The Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is just more than an hour from Albuquerque and provides an opportunity to study the history of both the Indigenous people who first settled there and the Spaniards who came to establish missions. Visiting these three sites makes a great day trip from Albuquerque.
New Mexico’s history stretches far beyond the arrival of Europeans, beginning with the lives of Indigenous people who have called this land home for thousands of years. A vivid testament to this rich history lies in the ruins of Las Humanas (Gran Quivira), Quarai, and Abó pueblos, accompanied by their Spanish mission churches. Located near the heart of New Mexico, these sites form the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, with its headquarters situated in Mountainair. The town of Quarai rests eight miles to the north, while Abó is found nine miles west. Las Humanas, a slightly more remote location, sits approximately 25 miles southeast of Mountainair.
Initially, the pueblos appear as clusters of rock, buried beneath layers of soil, and adorned with seasonal grasses, cholla cacti, and blossoming flowers. Though silent now, these weathered rocks silently hold stories of the past.
Las Humanas/Gran Quivira
Constructed in the late 1200s or early 1300s, Las Humanas was built atop the remains of two previous pueblos using stone quarried from Chupadero Mesa to the west. The first pueblo, consisting of around 240 rooms arranged in concentric circles with a central large kiva, was succeeded by a semi-circular residential structure. The final and most extensive pueblo, which we see today as ruins covering acres of land, can only be measured precisely by scientists. Apart from one excavated and reconstructed rectangular block of rooms, visitors encounter a series of mounds.
Estancia Basin faces water scarcity, with any existing water pooling in playas and eventually evaporating, leaving behind salt deposits. This is one of the main reasons why the pueblo was established there. With no nearby streams, the Tompiro people who inhabited Las Humanas created catch basins, cisterns, and practiced dry farming. Their prosperity mainly stemmed from acting as intermediaries, trading valuable salt, tools, pottery, blankets, fabrics, and food (such as corn, beans, and squash) obtained from neighboring pueblos with the nomadic Plains people, in exchange for hides, meat, and other animal products.
Another pueblo linked to the Tompiro people was Abó, located in the Manzano Mountains at the Abó pass. This strategic position granted them access to neighboring tribes residing along the Rio Grande. Although water resources were not abundant, they were consistent, facilitating a more comfortable existence. The pueblo was constructed using the region’s red sandstone.
Nestled within a juniper forest at the base of the Manzano Mountains, Quarai enjoyed a water source from a spring-fed stream. This pueblo was built by the Tiwa people, closely related to the Isleta and Sandia tribes. Abundant red sandstone and timber were utilized for construction.
There are similarities in the architectural style of these pueblos. Most rooms are small, designed to accommodate the available timber lengths. The roofs were formed by laying vigas and covering them with latillas, brush, and layers of dirt. They used clay to mortar stone forming the room blocks, while a coating of mud finished the exterior surfaces. Doorways were scarce, and people accessed their homes through hatches in the ceilings, which were easier to construct than traditional doors. Based on the excavation findings, it seems that they primarily lived outdoors, utilizing the rooms mostly for storage and for shelter during inclement weather or in times of danger.
The Spanish Era
These three villages were likely home to several thousand individuals who undoubtedly interacted with, intermarried, debated, and traded with one another. Visitors from distant pueblos and the Plains people were not unfamiliar to them. The ancient inhabitants boasted sophisticated social and political structures governing their lives, rooted in their deeply spiritual practice of an animistic kachina religion. Every aspect of their lives was governed by ceremonial rituals that sought balance and harmony, enabling peaceful coexistence with their neighbors for over three centuries.
However, everything changed in the 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish. This marked the onset of a clash of cultures. The Spanish governor aimed to recover the funds paid to the king for his office and secure enough wealth to sustain himself after his tenure. Spanish priests arrived to convert the Indigenous population to Christianity, leading to the construction of churches for this purpose. The pueblo inhabitants commenced the construction of these buildings where they would be taught a different and bewildering form of worship.
One may not immediately associate friars with the roles of architects and engineers, but they indeed fulfilled these roles. They possessed a deep understanding of the forces and structural loads involved in large-scale construction, developing unique and sophisticated solutions to various challenges.
Their first endeavor involved constructing the conventos, or priests’ quarters, which included a kitchen, dining area, classrooms, infirmary, and sleeping rooms. The friars taught the Indigenous people carpentry skills, enabling them to craft window frames, doors, and stairs. Corrals and gardens were established, while Quarai also featured a defensive tower called a torréon to protect against potential attacks.
In 1630, Mission San Gregorio was completed in Abó. This church measured 84 feet in length, 25 feet in width, and 25 feet in height. Indigenous workers diligently located, cut, and shaped ceiling beams to fit across the width of the church.
During the same year that the Abó church was finished, the construction of Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepcíon de Quarai began. Workers erected walls that were five feet thick and 40 feet high. This cruciform church spanned 100 feet in length, with a nave measuring 27 feet in width and a transept reaching 50 feet in width. It took five years to complete and was regarded as one of the most magnificent churches on the frontier.
However, Las Humanas lacked a grand edifice. The friars intended to construct a more elaborate church later, but by the time they began the project, drought, disease, and hardship had taken a severe toll on the population. Consequently, construction ceased, and the larger church was never finished.
As you wander through the ruins of each church and their connected conventos, note their imposing size — undoubtedly a sight that left the pueblo residents, accustomed to smaller rooms and kivas, in awe. The stones had been meticulously shaped and mortared to fit together seamlessly. Strategically positioned buttresses absorbed external forces, enabling the towering walls to remain standing. Square socket holes, remnants of the floor joists and roof beams, were still visible.
By the time the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 occurred, all three pueblos had been abandoned. History is never as straightforward as the narratives we share, as it encompasses intricate complexities and subtle nuances that often go unexpressed. This particular chapter revolves around the displacement of an existing culture by a technologically superior one. While the buildings were left in disarray, the pueblo people did not vanish entirely. Some migrated to the Piro pueblos of Alamillo and Senecú, with whom they shared close familial ties, while others journeyed south to El Paso, Texas.
Visiting the Salinas Pueblo Missions
A visit to the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument makes for an excellent day trip, especially when accompanied by a picnic lunch. The Mountainair headquarters houses a museum offering a video presentation and smaller exhibits and models are available at each of the three pueblos. Knowledgeable rangers can answer questions and provide a deeper perspective, enhancing visitors’ appreciation for these invaluable historical treasures. All four locations also have a gift shop at the visitor center.
For further information and captivating aerial photographs of each pueblo, visit the Salinas Missions National Monument website.