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




While the last of the Pecos "kept the faith" at Jémez, a motley procession of traders, soldiers, and tourists was tracking through the ruins of their former homes, scratching graffiti, pocketing souvenirs, and recounting the fantastic tales of "a lost civilization."

If Thomas James heard the tales in 1821, he did not repeat them. Ten years later, Albert Pike heard them all right—Montezuma, the eternal fire in a cave, and worship of a giant snake—but he did not fix them precisely on Pecos. That came soon enough. An article by "El Doctor Masure" in the Santa Fe Republican of September 24, 1847, told of a visit in 1835 to the "furnace of Montezuma" at Pecos. Josiah Gregg, too, said that he had descended into a Pecos kiva and "beheld this consecrated fire, silently smouldering under a covering of ashes, in the basin of a small altar."

Ever since the sixteenth century, Spanish chroniclers had associated ruins north of Mexico with the origin of the Aztecs and with Montezuma. The legendary pre-conquest feathered serpent had slithered northward even earlier. When, in the romantic atmosphere of the nineteenth century, Pecos became a bona fide and easily accessible ruin, it is no wonder that such specters took up residence here. "Ere the May-flower drifted to Plymouth's snowy rock, this vestal flame was burning. . . . and yet till Montezuma shall return—so ran the charge—that fire must burn."

"Astek Church," actually the main pueblo ruin, Pecos, 1846, by John Mix Stanley. Emory, Notes

Artist John Mix Stanley, with the invading Army of the West in 1846, sketched both mission church and pueblo ruins, and in House Executive Document No. 41 of the Thirtieth Congress, First Session, the former was labeled "Catholic Church" and the latter "Astek Church." Army engineers W. H. Emory and J. W. Abert related the Montezuma legend at Pecos, where "the fires from the 'estuffa' burned and sent their incense through the same altars from which was preached the doctrine of Christ" and where "they were said to keep an immense serpent, to which they sacrificed human victims."

Yet no one topped young Pvt. Josiah M. Rice, who passed by in 1851 with Col. Edwin V. Sumner's command. "There are," claimed Rice, "many traditions connected with this old church, one of which is that it was built by a race of giants, fifty feet in height. But these, dying off, they were succeeded by dwarfs, with red heads who, being in their turn exterminated, were followed by the Aztecs."

Pondering Montezuma's alleged birth at Pecos and his vow to return, the astute Adolph F. Bandelier in 1880 ascribed the tale to "an evident mixture of a name with the Christian faith in a personal redeemer, and dim recollections of Coronado's presence and promise to return." Of course it may also have become a convenient ruse employed by the Pueblos to mislead inquisitive whites. Lt. John G. Bourke, contemporary of Bandelier and ethnologist in his own right, found the Montezuma story "among the Pueblos who have had most to do with Americans and Mexicans and among no others." No matter, thought historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell in 1910. "This story is the veriest rot."

The big snake, in whose veracity Bandelier refused to believe "until I am compelled," persisted nonetheless. In 1924, a grandson of Maríano Ruiz, chief informant of Bandelier, recited what he had heard his grandfather tell about the Pecos snake. This account appeared in Edward S. Curtis' The North American Indians, volume 17.

The snake, he said, was kept in an underground room in the village, and at stated intervals a newborn infant was fed to it. The elder Ruiz was asked to assume the duty of custodian of the sacred fire, an annual office, which he declined because he had observed that the fire-keeper always died soon after being released from confinement in the subterranean chamber where the fire burned. (Whether the fire and the serpent were housed in the same cell the grandson did not know, but possibly such was the case and the refusal of Ruiz to accept the proffered position was really due to his horror at the idea of spending a year in proximity to the reptile. But there appears to be no good reason why he should not have imparted this information to Bandelier, if such was the case.) Strolling about the environs of the village, Ruiz one day came upon his most intimate friend bowed in grief. To the Mexican's inquiry the Indian responded that his newborn child had been condemned to be fed to the snake, that already he had been forced to yield several children to the sacrifice, and had vainly hoped that this one would be spared. This was the first time Ruiz had heard that children were fed to the snake. He proposed that they hoodwink the priests, and acting on his advice the Indian poisoned a newborn kid with certain herbs, wrapped it up as if it were a baby, and threw it to the reptile. That night terrifying sounds issued from the den as the great snake writhed in its death agony, and in the morning it lay with the white of its belly exposed. The populace was utterly downcast, for this presaged the extinction of the tribe.

