and timber. For decades Spanish settlers and the Indians farmed and created a system of irrigation using ditches that is still used today.

It was not a peaceful coexistence, however. Under a Spanish program to “civilize” them, the Indians were forbidden to practice their native religion. Men who were caught engaging in any kind of religious ceremonial were whipped and sometimes killed.

Eventually, tensions erupted into what became known as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The battle left some seventy Spaniards dead in Taos, including two missionaries and a number of children. Survivors were driven from the area. The revolt freed the villages of Spanish influence, allowing for a period of peace that lasted twelve years.

In 1692 Don Diego de Vargas conquered New Mexico for Spain, reestablishing colonial rule. Conflict between the Spanish settlers and the natives continued to percolate for the next several years. In 1694, Vargas led a storming of the Taos Pueblo, returning again two years later to quell a revolt by that community.

Spanish-Indian Wars

The battles between the Spanish and the Indians resulted in the construction of buildings for protection. Many of these architecturally distinctive buildings still stand. For instance, four miles south of town is the Ranchos de Taos, a farming and ranching community that dates back to Spanish settlers of 1716. The hallmark of the area is the San Francisco de Asis Church, which was originally built by the Franciscans in the late 1700’s and fortified to ward off raiding Apaches, Utes, and Comanches. With its thick adobe walls, twin towers, and gargantuan buttresses, the church has served as inspiration for the works of Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and other painters and photographers.

Taos Becomes a Trading Hub

In 1739, French traders and trappers began using Taos as a stopping point for bartering along their way to Santa Fe. That trade with the French helped build up the arms supply of the Comanches and Apaches. Despite a local proclamation forbidding the sale of firearms to Indians, in 1748 Comanches attacked several Taos farms using firearms sold to them by the French. Many lives were lost, and a number of Spanish women and girls were taken captive.

While some Comanches attacked pueblos, others were peacefully bartering goods at Taos. By 1750, the Taos Pueblo had become a hub for Indian trade fairs and the winter home for trappers. Repeated attacks by the Plains Indians caused the population of the Taos valley to drop. There were so many battles during that era that each New Mexican governor’s term was marked and recorded by his campaigns against the Indians.

In 1760 and 1761, the Comanches launched a new string of attacks that besieged Taos for several years. The battles left the area abandoned. When Mexico took control of the territory in 1821, a new group of traders flocked to Taos and Santa Fe, giving birth to the Santa Fe Trail. By 1826, Christopher “Kit” Carson and other famous mountain men had made their homes in Taos, attracted by the abundance of beavers for trapping. Still standing and open for public view is Carson’s twelve-room adobe home, where he and his wife lived for more than twenty-five years. The living room, bedroom, and kitchen are furnished in the style of the mid-1800’s. The adjacent museum is brimming with art and artifacts from early New Mexican history.

When Mexico lost New Mexico to the United States in 1848, the Pueblo Indians at first welcomed the freedom from Spanish and Mexican bondage. Their friendliness quickly turned into resentment, then outrage, toward the U.S. government.

Revolt Against American Rule

In 1847, Mexican rebels and Taos Indians launched a revolt. A group of Indians and Mexicans rushed the house of territorial governor Charles Bent, shot him with arrows, scalped him, and left him to die. The adobe home where Bent was murdered has been well preserved and made into a museum that still contains his family’s possessions and furniture.

The rebels who killed the governor went on to raid other houses in the Taos area. They tortured and killed as many as twenty Anglo settlers, including the U.S. district attorney. Eventually the rebels met the Army of the West, as it was officially called, in Taos Canyon. During predawn hours at Taos Pueblo, U.S. soldiers blew apart the church where the rebels were holed up, killing one hundred and fifty Indian and Mexican revolutionists. Ten U.S. soldiers had been killed and fifty-two wounded. After a quick, informal trial, leaders of the rebellion were hanged in Taos. The remains of the church where the revolt ended still stand.

American Settlers

The arrival of U.S. settlers also weakened the Apaches and eventually forced them into accepting living on reservations. The Santa Fe Trail had cut through their terrority, bringing thousands of miners and ranchers into the area. By 1870, the Apaches’ farmland was occupied by white settlers. The Apaches responded by turning to the Santa Fe Trail to raid ranches, farms, and wagon trains. They stole the settlers’ horses, mules, and burros so they could increase their mobility. The raids earned the Apaches a reputation as the most dreaded warriors of the Southwest.

