New Mexico: Pecos National Historical Park

December 15, 2021

Paul Kay


For early North American history and its beautiful architecture, visit Pecos National Historical Park in New Mexico. Here's our review.

Last Church Sign with Reconstruction, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

If you are looking for some history, perhaps something really old, you’ve come to the right place. More than 290 million years ago, geologic forces worked to form the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Glorieta Mesa. Hunters, traders, explorers and native people all used Glorieta Pass.

The Pecos Pueblo was settled between 1350 and 1838. The nearby Rio Grande River supplied water for food and farming. The pueblo was built on a high ridge, and it grew into one of the most powerful pueblos with some homes four or five stories high.

One village is estimated to have been home to around 2,000 inhabitants. To protect themselves, they maintained a fighting force of around 500 able-bodied men. Before the Spanish came, conflicts were regular between tribes looking for a good hunting ground. Other tribes came in peace, looking to trade goods.

The Pecos people acted as the middlemen in trade and prospered economically. By the 1400s they had grown into a regional power.

Reconstruction Churches from a Distance, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

In 1541, Spain attempted to colonize the land. They built massive churches that the native population rejected. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, was the first European to make contact with the Pecos people in 1541. He led an army of 1,200 men, most of which were Aztecs. He made his way into the country north of Mexico. When he met the Pecos, the people welcomed the Spaniards with music and gifts. A Native American at Pecos told of a rich land to the east, Quivira, and Coronado set out in the spring of 1541 to find it. Wandering as far as Kansas, he found only a few villages. His Native American guide confessed he lured the army on to the plains to die. Coronado returned to Pecos, and the reception was not as welcoming.

Eventually, the Coronado’s broken army returned to Mexico without gold or supplies. In 1581, the Spanish set out in search of silver. They returned to Pecos and claimed it for Spain. The Pecos people were enslaved to build an adobe church.

The Native Americans suffered through religious and economic repression. Decades of Spanish demands and Native American resentments culminated in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The Pueblos, including Pecos Pueblo, united to drive the Spaniards back to Mexico. The Spaniards later returned to Pecos in 1692 and attempted a more conciliatory approach. A smaller church was built in 1717.

By the 1780s, disease, Comanche raids and migration reduced the population of the Pecos people to fewer than 300. Pecos and the mission seemed almost ghostly when trade on the Santa Fe Trail began flowing in 1821. The last survivors left the decaying pueblo and empty mission church in 1838 to join Towa-speaking relatives 80 miles west at Jemez Pueblo, where their descendants still live.

Today, the land is preserved within the Pecos National Historical Park. There is a 1.25-mile self-guided loop around the site begins at the visitor center. There is a longer loop as well.

Madeline at the Last Church, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

The park holds remnants of pueblo construction, kivas and a reconstruction of what is called The Second Church.

Passageway of Convento, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

The stone foundations stretch 150 feet from altar to entrance; the walls are 22 feet thick in places. Archaeologists estimate that builders used 300,000 forty-pound adobe bricks.

Kiva, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

There is a kiva here that was built between 1620 and 1640.

Kiva Entrance, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

It is unusual to see a kiva within a mission complex. Perhaps the conciliatory approach of attempting to live together allowed the religious and sacred kiva to be so close to a Franciscan convent.

Churches, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

The churches are massive, even from a distance.

Stone Walls with Paul Kay, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

The pueblos are largely gone with the exception of the outlines of the walls.

Mighty Pueblo Sign, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico
Mission Churches Sign, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

The signage on the walking path is excellent and you can learn quite a bit about what you are looking at. They show what the structures would have looked like in their prime and contemporary pueblo life.

Trail with Snowcapped Mountain, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

Depending on when you visit, you might see snow still on the mountain tops in the distance. It is a spectacular view while you learn about the area’s history.

We came to learn more about pueblo life, but history continued after the Pecos people relocated. Within the park is the Forked Lightning Ranch, which was established in the 1920s by Tex Austin, a famous producer of rodeos. I mention him in the post about the Dublin Historical Museum in Texas.

The ranch was located near Kozlowski's Stage Stop and Tavern, a stagecoach stop on the Santa Fe Trail. The ranch also served as a Union forces encampment before the Battle of Glorieta Pass. Austin converted it into a dude ranch that he promoted to Easterners.

Portions of the historic Santa Fe Trail run through the park. This trail was one of the major routes by which the American Southwest grew in the 19th century. More history can be found in the Battle of Glorieta Pass. This was fought March 26-28, 1862, in the mountain pass west of Pecos Pueblo, along the route of the Old Santa Fe Trail. Confederate forces were trying to take Union-controlled Fort Union. Militia raised in the New Mexico and Colorado Territories fought to a standoff. Two sections of the battlefield have been preserved by the Park Service on either side of the pass.

In 1941, the ranch was sold to Buddy Fogelson, a Texas oilman who married actress Greer Garson. You might remember Ms. Garson from Mrs. Miniver. She won the Academy Award for best actress in that movie. She was nominated for seven best actress awards, including Goodbye Mr. Chips. After her husband died, Garson sold her share of the park in 1991 to a conservation group that donated it to the National Park Service.

Entrance, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

There is plenty of history within the park. We enjoyed learning about pueblo life and really enjoyed the vistas. Whatever your interest, you’ll find something worthwhile at Pecos National Historical Park.


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