Region III Quarterly

Volume 2 - No. 3

July, 1940


By Robert R. Budlong,
El Morro National Monument.

The year was 1539; the location, somewhere in what is now Arizona. The explorer, Fray Marcos de Niza, looked across the sun-parched land toward distant Zuni. His long trek north from old Mexico was ended, and the stories the Indians had brought into Mexico of the existence of walled cities in the unknown northern country were, after all, founded on fact. The land toward which he looked, his Indian guides assured him, was that of the Seven Cities of Cibola. He dared not go to it, for, preceding him in the search had gone the Moor, "Estevan", or, "Stephen", slave to the Spaniard, Dorantes. Stephen had reached the city of Hawikuh ahead of Fray Marcos, only to be killed by its inhabitants.

The Friar made a small cross, placed it among a large heap of stones, and then, in the name of the Viceroy Mendoza, laid claim to all that land and to the Seven Cities, and hurriedly returned to Mexico, in considerable fear, bearing the tidings of his discovery. He described the city as being larger than the City of Mexico; rumor had it that precious stones and silver were there in plenty, and so, the following year, Coronado and his army set out to reach the cities, guided by the Friar. They found them, but what they found shattered the glittering structures of their dreams, for the Seven Cities of Cibola were only small farming communities of the Zuni Indians, and the gold and silver and jewels existed there only in the imaginations of the Spaniards.

Inscription Rock

Further exploration of this northern country was made by subsequent expeditions, and in 1598 the first Spanish colony was founded in the new land, the "new Mexico", by General Don Juan de Onate. He became its first governor. His little colony was established near the Rio Grande, north of the present city of Santa Fe, and from this colony Onate and his soldiers conducted explorations far into the land. In 1604 they marched westward to the Zuni villages, and on until they reached the Gulf of California, which they thought was the ocean. Returning in 1605, they reached a great mesa a day's march east of Zuni where a large pool of water and an inviting camping spot tempted them to camp. The Rock was soft sandstone, readily scratched. In a protected place on its base Onate carved in Spanish: "Passed by here the Adelantado Don Juan de Onate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South, the 16th of April of 1605." That inscription still exists. It is but one of several hundred carved into the stone of the great mesa known as El Morro, "the headland", for the protection of which an area embracing the Rock was created as El Morro National Monument, by presidential proclamation in 1906.

Onate's inscription is the earliest to be found, but there are other Spanish inscriptions, dating to 1774. This striking landmark, some 200 feet high, with its pool of water to refresh the weary traveler, lay directly on the road developed by the Spaniards, leading from Santa Fe to the Zuni villages. The inscriptions were probably carved with the points of poniards, and many of the Spanish soldiers, missionaries, and explorers thus recorded their trips. Some only carved their names, some their names and the date; others laboriously carved detailed records of their journeys, as had Onate. Many of these names undoubtedly disappeared years ago, especially those carved in more exposed locations, but today nearly 100 may still be seen.

Long before the coming of the Spaniards, other men had inscribed various symbols, and these also are still to be seen. They are petroglyphs chipped into the stone by prehistoric Indians, probably early Zunis. On top of the Rock lie two large ruins, covered with vegetation -- all that remains of two pueblos once inhabited by these prehistoric people. They, too, drank of the water from the pool at the base of the Rock, and their hand-and-foot trails leading down the face of the Rock are still to be seen. A modern trail leads to the Rock top and the visitor who climbs to it will see, scattered about among the stones and traces of old walls, hundreds of fragments of pottery. The ruins have not been excavated.

While many of the Spanish inscriptions consist only of names and dates, some are detailed accounts of early events of historical importance. The Zuni villages figure prominently in these accounts. Spanish soldiers went to Zuni to maintain order, for the Indians had been conquered by the Spaniards, and revolt was never far beneath the surface. A Franciscan mission was founded at the Zuni village of Hawikuh, the "Cibola" of Fray Marcos, in 1629. Governor Silva Nieto left an inscription in the form of a poem, carved in the Rock that year, relative to the founding of that mission. In 1632, Father Letrado was murdered there, as he attempted to persuade the Indians to attend Mass the morning of February 22. The brief inscription carved by one of the soldiers sent from Santa Fe to avenge the Padre's death is still legible: "They passed on the 23rd of March of the year 1632, to the avenging of the death of the Father Letrado."

Growing resentment among the conquered Pueblo Indians resulted in the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680, when the Spaniards were driven back to Santa Fe. Many of them had been killed; Santa Fe was besieged by Indian hordes and finally abandoned, and the Spaniards retreated to El Paso to remain there for twelve years. Then came the reconquest of the Pueblos, under General Don Diego de Vargas. He, too, stopped by the Rock, and left this inscription: "Here was the General Don Diego De Vargas, who conquered to our Holy Faith and to the Royal Crown all of the new Mexico at his (own) expense, year of 1692."

Hundreds of American names, beginning with 1836, are on the base of the Rock. In 1849 members of a military expedition from Santa Fe into the Navajo country found the Rock and made sketches of many of the early Spanish inscriptions. These were later reproduced by lithography as illustrations in the government report published concerning this expedition. Among the American names we find those of early explorers, soldiers, and settlers of historical importance. The name of Lieutenant Beale recalls the experiment conducted by the government prior to the outbreak of the Civil War to develop a new type of transportation across the dry country -- the introduction of camels and the use of camel trains. Lieutenant Beale was in charge of this experiment which did not prove successful. Some of the ecaped or abandoned camels wandered for years over the western desert country.

Back of every name lies some history, and the National Park Service is slowly tracing these people. Sometimes visitors will identify a name, where the person who carved it left a date and the name of his home city. Many persons believe that these inscriptions, some of them over 300 years old, will last indefinitely. But erosion goes on constantly, and names that have been carved where they are exposed to severe weathering are rapidly disappearing. Perhaps the early Spanish incriptions will last for a great many years, for they have lasted as long as they have because they were carved in protected places, where erosion takes place very slowly. Nevertheless, rock-falls occur with regularity, especially during the spring and fall months, and it is always possible that some inscription may be destroyed. Each inscription is being photographed and these photographs are filed, but a picture does not give an accurate idea of just how the inscriptions appear upon the stone.

The Service is making exact duplicates of the oldest of these inscriptions, cast in plaster from moulds made of latex. These casts are so perfect that every sand grain is reproduced in the mould. Liquid latex is applied to the surface of the Rock and successive layers are built-up until the desired thickness is obtained. After about 48 hours this hardens sufficiently to be stripped from the stone, and there results a perfect rubber mould of the surface of the stone and of the inscription. Methods are being devised to bring out dim traces of old inscriptions that are hidden by the drip of clay down the face of the cliff. A wealth of history is recorded here. Who knows what new inscription may some day be found, and what new stories the Rock may yet tell?

With the creation of the national monument in 1906, further carving of names became illegal, but in spite of this, vandals destroyed many old inscriptions. Some of this destruction seems to have been deliberate; some was just the result of thoughtlessness on the part of people who carved their own names into the stone, or who scratched the Rock to test its hardness.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005