National Park Service
Kiva, Crown, Crown


The Invaders

The New Mexico: Preliminaries to Conquest

Oñate's Disenchantment

The "Christianization" of Pecos

The Shadow of the Inquisition

Their Own Worst Enemies

Pecos and the Friars

Pecos, the Plains, and the Provincias Internas

Toward Extinction



Chapter 9: Toward Extinction, 1794-1840

The Last Franciscans

Francisco Bragado y Rico, who in 1805 had secured a license from the bishop for a chapel at San Miguel del Vado, twenty years later was laid to rest in that chapel in a box on the gospel side of the sanctuary. He died on January 4, 1825, "fully conscious and well disposed," consoled by Fray Teodoro de Alcina de la Boada of Nambé. His passing was attended by a sign, which Father Alcina dutifully recorded.

Twenty-six hours after the Reverend Father's death as Juan José Salazar was washing his face with vinegar, he noticed that blood came from a cut, which they had given him when they shaved him, as fresh as if he were alive, and ran to the tip of his chin. Miguel Lucero observed the same thing as did several others who were present. As a record and perpetual memorial I enter it in this very book with the alcalde of the district who was present when the two above-mentioned persons related the occurrence. [48]

Bragado's successor, Fray Juan Caballero Toril, another fifty-year-old native of Spain, made every effort to minister to the Indians who still inhabited the crumbling pueblo of Pecos. Although he no longer identified the chapel at San Miguel as "belonging to the mission of Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles de Pecos" after December 1825, Caballero took seriously his obligation to say Mass at Pecos at least once a month.

It was not easy. The friar and Alcalde Gregorio Vigil nearly came to blows over the escort required for a safe trip to the mission. When Caballero complained to Governor Narbona during Holy Week in 1827, the governor addressed a stern warning to the alcalde. If Vigil did not see to an escort for the minister so that he could carry the sacraments to the natives of Pecos, perhaps the priest would abandon San Miguel and move back up to the mission. Father Caballero had his escort that same day. [49]

Late in 1827, amid rumors of Spanish plans to invade and reconquer Mexico, the Mexican national congress decreed the expulsion of peninsular Spaniards from the republic. Several Spanish Franciscans left New Mexico as a result, among them Father Caballero. On the last day of February 1828, he signed a detailed inventory of everything he had found in the San Miguel chapel and sacristy, all that had been added during his ministry, as well as items borrowed from the mission of Pecos. Among the latter were a broken metal cross, a little box with lock and key containing the silver cruets of holy oils and chrism, and some molds for making altar breads. The following month, Governor Armijo wrote to an unnamed priest, probably Father Alcina, telling him to take over at San Miguel whether Caballero, who said he was ill, left or not. He left. [50]

hand-written note
Father Alcina records the remarkable death of Fray Francisco Bragado, January 4, 1825 (AASF).

During the remainder of 1828, Fray Teodoro Alcina alternated at San Miguel with Fray José de Castro. They were both European Spaniards, but too old and too much needed in priest-poor New Mexico for expulsion. Alcina, from Palafox in Gerona, had spent thirty-five of his sixty-two years in New Mexico. Castro would bury him at Santa Cruz de la Cañada in 1834. Only a year younger, Castro himself, a native of San Salvador del Cristinado in Galicia, was dead by late 1840. [51]

The books of baptisms, marriages, and burials assigned to Mission Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles de Pecos, which, like its missionaries themselves, had spent most of the previous century at Santa Fe or El Vado, ended in 1829. On June 2, 1828, Father Castro had performed the last recorded baptism of an Indian by a Franciscan at Pecos, for eight-day-old José Manuel, son of Rafael and Paula Aguilar. The following November, the dutiful Father Alcina visited the mission and baptized the infant son of settlers from the Cañón de Pecos. His burial entry at San Miguel on December 3 was the last by a friar. On January 1, 1829, don Juan Felipe Ortiz, diocesan priest from Santa Fe, took over. After better than two centuries the Franciscan ministry on the Río Pecos had come to a close. [52]

In 1833, when the first bishop, the stern and tireless José Antonio Laureano de Zubiría y Escalante, actually came to San Miguel del Vado on a visitation, he was appalled. Because of an acute shortage of ministers, the secular priest of Santa Fe was riding out on circuit. The fabric was a mess, the accounts hopeless, and the church "utterly deprived." Lord have mercy. "With much grief and sorrow," the bishop's secretary noted in the book of baptisms, "he has observed that this parish church lacks even the most essential things for the celebration of the divine mysteries."

