Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument sign in front of the visitor center and headquarters in Mountainair
In my desire to know more about the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in central New Mexico my search led me to the salinas playas of the Estancia Basin. The basin at the end of the last Ice Age held a large lake. The playas reveal the story of Lake Estancia to scientists and an understanding of why the Salinas Pueblos settled in the area.
“The Estancia Basin during the last Ice Age did contain a perennial lake for several thousand years,” Dr. Bruce D. Allen a geologist from New Mexico Tech told me in an interview in 2018. “It was like between fifteen to twenty thousand years ago.”
Aerial of saline playas in the Estancia Basin once filled with Lake Estancia during the end of last Ice Age. Photo courtesy of Dr. Bruce D. Allen
Lake Estancia, according to Dr. Allen, filled the Estancia Basin of central New Mexico. The lake covered the landscape from south of Willard, north to Moriarity. The basin is bordered by a ridge with Pedernal Peak sitting at its highest point to the east. “ You can see shorelines,” Dr. Allen says, “on the eastern side of the lake basin.” To the west, the Manzano Mountains border the western side of the basin, the Sandia Mountains to the northwest. Jumana and Chupadera Mesa flank the southwest of the basin. The Rattlesnake Hills closes of the southeast part of the basin. At times the lake was several hundred feet deep. Humans possibly fished the lake and hunted in the area.
Saline playas along U.S. Highway 60 east of Willard, New Mexico
The climate continued warming. The last of the ice receded, and the lake evaporated. The dry bed of Lake Estancia has been blown by the winds digging deeper into the lake bed. The dune-like striated ridges left by the carving wind reveal the long history of the ancient lake. Driving on US 60 east of Willard on the Salt Mission Trail the playas can be seen along the highway. The two-lane road passes through the southern section of the playas. A rest stop with a historical marker allows parking to get out and see this interesting geological feature. Standing at the lake beds one can imagine the people of a bygone time who came here to collect salt. A salt of such high quality that it was harvested for centuries by the local people. “Ninety-nine percent pure,” Dr. Allen ads.
Natives built villages along the southwestern edge of the Estancia Basin close to the playas. They used salt in their diet. The mineral was also used as a valuable trade commodity. From the east came the nomadic tribes of the plains. They brought buffalo products and flint to trade with the people of the villages. The people of the Rio Grande villages to the west traded agricultural products like corn, squash, and cotton. There may have also been a lucrative slave trade between the people of the area. Survival depended on what the environment offered and these salt harvesters scratched out a living for several centuries before all was to change.
From the European continent came the invaders, across the Atlantic and through Mexico. They desired riches and souls to expand their conquest. In the 16th and 17th centuries, on horseback carrying medieval armor and weapons, the invaders marched into the land of these villages. The natives knew nothing about this creature that the riders rode and perhaps thought that these “dog riders” were supernatural. The foreigners imposed a harsh Catholic religion on people who worshiped for centuries divine nature and its four seasons. Colonists came to settle new lands and exploit what wealth the area had. The Europeans were “saving” the natives’ souls, and forcing them to be subjects of the Spanish king, all in the quest of fabled lands and cities. For the natives and the Europeans, this cross-cultural encounter would forever alter the fate of these people who were now denizens of land named “Nuevo México”, New Mexico.
The Spanish named the people of these villages “pueblos”, Spanish for “town”. They also named this area of the Estancia Basin Las Salinas because of the saline playas. The Catholic priests used native labor to build large mission churches within the villages. And yes, for the precious salt, native labor mined the salt that was mostly transported to Chihuahua, Mexico to be used in the silver mines.
The villagers erected the large mission churches, but changes were again in the wind for the Salinas Pueblos. By the late 1600s, the people of Salinas, both European and Pueblo abandoned the region. Drought, famine, disease, and raids from nomadic tribes forced the Salinas people to move to the Río Grande among the Pueblos living along the river. Within a few years, the Pueblo people would unite and revolt against the invaders, expelling them from New Mexico, if only temporarily. The revolt is known as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and is still celebrated today amongst the Pueblos.
