At Home in the Badlands
For centuries people have lived around and sometimes in the lava country. Ancient Indian civilizations crossed the lava flows with trail cairns and related to the landscape with stories and ceremony. Spanish empire builders detoured around it and gave it the name used today. Homesteaders settled along its edges and tried to make the desert bloom. The stories of all these people are preserved in the trail cairns, petroglyphs, wall remnants, and other fragments that remain in the backcountry.
The jagged volcanic landscape of what is now El Malpais National Monument has challenged many cultures as they have interacted with it through the years. Native American Cultures have had a long and continuous tradition with this landscape and called it home for thousands of years.
The lands of El Malpais have played an important role in the cultures of Acoma, Laguna and Zuni for thousands of years. Puebloan Cultures and their ties to the land are still evident today in places like the Zuni-Acoma Trail.
Early Spanish Explorers came into what is now western New Mexico and El Malpais in search of wealth and new lands.When they encountered the rugged lava flows, they named this area El Malpais, a Spanish term for the badlands or bad country.
The Navajo, an Athabaskan related people originally from northern Canada and Alaska, settled in the southwest between four sacred mountains that mark their homeland. One of those sacred mountains is Mt Taylor or Turquoise Mountain. These hunter-agriculturalists became a wide roaming people after the acquisition of Spanish Horses. Prominent and well known springs just to the south of modern day Grants, the Ojo de Gallo were long a stopping point for travelers heading west to Zuni Pueblo. San Rafael, also known as El Gallo, is that same spring located near the malpais. In 1862, it was selected as the location of a military post named Fort Wingate. This post was established to counter Navajo raiding parties.
By 1881, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad forever transformed the malpais area. A small settlement soon grew up around the station which took the name of Grant. With the coming of the railroad and the establishment of Fort Wingate, the sheep and cattle industries flourished. As the railroad moved further west, new towns sprang up along the right of way. Logging in the Zuni Mountains soon began in earnest to supply the railroad, Fort Wingate and the new towns along the way.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, more newcomers entered the area in search of new opportunity. Here in western New Mexico, this was one of the few remaining places to build a homestead under the Homestead Act. Numerous homesteads still dot the El Malpais today, telling the story of people seeking to find a better life.
The 1950s ushered in one of the biggest changes to the malpais since the coming of the railroad: uranium. Large quantities of this chalky, yellow mineral were discovered around Grants. Fueled by the Cold war and great demand, the malpais area once again boomed.
Just as the Tanscontinental Railroad vastly improved transportation in the 19th Century, Route 66 was the nation's first all- weather highway linking the country with California. Route 66 contributed to the growth of many communities along the way. It also allowed millions of travelers to experience the scenic beauty and human history of western states like New Mexico.
By the early 1980s, the market and demand for uranium was waning. As it had many times before with different industries, this boom finally ended. In late 1987, after many years of negotiation, the malpais area finally became El Malpais National Monument.
To download a copy of "In the Land of Frozen Fires A History of Occupation in El Malpais Country" click the highlighted link.
Last updated: July 12, 2020