"In the Midst of a Loneliness":
The Architectural History of the Salinas Missions
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The springs and catch-basins around ancient Lake Estancia attracted visitors since human beings first moved through the Salinas Basin. Archeologists have found evidence of brief occupation as early as 6000 BC. Short-term visits continued until about 700 AD, when people settled permanently in the area and began to build pit-houses. Concentrations of population built up at the most favorable locations. [2]

In about the twelfth century, Early Puebloan cultures began to appear in the area. They may have developed from the earlier transient populations, settling permanently in the area. Early Puebloan cultures in the Salinas area show some indications of contact with the Anasazi of northern New Mexico, southern Colorado, and the Four Corners area. They built small "villages" of above-ground jacales, structures with cobblestone or masonry wall bases and superstructures of close-set vertical posts plastered with mud. Each village might also have a few pit-house-like structures. [3]

By the early fourteenth century, these groups had developed into Late Puebloan cultures. The Late Puebloan cultures built the large, integrated villages found by the Spaniards when they began to move into the area. [4] Late Puebloans, from whom modern Pueblo Indians developed, were composed of several major linguistic groups across the Southwest. The central group was the Anasazi, living in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico. They may have spoken Keresan, a language with no known relationship to other Native American languages. Along the northern Rio Grande lived a group of Puebloans that may have been related to the Anasazi. The eastern Puebloans spoke several closely related languages, all variants of the Tanoan language group. South of the Tanoan speaking Puebloans, along the Rio Grande, lived another group of Indians. They spoke a language called Piro that may have also been part of the Tanoan language group. The Piro speakers had some contact with the Anasazi, but probably were not part of their interacting cultural association of the Four Corners area and northern New Mexico.

Tanoan is related to Kiowa, a Plains Indian language. Linguistic analysis suggests that about three thousand years ago Indians speaking the ancestral Kiowa-Tanoan language separated into two groups. One group became the Tanoan speaking Indians of New Mexico and the other the Kiowa speakers of the Great Plains. Tanoan further separated into several closely related languages: Tiwa, Tewa, and Towa. Today Tiwa is spoken at Taos, Pícuris, Sandía, and Isleta, Tewa at Santa Clara, San Juan, San Ildefonso, Nambé, Tesuque, and Pojoaque; and Towa at Jemez. Tewa speakers once lived in the now-empty pueblos of the Galisteo Basin, and Towa speakers at Pecos. Piro, spoken in the abandoned pueblos of the southern Rio Grande such as Senecú and Socorro, and Tompiro, the dialect spoken in the southern Salinas pueblos, may be related to the Tanoan family of languages, but not enough examples of Piro and Tompiro survive to allow a detailed analysis. The modern distribution indicates that the Tanoan speakers who settled along the northern part of the Rio Grande and the eastern plains developed the Tiwa-Tewa-Towa groups, while another group along the southern Rio Grande developed the Piro language. [5]

In perhaps the twelfth century, Tiwa speaking Indians from the Rio Grande Valley to the northwest and Piro speaking Indians from the Rio Grande Valley to the west moved into the Salinas area and established the small Early Puebloan settlements. The Tiwa speakers settled along the west side of the Salinas Basin at about the same time that Piro speakers settled the area along the south side of the basin from Abó Pass east and southeastward. Construction on the first permanent buildings at Abó began in perhaps the late eleventh or early twelfth century, while construction of the other Salinas pueblo sites did not begin until later.

About 1300, Anasazi culture collapsed in the San Juan Basin. This may have been the cause of the migration of Keresan speaking Indians towards the south and east and may have been partly responsible for the development of Late Puebloan culture in the Rio Grande and Salinas basins. Keresans settled on the central Rio Grande, in the area presently occupied by the Keresan speaking pueblos of Zia, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Santo Domingo, and Cochiti. At roughly the same time, the occupants of the Salinas Basin built the first major structures on the sites of a number of Salinas pueblos, and expanded the construction at Abó. Nine of the pueblos eventually grew into the towns that played major parts in the history of the Salinas area during the seventeenth century. [6]

Tiwa speaking Indians established the northern three of the nine pueblos, later known as Chililí, Tajique, and Quarai, while Piro speaking Indians settled the other six, three of which were called Abó, Las Humanas, [7] and Tabirá by the Spanish. The remaining three are presently called LA 200, five miles west of Abó; Pueblo Pardo, three miles south of Las Humanas; and Pueblo Colorado, four miles southeast of Tabirá. These three were probably among the Piro speaking pueblos mentioned in the records from early Spanish exploration of the region east of the Manzanos. They undoubtedly figured in the exploration and first contacts of 1580-1598 but were abandoned in the early 1600s. They undoubtedly figured in the exploration and first contacts of 1580-1598 but were abandoned in the early 1600s. [8]

map of Salinas Basin
Figure 1. The Salinas Basin.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The separation of the southern pueblo sites from the Piro speakers of the Rio Grande, and their association with the Plains Indians eventually caused the Piro language of these six pueblos to develop into a variant dialect called Tompiro. [9] By the late sixteenth century, association with the plains Indians had increased the differences among the Tompiro pueblos themselves. When the Spanish arrived after 1580, they divided the Tompiro speakers of Abó and its associated pueblos from those in the area of Las Humanas, whom they called Jumanos, or rayados (striped ones). [10] The name indicates that at least some of the Indians of the eastern Tompiro pueblos resembled Indians to the southeast that the Spanish called Jumanos, who had the trait of tattooing or painting stripes on their faces. However, the non-Tompiro Indians that frequented Las Humanas were probably Apache, rather than Jumanos.

