Quarai, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Quarai -- Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

Quarai, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Quarai

Quarai, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Quarai
Quarai, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Historic Monument
Mountainair, New Mexico
Coordinates: 34.520372, -106.241890
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Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

Quarai, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Quarai
Interior of the Quarai church.

Photo by BriYYZ. Courtesy of Flickr Commons.

About an hour and a half southeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico, on the east side of the Manzano Mountains is Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument within which the Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Quarai is located. By the middle of the 1600s, Spanish officials had created the Jurisdicción de las Salinas which included Las Humanas, Abó and Quarai as well as Cililí, Tajique, and Tabirá. The Manzano Mountains, the salt lakes near present Willard, and the edge of the Great Plains to the east collectively formed the homeland for many peoples and cultures in the area for hundreds of years. As early as the 10th century, Mogollon and Ancestral Puebloan groups established pueblos in the valley that served as major centers of trade between the people of the Rio Grande region and the Plains Indian tribes. When Spanish exploration of the valley began in the late 16th century, the pueblos of Salinas became home to Spanish Franciscan missionaries and large mission churches. The pueblo of Quarai contains the best preserved of these churches: Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Quarai. Completed c.1629, the settlement was empty by 1678 as droughts, famine, and repeated Apache raids caused the people to seek refuge at other settlements.

Today Quarai is a National Historic Landmark within the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument that also includes Abó and Gran Quivira, which are featured separately in this itinerary. The site contains a variety of settlements from A.D. 1250 through the colonial period. The pueblo and mission remains reflect the early period of Pueblo-Spanish interaction, the conflicts between the Spanish church and state, and their overall effects on native culture in the Southwest. Visitors should not miss exploring the impressive mission ruins on a trip through central New Mexico.
Kiva, Quarai, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Quarai
The square design of the kiva, a subterranean religious structure, is common amongst the western Pueblo groups.

From SAPU Museum Collections. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Quarai Pueblo

Early Puebloan peoples moved into the Salinas Valley around the A.D. 1200s, and based on artifacts found at the site, began living at Quarai by A.D. 1250. The people of the settlement had most likely left it uninhabited by A.D. 1400, as there is no evidence to indicate that a permanent population lived at the pueblo from 1400 to around 1600. The date of the founding of the Quarai pueblo is a subject of controversy among scholars.

The consensus is that the reoccupation of the pueblo likely occurred before the Spanish initially made contact in the late 16th century. The Salinas Valley, home of the Quarai pueblo, was a rich, fertile area at the time, with several other pueblos existing nearby, including Tajique and Chililí. Tiwa speakers likely occupied all three of these pueblos. Neighboring Abó, Gran Quivira and Tabira were Tompiro-speaking communities.
Map - Quarai, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Quarai
Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción was once a large mission complex. Visitors can walk through what remains of the church, convento, and cemetery.

Courtesy of NPS.

The Spanish at Quarai

Although the Spanish visited the Salinas Valley and several of its pueblos as early as 1540, historical records officially place the Spanish missionaries at Quarai in 1626. The Spanish had already successfully established missions at Chililí and Abó. In December of 1625, the Fray Juan Gutiérrez de la Chica was sent to Quarai to initiate a new missionary effort. Upon his arrival, Gutiérrez reportedly met little resistance from the native population (a rarity in the area) and soon began planning for a new church and convento.

Construction began on Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Quarai in 1627, and continued until 1632. The ruins of the church that exist today show its basic plan as a Latin cross, about 108 feet long and 28 feet wide. The walls are all made of local red sandstone and average 4.5 feet in width –though many measure up to 10 feet at their bases in order to support the tall structure. Today, the wall ruins still stand roughly 20 feet tall, but it is likely the walls once towered around 40 feet. The red sandstone convento rooms surrounded a central plaza. Built at the same time as the church and convent, a square kiva is located inside the north convento of the mission and presents an interesting riddle. Kivas are an important part of many native religious practices. The kiva's presence within the Spanish complex raises interesting questions about how traditional tribal religion intermingled with newly introduced Catholic traditions.

During the 17th century, Quarai became a significant part of the Spanish missionary efforts throughout the Southwest and New Mexico. In 1633, Fray Estevan de Perea, head of the powerful Holy Office of the Inquisition for all of New Mexico, arrived at Quarai to assume leadership. The mission complex at Quarai briefly served as residence of the commissary of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

In addition to the Catholic religion and customs, the Franciscan friars introduced new agricultural practices including domesticated herding animals. Extensive farming took place adjacent to the mission and on surrounding lands. The native population at Quarai struggled under the Spanish government-imposed encomienda system. The system demanded annual agricultural payments be made to Spanish soldiers in exchange for military protection. To meet those payments, the people at Quarai began herding sheep and some cattle. As the Spanish demanded more of their labor, native people's consumption of wild plant foods became less diverse and hunting wild game decreased during the colonial period.
Beyond the mission

At its peak, the Quarai pueblo had approximately 1,000 rooms and housed between 600 and 700 residents of both native and Spanish descent. Due to a number of hardships during the early 1670s, including a series of droughts, Apache attacks, and unrest within the Spanish government, people at Quarai decided to leave the pueblo. Tiwa speaking inhabitants are believed to have joined their linguistic kinsmen along the Rio Grande. By 1678, none of the Salinas Valley pueblos and missions had inhabitants any longer.
Quarai, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Quarai
The walls still stand around much of the original mission church.

Photo by HJPD, 1998. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Much later, in the early 1800s, settlers would return to Quarai, constructing the Lucero Structures including a defensive Torreon and the later Manzano Church. Major studies of Quarai have taken place since 1913, when the School of American Archaeology began excavations in the southernmost mound (believed to be the oldest area of the village). More intensive exploration of the site began in the early 1930s around the time Quarai became a New Mexico State Monument administered by the Museum of New Mexico. Quarai has been excavated and stabilized, but much of the original ancient village and the 17th century pueblo remain buried.

What you can see today

Visitors to the site today will note the impressive, stabilized mission ruins standing against the landscape. A self-guided trail takes those who want to explore the church and the 17th century pueblo. Much of the village remains unexcavated, hidden below the gently rolling mounds surrounding the mission and convento. The site is administered by the National Park Service and contains interpretive signs, a visitor center, and a small museum to help guests understand this important American Indian and Spanish heritage site. Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument offers interpreted tours and self-guided walks through the ruins of Quarai and through Abó and Gran Quivira. The National Park Service provides a Quarai trail map, which is available online here.

Plan Your Visit

Quarai, a National Historic Landmark and part of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument unit of the National Park System, is located near the eastern base of the Manzano Mountains about a mile west of Punta de Agua in Torrance County, NM. Click here for the Quarai National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. The main visitor center for Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is on the corner of Ripley and Broadway Sts. in Mountainair, NM. The center is open year-round from 8:00am to 5:00pm except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
Quarai is located 8 miles north on NM 55 and 1 mile west and are free to visit and open daily but hours change seasonally. For more information, visit the National Park Service Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument website and its Quarai website, or call 505-847-2585.
Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is also featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary, Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures: Explore their Stories in the National Park System Travel Itinerary and in the American Latino Heritage Travel Itinerary.

Last updated: April 15, 2016


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