"In the Midst of a Loneliness":
The Architectural History of the Salinas Missions
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In the summer of 1629 Fray Francisco Letrado arrived at his new assignment, the large pueblo of Cueloce, called Las Humanas by the Spaniards. Fray Alonso de Benavides had begun the evangelical effort in the pueblo with a brief visit two years earlier in the first half of 1627, and had established the advocation of the mission as "San Isidro" because of the date of that visit. [1]

Letrado was a new arrival in New Mexico. He had come from Mexico with the supply train of 1629, in the group of Franciscans that included the returning custodian Fray Estévan de Perea and Fray Francisco de Acevedo. During the chapter meeting held soon after their arrival in June, Perea assigned Letrado to Las Humanas and Acevedo to Abó. The lay brother Fray Diego de San Lucas, who had arrived in the same group, was probably assigned to help Letrado with the establishment of the new conversión. [2] Acevedo was destined for many years of service in the Piro speaking areas of the Salinas and Rio Arriba. The unfortunate Letrado, however, was to become a martyr to the Franciscan effort in New Mexico within three years.

Letrado and San Lucas stayed only a few months at the pueblo during this first visit. The first few days would have been spent in negotiations with the leaders of the controlling groups of the pueblo for rooms to be used as a first convento, storeroom, and chapel, and for a tract on which to build a permanent church and convento. These negotiations resulted in the assignment of eight rooms for their use on the southwest corner of mound 7. [3] The two Franciscans probably began changes to the rooms immediately, adapting them to the needs of a convento. [4] By the time the work was completed, it was so late in the year that Letrado saw no reason to attempt to move their two wagon loads of supplies to the pueblo before the roads became passable. Instead, they returned to Santa Fe for the winter. [5]

Plan of the pueblo and missions of Las
Figure 18. Plan of the pueblo and missions of Las Humanas. Mounds 1 and 2 form a plaza-like compound north of the second church and convento. They were apparently built after the beginning of construction on the second church in 1660. A Spanish road from the northwest apparently entered the pueblo through the gap between mounds 1 and 2. San Isidro, in use from its completion about 1635 until the mission was abandoned about 1671, stands south of its convento in mound 7. It was actually called "San Buenaventura" through most or all of this period. The kiva just north of San Isidro is kiva D, in use until about 1662.
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Most of Letrado's changes to the pueblo rooms were concerned with access and light. He and San Lucas sealed two doorways into other pueblo rooms and then enlarged four of the doorways between the rooms granted to them. However, they left three other doorways at the original width of 1 1/2 feet. They probably added larger windows to the outside rooms.

The two friars arranged the rooms as best they could for such limited space. In one of the front rooms (208) they built a simple altar for services, and replastered the walls with brown plaster. This room was the first church at Las Humanas and probably was dedicated to San Isidro. [6] The adjoining room (220) was the entrance to the "convento," and probably served as the portería. Letrado and San Lucas decorated it with a simple dado of red, black, and white painted plaster. [7] Room 217, with a central slab-lined fireplace, and the adjoining room 219 very likely served as the kitchen. Food was probably prepared by an Indian. Room 210 was the refectory for the two Franciscans, with food passed from room 219 through a small opening. This opening was intentionally left when Letrado and San Lucas partially filled the Indian doorway between 219 and 210. Letrado probably used room 211 as storage space, room 218 as an office, and room 193 as the sleeping room for himself and the lay brother.

Letrado and San Lucas apparently did most of the construction themselves. For example, the doorway between rooms 193 and 210 was widened by knocking out most of the wall from floor to ceiling, and then dressing the ragged edges with jambs of adobe brick. The use of brick adobe was a trait introduced by the Spaniards. [8] Letrado was not going to find anyone in the pueblo who knew how to do it. The bricks were not made in the usual fashion of being molded in wooden forms, however. They were hand formed in the shape of a loaf of bread and allowed to dry on a flat surface, so that the top, sides and ends were rounded and only the bottom was flat. These bricks were probably made by Letrado and San Lucas themselves and indicate that the two were making do as best they could. Having no forms and no tools to make them, the two friars molded individual adobe bricks by hand.

The first convento and churches of Las
Figure 19. The first convento and churches of Las Humanas about 1635. This is the probable arrangement of the interior of the large church of San Isidro, based on the structural remains found by Gordon Vivian. The size and shape of the sanctuary area is almost identical to that of the first church at Abó and of the first church of San Miguel in Santa Fe. At San Miguel, enough of the stairs and platforms survived to demonstrate the purpose of the walls and floors uncovered by Vivian. Compare this figure with figure 3. Kiva D, just north of San Isidro, is located in precisely the right place to have been centered on a convento located north of the church. If kiva D was built with the permission and planning of the Franciscans, as the kivas at Abó and Quarai seem to have been, then its presence implies that Fray Francisco Letrado intended to build a convento here.
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Letrado and San Lucas went into Santa Fe for the winter, and returned in March of 1630 with two or three wagons loaded with the supplies and equipment allotted to them for the establishment of the new conversión. [9] They stored these in the existing "convento," probably in rooms 211 and 218, overcrowding an already too-small convento. With their tools now available, the two friars immediately began planning the construction of an additional eight rooms to enlarge the convento. [10]

