El Malpais
In the Land of Frozen Fires: A History of Occupation in El Malpais Country
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Chapter I:

Conquistadors dubbed it El Malpais meaning in Spanish "the bad country." And it was malpais--a mass of jagged, jumbled, coal-black rock. The early travelers tried to avoid it. Most roads simply skirted the lava flows. Trails, however, succeeded in slicing through them. Indians living in the area, Acomas and Zunis, forged a footpath through the malpais connecting the two pueblos and forming one of the oldest highways in the region. For the Spaniards, the malpais represented a formidable obstacle. Their horses could not negotiate the razor-like lava without lacerating hooves and fetlocks. The Spanish found it necessary to circumvent the malpais traveling either north via the Rio San Jose corridor or angling south, traversing the chain of extinct volcanoes on the west side of the lava flows.

To the Spaniards and later settlers, this geologic phenomenon seemed incongruous with the semi-arid landscape that dominates most of New Mexico. El Malpais forms part of the Colorado Plateau and core of the Mount Taylor volcanic region, one of the most significant volcanic areas in the United States. The western portion of the region falls within the elongated dome called the Zuni Uplift. The eastern half lies within the Acoma Embayment. Most of the volcanic features rest within this area. [1]

Unequivocally, the most prominent features of El Malpais are the gnarled configurations formed by molten lava. Terminating at Grants, the primary lava deposits range southward for 40 miles. In width they fluctuate from 5-15 miles. These flows consist of four distinct basalt flows. Basalt is simply a form of solidified lava. Of the four flows the Zuni Canyon flow is the smallest. Its total area probably does not exceed six square miles. Its source is the Zuni Mountains, which flank the western border of the park. The Zuni Canyon flow originates from two separate points. Scientists claim the Zuni Canyon flow was a slow-moving river of fire. Its course was north, down the narrow corridor of Zuni Canyon until its juncture with the San Jose Valley near the present town of Milan. None of the Zuni flow falls within the boundary of the preserve. [2]

The Laguna and McCartys flows are within El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area boundary. The Laguna is the larger and the older of the two and, like the Zuni Canyon flow, tends to be characterized as "slightly eroded, grey-tinted lavas with a thin veneer of soil cover." [3] In actuality the Laguna is a complex of many flow units including the Bandera, Twin Craters-Lava Crater-Cerro Candelaria-Lost Woman flows, El Calderon, Hoya de Cibola, and Cerro Redija flows. The Laguna deposits blanket most of the San Jose Valley between State Highways 117 and 53. The origin of the Laguna flow are approximately 40 miles south. A distinguishing trademark of the Laguna flows is the plethora and variety of lava formations that geologists have appropriately named as spatter cones, pahoehoe flows, and AA flows. Also featured in the Laguna flows are outstanding examples of volcanic activities--lava tubes, cinder cone of classic symmetry, and a score of ice caves. [4]

The McCartys flow spewed in the same general vicinity as the Laguna. Its course tracked northward parallelling the eastern edge of the Laguna flow. The McCartys flow consist of a thin narrow band of jet black lava, described by one geologist "as fresh and unweathered as the historic flows of the Hawaiian Islands." [5] The McCartys flow represents the most recent volcanic activity. Archeological evidence suggest the eruption occurred as recent as 500 years ago, certainly not much more than l,000 years ago. [6] Acoma Indians in recounting their traditional stories relate that lava flows inundated cultivated fields of their ancestors. If so, this would identify the McCartys flow as occurring between 700 A.D. and 1540. Upon reaching the Rio San Jose Valley, McCartys' liquid fire veered east, terminating about five miles downstream at the hamlet of McCartys. [7]

Another flow, the Bluewater, terminates approximately five miles northwest of Grants. It is probably the oldest of the four flows being in the neighborhood of a million years old. The Bluewater erupted from near Haystack Butte flowing in a general southeastwardly manner along the Rio San Jose bottom. None of the Bluewater flow lies within the monument boundary. Equally impressive are the numerous volcanic cinder cones associated with earlier flows. Without question, Bandera Crater is the most imposing. Flanked by ten or more lesser cones, Bandera sports a diameter of 1800 feet. The depth of the crater is 700 feet. Two other natural landmarks, El Calderon and Twin Craters, are nearby. [8]

