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

Following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Indian population dwindled--from 30,000 to 10,000. One-third of the Indian pueblos no longer existed. Few Spanish lived in New Mexico--a mere 1,500 in 1680. Eighty years later, in 1760, the Spanish population had only expanded to 8,000, reflecting the reluctance of native Spaniards to colonize Spain's far-flung territories. [1] To bolster New Mexico's token Spanish population and spur immigration, the Crown offered land grants to newcomers. In theory, the land grants were structured to reward people for utilizing the land in a productive manner, usually in an agricultural setting. Before the Revolt, Spain granted large tracts for farming. With the decline of Indians as a cheap labor force, the huge estates yielded to smaller units called ranchos or individual ranches. The ranchos characterized the settlement pattern of New Mexico for the next two centuries and typified early settlements in El Malpais. [2] The backbone of the immigrants to New Mexico in the eighteenth century were mestizos. Mestizos were a racially mixed group whose gene pool usually combined Spanish with Mexican Indian. Culturally, they were predominantly Spanish. Pure-blood Spanish comprised a token percentage normally limited to the aristocracy--such as government officials, priests, or new arrivals from Spain. Most of the 20,000 "Spanish" residing in New Mexico in 1800 were mestizo or better identified by today's vernacular, "Hispanic." [3] Sheepherding became the largest industry as wool and meat markets developed. New Mexico's first breed of sheep was the churro but later replaced by the more hearty and valuable merino. The merino became the standard breed in the sheep camps surrounding the malpais after the close of the Civil War. [4]

With a gradual influx in population, settlements began to emerge in New Mexico. Most gravitated along the Rio Grande Valley and the Chihuahua Trail. El Malpais remained void of permanent human habitation despite benefiting from a highway linking Acoma and Zuni Pueblos. But population shifts did begin to impact the area, particularly the region north and east of Acoma. One such settlement was Laguna Pueblo established sometime between 1697-99. When New Mexico was reoccupied by the Spanish in 1692, a collection of about 100 Indians from the Pueblos of Cochiti, Cieneguilla, Santo Domingo, and Jemez fled to the Acoma sanctuary. Dissension soon filtered through the rank-and-file at Acoma, culminating in a separatist movement in 1697. The disgruntled Indians vacated the isolated citadel and moved 14 miles northeast, establishing their own pueblo called Laguna on the Rio San Jose. By 1707, the population at Laguna numbered 330 or about half of Acoma. The community aided its own cause by placating the Spanish--something the truculent Acomas had been unwilling to do, which added immeasurably to their demise and misery. By 1782, the Lagunas had prospered so that their population equalled the Acoma. This trend reflected the continual abandonment by the Acomas of their mesa top in favor of joining forces with the Laguna. [5] Moreover, a declining population base coupled with a difficult lifestyle on the isolated mesa top forced the Acomas to re-establish their agricultural fields at Acomita and McCartys just east of El Malpais. [6] Although Acomas and Zunis had been permanent dwellers of el malpais for at least several centuries, their influence and dominion in the region evaporated in the wake of Spanish conquest. Besides Spanish invasion, Puebloens faced two new powerful and formidable adversaries in the late decades of the sixteenth century. Athapaskan tongues occupied the Rio Grande watershed south and north of Acoma. These Gila Apaches as the Spanish called them, later to be known as the Eastern Chiricahua Apaches, targeted Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo strongholds in raids to the north. [7] Like the Gila Apaches, Navajos were Athapaskans and cousins of the Apaches. It is not known when the Navajos splintered from the Gila but by the end of the sixteenth century, Navajo domain extended as far south as Canyon Largo northwest of Jemez Pueblo. Navajo raids and trading with the Pueblos, however, probably occurred on a frequent basis. The 1583 Espejo-Luxen journey mentions Querecho Indians at Acoma. The Querechos were probably Apaches and thus the Indians reported at Acoma could have been either Navajo or Apache. [8]

The acquisition of horses from Spanish forces transformed these hunter-agriculturists into formidable raiding parties. During the early decades of the 1700s, Navajos began raiding the Pueblos and Spanish camps with a fierce impetuosity. Fortunately for the Lagunas and Acomas, the lightning-fast strikes of the Navajos diminished between 1716-1768. Ute encroachments into northern New Mexico and Arizona compelled the Navajos to divert their attention from the Laguna-Acoma-Spanish settlements and concentrate solely on repelling the raids of the Utes. [9] Under attack from Ute-Comanche forces, the Navajos moved their territorial claims southward. Largo Canyon now became the northern boundary of Navajo land and Laguna-Acoma became the southern border. By 1772, the southerly migration had brought the Navajos into contact with the Gila Apaches. Forming an alliance, the two tribes waged war on Spanish settlements along the Rio Puerco. The raids were so devastating that by 1774, the Spanish settlements along the Rio Puerco were abandoned for a time. [10]

