Northern New Mexico's Community Network

A History of Taos
Spanish Colonial Taos and The Hispanic Heritage

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado explored the southwest from 1540 to 1542; and Hernan Alvarado, a captain to Coronado, reached Taos Pueblo in 1540. This was the first recorded account of Europeans in Taos, and followed Columbus' voyage of 1492 by only forty-eight years. While Coronado's fabled search for the "seven cities of gold" was in vain, the Spanish conquistadors were also acting in concert with the church. Franciscan priests were as determined to convert as the conquistadors were to conquer. Although their intentions to conquer and convert were clear the Spanish were in fact more benevolent and sympathetic in their conquest than the colonists on the east coast. In the sixteenth century, King Philip of Spain guaranteed the Pueblo Indians one square league around their villages, or 17,000 acres. The southwest is "Indian Country" in part because of the legal guarantees of Indian land by the Spanish crown, and because of intermarriage approved by the crown. Nonetheless, oppression and encroachment onto Indian land was a problem. The legacy of European settlers included the introduction of disease, but also included the wheel, iron, horses, mules, cattle, sheep and wheat.

The colonization of New Mexico by Juan de Oñate in 1598 preceded the English colonization of Jamestown, Virginia by nine years. Oñate has been placed in Taos as early as July 14, 1598, and he assigned Fray Francisco Zamora as pastor at Mission San Geronimo at Taos Pueblo on September 9, 1598. The Spaniards found a thriving community of Native American farmers and hunters living in and around Taos Pueblo, and by 1615 the fertile Taos valley had been settled by a number of Spanish families, with Ranchos de Taos being the first settlement.

Many present-day Taoseños consider themselves to be "Spanish". This designation may be a misnomer for all but a handful who were either born in Spain or can trace their entire lineage directly back to Spain, but the majority of Taoseños are in fact of Hispanic heritage or descent. The Hispanos of Taos are indirect descendants of Hernan Cortes who conquered the Aztecs of Mexico in 1521, and of the Spanish conquistadors who explored the U.S. Southwest with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado between 1540-1542. A few Hispanic Taoseños are the direct progeny of the settlers who accompanied Don Diego de Vargas, who re-colonized New Mexico in 1692 after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, but the intermarriage of the Spanish with Indians, French trappers, Anglo-American merchants and mountain men has resulted in a mixed blood line. Some contemporary Hispanics consider themselves to be Chicano, in recognition of their Mexican and Indian blood. In any case, the dominant and pervasive Spanish influence is undeniable. The strength of the culture is borne of the faith of the colonists who settled for both God and king. Even the Spaniards who colonized New Mexico were far from being "pure blooded," however, as they were the product of a true melting pot on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain between 2500 B.C. and 1400 A.D., which included a mixture of Celts, Greeks, Romans, Germans, Jews, and Muslim Moors. Since Spain was ruled by the Arabs for nearly 800 years, the influence of North Africa is also present in Taos.

Adobe and Hispanic Traditions
The Pueblo Revolt - 1680
El Camino Real and the Chihuahua Trail
The Taos Trade Fairs

Adobe and Hispanic Traditions Nowhere is the Arabic influence more present than in the adobe architecture. Hornos (the round adobe bread baking ovens) and the arches in Spanish style architecture are of Arabic derivation. Both the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish settlers were familiar with adobe architecture. The Pueblo Indians had been building with adobe for hundreds of years; however when the Spanish arrived they introduced several technological innovations. The Indian technique of "puddled adobe" construction was replaced with wooden forms in which adobe bricks of regular size and shape could be produced.

Adobe walls are created from adobe bricks made of a mixture of clay and straw. The walls are then covered with a coat of mud plaster. Even though the adobe requires yearly remudding due to the ravages of the rain and snow, its beauty and its ability to retain heat in the winter and coolness in the summer make it a natural building material.

