The First Inhabitants of New Mexico: The Pueblo People

Today, there are nineteen pueblos sprinkled across New Mexico, predominantly in the northern half of the state.  There are roughly 35,000 Pueblo people living in these areas along the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers.

The word pueblo comes from the Spanish word meaning “town”.  Applied to a group, it is strictly a cultural designation, without a linguistic or tribal significance.  Within these pueblos, there are three language groups:  the Zuni, Keres, and Tanoan.  These tribes differ in language and culture from the Apache and Navajo tribes, which were nomadic and spoke a language related to the Athapascan group.

The evolution of Pueblo peoples (sometimes referred to as the Anasazi – a term coined by the Navajos) began around 5500 BCE.  Prior to this, only stone spear points have been excavated.  However, after this date, traces of woven articles and temporary structures, which were moved seasonally, have been discovered.

From 500 BCE, the Pueblo peoples began farming corn, beans, and squash — using techniques that they probably learned from the Mayans — and kept domesticated turkeys.  A trading system with the Mayans was established. As a result, New Mexican turquoise has been found throughout Central America.  More permanent structures appeared, called “pithouses,” which were dug out from clay.  During this period, Pueblo people were referred to as “basketmakers” because they created coiled and twined baskets.

By ACE 750, arrows were used, cotton was introduced and early pottery appeared. The Pueblo people constructed large villages around the Dolores River valley.  They built these villages atop high cliffs (mesas) and the material used was mud brick (adobe).  Another architectural achievement was the system of dams and stone cisterns used for water collection.

Around 900 ACE, public architecture was constructed and used for ceremonies and special events.   Cliff dwellings and towers were built around 1150 ACE. Then the Pueblo people migrated from the Four Corners area to the south.  In 1300 ACE, plaza-oriented pueblos were developed along the Rio Grande Valley and in the western areas.

When the Spanish arrived in the 1540s, there were 100 pueblos with 50,000 inhabitants.  The Spanish swiftly developed a mission system. By 1617, eleven Franciscan churches had been erected and 14,000 natives had been baptized.  The pueblo people resisted this colonization and conversion to Catholicism, resulting in the Pueblo Revolt in August of 1680.

Popè and the Pueblo Revolt

Popè was a Tewa medicine-man from the San Juan Pueblo.  In 1675 he appeared before the governor of Santa Fe to plead for the release of tribal members, who had been arrested due to “witchcraft”.  [Resources are unclear about whether his plea was successful.]

He then moved to the Taos area and began speaking out against the Spanish rule.  The Santo Domingo, Picuris, and Taos pueblos quickly joined his rebellion and they formed a plan.

On August 10, 1860, over 400 Spanish settlers and 21 priests were killed, and all mission churches were destroyed.  The Spanish fled the area, leaving it under Pueblo Indian control for over a decade.

During this time, Popè became a despot, putting anyone who spoke against him to death and hoarding women for himself.  Tensions mounted, dividing the various pueblos and, after Popè’s death, the Spanish regained their hold on the area.

Following this, there was a period of harmony between the Spanish and Pueblos. They united against raiding parties of the Comanche and Ute tribes.  The Spanish were finally able to subdue the Comanche and Utes with the Treaty of 1786.  The Spanish and Pueblo people also inter-married creating mestizos–persons of mixed bloodlines.

Treaty of 1786

Comanche warriors were renowned for their horsemanship and bravery.  They became known as the “Lords of the Southern Plains.” After crossing the Arkansas River, they dominated an area which became known as Comancheria. It included parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.  By the 1740s, they were raiding and attacking previously-established tribes, such as the Apache, and the newly-settled Spanish.

In 1747 (and again in 1750) the French signed a treaty with the Comanche, and free trading ensued between the two.  The Comanche were now armed with French weapons and, for the next 40 years, most New Mexico villages were raided.  The Comanche also blocked communication between Spanish settlements in New Mexico and Texas.

