How to Use
Reading 2: Continuity and Change in the Valleys
As families from the overcrowded villages on the western slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains pushed into the valleys to the east in the 1820s and 30s, they brought their traditions with them. They dug ditches, divided irrigable lands, grew crops, raised livestock, and built homes. Cut off from the original Spanish settlements by the mountains, they subsisted largely on what they could produce themselves. They established churches to commemorate the local patron saint. Much of life revolved around religious festivals, seasonal farming cycles, bartering, and folk healing practices. Their lives differed little from those led in the Rio Grande valley for several hundred years.
Three tasks faced these early settlers. First, they needed to protect themselves from Indian attack. Second, they needed to clear the valley floors for farming. Third, they needed to irrigate the land they had cleared. Spanish regulations had established rules for laying out ditches and regulating water distribution in the New World in 1681. These were based on irrigation practices used in Spain since the days of the Roman Empire. All waters were held in common by all inhabitants. Local officials supervised irrigable lands and distributed the waters of communal ditches called acequias (ah-SAY-key-ahs).
The settlers cooperated to dig and maintain the irrigation ditches. They used oxen to cut the initial ditch when they could, but often they were forced to pull their wooden plows themselves. Typically, all irrigated land was used for gardens and grain fields. Buildings and corrals were perched on higher ground. The forested land extending up the sides of the valleys behind the buildings was held in common and used for livestock grazing, hunting, and wood cutting.
The stout houses they built were made of adobe bricks--a mixture of earth, water, and straw shaped in a wooden mold. The beams, or vigas, supporting the flat roofs were overlaid with trimmed saplings, or latillas, which were then covered with layers of grass, clay, and straw. The roofs were protected by low parapet walls and drained by carved wood ducts, known as canales, that projected through the parapets to keep rainwater from running down the soft adobe walls.
House plans were also traditional. The basic building unit was a single room. With one exterior door and a small adobe fireplace in the corner, the room provided space for cooking, sleeping, and the entire range of family activities. As families increased in size, other similar units, each with its own exterior door, were added next to the original one to form a row of rooms. In the early years, when Indians were a great and constant danger, the rows enclosed one or more courtyards. There were no windows on the exterior. All doors and windows opened into the courtyards and were often sheltered by portales, or porches. At night, the livestock were driven into stock pens inside one of the courtyards through a covered passage. As security increased, L- or U-shaped plans became more common.
As new styles and mass-produced materials from the east became available, the Hispano house began to change. Prosperous merchants and landowners in the valley, both Hispanos and Anglos, wanted to use the fashionable building styles they had seen in the towns and the new U.S. Army posts. These styles were rarely simply copied, however. More often local builders simply borrowed ornamental elements and pasted them onto traditional houses. They used stone, adobe, and timber to build the house and then added wood decorative details. Imaginative, and sometimes colorful, this ornamentation was often the result of local carpenters experimenting with new woodworking tools or newly available milled lumber. Most of these decorative elements appeared on porches, doors, and windows.
New influences also altered the traditional floor plan. Doors between adjoining units made it possible to move from room to room without going outside. The single rows of rooms were rearranged into a four room square. Larger houses now sometimes included the central hallway long popular in the eastern United States. On very rare occasions, these adobe houses might have a second story. Nevertheless, the linear house plan continued to be the most common house form into the early 20th century.
Questions for Reading 2
1. What were the first tasks facing settlers moving into the valleys east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains?
2. How were Hispano ranchos typically laid out? Why do you think this arrangement was used?
3. How was the traditional Hispano house built?
4. How did influences coming in from the east affect the traditional house?
5. Why do you think traditional building materials and traditional house plans continued to be used even on houses with fashionable wooden details?
Reading 2 was compiled from David J. Kammer, "The Historic and Architectural Resources of the Upland Valleys of Western Mora County" (New Mexico), National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990; and Betsy Swanson, "Valencia Ranch Historic/Archeological District" (San Miguel County, New Mexico), National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1983.