Mission La Purísima Concepción at Hawikuh-- Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

Mission La Purísima Concepción at Hawikuh

Mission La Purísima Concepción at Hawikuh
Site of Hawikuh Pueblo Zuni, New Mexico

Coordinates: 31.567472,-111.051842
Discover Our Shared Heritage
Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

Mission La Purísima Concepción at Hawikuh
Zuni dancers at Bandolier National Monument. Although no Zuni live at Hawikuh today, the site is still meaningful.

NPS photo by Sally King.

Located amidst an adobe and stone expanse on New Mexico's western border, the site of the pueblo of Hawikuh has been a place of meeting –first, between ancestral Puebloan and Mogollon cultures, and then Zuni and Spanish cultures. The first pueblo to be visited by the Spanish, Hawikuh was established in the early 1200s and was once the largest Zuni pueblo. Hawikuh was one of the rumored "Seven Cities of Gold" that first tempted the Spanish to venture north from Mexico into the present-day American Southwest. Beginning in 1629, the populous pueblo became host to Mission La Purísima Concepción. Just 50 years later the pueblo would be emptied when the Zuni fortified themselves on the Black Mesa during the Pueblo Revolt. Today the ruins of Hawikuh are a National Historic Landmark, a remarkable place layered with complex histories of cultural encounters and tensions.
First Contact

The original pueblo of Hawikuh sat atop a long, narrow ridge on the eastern side of the Zuni River Valley. Although the exact date of its founding is not known, archeological evidence places inhabitants in the area as early as the A.D. 1200s. Six large, irregular structures consisting of hundreds of rooms are believed to have made up the original city. Separated by a system of open passageways and small plazas, sections of each structure ranged from one to three stories in height. Carefully constructed out of local sandstone, the buildings likely had thick adobe mortar or red clay holding the stones together and walls covered in smooth adobe plaster.
Mission La Purísima Concepción at Hawikuh
Hawikuh, New Mexico. Ruins of the Mission La Purísima Concepción de Hawikuh, looking south.

Photo by Robert M. Utley, May 21, 1958.Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Esteban (Estevanico), a black Spanish slave originally from Morocco, was the first non-native explorer to encounter Hawikuh. When a shipwreck off the coast of Texas left Esteban as one of few survivors, he began traveling across the Southwest, noting languages, cultural practices, and locations of pueblos. He eventually reached Spanish territory in 1536. On hearing Esteban's account, particularly the purported Seven Cities of Gold, the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, sent the first Spanish expedition into present-day New Mexico. Esteban acted as a scout, and in 1539 first encountered Hawikuh and likely visited. The historic record and oral histories differ on the exact sequence of events that followed. It is agreed, however, that shortly after Esteban made contact with the Zunis in Cibola he was killed by tribesmen. When news of his death reached his entourage, they feared for their lives and returned to New Spain.

With the path already forged by Esteban and further reports of large, wealthy cities, Viceroy Mendoza charged Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's expedition to continue exploration of the lands to the north. When Coronado and his men reached Hawikuh the following year (1540) they were disappointed to find the rumored golden city to be a dusty, crowded Zuni village. On the verge of starvation, Coronado asked the Pueblo leaders for food for his army. They refused. Rather than perish, Coronado ordered an attack on Hawikuh in order to save his troops. After a brief skirmish resulting in several Zuni deaths, Coronado and his men took possession of the pueblo. The pueblo became Coronado's headquarters for several months. Four decades later, Hawikuh was again visited by Spanish explorers. Records over time repeatedly noted that Hawikuh was the largest, most important pueblo in all of Cibola.

Mission La Purísima Concepción at Hawikuh
Excavated main altar of Mission La Concepcion at Hawikuh. From Earl R. Forrest, Missions and Pueblos of the Old Southwest

Courtesy of the National Park Service.

The Mission la Purísima Concepción and Zuni Resilience

Spanish missionary efforts began at Hawikuh in 1629 when Fray Estevan de Perea traveled to the major Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi pueblos to begin Catholic teachings. That same year the Spanish established and constructed Mission La Purísima Concepción at Hawikuh. Religious and cultural tensions grew within the pueblo and peaked a few years later when the Zuni killed the resident priest, Fray Francisco Letrado. The Zuni, fearing retaliation from the Spanish, hid in the mountains and did not return to Hawikuh until three years later.

Reestablished by the late 1650s, the mission at Hawikuh suffered frequent Apache raids from the south. One, in 1672, resulted in the death of another priest and the burning of the mission. After the mission's reestablishment, the Zuni joined the general pueblo uprisings in 1680 and destroyed Mission La Purísima Concepción for the final time. The Zuni and the Spanish left Hawikuh, never occupying it again. The former inhabitants took refuge with the other five Zuni pueblos on Black Mesa and went to live in Halona with the other Zuni pueblos. The region is still occupied by their descendants and today Zuni Pueblo is the largest of the 19 New Mexican Pueblos, covering more than 700 square miles and with a population of over 10,000.
Mission La Purísima Concepción at Hawikuh
Historical photo of the ruins of La Purisima Concepcion, c. 1891.

Photo by Victor Mindeleff, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What you can see today

The former Zuni community and Spanish mission are now in ruins but Hawikuh continues to be visited and protected as a Zuni ancestral site. From 1917 to 1923, archeologist Frederick Webb Hodge led an excavation of the site unearthing several sandstone walls and foundations and various rooms and artifacts throughout the ancient city. The mission church showed signs of having been rebuilt several times and once had a baptistery, choir loft, and bell tower. All that remains of the Mission La Purísima Concepción and its convento are eroded adobe walls two or three feet high. Mounds of rock, potsherds, and rubble still mark large unexcavated portions of the site. When you visit please respect the site and Zuni cultural traditions and do not pick up artifacts on the ground surface.

Although Hawikuh is no longer occupied its archeological, scientific, historical, and cultural importance cannot be overstated. The pueblo bridges the precontact and early Spanish-eras in New Mexico and the site still contains valuable, unexcavated information from this time. Hawikuh was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and later included in the Zuni-Cibola Complex National Historic Landmark in 1974.

The Hawikuh ruins are on the Zuni Indian Reservation. The Zuni Pueblo offers tours of the site for a fee. Visitors should make reservations at least a week in advance to ensure availability. For tour information, please visit the Zuni Pueblo Department of Tourism site.

Plan Your Visit

The Site of Hawikuh Pueblo is a National Historic Landmark and is part of the Zuni-Cibola Complex, which is also a National Historic Landmark. Hawikuh is located on the Zuni Indian Reservation off NM Route 53, approximately 12 miles southwest of the city of Zuni, NM. Click here for the Site of Hawikuh Pueblo National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. Before your visit, check with the Zuni Pueblo Department of Tourism website regarding access to the site and for tour information, and call the visitor information center at 505-782-7238 to make reservations for a tour. The Zuni Pueblo offers tours of the site for a fee. Visitors should make reservations at least a week in advance to ensure availability.
Hawikuh is also featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary and the American Latino Heritage Travel Itinerary.

Last updated: April 15, 2016


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