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Discovering the Ancient Pueblo Ruins of Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

While staying in Santa Fe, I began researching national monuments and wilderness areas close to the city. I found a national monument I had never heard of before and we made the 30-minute drive to Pecos National Historical Park in Pecos, New Mexico, the site of the largest Pueblo in New Mexico when the Spanish arrived in 1598.

As we entered the E.E. Fogelson Visitors Center, I was impressed by the adobe architecture and beautiful Southwestern-style woodwork of the doors and eaves.

Inside was a wonderful gift shop, friendly park rangers, a film about the park, and a beautiful museum area with artifacts and educational and interactive exhibits. It is one of the prettiest visitor centers I have visited yet, with beautiful hand-carved Southwestern woodwork, Native American pottery, and turquoise jewelry, and excellent exhibits.

The park ranger at the center was very friendly and helpful and gave our youngest daughter a Junior Ranger booklet with educational activities to complete during her visit.

After our visit to the monument and completing all of her activities, he swore her in as a junior ranger. This was her first junior ranger badge of our full-time RV trip.

While in the visitors' center, I learned something surprising that I never knew before about U.S. history. Nearby in the town of Pecos, there was a Civil War battle at a location called Glorieta Pass! I had no idea that the Confederate Army came all the way to New Mexico and fought a battle against the Union there. On the day of the battle, March 28th, 1862, the Confederate Army was able to push the Union soldiers back down the Santa Fe trail but didn’t win the battle. There were 375 casualties that day.

The Confederate plan was to head to Colorado’s gold camps and then to California to take over the seaports of Los Angeles and San Diego. The Union Army found out where they were camping out with their wagons after the Glorieta Pass battle. During the early morning, the Union army sneaked up on the sleeping soldiers and set fire to all their wagons, running off or killing all the horses or mules, leaving them without any supplies or ability to continue their plan to take over California. They were forced to retreat. The Union maintained control of the Southwest states until the end of the Civil War.

After viewing the film about the site at the visitors' center, we took the trail starting at the back of the center up to the ruins. It’s a 1.25 mi roundtrip loop called the Ancestral Sites Trail and takes you past the ancient ancestral sites of the Pecos Pueblo tribe and the ruins of the old Spanish mission church.

It is an easy hike with beautiful views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and Glorieta Pass in the distance as you hike up the hill to the ruins. We saw some small birds, blooming cactus, wildflowers, lizards, and the tracks of elk in the mud as we made our way up to the ancient site.

We admired the incredible view of the valley and mountains as we progressed on the hike and we watched huge dark storm clouds gathering. We began to hear thunder and could see the storm was forming quickly.

We hurried to the top of the mesa to see the ruins of the Pueblo village, where we could see where a large community of Pueblo people had lived in both above-ground adobe structures with many rooms and below-ground houses called pit-houses.

The pit-houses were earlier homes built in the 800’s and 900’s, while the adobe Pueblo multi-family homes were built later in the 1100’s. The underground areas had ladders to climb down and a special hole for campfire smoke to blow out through.

These small pueblo villages dotted across the mesa began to coalesce into the larger Pecos Pueblo settlement in the 1400’s and attracted the attention of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500’s. The Pueblo was an impressive settlement, housing up to 2000 people, consisting of four stories of buildings that had terraced balconies, enabling them to see any enemies coming across the valley below.

There was also a perimeter wall to protect the Pueblo. Inside the walls, the villagers raised corn, beans, and squash and had a system of irrigation canals to water them. You can still see squash plants growing in the abandoned village.

The Pueblo became the major center of trade and wealth in the area, attracting the attention of Spanish explorers.

After the Spanish made contact with the indigenous people, the Franciscan monks built a mission church there and began to control every aspect of the Pueblo people’s lives, including the economy and their religious beliefs, forcing them to stop worshiping their own deities and giving up parts of their culture. Pueblo Indians were forced to hide important religious symbols because the Spanish tried to destroy all of them and force them into Christianity.

On August 10th, 1680, the majority of the Pueblo people were resentful of years of this treatment and revolted against the Spanish, pushing out the Spaniards and the Franciscan priests. They killed the church priest and destroyed the church. The Spaniards were pushed back to Mexico. I found it fascinating to learn that this was actually the first American Revolution! How did I never hear about this in all my history classes!?

The Spanish returned 12 years later and rebuilt a smaller church. The Franciscan priests were more careful with their treatment of the Pueblo people, and they settled into a more peaceful relationship of trade as allies against the Comanches. Finally in 1838 as the Santa Fe trail took over most of the trade in the area, the last of the shrinking community moved to the Jemez pueblo and the pueblo community became a ghost town.

These historic areas were excavated in the 1920's and Pecos became a state historical park in 1935. Lyndon Johnson made it a national historical monument in 1965. Archaeological treasures and the remains of the Pueblo people that had been uncovered were sent to a Harvard museum. Through an act of congress in 1999, the remains and artifacts were returned to their rightful home with the present-day Pueblo tribe, who received them in a ceremony and brought them back to their ancestral home.

Next to the Pueblo ruins, we walked through the remains of the old adobe Spanish mission church. The rusty red of the old church created such a vivid contrast against the blue sky.

As we explored and took photographs, the rain began pouring down, drenching us, and we had to run for the safety of a shelter nearby while the thunder and lightning crashed. I managed to wrap my Canon camera in a towel and shirt and was soaked by the time I reached the shelter.

The smell of rain in the desert is one of my favorite scents and makes one feel re-energized, just like the water soaking into the dry ground and thirsty desert plants.

Luckily, the downpour was brief but refreshing and cooled the desert down for a bit. It was so quiet on top of the mesa, with only the sound of songbirds, and the occasional lizard running along the adobe walls.

I tried to imagine the pueblo as it once was; a vibrant and bustling trade center and community with 2,000 people going about their daily routine. Why did they disappear from this place? Eventually in the 1800’s, disease, attacks by Comanches and Apaches, and a change in the trade route caused the community to dwindle and break apart into small pueblos throughout the valley. The largest pueblo in New Mexico became a ghost town.

If you enjoy ancient ruins, hikes, wildlife, and photography, it's worth driving 28 miles out of Santa Fe to the little town of Pecos to visit the Pecos National Historic Park in New Mexico. It feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but I particularly enjoyed learning new and interesting historical information that I had never learned before about the vibrant community that once existed on top of this lonely mesa.

Copyright@LorienVillucciNaturePhotography 2023


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