On a Mission to the past


Day Trips is an El Defensor Chieftain feature that highlights places of interest within easy driving distance of Socorro. These destinations generally can be visited on one tank of gas and within the time frame of a single day.

Tucked into the far northeast corner of Socorro County is Gran Quivira, one of three sites that make up the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.

Gran Quivira is so far on the outreaches of Socorro County, the best way to get there is to leave the county.

From Socorro, take Interstate 25 south to Bernardo Exit 175. Follow U.S. 60 east to Mountainair and turn right (south) on N.M. 55. Up the road about 25 miles is Gran Quivira, the former home to generations of Pueblo Indians and what was once a major trade center before it was abandoned by its inhabitants more than 300 years ago.

Gran Quivira is about a 90-mile drive from Socorro. The trip can be stretched out a little farther to include the other two sites that make up the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, Abo and Quarai, located in Torrence County.

Abo is right on the way, and it’s easily accessible from U.S. 60. The turnoff is about 9 miles west of Mountainair.

Quarai is about eight miles north of Mountainair on N.M. 55, so all in all, it’s about a 200-mile round trip to visit all three.

Whether you plan to visit all three sites or just one, it’s not a bad idea to stop at the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument Visitor Center in Mountainair. There, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. each day, you can view an informative 14-minute film that explains the history and ties in all three sites.

The Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument features the ruins of the stone missions that are a part of the Spanish influence on the pueblos, and Gran Quivira has the remains of two Catholic churches, although only one of them was ever put to use.

The early church was built around 1630. Construction of a larger, second church, complete with an attached convento, was begun around 1659, but the work was not completed before the pueblo was abandoned about 1672.

Visitors will also see kivas — round underground rooms used by the pueblo people in practicing their own sacred ceremonies — scattered among the many rooms that served as their dwellings.

A half-mile walking tour leads visitors past signs (written in English and Spanish) that point out features and provide information about the site and the people who once lived there.

Gran Quivira was likely inhabited for several hundred years. The people were descendents of the Anasazi and Mogollon and spoke Tompiro, now a lost language.

In fact, a brochure that can be obtained at either Abo, Quari, Gran Quivira or the aforementioned Visitors Center in Mountainair, notes that the people who lived in the Salinas Pueblos are the only linguistic group among the Pueblo Indians to lose their language and homeland during the historic period.

Before the Spanish came to the area in 1598, the citizens of Gran Quivira were able to sustain an agriculture-based society, feeding on beans, nuts and plants, but they also raised turkeys and hunted game. Excavation of the area turned up the skeletal remains of tens of thousand of rabbits, as well as deer, antelope and bison.

Due to its location, Gran Quivira became a major trade center between the Pueblo and Plains Indians. The Spanish were included in the trade market upon their arrival and perhaps as many as 10,000 people inhabited the Salinas Valley in the 1600s. A good share of them resided at Gran Quivira, the largest of Salinas’ three pueblos.

A good share of the people resisted the Spanish at first, but they eventually began to adapt to their presence and adopt aspects of their culture.

Gran Quivira was known as Las Humanas to the Spanish, named for the people who would paint or tattoo their bodies with stripes.

The friars who occupied the community were successful in converting many of the inhabitants to Christianity and used Indian labor to build the churches. To hasten the conversion, friars torched and buried kivas in an effort to exterminate the native religion in the 1660s.

Gran Quivira’s days were numbered after that. An extended drought resulted in diminished food supply. Famine dwindled the pueblo’s population to about 500 when people began to disperse, which was prompted further by increased raids by the Apaches, who were their former trade partners.

Some of the inhabitants of Gran Quivira likely were absorbed by the northern pueblos, while others may have followed the Spanish south to the El Paso area during the Pueblo Revolt of 1692. Whichever direction they took, they’re nowhere to be found now.

It’s unclear how Gran Quivira got its name. It’s likely a reference to Quiviran, the “Seven Cities of Gold” that Coronado looked for but never found.

It’s unlikely Gran Quivira was the village he was seeking — that’s supposed to be somewhere near Wichita, Kans. — but speculation is that someone familiar with the story who stumbled across the stone structures long after they were abandoned called it Quivira and the name stuck.

The trip to Gran Quivira is a journey to the past. In just a few hours, a visitor can get a glimpse of what life was like for a people who no longer exist.


Contact T.S. Last