He did not even mention the mission of Pecos. [53]

Fr. Teodoro Alcina

Hanging On

They were still there, thirty or forty of them, like the ghostly survivors of a science fiction tragedy, haunting the ruins that once had housed their civilization. Digging there in the twentieth century, archaeologists could tell how it had gone, "the bunching up or huddling . . . the long, slow decay eating its way northward in both the South Pueblo and the Quadrangle." [54]

They could not survive much longer. Just as well. The Hispanos wanted their lands so much that they had threatened in the previous decade to remove them bodily and scatter them among the other pueblos. Now they were too few to cope. Still the old woes persisted—plains raiders, emigration, even, if the fantastic story spun for a late nineteenth-century romantic has any basis in fact, internal dissension, [55] and of course disease.

Despite the introduction of vaccination against smallpox in New Mexico as early as 1805, when inoculated children were used as living vials to transport the vaccine, the dread disease, sometimes in league with other killers, still took its toll. By 1810, if not before, the children at Pecos had been vaccinated. In the summer of 1815, with the disease "already around," Governor Maynez had ordered the deputy justice at El Vado to send someone up to Santa Fe to be trained in how to give vaccinations, and also a child to carry the vaccine fresh. The following year, in December alone, at least eighteen Pecos died, of what Father García del Valle did not say, but all eighteen were adults.

Bishop José Antonio Laureano de Zubiría of Durango. Museum of New Mexico

Perhaps vaccination was allowed to lapse. On a visit to Pecos in March 1826, Father Caballero had buried seven in two days, all of them children. To a community of only forty persons, that was a terrible loss. Again in the winter of 1831-1832 smallpox stalked the El Vado settlements, and probably Pecos, the usual rest stop on the trail up to Santa Fe. Tradition has it that "mountain fever" or a "great sickness" finally led to abandonment, but that still has not been diagnosed. [56]

Over the years, a succession of Plains Indian raiders had tested their valor against the fortress-pueblo of Pecos: Apaches, Comanches, and Apaches again. In the 1820s, when it was hardly more than a ruin, others tried their hand. These so-called "barbarians of the north" were likely Cheyennes and Arapahos. On the night of June 16, 1828, they steathily surrounded Pecos "closing even to the houses." Detecting them just in time, the Pecos "repelled them, firing on them." Next morning, according to a report by Juan Esteban Pino from the Cañón de Pecos, "they [the Pecos?]" followed the heathens' tracks "up onto the mesa by El Picacho toward the Rincón de las Escobas." From the tracks, they estimated that there were a considerable number headed as if for Galisteo.

While the memory of this sort of thing probably figured in their decision to abandon the pueblo a decade later, it is too much to credit the new raiders with "bringing to a dismal end the history of the proudest pueblo in all New Mexico." [57] The valley's proliferating Hispanos, even while encroaching on mission lands with their crops and livestock, did offer more inviting spoils and some safety in numbers.

Individual Pecos Indians who moved away from the pueblo during these final years are difficult to follow. Some certainly did. José Chama, for example, "native of Pecos" who married Juana Arias at San Miguel in 1817, a dozen years later showed up as a resident of Antón Chico. A witness to the Chama-Arias union, Miguel Brito, who was described in 1820 in the baptismal book as an "indio y vecino de Pecos," in 1821 was counted an infantry member of the El Vado militia, along with Chama. More than a decade after the final exodus, Lt. James H. Simpson of the United States Army was told at Jémez that there were only eighteen Pecos left in 1849. Fifteen lived at Jémez, one at Santo Domingo, one at Cañón de Pecos, and one at Cuesta in the El Vado district. Even today there are people in the village of Pecos who claim that great great grandmother was a Pecos Indian. And maybe she was. [58]

A New Mexican ranch. Horatio O. Ladd, The Story of New Mexico (Boston, 1891)

The Abandonment of Pecos Pueblo

For years the faithful remnant of the Pecos nation had suffered reason enough to abandon their ancestral pueblo. What finally impelled them to do it is not known, although some wondrous myths have been invented to account for it. The year, tradition has it, was 1838, one year after a rabid New Mexico mob beheaded Gov. Albino Pérez.