Some observers recorded more mundane theories of why the Pecos had departed. Certainly disease and warfare had figured prominently in the pueblo's decline. Santa Fe trader James Josiah Webb, passing through in 1844, surmised that the inhabitants "had become so reduced in numbers that they were unable to keep their irrigating ditches in repair, and other necessary community labor, to support themselves in comfort." Looking at it from a different angle, Indian Agent John Greiner asserted in 1852 that the Pecos had been "annoyed beyond endurance by the Mexicans living in their houses and seizing their property by piecemeal." Finally they had given up. "The pueblo of Pecos is now a mass of ruins," reported John Ward in 1867.

The few original inhabitants were compelled to abandon the village about eight years previous to our government's taking possession of the country in 1846. They left in consequence of their reduced circumstances and numbers and the encroachments of Mexican citizens in general.

Mexican landowners
Mexican landowners. John T. Hughes, Doniphan's Expedition (Cincinnati, 1847)

After the Pecos had gone, the pot hunter, the scavenger, and the transient pretty much wrecked the place. A few sorry souls haunted habitable corners of the ruins for a decade or so—Matt Field's wizened goatherd, fugitive Juan Cristóbal Armijo wanted for murdering a Mormon peddler, the old woman and her comely daughter of "dark and meaning eye" who so titillated Richard L. Wilson as he gathered his Short Ravelings from a Long Yarn, or Camp March Sketches of the Santa Fe Trail. One unfortunate of the 1841 Texan-Santa Fe expedition, Thomas Falconer, remembered being herded with his fellow captives into the ruins of Pecos pueblo. "It is a walled enclosure, in which a few persons lived; but," he added, "the houses within were made more ruinous than on our arrival, by the Mexican soldiers, who, made fires of the materials."

The north end of the main quadrangle stood longest. "The dwellings," James Madison Cutts said in his journal entry of August 17, 1846, "were built of small stones and mud; some of the buildings are still so far perfect as to show three full stories." A comparison of Stanley's sketch with the rendering by German artist Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen twelve years later illustrates the rapid moldering of the pueblo proper. Already by 1858, great mounds buttressed and filled the walls of the lower stories, mounds that would continue to grow and thereby entomb for the archaeologist what lay beneath.

The same dozen years also brought the hulking church to the brink. Möullhausen, like almost every writer before him, commented on the woodwork in the building, carved and painted, especially the hefty beams and corbels. Above them, the roof had begun rotting away, and, in places, the sunlight shown through. The German's painting of the Pecos church in 1858 is the last to show the structure essentially intact. Shortly thereafter a Polish squatter named Andrew Kozlowski tore into it. His widow told Bandelier that when they had arrived in 1858 the beams were still in place. Kozlowski pulled many of them down to build houses, stables, and corrals. He also, she said, tried to dig out "the corner-stone," but in that he failed.

In 1866, when landscape painter Worthington Whittredge portrayed the building's southern profile, nave roof and towerswere absent.

The Pecos church, 1858, by Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen. The artist visited Pecos on June 15, 1858, but probably did not paint this romantic watercolor until after his return to Berlin in the autumn of that year. Housed in the Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin, the painting was destroyed in the bombing of the city during World War II. The print, from a pre-War negative, was provided by Museum through the coutresy of David H. Miller, Cameron University.