Adobe is labor intensive however, and now many frame homes are stuccoed to resemble it. Ironically, hard stucco plaster has been found to have detrimental aspects when applied over adobe. Restored and preserved adobe churches and historic sites maintain the tradition of annual remudding. For example, parishioners at the San Francisco de Asis Church in Ranchos de Taos give the church a fresh coat ofmud each year, and as the photos of the church in the 1920s reveal, the church has evolved considerably even since that time. Presently the loving care and yearly remudding keep the community actively involved in the preservation and survival of the church.

The Spanish heritage is reinforced through the particular type of Spanish spoken in Taos, which is derived from sixteenth century Castilian Spanish. It is unique in the world because it was isolated for centuries with little contact from the outside world. The "Spanglish" now spoken in Taos continues to evolve as Spanish and English mix.

Just as many traditions survive at Taos Pueblo, the Spanish culture and traditions survive and evolve in Taos, through the strength and ties of the language, the family, and the church. In general, the uniqueness of the arts, folk arts and traditions of northern New Mexico have been recognized since as early as the turn of the century. Hispanos practice and live their cultural and religious traditions which are apparent in the native foods and herbal remedies, the local music, arts and crafts, and the annual fiestas of Santiago y Santa Ana held the last week of July. Hispanos also continue to observe their unique religious functions which indude the Posadas during Christmas season, which reenacts Joseph and Mary's search for an inn; the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe; the appearance of the "Comanches" on New Year's Day, and lenten activities that include the practices of the Penitentes during Holy Week. The names of the people, towns, cities, rivers, valleys, and mountain ranges in New Mexico are testaments to the Hispanic legacy in Taos. The southern Rockies which tower over Taos valley are named the "Sangre de Cristo Mountains;' the Blood of Christ, because of their brilliant orange/red hues at sunset.

The Pueblo Revolt - 1680

In 1680 the Indian Pueblos revolted against Spanish rule. The Indians had come to despise the subversion of their native religion at the hands of the Franciscan missionaries, and their general mistreatment. The leading figure of the Revolt was a medicine man from San Juan Pueblo named Popé. Popé was accused of practicing witchcraft, and was implicated in a witchcraft episode at San Ildefonso pueblo in 1675. He then sought refuge at Taos Pueblo where he began preaching the doctrine that all Spaniards should be driven from New Mexico, and the old pueblo way of life restored. Gradually over a five year period Popé organized a wide conspiracy. On August 10, 1680 the pueblos struck with fury, with the pueblo warriors killing more than 400 Spaniards. In Taos more than seventy were killed, including two Franciscan priests. Every mission was destroyed, and in the process all vestiges of Christianity in New Mexico were eliminated. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was the best planned and most successful, albeit temporary, Indian uprising ever to occur on the North American Continent. Its success was due in part to runners travelling from Taos Pueblo to the southern Pueblos with a knotted rope countdown system which enabled all pueblos to attack on the same day.

The Spanish reconquest of New Mexico was accomplished by Don Diego de Vargas who set forth from El Paso on August 21, 1692 to re-establish Spanish control. In the initial campaign of four months De Vargas restored 23 pueblos to the Spanish Empire. Active resistance to the Spaniards continued until October 1696, at which time Taos Pueblo surrendered. This led to greater accommodation and was accomplished with less use of violence. Hence, New Mexico witnessed another generally passive invasion.

El Camino Real and the Chihuahua Trail

In the seventeenth century, supplies could only arrive in Taos by way of the Camino Real (King's Road) from what is now Mexico. Taos was at the end of the trail, and the caravans would require as much as six months to make the journey. They came as seldom as every three or four years. It was a journey which included a desolate stretch of desert known as the "Jornada del Muerto," the "Journey of the Dead Man," in southern New Mexico.

Infrequent trade with Mexico on the Camino Real later developed into yearly caravans to and from the new city of Chihuahua in central Mexico. The Chihuahua Trail of the eighteenth century was not only one of hardship and death, but of uncertain economic benefit to the northern outposts. New Mexicans would send wool, sheep, piñon nuts, candles, buffalo skins and wheat to Mexico. In return they would receive little of the largess of the Spanish Empire. Linens, silver, ironwork, chocolate and tools were among the finery which could be found in the northern province, although in scarce supply. Unfortunately, the means of exchange did not favor the northern settlements, and it was not until the Santa Fe Trail opened in the nineteenth century that Taos had ready access to simple necessities such as axes, ploughs, glassware and buttons.