Earlier Santa Fe officials attempted to settle the Navajos permanently, at least the peaceful factions. In 1748, a mission at Cebolleta, located about ten miles north of Laguna, was established for the Navajos. When provisions failed to arrive in a timely manner, the mission became an abortive endeavor. [11] Instead, the Cebolleta mission became an extension of the Laguna community. Farming and livestock husbandry began to emerge, but it was a tenuous foothold at best. [12] The Navajos took exception to the intrusion on their territorial rights. Recurring Navajo attacks on Cebolleta were so stinging that the area was again abandoned for a short period in 1782. When the raids finally subsided, Spanish settlers repopulated the region. [13] To repel future Navajo sorties--and there would be many--the inhabitants of Cebolleta built the traditional Spanish plaza for defense. [14]

For a decade, the Spanish endeavored to drive a wedge into the Navajo-Apache alliance. In 1785 they succeeded. Spanish officials persuaded the Navajo to join forces with them in raids against their Apache kinsmen. Navajo warriors accompanied Spanish expeditions into present-day Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. The Spanish-Navajo alliance lasted until 1796, when the Navajo and Apache mended their differences, and once again formed a loose amalgamation. Raiding continued but on a reduced scale. [15]

Spanish explorations in the eighteenth century decreased due to unrelenting battles with recalcitrant tribes and the perennial flare-ups at pueblos, which kept Santa Fe officials in a constant state of flux. Internal bickering between the church and Santa Fe did nothing to ameliorate conditions and extracted a toll on human and financial resources. Nonetheless, there was one major expedition in the last quarter of the eighteenth century that involved El Malpais. Concurrent with Spain's desire to boost presence in New Mexico was its buildup of California. In between the two territories lay lands that had not been sufficiently explored. Moreover, officials hoped the junket would discover a good road linking the northern empire of California with that of New Mexico. A tertiary objective was the ever-present doctrine of converting the demented souls of the Native Americans to Christianity. [16]

The expedition fell to two Franciscans friars, Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante. Known as the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, it departed Santa Fe on July 29, 1776. The two priests traveled with a small entourage that did not include military personnel. Their excursion penetrated the interior of the Great American West. By the time the touring clergymen returned to Santa Fe, on January 2, 1777, the priests had traversed nearly 2,000 miles. In their travels they made a wide arc journeying through northwestern New Mexico, western Colorado, and central Utah before turning southward and entering northern Arizona. [17] On November 24, the party reached Zuni Pueblo. [18] They remained at Zuni until December 13 in order to rest and to participate in several religious ceremonies. On the 13th they started for Acoma camping for the night at the base of El Morro. The 14th found the explorers trudging passed the malpais on the way to an evening at Ojo del Gallo (Chicken Spring at San Rafael). Regrettably, Father Dominguez did not record in his journal any impressions of the malpais. The next day's proceedings pierced the malpais with the party encamping at McCartys. On December 16, the clergymen reached Acoma. [19]

Although the expedition failed to discover a suitable east-west road linking California to New Mexico, it more than compensated with extensive knowledge concerning the geography of the country and establish contacts with new Native Americans. Cartographer Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco proved invaluable for the set of accurate maps he generated. [20] As one historian of the expedition revealed: "Theirs was the last of the great Spanish explorations. Other men, serving other rulers, would secure the vast lands of the American wilderness. Yet nothing robs the Dominguez-Escalante expedition of the achievement of valiant men challenging the unknown." [21] Spain would remain master of its empire for another 50 years. The mother country's grip on her kingdom, however, had been badly shaken. Political upheaval in the New World and Europe brought to an end nearly 300 years of Spanish rule in America. With the advent of the nineteenth century, Spain had to contend with yet another up-start--the United States.

With the finalization of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States became embroiled in a boundary dispute with Spain. Suspicious of United States expansionism, Spain outfitted a large army at Santa Fe. Under the leadership of Lt. Facundo Melgares, the soldiers patrolled the eastern plains with orders to keep the Americans off Spanish soil. Few Americans were encountered, and Lt. Melgares spent much of his time negotiating treaties with neighboring Indians, particularly the Pawnees.

Meanwhile, the United States was anxious to see what kind of deal it had made with France. It quickly organized a small military force, consisting of 22 soldiers under Lt. Zebulon Pike, to reconnoiter the new domain. Pike encountered the same Pawnees of Melgares and requested their loyalty to the United States. Pike continued his trek westward eventually entering present-day Colorado and building a temporary stockade in the San Luis Valley along the Rio Conejos. Here at his encampment, Spanish soldiers intercepted Pike. They informed Pike that he was trespassing on Spanish territory. A dumbfounded Pike had either erred in his calculations or had received instructions to intentionally provoke the Spanish. Pike, of course, claimed that he had simply erred. Under Spanish escort, Pike went to Santa Fe and ultimately on to Chihuahua where he was interrogated and set free. Pike's account of his expedition, printed in 1810, gave outsiders and Americans the first glimpse of life in northern Mexico. [22]