Letrado negotiated with the pueblo groups most favorable toward a Spanish presence at Las Humanas to arrange for a construction crew. He arrived at an agreement with pro-Spanish factions of the pueblo, who provided people to help the Franciscans. [11] The workers removed the roofing from rooms 208 and 220 and stacked the beams. They then dismantled the south wall of room 208 and the south and west walls of 220, down to a little above grade. [12]

The workers laid out and excavated trenches for the walls of the rooms to be added to the convento. The collection crews gathered rock from local quarries and perhaps from mounds of ruined buildings, and the masons began constructing the new walls. First they built the walls of room 214 into the corner between the Indian rooms numbered 185 and 198. Then they built the cross wall on the south side of room 220, including a new doorway. After this the masons built the outside wall and four cross walls of the other seven rooms in one continuous operation. Finally they constructed the north wall of room 223, the partition between rooms 225 and 226, and the new wall between 215 and 208. All the walls were probably about seven feet high to the undersides of the roof beams.

During the construction, Letrado and San Lucas instructed some of the Indians in the use of the woodworking tools and made the door frames and doors for the new doorways. One of the doors, between rooms 221 and 220, was 2.35 feet wide and probably about 5.35 feet high. It was made from six pieces of wood carefully cut and fitted together. The door turned on wooden pintles set into sockets in the sill and lintel. The main door of the convento, in the south wall of room 221, was 4.25 feet wide and 5.35 feet high, made of eleven carefully shaped pieces of wood. Letrado and the Indians training to be carpenters cut a large tree in the nearest forest to supply some of the larger pieces. [13]

Working at the rate of about thirteen cubic feet of stone a day, the new construction would take one mason about 255 workdays to complete. With a standard crew of eight masons and thirty-seven other persons, the work of construction would take about thirty days, or 1 1/2 months at about twenty workdays a month. If Letrado began laying the stone in April using a construction crew of this size, the walls would have been completed about the middle of May. [14]

When the walls were completed, the construction crews began roofing the new and rebuilt rooms. The beams from rooms 220 and 208 were reused, as well as beams from other abandoned rooms nearby. No new vigas were used in the roofing. [15] The roofing took about a month.

Once the roof was finished, about the middle of June, 1630, Letrado and San Lucas established themselves in their new rooms. They unpacked the supplies and equipment and arranged them in the three rooms on the north (223, 225, and 226) that appear to have been designed as storerooms. These three long, narrow rooms probably had only very small windows, and were accessible only through one door from the residence area of the convento. Letrado seems to have designed room 224 to be the dispensary, where he would have given food, spices, small tools, and trinkets to the Indians. A small window-like opening communicated with the southernmost storeroom on the north. This window probably served as a pass-through for small items given to the Indians from the stores. Room 222 probably became the office, where most of the business between the Franciscans and the pueblo was conducted. It may also have been Letrado's residence. It was built with a vent-like opening through the wall near the northwest corner. This vent, 1 1/2 feet square with its base six inches above floor level, may have been associated with a small corner fireplace. Room 221 became the new portería, or entrance to the convento. Doors communicated with Letrado's office on the west, the temporary church on the east, and the residence area of the convento on the north.

Room 215 was built against room 208 so that the two could serve specifically as a church. Again, the new construction of rooms and interior arrangements was certainly dedicated to San Isidro. Letrado built several wooden constructions within room 215, but so little evidence was left that his arrangements and furnishings can only be guessed at. A symmetrical pattern of post holes at the south end of the room, directly inside the door, may have been some sort of communion railing or benches. A larger hole in the center of the room may have been the base of the baptismal font, a major item during the early years when emphasis was on conversion and baptism. The north wall had some arrangement for an altar. [16]

The altar apparently made use of the provisions in the next room on the north, room 208, which had been the first church in 1629. Letrado and San Lucas had rebuilt the wall between rooms 208 and 215, leaving a splayed window or niche through the wall, centered on the old altar in room 208. The splay opened inward, toward room 208. The base of this niche-like opening was 3.3 feet above the floor of room 215, just the right height to match the top of a table in the room. In room 208, which had a higher floor, the bottom of the opening was only 2.1 feet above the floor.

It appears that room 208 may have become the sacristy for room 215, but with an opening through the wall so that sacred vessels or a santo on the altar of the sacristy could also be used in the church in room 215. This arrangement seems to have had security in mind. The Franciscans may have been protecting the sacred items on the altar and in the sacristy from possible theft by members of anti-Spanish factions, or from any innocent mischief on the part of pro-Spanish Indians who were still unfamiliar with the proprieties of a church.

The other seven of the original rooms saw little change in their uses. Rooms 217 and 219 remained the kitchen, 211 kitchen storage, and 210 the refectory. Rooms 193, 218, and 220 (the old portería) were principally passageway rooms, connecting other spaces together, but were probably also used for such things as an infirmary and a schoolroom. There seems to have been no provision for a privy in any of the rooms, old or new.

Letrado planned room 214 as a residence, probably for San Lucas. It had a large corner fireplace, and its door opened through the east wall of the church, room 215.

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006