People of Pecos
Drawing by Lawrence Ormsby
The People of Cicuye/Pecos
In the midst of piñon, juniper, and ponderosa pine woodlands in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains 25 miles southeast of Santa Fe, enfolding the memory of those who came before, from nomadic tribes to pit house dwellers, the remains of an Indian pueblo stand as a meaningful reminder of a culture that once prevailed in this region. Weathered adobe walls of a Spanish church share a ridge with the pueblo ruins, which extend for a quarter-mile along a ridge in a valley shared by the Glorieta Creek and the Pecos River. Long before Spaniards entered this country, this pueblo village was the juncture of trade between people of the Rio Grande Valley and hunting tribes of the buffalo plains. Its nearly 2,000 inhabitants could marshal 500 fighting men; its frontier location brought both war and trade.
At trade fairs, Plains tribes-mostly nomadic Apaches-brought slaves, buffalo hides, flint, and shells to trade for pottery, crops, textiles, and turquoise with the river Pueblos. Pecos Indians were middlemen, traders and consumers of the goods and cultures of the very different people on either side of the mountains. They became economically powerful and practiced in the arts and customs of two worlds.
Pecos Indians remained Puebloan in culture-despite cultural blendings-practicing an ancient agricultural tradition borne north from Mexico by the seeds of sacred corn. By the late Pueblo period, the last few centuries before the Spaniards arrived in the Southwest, people in this valley had congregated in multi-storied towns overlooking the streams and fields that nourished their crops. In the 1400s these groups gathered into Pecos pueblo, which became a regional power.
A Spanish conquistador described the pueblo in 1584 set on a "high and narrow hill, enclosed on both sides by two streams and many trees. It has the greatest and best buildings of these provinces and is most thickly settled." The people had "quantities of maize, cotton, beans, and squash," and the pueblo was "enclosed and protected by a wall and large houses, and by tiers of walkways which look out on the countryside. On these they keep their offensive and defensive arms: bows, arrows, shields, spears, and war clubs."
Like other Pueblo groups, the Pecos people enjoyed a rich culture with inventive architecture and beautiful crafts. Their elaborate religious life, evidenced by many ceremonial kivas, reached out to the nurturing spirits of all things, animate and inanimate.
Fine-tuned adjustments to their natural and cultivated world rested on practical science infused with spirituality. By story and dance tradition-bearers conveyed the knowledge and wisdom of centuries past. Individual, family, and social life were regulated via a religion binding all things together and holding balance, harmony, and fitness as the highest ideals.
But ideals did not always prevail. Warfare between Pueblo groups was common. The frontier people of Pecos had to be vigilant with nomadic Plains Indians, whose intent-trade or war?-could be unpredictable. Neighboring pueblos saw the Pecos as dominant. The Spaniards soon learned that the Pecos could be determined enemies or powerful allies.
Before the Puebloans
First to settle here were pre-pueblo people who lived in pit houses along drainages about 800 CE. Around 1100, the first Puebloans began building their rock-and-mud villages in the valley. Two dozen villages rose here over the next two centuries, including one where Pecos pueblo stands today. Sometime in the 14th century the settlement patterns changed dramatically. Within one generation small villages were abandoned and Pecos pueblo grew larger. By 1450 it had become a well-planned frontier fortress five stories high with a population of more than 2,000.
Land and Life
The land around the pueblo was a storehouse of natural products the Pecos knew intimately. They used virtually every plant for food, clothing, shelter, or medicine and turned every part of the game they hunted into something useful.
Farming supplied most of their diet. The staple crops were the usual trio of corn, beans, and squash cultivated along Glorieta Creek and the area's many drainage's. Water was as important to the Pecos as to us. They built check dams to slow the runoff of rain and grew their crops where topsoil collected. Yields were apparently considerable. In 1541, Coronado found the Pueblo storerooms piled high with corn, a three-year supply by one estimate.
Location, power, and the ability to supply needed goods made Pecos a major trade center on the eastern flank of the Puebloan world. Pecos Indians bartered crops, clothing, and pottery with the Apaches and later the Spaniards and Comanche's for buffalo products, alibates flint for cutting tools, and slaves. These Plains goods were in turn swapped west to other pueblos for pottery, parrot feathers, turquoise, and other items. Trading could go quickly or take weeks. Rings left by tipi's set up for long spells of bartering are still visible in the area. Uneasy relationships between Pueblos and the Plains tribes made hostilities a continual threat. The rock wall circling the pueblo, a relic from trading days, was too low to serve a defensive purpose. It was probably a boundary other tribes were not allowed to cross.
Did You Know?
The Santa Fe Trail passed through Apache Canyon for 60 years; the railroad did not wend its way through the narrow gap until 1880.