Numerous ice caves punctuate the Laguna flow. The largest, a commercially operated venture, is adjacent to Highway 53 approximately 25 miles south of Grants. Without official name this ice cave is sometimes referred to as Perpetual Ice Cave or Zuni Ice Cave. Water is the substance of all life. In most sections of the Southwest it is a precious commodity often in short supply. It is essential to El Malpais. Annual precipitation in the region averages 10 inches. Moisture from localized thunderstorms is most prevalent in the summer months. Surprisingly, the lava beds retain rainfall better than the arid land surrounding them because of the porous quality of the lava rock. Water permeates the lava and is trapped beneath the basalt. In addition, the lava acts as an insulating agent reducing evaporation. Instead, some of the moisture cools and becomes crystalline ice. [9]

Evidence of human activity in El Malpais is ubiquitous. From archeological evidence the region's first dwellers appeared in the area during the Paleo-Indian Period (10,000-5,500 B.C.). These earliest inhabitants subsisted chiefly from hunting game. About all that remains of their occupation are the stone and bone tools they left behind. During the Archiac Period (5500 B.C.-400 A.D.), El Malpais residents exhibited a growing dependence on agriculture. Indians began to utilize the surrounding mesa tops and valleys for seasonal periods. They occupied shelters beneath the overhangs of Cebolleta Mesa, which dominates the eastern edge of the lava flow. [10]

The Anasazi (A.D. 400-1600) represents the transformation of Indians from hunters-food gatherers to a Puebloan peoples, who were chiefly farmers. With an economy centered around agriculture, the Anasazi created stationary villages and established permanent architecture. The process evolved slowly. Cave shelters were supplanted with jacal and pithouses beginning about 800 A.D. During the Cebolleta Phase (A.D. 950-1000), Indian presence intensified above canyon mouths, while declining on mesa tops. The Kowina Phase (A.D. 1200-1400) produced a period of significant cultural modifications. Population shifts increased from numerous small units to centralized locations. Indians returned to the mesa tops. Kowina Ruins, situated on Cebolleta Mesa, is an excellent example of pre-Pueblo lifestyle. Kowina contains more than 300 rooms. [11]

Toward the end of the thirteenth century, widespread drought affected the inhabitants living on the mesas. Demographics point to the abandonment of the mesa tops in favor of living along the valleys, such as the Rio San Jose to the north and the Rios Puerco and Grande to the east. This exodus did not occur overnight but had been accomplished by the end of the next century. At the outset of the 1400s, the Kowina Phase had disappeared altogether. Indians now lived in fewer but larger towns or pueblos. Typical of this process is Acoma Pueblo. [12]

Coronado's expedition into New Mexico officially propelled the first Americans from a state of prehistory into the historic period. Spaniards found the Indians living communal-style in pueblos with an economy based on agriculture. Two major Indian tribes flanked the malpais. The powerful Zunis resided on the western slopes of the Zuni Mountains. Acoma Pueblo lay east of the Zuni Tribe with the lava beds separating the two pueblos.

Beginning with the first European contact with New Mexico's Indians, the trademark of the succeeding Spanish, Mexican, and American cultures in dealing with the Indians was to subjugate them. Deploying technological and military dominance, the European-based cultures eventually subdued and subjugated the original inhabitants of the Southwest. From prehistory to the present, however, the rugged topography of the malpais has dominated Indian, Spanish, and American activities. Nearly 40 miles long, El Malpais formed a nearly implacable obstruction to east-west travelers, or to all those who endeavored to penetrate it as a shortcut to gain access to more inviting territory. Despite the cultural differences common threads link, dominate, and dictate living patterns in El Malpais. Climatical conditions, vegetative covering, boom-and-bust cycle of the mining, timber, and railroad industries have all influenced and molded the interaction of the Indian, the Hispanic, and European-American.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2001