San Estevan del Rey Mission Church -- Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

San Estevan del Rey Mission Church

San Estevan del Rey Mission Church
Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Coordinates: 34.97584,-107.63223
Discover Our Shared Heritage
Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

Entrance to Acoma Pueblo in 1904.
Entrance to Acoma Pueblo in 1904. The materials to build Mission San Esteban del Rey had to be brought up the steep side of the mesa.

Photo by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Rising from the desert of northern New Mexico, the 357 foot tall mesa known as Acoma Rock is home to Acoma Pueblo, a National Historic Landmark, and one of the oldest continuously occupied communities in what is now the United States. In the pueblo is San Estevan del Rey Mission Church which Spanish Franciscan friars built in the mid-1600s. The mission is the oldest surviving European church in New Mexico. The pueblo and mission illustrate the synthesis of European and Native cultures in New Mexico and help illuminate the history of Spanish contact and interaction with the native peoples of the United States.

Acoma Pueblo

The pueblo's high, isolated location made it virtually impenetrable throughout its history. The village and its people flourished and developed distinct cultural traditions –many of which the Acoma community still honor today. Opinions differ on the age of the Acoma Nation and its mesa-top pueblo. Traditional Acoma oral history tells of an ancient city far older than our imaginations and current calendars can comprehend. "Acoma" itself translates in local Keres dialects to a "place that always was" and legend tells that the Acoma people have lived on the mesa forever.
Historical and archeological evidence dates the Pueblo’s oldest extant remains to around 1100 A.D. and suggests that the Acoma people likely lived in the desert surrounding the mesa during earlier times and at some point decided to climb the massive rock and construct their village on the top. An extensive archeological survey of the pueblo in the 1950s revealed the ancient people to be prolific potters, and skilled artisans and architects. Early Spanish reports indicate that the pueblo was a village of roughly 500 three or four stories tall adobe houses. Residents entered buildings via ladders placed through holes in the roof. At the time, the only way to the mesa’s top was a series of hand and toeholds carved into the steep rock. The people had to carry all of the materials used to construct the original community up the cliffs on their backs. These different kinds of evidence do not always agree, but together provide us with a variety of cultural lenses to understand and view this unique place.
San Estevan del Rey Mission Church
Side view of adobe house with water in foreground, taken c. 1941.

Photo by Ansel Adams (1902-1984). Courtesy of U.S. National Archives.

The Spanish Arrive

In the early 1500s, fueled by rumors of rich cities in the north, the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, called for the first explorations into the lands north of Spain's holdings in colonial Mexico. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, expeditions visited the isolated Acoma Pueblo, including Hernando de Alvarado in 1540 (a member of the Francisco Vásquez de Coronado mission), the Chamuscado-Rodriguez expedition in 1581, Antonio de Espejo in 1583, and Juan de Oñate in 1598.

Because of its inaccessibility, Acoma was one of the most resistant pueblos to Spanish rule. During early Spanish contact, reports indicated that the Acoma were friendly, often meeting expedition parties at the bottom of the mesa to greet and assist them. Through time, the Spanish presence became more persistent, and the Acoma retaliated. In December 1598, residents lured Captain Juan de Zaldívar, one of Oñate's officers, into the pueblo and killed him and 14 of his men. Two months later in retaliation, Zaldívar's brother arrived with a force of 70 Spanish soldiers, and they sacked and burned much of the pueblo, resulting in the deaths of many of its residents. The Spanish made those who remained surrender the pueblo. The pueblo was rebuilt under Spanish rule in the early 1600s. Franciscan missionaries arrived to convert the Acoma to Catholicism and Spanish ways of life. Strong resistance remained among the people of Acoma, and the Spanish could not have a mission church constructed until the late 1620s.
Aerial view of Acoma atop the mesa.
Aerial view of Acoma atop the mesa.

Photo by Marshall Henrie. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mission San Estevan del Rey

Father Juan Ramirez became the first permanent Franciscan father to live in Acoma, although earlier priests had visited. He likely began the building of San Estevan del Rey Mission Church upon his arrival in 1629, but the exact dates of its construction are unknown. The huge church still stands today and is an impressive work of architecture –considering that native workers had to carry all of its materials up the mountain. These materials included the church's 40-foot long Ponderosa pine vigas, or roof beams, originally hewn in the San Mateo Mountains, 30 miles away. Huge amounts of earth had to be carried up the mesa simply to level the area and provide earth for the cemetery.

Two square bell towers flanked the main façade and contained bells brought from Mexico during the 1800s. A one-story convento sat along the north side of the church and once housed living space, workrooms, and storage for the father and friars who were in residence.

During the 1600s, tensions remained high between the Spanish and native peoples throughout the Southwest. Much of the conflict centered on religious disagreements. Many villages, including Acoma, participated in the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680. The rebellion resulted in the death of many of the Franciscan fathers, the destruction of many churches, and the death or banishment of Spanish residents from New Mexico. Acoma's priest, Fray Lucas Maldonado, and the other Spaniards living in the pueblo did not survive the rebellion, but San Estevan del Rey Mission Church remained largely unharmed. The Spanish took control of the pueblo by 1699, and the mission was later reestablished. As in many of the pueblos in New Mexico, Catholicism and Native American spiritual practices formed a sort of syncretism which continues to this day.
San Estevan del Rey Mission Church
View of San Esteban del Rey, prominently situated at Acoma Pueblo.

Photo by Jsweida. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What you can see today

Acoma illustrates both the cultural diversity and ingenuity of native peoples in New Mexico and the profound influence of Spanish culture in the Southwest beginning in the 16th century. Despite what many may view as negative associations the mission might have for the Acoma people, tribal members are committed to its care and continual restoration. One group in the tribe, the Gaugashti, do the work necessary to preserve San Estevan, and the church is viewed as an important element of Acoma heritage.

Now Acoma itself has few permanent residents as most of its people moved to Acomita, a village 15 miles away. The mesa settlement is used periodically for festivals and sacred ceremonies, and important tribal elders still live there. The pueblo on the mesa continues to capture the imagination of visitors and remains a popular destination for its unique cultural heritage and architecture. Acoma Pueblo is open daily, and can be visited for a small fee. Visitors are encouraged to stop by the tribe's Haa'ku Museum and Sky City Cultural Center, which focuses on the revitalization of lost art forms, language, and the preservation of Acoma's history and offers tours, educational programs, and exhibits. The center hosts many public events throughout the year including various dances, walks, and community gatherings.

Acoma is also on the Zuni-Acoma Trail, an ancient footpath connecting the old Zuni and Acoma Pueblos. Once used by both native peoples and Spanish explorers and settlers, the seven and a half mile-long trail is enjoyed by hikers through New Mexico's beautiful lava beds. The Zuni-Acoma Trail is part of the El Malpais National Monument, which the National Park Service manages.

Plan Your Visit

Acoma is a National Historic Landmark located on Acoma Rock, on NM Route 23, 13 miles south of Casa Blanca, NM. Click here for the Acoma National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. Tours of Acoma are available through the Haa’ku Museum and Sky City Cultural Center. Hours and admission costs vary. For more information, visit the museum’s website or call 1-800-747-0181.
Both Mission San Estevan del Rey and the Acoma Pueblo have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. Acoma is also featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary and American Latino Heritage Travel Itinerary.

Last updated: April 15, 2016


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