Under pressure from the U.S. Army and weakened by hunger and tuberculosis and other diseases, the Apaches agreed to live on reservations. Today, the tribe lives along wooded mesas and sagebrush valleys, earning much of its income from gas, oil, minerals, timber, and ranching.

Nestled in the center of the village of Taos is the two hundred-year-old Plaza that is lined by shops and galleries. Near the Plaza is the Taos Inn, a hotel whose adobe walls, antique-filled guest rooms, and hand-loomed rugs typify New Mexican design. Although many works are recent creations of local artists, parts of the inn’s structure are nearly four hundred years old.

Because of a number of fires that swept through the city, none of the Plaza’s buildings date back earlier than the nineteenth century. A flag continues to fly in the center of the plaza as a symbol of Kit Carson and others raising the Union flag during the Civil War.

Subjugation of the Navajos

While some have lauded Carson as a hero, the Navajo Indians do not hold him in that regard. In 1863, Carson, made a colonel in the U.S. Army, was assigned to launch a successful battle against the Navajos, ending their reign of supremacy in the Southwest. Rather than risk losing to the strong fighters on their own terrain, Carson decided to starve them out of their home territory. He led his troops and some Ute Indians to wipe out the Navajos’ supply of sheep and horses, burn their crops, and cut down peach orchards.

By 1865, the Navajos were slowly starved into surrendering. More than eight thousand had been driven from their homes to march three hundred miles to Bosque Redondo, east of Santa Fe. Many of the elderly Navajos were too weak to make the “Long Walk,” as it later became known, and were left to die.

Most of those who survived the journey to Bosque Redondo suffered disease and poor living conditions due to crop failure, undrinkable water, and poor soil. A quarter of the Navajos who had been imprisoned there died. Outrage over the conditions there eventually resulted in the signing of a peace treaty with the Navajos in 1868. The Treaty of 1868 allowed them to return to their old country, where they were granted a 3.5 million-acre reservation.

Growing Colony of Artists

While the history of Taos is marked by conflict between the whites and Indians, the last century has been distinguished by the influx of artists to the area. In 1898, New York illustrators Bert Geer Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein were traveling to Mexico when a broken wagon wheel took the pair on a detour to Taos. They stayed, and their example provoked a influx of artists; eventually, Taos became a notable artists’ colony. The influx of artistic immigrants helped fill the underdeveloped land of northern New Mexico that had for so long been sparsely populated. The low cost of living and picturesque mountains, mesas, and desertland drew scores of struggling artists to Taos, including perhaps the most well-known, Georgia O’Keeffe.

In 1912, the Taos Society of Artists formed and mounted traveling exhibitions that enjoyed international acclaim. The Taos colony, largely painters, flourished until 1942, when the combined forces of the just-ended Great Depression and beginning of World War II brought an end to the organized artist community.

Artists were still lured to the area’s mountains, adobe buildings, and wide open land. In 1952, local artists formed the Taos Artists’ Association. In the 1990’s, the area was brimming with more than eighty art galleries. Taos’ cultural institutions, preserved historic buildings, and nearby ski slopes have made it a popular destination for travelers.

For Further Information

  • Dutton, Bertha P. American Indians of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983. Gives a good overview of historical and more recent tribal affairs, arts and crafts, and distinguishing cultural and social characteristics of the Southwest Indians. Dutton, an anthropologist, tends to describe events with sympathetic leanings toward the Native Americans.
  • Gattuso, John. Insight Guides: Native America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Offers a bit more balanced and certainly a more up-to-date look at the history and contemporary affairs of American Indians.
  • Gibson, Arrell Morgan. The Santa Fe and Taos Colonies. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983. Concentrates on the influx of artists into the area between 1900 and 1942, the era that has long marked the culture of Taos and Santa Fe.
  • Hemp, Bill. Taos: Landmarks and Legends. Los Alamos, N.Mex.: Exceptional Books, 1996. A guidebook to the Taos region. Includes descriptions of historical buildings and local legends.
  • Weber, David J. On the Edge of Empire: The Taos Hacienda of los Martinez. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1996. A history of Taos and New Mexico haciendas that profiles the Severino Martinez House (1761-1827).