Over one hundred years the federal government has recognized the historic value of the Pueblos and their massive Catholic temples. “In 1909 Gran Quivira was established as a national monument,” says Chief Ranger Norma Pineda at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. “In 1980, former state monuments Abó and Quarai were combined with Gran Quivira to become Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.”
The monument comprises four sites: A headquarters/visitor center in Mountainair ( http://discovermountainairnm.com/) just west of the saline playas, and the resource sites of Abó, Quarai, and Gran Quivira. The playas are not part of the monument, and they are, for the most part, on private land.
The main visitor center headquartered in Mountainair offers information on the monument and the three remote sites. The visitor center has a gift shop, a museum, and a short film about the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. The monument offers events throughout the year. Rangers give interpretive tours and talk about the monument. Having been designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association, the dark sky events thrill visitors with a look at the cosmos without light pollution. Astronomical societies bring out their telescopes for the public to see celestial sights — astrophotographers delight!
As Ranger Marc LeFrancois put it: “We’re regarded by many as New Mexico’s best-kept secret, but we don’t want to be a secret. We want everyone to come out!”
The Milky Way hangs over the ruins of Nuestra Señora de La Purisima Conception de Cuarac in Quarai.
The three monument resource sites are located in three different locations outside of Mountainair (http://discovermountainairnm.com/). Mountainair is a good place to gas up, pick up supplies, and maybe grab something to eat. There are a few eateries around town as well as a local grocer. See the map below to locate various points of interest courtesy of the Department of Interior. The map was apparently produced in 1983 when highway 337 was south highway 14 from Tijeras through Chilili to highway 55. Highway 55 continues to Mountainair and on to Gran Quivira.
From here the journey led me to the three monument sites: Gran Quivira, Quarai, and Abó.
Map of the southern Estancia Basin in central New New Mexico. Courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior
Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
National Park Service
Dr. Bruce D. Allen
Ruins at Gran Quivira
The monument site of Gran Quivira sits on a mesa about twenty-six miles south of Mountainair on New Mexico State Road 55. It’s about a thirty-minute drive. Gran Quivira has ample parking and a visitor center. Services like gas stations or food marts are unavailable in the area. The closest town is Mountainair.
The native circular ceremonial chamber and the Christian rectangular ceremonial chamber at Gran Quivira
The largest site of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, the blue grey limestone ruins of Gran Quivira was once a large community with multiple pueblos and kivas. The inhabitants of these multi-storied pueblos numbered in the thousands. They built circular kivas, mostly underground, and used the structure for spiritual ceremonies and political meetings. Here a large structure from 1200-1600 AD has been fully excavated for visitors to see. The Spanish most likely first visited the pueblo in 1583 with the arrival of the Don Antonio de Espejo expedition, but the expedition did not stay and returned to Mexico. Then in 1598, Don Juan de Oñate and his colonizers were the first European invaders to settle what would become New Mexico. Oñate called the pueblo Las Jumanas and soon in 1629 construction of a mission began. By 1659 the construction of the large church San Buenaventura began.
Drought, disease, famine and raids from nomadic tribes caused the abandonment of the pueblo by 1672.
Setting up telescope for dark sky event at Gran Quivira
Rangers at Gran Quivira offer tours of the site, or you can take a self guided tour. The monument has various activities for people to enjoy the ruins. One favorite event happens in the evening when the dark sky drapes its star filled cloak over the ruins. As an International Dark Sky Park designated by the International Dark Sky Association (https://www.darksky.org/) the monument partners with astrological societies to bring out telescopes to gaze at the cosmos. With the popularity of astrophotography, the monument presents a unique opportunity to capture the Milky Way over ancient ruins.
The Perseid Meteor Shower dark sky event in August at Gran Quvira
(source: Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, National Park Service, Wikipedia International Dark Sky Association)
The ruins of Quarai
In New Mexico, on highway 55, eight miles north of Mountainair, near the small village of Punta de Agua, are the ancient ruins of Quarai. The site contains the ruins of a native pueblo, a seventeenth-century Catholic church, and structures built in the 1800s when the Lucero family briefly reoccupied the site.
Unlike Gran Quivira’s limestone rock, Quarai was constructed of local red sandstone. Gran Quivira sits atop a mesa, and Quarai is nestled in a small lush valley.
Wildflowers bloom at Quarai after summer monsoon rains.