The move was calculated. They packed up their ceremonial gear, and, again according to tradition, arranged with the local Hispanos to take care of the church and celebrate the feast of Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles, la Porciúncula, every August 2, which they do to this day. The refugees may have broken their trip at Sandía. Their final destination, eighty miles west of Pecos by trail, was Jémez, the only other pueblo that spoke the Towa language. Some of them may have had second thoughts and gone back. But they did not stay. [59]

Commenting on the Pecos migration eleven years after it happened, a talkative Jémez told Lieutenant Simpson that,

during one of the revolutions of the country, when he was quite a youth, this tribe, being very much harassed by the Spaniards, (Mexicans,) asked permission of the people of Jémez to come and live among them. They not only granted them permission to do this, but sent out persons to help them get in their crops, and bring them and their property to their new abode. When they arrived, they gave them houses and fields. [60]

interior of church
Our Lady of the Angels in place over the altar in the Pecos village hurch of San Antonio, c. 1880s. Photo by Ben Wittick. El Paso Centennial Museum

Tourists and Tall Tales

There were seventeen or twenty of them, led by Juan Antonio Toya. Father Caballero had recorded Toya's name and that of his wife María de los Ángeles at Pecos in 1826 when he baptized their seven-day-old son José Francisco. José Cota, or Kota, another of the emigrants, had joined with Rafael Aguilar in the fight to save the Pecos lands in 1829. By 1838, they and the others had reached their decision. They would go, at least for a while. [61]

One year later, in September of 1839—a year that saw a quarter of a million dollars in goods rumble past on the Santa Fe Trail—the irrepressible Matthew C. Field, actor, journalist, and rover, spent the night with Dr. David Waldo in the Pecos church. His article about the "dilapidated town called Pecus," which he guessed rightly "in its flourishing days must have been inhabited by not less than two thousand souls," soon appeared in the New Orleans Picayune. "The houses now are all unroofed," he wrote,

and the walls crumbling. The church alone yet stands nearly entire, and in it now resides a man bent nearly double with age, and his long silken hair, white with the snow of ninety winters, renders him an object of deep interest to the contemplative traveller. The writer with a single American companion once passed a night in this old church, entertained by the old man with a supper of hot porridge made of pounded corn and goat's milk, which we drank with a shell spoon from a bowl of wood, sitting upon the ground at the foot of the ruined altar by the light of a few dimly burning sticks of pine. In this situation we learned from the old man the following imperfect story, which is all the history that is now known of the city of the Sacred Fire.

Whereupon, in purple prose, Field launched into the tale of how Montezuma had chosen the Pecos as his people and had commanded them to keep a sacred fire burning in a cave until his coming again. Josiah Gregg claimed to have seen it smouldering in a kiva. For centuries the Pecos remained faithful to the trust. "Man, woman, and child shared the honor of watching the holy fire, and the side of the mountain grew bare as year after year the trees were torn away to feed the consuming torch of Montezuma." Then "a pestilential disorder came in the summer time and swept away the people." Only three were left: a venerable chief, his daughter, and her betrothed. The old man expired. The lovers grew weak. Just before death over came them, the young man had an idea.

Taking a brand from the fire, he grasped his beloved by the hand and led her out of the cave. "A light then rose in the sky which was not the light of morning, but the heavens were red with the flames that roared and crackled up the mountain side. And the lovers lay in each other's arms, kissing death from each other's lips, and smiling to see the fire of Montezuma mounting up to heaven."

Wash-u-hos-te, a Pecos man at Jémez, probably by R. H. Kern, 1849. Simpson, Journal

Still, Matt Field did not reckon he had done justice to the old man's story.

He told it in glowing words and with a rapt intensity which the writer has endeavored to imitate, but he feels that the attempt is a failure. The scene itself—the ruined church—the feeble old man bending over the ashes, and the strange tones of his thin voice in the dreary midnight—all are necessary to awaken such interest as was felt by the listeners. Such is the story, however, and there is no doubt but that the legend has a strong foundation, in truth; for there stands the ruined town, well known to the Santa Fe traders, and there lives the old man, tending his goats on the hill side during the day, and driving them into the church at night. . . . It was imperative upon us to leave the place before day light that we might reach our destination (San Miguel) early the next morning, so that we could not gratify our curiosity by descending the cavern ourselves, but we gave the old man a few bits of silver, and telling him that the story with which he had entertained us should be told again in the great United States, we each pocketed a cinder of the sacred fire and departed. [62]

Montezuma, the perpetual fire, and a great serpent god "so huge that he left a track like a small arroyo" were off and running. [63]

The era of Pecos as monument had begun. The living pueblo was dead.

Pecos, stylized and deserted, 1846. Abert, Report
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