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American Latino Heritage
Las Trampas Historic District and
San José de Gracia Church
A picture of cultural continuity, Las Trampas is one of a string of villages that sit on the scenic High Road (NM 76) between Santa Fe and Taos. First settled by 12 Spanish families in 1751, the village of Las Trampas was originally built within a defensive wall with low buildings packed around a central plaza. The small villa’s layout helped protect its earliest inhabitants from Indian attacks. The tight-knit traditional community flourished for hundreds of years, developing and retaining a culture little influenced by the outside world. Within the village is the San José de Gracia Church, one of the most-original and best-preserved examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in New Mexico.
Today, the Las Trampas Historic District preserves significant elements of the original 18th century village, including the San José de Gracia Church. Both the district and church are National Historic Landmarks. The Las Trampas Historic District and its distinctive church are cultural treasures. The original Spanish plaza town, continually occupied throughout the Spanish, Mexican and American periods – still survives as a distinct community today.
At the time of Las Trampas establishment in 1751, much of northern New Mexico was largely uncharted and unoccupied by Spanish settlers. Remote Spanish villages in the new territory struggled with arid agricultural conditions in addition to the constant danger of raids from American Indian tribes such as the Comanche, Ute, and Apache. Despite these risks, Juan de Arguello of Santa Fe led a group of 12 families to settle within the tall spruce and pine forest approximately 30 miles south of Taos. Why Arguello, who was 74 at the time, chose to make this journey is unclear, and the stories of his travel companions are lost to history.
Life was surely arduous for the original settlers of Las Trampas. They laid out their village to deflect attacks by constructing tightly packed adobe buildings around a small central plaza. A defensive wall ringed the exterior of the community. In spite of the odds, the residents managed to survive and flourish; by 1776 the original 12 families had grown to 63, with a total of 278 people living in the village.
Most Spanish colonists in the mid-1700s were religious. When Las Trampas was founded, the nearest church was almost ten miles away at Picuris. By around 1760, the colonists began constructing the San José de Gracia Church. Built by the townspeople themselves, the church is in a typical Spanish-style, single nave plan, about 100 feet long. Its walls are made of a thick, plastered adobe. The church has a simple façade comprised of two flanking buttresses topped by wooden belfries. Within, a simple wood-floored balcony, accessed via a ladder, serves as a choir loft above the main entrance. Wooden vigas (log beams) support the roof and gracefully rise over the main interior. Though simple in form, the nave was extensively decorated with paintings, most of which remain beautifully preserved today.
Some travelers on the long mountain road between Santa Fe and Taos visited Las Trampas, but otherwise it remained a relatively isolated, insular community for decades. It was not until 1853, with the establishment of nearby Fort Burgwin, that the townspeople felt safe enough to begin constructing residences away from the main plaza. Still, throughout the late 19th and into the early 20th centuries, Las Trampas remained a completely secluded community, uninfluenced by popular American tastes and fashions. This cultural and economic isolation is largely responsible for protecting the Spanish heritage that still permeates the community at present.
LAS TRAMPAS TODAY
The original plaza plan of Las Trampas is still extant in the small village, though the buildings that currently sit on the square likely date from the 1850’s or later. No remains of the surrounding defensive wall are visible. The San José de Gracia Church is the only distinctly Spanish Colonial building that remains completely intact within the historic district.
The church still retains most of its original 18th century features with its wide-plank wooden floors, decorative interior, and the strong adobe walls that have been preserved and continually re-plastered. The unique and original transverse clerestory window in the nave casts light on the sanctuary and altar, which is otherwise still lit by candles. Such clerestory windows are unknown elsewhere in Spanish Colonial architecture or in Christian architecture anywhere in the world. They were likely an invention of the Franciscan padres of New Mexico, and the church at Las Trampas has a beautiful example. In the walled forecourt of the church is the cemetery, the final resting place of the people of Las Trampas for generations. San José de Gracia is still an active parish church and is regularly open to visitors on the weekends. For more information, visit the Holy Family Parish Website.
The contemporary highway, NM Route 76, has pulled recent generations away from their valley home to live in other places. Still, the district with its simple plaza and its original church are fine reminders of New Mexico’s Spanish past.