By Bandelier's day, the church had definitely gone to ruin. "In general," he wrote in 1880,

the vandalism committed in this venerable relic of antiquity defies all description. It is only equalled by the foolishness of such as, having no other means to secure immortality, have cut out the ornaments from the sculptured beams in order to obtain a surface suitable to carve their euphonious names. All the beams of the old structure are quaintly, but still not tastelessly, carved; there was . . . much scroll-work terminating them. Most of this was taken away, chipped into uncouth boxes, and sold, to be scattered everywhere. Not content with this, treasure-hunters, inconsiderate amateurs, have recklessly and ruthlessly disturbed the abodes of the dead. "After becoming Christians," said to me Sr. Maríano Ruiz, the only remaining 'son of the tribe' of Pecos, still settled near to its site, "they buried their dead within the church." These dead have been dug out regardless of their position relative to the walls of the building, and their remains have been scattered over the surface, to become the prey of relic-hunters. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of New Mexico [Jean Baptiste Lamy] has finally stopped such abuses by asserting his title of ownership; but it was far too late. It cannot be denied, besides, that his concession to Kozlowski to use some of the timber for his own purposes was subsequently interpreted by others in a manner highly prejudicial to the preservation of the structure.

Even in ruin it was impressive.

"I am dirty, ragged & sunburnt," Bandelier exulted from Pecos on September 5, 1880, "but of best cheer. My life's work has at last begun."

Pecos Church
"Pecos Church, New Mexico," by Worthington Whittredge. 1866, oil on cardboard, 9-3/8 x 22-1/8 inches. Courtesy M. Knoedler and Co., New York

The great Swiss-American pioneer ethnologist had only just arrived in the Southwest a few days before. From the train, he had caught his first glimpse of Pecos. Its setting was all colors:

to the left, the towering Mesa de Pecos, dark pines clambering up its steep sides; to the right, the broad valley, scooped out, so to say, between the mesa and the Telcolote ridge. It is dotted with green patches and black clusters of cedar and pine shooting out of the red and rocky soil. Scarcely a house is visible, for the casitas of adobe and wood nestle mostly in sheltered nooks. Beyond Baughl's [siding], the ruins first strike his [the tourist's] view; the red walls of the church stand boldly out on the barren mesilla; and to the north of it there are two low brown ridges, the remnants of the Indian houses.

To alert the less observant tourist, the Santa Fe Railway Company later erected on the north side of the tracks opposite the ruins an immense signboard proclaiming Pecos a wonder of the Southwest. In a sense, Bandelier did the same thing. His notably meticulous report—even to mention of the broken Anheuser-Busch beer bottles—based on ten exhilerating days of field investigation, alerted the archaelogist to the potentials of the Southwest.

Curiously, Bandelier never followed up his initial study at Pecos. Eight years later, in 1888, he did meet at Jémez a trio of the Pecos remnant: José Miguel Vigil, Agustín Cota, who was at the time governor of Jémez, and José Romero. Aside from the Spanish names of six other Pecos Indians "still alive," and the native names for Pecos pueblo and four nearby ruins, he got very little out of them. Ethnohistorian Frederick Webb Hodge and archaeologist Edgar L. Hewett, who interviewed Vigil and Cota on several occasions between 1895 and 1902, did better. Hewett's 1904 article "Studies on the Extinct Pueblo of Pecos" listed twenty-two Pecos clans, discussed the archaeology of the upper Pecos Valley and the aboriginal range of the Pecos people, fixed the year of the abandonment at 1838, and recorded the native names of the seventeen refugees. Relying mainly on Pablo Toya, son of the deceased Juan Antonio, the persistent Mrs. Parsons added three more refugees and figured out genealogies.

Adolph F. Bandelier
Adolph F. Bandelier in 1882. Photographed by W. Henry Brown. B. M. Thomas Collection, Museum of New Mexico

Adolph F. Bandelier

Meantime, Pecos had been on display in California. A sixteen-foot-long model of the mesa top showing reconstructed church, South Pueblo, and main Quadrangle was a prominent attraction in the New Mexico building at the 1915 San Diego Panama-California Exposition. That same year, the trustees of Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, resolved to excavate a site in the Pueblo area "large enough, and of sufficient scientific importance, to justify work upon it for a number of years."

top of pageTop

previousPrevious Table of Contents Nextright