It wasn’t until 1774 that the Spanish achieved their first victory over the Comanche.  A combination of 600 militia and Pueblo Indians attacked a village of Comanches near present-day Raton.    And, in 1779 the new governor of New Mexico, Juan Bautista de Anza led an army, along with Ute and Apache warriors, against a large Comanche camp.  During the battle, the Comanche leader, Green Horn, was killed.  Raiding by the Comanche fell by half thereafter.

By 1786, another great Comanche leader, White Bull, was killed and a peace treaty was finally signed between the tribe and Governor de Anza.  Following this, the Spanish and Comanches united against the Apaches.  In 1924, American Indians achieved U.S. citizenship, and the right to vote.  A federal law guaranteed their religious freedom in 1978.

Listing of Pueblos and Nations in New Mexico:

  • Acoma Pueblo (Sky City):  located on exit 102 of the I-40.  Attractions include historic sights, a cultural center, casino and annual biking race.  Annual Feast Day:  September 2.
  • Cochiti Pueblo:  located off of SR 16 between Santa Fe and Rio Rancho.  Attractions include a lake, golfing and the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.  Annual Feast Day:  July 14.
  • Isleta Pueblo:  located on exit 215 of the I-25.  Attractions include a lake, resort, golfing and historic church.
  • Jemez Pueblo:  located in the Jemez mountains near Los Alamos.  Attractions include a museum and the Red Rocks area.
  • Jicarilla Apache Nation:  located in the mountains just south of the Colorado state line.  The capital is Dulce on US 64.  Attractions include hunting and fishing, and a casino.
  • Kewa Pueblo:  located off SR 22.  Known for the arts and crafts.  An annual Arts & Crafts Market is held over Labor Day.  Annual Feast Day:  August 4.
  • Laguna Pueblo:  located at exit 114 of the I-40.  Attractions include a game ranch, casino, market and historic church.  Annual Feast Days:  March 19 and September 19.
  • Mescalero Apache Tribal Lands:  located in the Sierra Blanca mountains on US70.  Attractions include a resort, casino, golfing, game hunts and historic church.
  • Nambe Pueblo:  located off SR 503.  Attractions include a bison herd, crafts, and the Nambe Falls Recreation Area.  Annual Feast Day:  October 4.
  • Ohkay Owingeh:  located near Española on SR 74.  Attractions include guided tours, casino, Indian dances, and a bison herd.  Annual Feast Day:  June 24th.
  • Picuris Pueblo:  located in the Sangre de Cristo mountains on SR 75.  Attractions include a museum, archaeological sites, fishing and a buffalo herd.  Annual Feast Day:  August 10.
  • Pojoaque Pueblo:  located on US 285/84 near Santa Fe.  Attractions include a cultural center, golfing, three casinos and a bowling alley.  Annual Feast Day:  December 12.
  • San Felipe Pueblo:  located on exit 252 of the I-25.  Attractions include crafts and a casino.  Annual Feast Day:  May 1.
  • San Ildefonso Pueblo:  located on SR 502.  Attractions include guided tours, fishing lake, a museum and artisan shops — look for the famous black-on-black ware pottery.  Annual Feast Day;  January 23.
  • Sandia Pueblo:  located on exit 234 of the I-25.  Attractions include a resort, casino, golfing, market, and lakes.  Annual Feast Day:  June 13.
  • Santa Ana Pueblo:  located on exit 242 of the I-25.  Attractions include a resort, golfing and casino.  Annual Feast Day:  July 26
  • Santa Clara Pueblo:  located west of Española on SR30.  Their polished black and red pottery are well-known as are the Puye Cliff dwellings.  Annual Feast Day:  August 12.
  • Tesuque Pueblo:  located on US 285/84 north of Santa Fe.  Known for their super-sized flea market in warmer months.  Annual Feast Day:  November 12.
  • Zia Pueblo:  located off US 550.  Attractions include an arts and crafts complex.  Several movies have been filmed around the pueblo.  Annual Feast Day:  August 15.
  • Zuni Pueblo:  located south of Gallup.  Attractions include a museum, historic church and arts and crafts market.