This piece was originally posted on November 8, 2010 under the title A Little Mountain History. I thought there would be many of you who may not have seen it before. I’m endeavoring to give an idea of the place where I live. It is old. There have been battles for centuries, over place, heritage, religion. Much of that tension can still be felt today. It remains a wild and somewhat rugged place. In some ways it still feels like (and is) the old wild West.
I had meant to post a new piece today–presenting a showing of Kim’s work, but it is taking longer than I anticipated, so you should see it tomorrow… and I hope it will be worth the wait. JGW
Note: I am currently reading William deBuys’ marvelous book, Enchantment and Exploitation, the Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range. I quote from this work but I feel it’s important to note that, while I have endeavored to use my own words throughout this piece, much of the information, thinking and even, sometimes, the words, are deBuys loosely paraphrased.
History of Place: The Mountains of Northern NM
People have lived in the high mountains of northern New Mexico for many centuries. In fact there is evidence of life above the timberline of the Sangre de Cristos dating back to the time of Christ. These people, who were hunter-gatherers, are generally thought to have been the ancestors of the Anasazi. Most population development beyond this ancient time, however, was centered in the valleys, canyons and mesas, until the last few centuries, and consisted of Anasazi and Pueblos.
The Pueblos were farmers who also made treks over the mountains to the plains to hunt bison. But by the early 1500’s a nomadic tribe of Apaches came in and out of the area plundering one village and trading with another, virtually cutting off the plains to the Pueblos.
After 1500 the Anasazi, Pueblos and Apaches faced a new threat to their way of life, with the arrival of the Spanish, and Spain’s subsequent colonization of New Mexico. William de Buys notes that, “Although centuries of conflict weakened the Pueblos tragically and threatened their very existence, their great achievement is that they survived as a people, and also, more remarkably, as a culture.”
Spain’s colonization of New Mexico would likely have ended after the successful uprising of the Pueblos in 1680, which drove the Spanish back to Mexico, if not for the power of the church. The Franciscans had a focused vision of the future, which included the building of many mission churches, as well as bringing Christianity to the native “Pagans.” They convinced the King of Spain that their goals were just and colonization continued. Military forces kept the Pueblos “in line” by killing or enslaving any who rebelled. Due to continued pressures, several pueblos were abandoned in the late Seventeenth Century.
In the 1700’s Comanches arrived in Taos, making their violent presence known throughout the colony. They effectively scattered the various bands of settled Apaches and nearly wiped out the pueblo at Pecos.
It was into this environment that the village of Truchas was settled in 1754. A new governor of the colony conceived of placing fortified settlements along the routes the Comanches used for their raids. Truchas was one of these. Settlers received royal Spanish land grants, collectively, not individually, to encourage them to inhabit the inhospitable land (not that the land was Spain’s to give, but that’s another story). Their sole purpose was to protect settlements in the valley from marauding Indians coming over the mountain passes from the plains.
Truchas was built as a plaza in a square. All of its buildings were joined, forming a protective wall around this center into which villagers and their livestock could retreat in times of attack. Left, largely, by their government to fend for themselves, Trucheros survived the Comanche wars through hard work and ingenuity.
The bell tower on one of the churches in the village built in 1758 and still standing today, was used as a signal tower to warn the neighboring village of Chimayo of Indian raids.
The Revolt of 1680 had taught the Eighteenth-Century colonists not to try to impose their religion on the Pueblos. They also chose to build and live beside them rather than dominating them as earlier colonists had done. The two became allies facing common enemies in the Comanches, Navajos, Utes and Apaches.
However, in 1846 the United States went to war with Mexico, throwing the colony of New Mexico into further upheaval. There had been the tide of American traders, miners, and ranchers, which was now followed by soldiers and scientists. According to William de Buys, “War was an accepted constant of New Mexican life, and the Anglo military men of the new territory proceeded to wage it energetically.” Santa Fe was surrendered to the Americans in 1846. The tenuous balance that had been established among the Spanish and Indians was ruined, for the Americans refused to recognize friendly verses unfriendly Indians and hard won relations were destroyed.
This trio of cultures, Indian, Spanish, Anglo, is what’s left in these small Spanish land grant villages of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In fact the land grant families are still here, many generations later. Through it all, over the centuries, these three diverse cultures have learned to coexist and even thrive in some ways. It hasn’t been easy and has required much give and take, even some fiercely fought battles, both large and small.
Life here requires respect and understanding. Those of us who are new arrivals have to acknowledge that we are outsiders; that we will always be. We must also understand and embrace the privilege of living here. The original families worked hard, suffered and paid a price to carve out a life in these mountains. Those of us who have followed would do well to remember that. Every step we take should be “soft” so as not to disturb this balance. Our lives here should pay homage, in one way or another, to those who went before.
We people of these villages (and I do, now, consider myself one) are quirky. I don’t think we could live here otherwise. The land itself is its own powerful personality and is honored and revered. People still earn much of their livings from it.
Today while sitting the gallery, which is in downtown Truchas, a rather large herd of cattle galloped by the front door. They were being driven into the arroyo, down the mountain, to Cordova. Here sits my gallery, a part of the centuries old heritage of this place, but also a representation of its current-day life. Ancient and modern, old ways and new, woven inextricably together. Where does one stop and the other begin? May we continue to find ways to be respectful and balance both.
Love to you all,