Quarai was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962 and in 1980 became part of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. Based on archeological findings, it appears the natives moved into the area around 1300. When the Spanish arrived in the seventeenth century, the natives had built a large pueblo. The Catholic missionaries with native labor began building the mission church La Purisma Concepcion de Quarai in 1627.
A curious item riddles archeologists: the construction of a square kiva within the mission’s Convento. The natives used kivas for ceremonial purposes. The Catholic authorities frowned upon the native religious practices, and it seems a little odd to put such a chamber within the mission complex.
Perhaps the missionaries allowed certain native rituals to take place here! We may never know.
Like Gran Quivira, the people of Quarai abandoned the area in the late seventeenth century because of drought, famine, disease, and raids from nomadic tribes. The survivors too left to live with people of the Río Grande.
In the 1800s, the Lucero family reoccupied Quarai and built structures on the property using stones from the ruins. The family soon abandoned the site after continuous Apache raids.
Quarai has a visitor center, a small museum, and a gift shop. There are restroom facilities too. Rangers offer interpretive tours, or you can take a self-guided walk.
As part of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, now an International Dark Sky Park (https://www.darksky.org/), enjoy evening events to gaze at the dark sky. The Albuquerque Astronomical Society brought their telescopes one evening where I met a gentleman Mr. Martin Hilario who had a telescope connected to a video monitor. In the monitor, Mr. Hilario showed me several cosmic phenomena: the red-colored nebula on the constellation Orion’s belt, spiral galaxies destined for a collision when one will overtake the other, and the winged Butterfly Nebula.
Quarai at night lit by the moon.
The ruins of Mission San Gregorio de Abó
Like the many pueblos of the Salinas area, Abó succumbed to drought, famine, disease, and raids from nomadic tribes. The inhabitants abandoned the village in the late seventeenth century and moved to the Río Grande. The pueblo fell to ruins and remained abandoned until the late 19th century.
Located nine miles west of Mountainair off U.S. highway 60, Abó once thrived along the busy trading route between the plains to the east and the Río Grande to the west. The pueblo dates back to the 1300s.
The kiva within the walls of the mission
When the Europeans arrived they began efforts to convert the natives to the Catholic faith and to be subjects of the Spanish king. For the most part, the natives worked with the newcomers. With native labor, the Christian temple of San Gregorio de Abó was constructed of the local red sandstone that the village was made of. Here too, like Quarai, a kiva was incorporated within the convento walls.
The pueblo remained abandoned for over one hundred years. In 1869 the site was finally reoccupied. The Sisneros family moved in and was able to settle there for generations until this day. The family eventually turned the ruins over to the state. The site became part of a state monument and in 1980 the National Park Service brought Abó in as part of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.
One thing that stood out to me was the gravesite of Federico Sisneros (1894-1988). When his father owned the land and ruins, he told his son Federico to care for the old mission. Later when the property became a state monument, Federico served as caretaker. Then he became the nation’s “oldest park ranger” when Abó became part of the Salinas Missions National Monument. His final wish, according to the plaque at the gravesite, “was to be buried here, beneath this juniper tree, near his beloved Mission San Gregorio de Abó”.
Federico Sisneros gravesite near the old mission
Abó has a small parking lot and visitor center. Like Quarai and Gran Quivira, rangers offer interpretive tours or self-guided walks. Abó also puts on dark sky events. A ranger-guided hike to nearby petroglyphs along a canyon wall makes this site unique.
Before the pandemic closed things down, the Friends of Salinas gave the public a very special holiday gift. In early December 2019 volunteers placed thousands of luminarias or farolitos on the walls of the ruins. These little lanterns are made of paper bags filled with sand and a candle placed inside the bag. These New Mexican traditional lights represent the lighting of the way for the Christ Child. The little lanterns light the ruins with their soft glow. A mass led by a local priest was held in the old mission preceded the lighting of the lanterns. The Friends of Salinas offered refreshments of biscochitos, tamales, coffee, and hot chocolate. And kids took swings at two piñatas filled with goodies, all for free!
Luminarias or farolitos on the walls of ruins
The Milky Way hangs over the ruins of Mission San Gregorio de Abó.
Source: Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
National Park Service