Chililí, Tajique, Quarai and Abó formed a line from north to south about twenty-five miles east of the Rio Grande, in the foothills of the east slope of the Manzano Mountains. The country here is rolling hills rising to the west towards the mountains, covered with juniper, piñon, and Ponderosa pine on the higher hills and mountain slopes. Streams flow down to the east from the Manzanos into the Salinas Basin, where they sink into the soil. The ground-water eventually reaches the salt lagoons covering the lowest areas. [11] The Tiwas built Chililí on Chililí Creek in what is now the southwest corner of Bernalillo County. A modern town covers the site today. Tajique, also a modern town now, lies on the Arroyo de Tajique, eleven miles south in northwestern Torrance County, in the Tularosa Basin. Another eleven miles south stands the mounds of the pueblo of Quarai, beside a group of springs in the Cañon de Sapato. The ruins of Abó are twelve miles farther south on the Cañon de Espinosa in Abó Pass, the main route from the southern pueblos of the Rio Grande, such as Senecú and Socorro, to the salt deposits of the Salinas Basin, more than twenty miles farther east. The mounds of Las Humanas, now called Gran Quivira, top a hill twenty-one miles southeast of Abó, on the south edge of Torrance County. Three miles south of Las Humanas is its neighboring pueblo called Pueblo Pardo. Tabirá, also known as Pueblo Blanco, is an isolated ruin fifteen miles northeast of Las Humanas.

Their location east of the mountains separating the Rio Grande valley from the plains, exposed the pueblos to the southern Plains Indians, most of whom were Apache. All the pueblos developed relationships with the plains Indians that were at least seasonally cordial. At Las Humanas and Tabirá, the most exposed, however, the relationship went beyond cordiality to virtual coexistence. By the late sixteenth century Plains Indians formed some part of the daily social life of these pueblos. This probably included family ties such as developed at Pecos and Taos pueblos, also on the edge of the plains to the north. Because of the association, the Spaniards differentiated between the western Tompiros at Abó and the eastern Tompiros at Las Humanas and Tabirá. The linguistic difference between the Tompiros and the Tiwas caused another, administrative separation between the two groups within the Salinas area. [12]

Because the language and culture of the Indians of the Tompiro pueblos did not survive into the present, little is known of their social structure. They probably lived in ways similar to the Tanoan speaking pueblos of the Rio Grande valley. Here the village leader and his council exercised strong, centralized political control, allocated land, and determined who could and could not live in the pueblo. Much of the social life of the pueblos revolved around the division of the people into various paired groups, called moieties, with duties associated with summer or winter. Responsibility for the cycle of ceremonies during the year moved back and forth between the two moieties according to the season. Moieties were usually established along the lines of kinship groups. [13] Although Puebloan society could appear remarkably homogenous, friction did occur within a given pueblo. The discord could result in the formation of opposing factions, probably also divided along the lines of kinship groups. The appearance of harmony or homogeneity could be deceiving. Faction differences apparently could cause the collapse of the social structure of a pueblo, resulting in the abandonment of the site. At a less disruptive level, factions or kinship groups may not have been as communal as is thought today. There is evidence, for example, that during a famine some families could do well while others in the same pueblo were starving. [14]


The first pueblo construction at Abó began about 1100 with work on what is now mound B, on the west side of Espinoso Creek. The inhabitants were attracted to the area by the springs that supplied them with water even during dry periods. One of these still flows on the east bank of the creek, southwest of the Eliseo Sisneros house. Abó probably had fields of maize and cotton on the nearby floodplain of Abó Arroyo and its side canyons, watered by the springs and occasional rainfall. [15]

Over the next several centuries, the Indians of Abó built additional blocks of houses. Most grew up to the north and south of block B from 1100 to the late 1500s. Around 1600 the residents began to build house block J, a long rectangular enclosure on the east side of the creek. By this time they had probably abandoned most of the earlier, western buildings, continuing to use only those along the banks of the creek. [16]


The earliest known occupants at Quarai constructed several masonry pueblo buildings beginning around 1300. [17] One was the group of structures that later became mound A near the springs at the south side of the site of Quarai. [18] This may have been a round pueblo similar to the earliest structure under mound 7 at Gran Quivira. A second pueblo structure later became mound X, the site selected by the Spanish for the church and convento of Concepción de Quarai. [19]

The Indians abandoned mounds A and X about 1425. By this time they had already begun the buildings grouped around plaza D. These buildings became mounds B, C, D, E, and the south half of G. [20] About 1500 the Indians built the room blocks of mound F and the north half of mound G around plaza C. The buildings may have reached three stories in some parts of the pueblo. This was the pueblo of Quarai as seen by the first Spaniards to visit the area. [21] Quarai may have originally been named Acolocu or Agualacu, and was usually called Cuarac by the Spaniards. [22]

Quarai and the other two Tiwa pueblos, Tajique and Chililí, spoke the same language, shared social connections, occupied similar locations on spring-fed streams, and apparently had areas of farmland that they worked in common, probably on the smooth flats east of the three pueblos where the mountain streams flowed out onto the floor of the Estancia Basin. The Franciscans saw these pueblos as a perfect missionary opportunity.

Las Humanas

About 1300, the Indians began the construction of a large circular pueblo on the present site of mound 7 at Gran Quivira. About the same time they built a second circular pueblo south of the first, under mounds 7 and 8. The mound 7 pueblo was similar to Tyuonyi on Frijoles Creek in Bandelier National Monument and to the circular structure perhaps underlying mound A at Quarai.

About 1400, the Indians had abandoned most of the rooms in the round structure and had built several rectangular room blocks adjacent to them. These rooms were occupied from 1400 to about 1515. From 1515 to 1545 no one lived in the rooms of mound 7, but probably continued to occupy other nearby room blocks.

Beginning about 1545, the residents of Las Humanas began to expand the house block of mound 7. As of 1598, they probably lived in houses composing mounds 7, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 18. [23]

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006