During the eighteenth century, Northern New Mexico developed fully into an agrarian society of small communal self-sufficient farm villages and small ranches (ranchitos), of which the remnants are still evident. The self-contained Spanish villages that sprouted up along the northern Rio Grande were characterized by an economic base consisting of subsistence agriculture, livestock, handicrafts, and barter. Many of the small villages were inhabited by large extended families and were unified by their mutual needs, by the Catholic religion, and by the "compadrazco" or godfather theosocial system which still plays a role in the social life of the community.

There was little contact with the outside world and almost no sense of identification with a state or nation. The colonists developed a distinct independence of character over the years. During this period the people of Taos lived in relative isolation, and knowing this one can understand the proud provincialism and the spirit of individualism that still exists. It is very similar to the ""rugged individualism" that often characterizes the thirteen colonies in the East which endured the "traditional neglect" of England. This rugged individualism grew from necessity due to the lack of contact with Mexico and Spain.

The missionary work of the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church continued during the 1700s, and like the Spanish villages the missions were economic units, supported by the surrounding fields, fruit orchards and flocks of sheep. The padres faced many obstacles in promoting Catholicism, but they were very successful in planting a seed which took root, blossomed, and bore fruit. This was due in part to the more accommodating approach of the priests to the native religion after the reconquest. The Catholic Church was the most important public institution during the Spanish era and numerous mission churches were built, including the famous church of Ranchos de Taos.

Land grant systems continued from the time of King Philip. Irrigation systems known as ""acequias" were also constructed by the community to irrigate crops being grown along the narrow valleys. These ditches are still in use. In an annual spring ritual these ditches are cooperatively cleaned by members of each particular ditch association before the water is let in. Water is the most precious natural resource in the arid southwest, and it is carefully apportioned. These ancient arterial water systems remain essential to the traditional subsistence agriculture. The acequia system also plays a vital role in the traditional social structure as well. The acequia system is organized around a "Mayordomo" who is responsible for the spring cleaning and maintenance of the ditch system, on which every ditch member must work, or pay an assessment. The mayordomo also determines an irrigation schedule.

The Taos Trade Fairs

Taos has been a crossroads from the time when the nomadic tribes would journey to Taos Pueblo to trade goods and the captives of other tribes. The conquistadors of the sixteenth century found Indians already trading at the Pueblo. They would trade buffalo hides and dried meat for corn, squash, beans, and cotton blankets. The Comanches, Utes and Kiowas travelled the Kiowa trail from the north, the Apaches travelled up the Rio Grande, along with the other Pueblo tribes, and the Navajos journeyed with the Hopi from the west. The Trade Fairs of Taos Pueblo were at their peak by the mid to late 1700s, and a significant portion of the trade in the second half of the eighteenth century in the Southwest was centered in Taos and Santa Fe. The plains Indians would frequently raid Taos and Taos Pueblo, but at their peak, the Taos Trade Fairs resulted in a truce among the warring tribes and a cessation of raids during the fairs. However, Indians would use the Trade Fair to trade captives from one tribe to another. This became known as "rescate," or ransom.

The Trade Fairs grew to include American and French fur trappers who desired to trade with the colonies of Spain, as well as the Plains Indians, the Pueblo Indians, the Mexican merchants from Chihuahua, and the people of Taos. They all gathered to celebrate the fall harvest in Taos because of its fertile grass lands and its central location. Furthermore, unofficial trade could be carried out without "official" scrutiny and interference from Santa Fe. The atmosphere was hardly lawful, nonetheless the governor of the province was obliged to recognize the importance of the Trade Fairs. A month long ""Pax de Dieu", or Peace of God, suspended all warfare, and the governor saw to the peace both with troops and his own presence. The governor also ordered that the annual Chihuahua Trail caravans could not leave until after the Taos Trade Fair.

Continue to next section of A History of Taos.

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