To the Spanish, Pike's foray served notice that foreign interlopers, especially the audacious Americans, were beginning to recognize the economic opportunities that New Mexico presented. Pike's penetration into New Mexico created a stir. New Mexican representative to Spain, Don Pedro Pino, requested a larger share of funding to confront any future American sorties. Pino's appeal fell on deaf ears because Pike's trespass paled in comparison to Spain's mounting problems in the New World. Discord and revolution in Mexico and South America brewed a boiling caldron that Spain no longer could keep under control. [23]

Spain appealed to the citizens of Mexico to fight the revolutionaries. On September 27, 1821, Mexico declared her independence from Spain. New Mexico became part of the Republic of Mexico. Because of New Mexico's isolation from Mexico City, news of Mexico's overthrow of Spain did not reach Santa Fe until December 26. Spanish-turned Mexican subjects celebrated the occasion with a fiesta on January 6, 1822. [24]

For the next quarter century, Mexican authority ruled New Mexico. The open-door trade policy with the United States became the single most important event of the Mexican period. Under Spain, free trade with the United States had been prohibited, partially out of Spain's desire to monopolize all trade in New Mexico. With Spain's economic tentacles severed, Mexican officials looked to the United States as a trading partner. Americans were eager to accommodate. The dust had barely lifted from the war with Spain when the first wagons laden with trade goods hit the Santa Fe Trail and opened a corridor between the United States and Mexico.

While Mexico enlarged her sphere of trading partners, it also looked at enlarging its Hispanic population base. Hispanic settlements continued to grow but at a snail's pace. Most immigrants tended to gravitate in the direction of the Rio Grande Valley. Movement towards the malpais was nil. However, by the 1830s Hispanic communities at Cubero, east of El Malpais, and San Mateo, north of El Malpais, took root. Cubero was the more significant. Its proximity, astride the 35th parallel, made it a convenient stopping point for travelers on the Acoma-Zuni road. [25]

New Mexico under the flag of Mexico was short-lived. Like Spain, Mexico exhibited a generally apathetic attitude to her northern colony. Economic and military support remained weak. Mexico faced constant political upheaval and threats of revolutions in Mexico and Texas. These distractions weakened Mexico's alliance with New Mexico. In turn, New Mexican officials were plagued with internal discord; officials resigned in disgrace. Constant raids by Indians on other Indians, Indians against Hispanics, and Hispanics against Indians reduced the weak Mexican government's ability to respond effectively.

Matters worsened in 1846. Mexico entered the war against the United States. The root of the conflict rested with expansionist ideals of the United States coupled with Mexico's inability to foster a long-standing government for its people. American armies, their ranks swelled by volunteers responding to the "Call for Arms," advanced on Mexican-held lands in Texas, New Mexico, and California. An unprepared Mexico, its citizen-army in disarray, could do little to resist the American advance.

In the mind set of the United States Government, New Mexico represented a stepping-stone in the more important conquest of California. Instructed to capture California, Col. Stephen Watts Kearny received orders to plant an American-backed civilian government in New Mexico en route to California. Kearny discovered New Mexico easy pickings. The American Army under Kearny rode into Santa Fe on August 18, 1846. Like De Vargas, who had retaken Santa Fe without bloodshed from the Indians 154 years before, Kearny duplicated the maneuver. New Mexico fell without a shot being fired. Officially, the next day, Mexican officials representing Governor Don M. Armijo surrendered the city. [26]

New Mexico now belonged to the United States of America. The passing of the baton abruptly terminated more than 300 years of Spanish-speaking control of New Mexico. Under Spanish influence, the region's native inhabitants had been conquered, and, for the most part, its people assimilated into the mainstream of Spanish culture. Yet, Spain failed to comprehend New Mexico as anything more than a stagnant province, yielding little in economic benefits. New Mexico remained neglected, while Spain grappled with political problems in Mexico. When Mexico claimed independence, New Mexicans were delighted. The new regime, however, did nothing to resolve the economic and political disorders saturating New Mexico. To Mexico City, Santa Fe remained just as remote as it did under Spain. The open-door trade agreement between Mexico and the United States benefitted both nations. The chief benefactor, however, was the United States. [27]

When the Mexican War ended, New Mexico formally became a United States Territory with the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, August 30, 1848. Under the United States New Mexico would witness wholesale changes, especially economic growth. El Malpais would see change too, for it would no longer be just a highway passing through or around "bad country." Up to the period of American occupation and takeover, El Malpais remained a stopover for passing bands of Indians--Apaches and Navajos. But permanent settlements nearer the malpais began to emerge by the middle of the eighteenth century--Cubero and Cebolleta. The two communities prospered under Mexican rule and quickly became the dominant towns in west central New Mexico. They took on added importance as New Mexico's first line of defense against the intensified raids of the Navajos that occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2001