by William H. Wroth
The valley of Taos has been the home, since about 900 A.D., of the Tiwa-speaking Taos Indians, the northernmost Rio Grande Pueblo settlement in New Mexico. In 1540 the valley of Taos was first discovered by Europeans during the explorations of Hernando de Alvarado, an officer of the Coronado expedition. In 1598 the Franciscan friar Fray Francisco de Zamora was assigned to the provinces of Picuris and Taos, with the expectation of converting the Indians. But Fray Francisco left the colony three years later discouraged with his lack of success, for the Indians "did not show as great an inclination toward our teaching as we should have liked. . . ." This he blamed in part upon the rapacious actions of the Spanish settlers who "have done gross injury to the Natives. . . . If we who are Christians caused so much harm and violence, why should they become Christians?"
Relations between the Spaniards and the Taos people were stormy from the first, due in part to the heavy-handed attempts of the Spaniards to extract loyalty and goods and services from them. In 1609 Governor Juan de Oñate was accused of killing a young Taos chief by throwing him off a roof of the Pueblo. In 1613 the Taos refused to pay tribute until it was exacted from them by threat of force. Missionary efforts among them were of no avail until the 1620s when Fray Pedro de Ortega arrived and gained the respect of the Indians by his willing acceptance of the hardships they imposed upon him. There is no record of a mission church being successfully established at Taos until 1626 when Fray Tomás Carrasco is credited with having built "a good church of fine architecture,” dedicated to San Gerónimo de Taos. It lasted less than fifteen years; in 1640, the Taos people rebelled, killed the resident friar and several Spanish soldiers, and burned the church. After this event many Taos people fled to escape retribution, and lived with the Apaches in El Cuartelejo on the plains, far to the northeast, where they remained until returning to the Pueblo in the 1650s. Sometime in the 1650s, the Taos were said to have attempted to instigate a revolt among the other Pueblos, but without success. In about 1660 they again burned their newly-built church, having been virtually independent of Spanish influence for twenty years. The Taos Indians were deeply involved in the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 which began with the visions that the San Juan Indian rebel leader, Popay, had in a kiva of the Taos Pueblo. They actively resisted the re-establishment of Spanish rule in the 1690s, not succumbing until 1696. By the early eighteenth century they had apparently resigned themselves to Spanish rule, and cooperated with the Hispanos in mutual defense from the attacks by nomadic Indians, particularly the Comanches and the Utes.
In the 17th century the pattern of Spanish settlement in the Taos valley followed that of the period found elsewhere in New Mexico: there were a few large haciendas belonging to wealthy Hispanos and their extended families, most of them near to the Taos Pueblo. The major landowner was Don Fernando Durán y Cháves who settled on or near the river which today still bears his name (Rio de Don Fernando), just south of the present center of the town of Taos. His vast lands extended southward and included the Rio de las Trampas area where the village of Ranchos de Taos was later established. In the 1680 Pueblo Rebellion most of the family of Durán y Cháves was killed along with the seventy other Hispanic settlers, soldiers, and friars in the Taos valley, in a fierce battle with the rebellious Taos Indians. Durán y Cháves and his son, Cristóbal, and Sebastián de Herrera, man¬aged to escape and flee with other colonists to El Paso del Norte.
Don Fernando Duran y Chaves did not return to Taos after the Reconquest, and in 1710 Captain Cristobal de la Serna, who was sta¬tioned at the Taos Pueblo, successfully petitioned for the Duran y Chaves lands including the Rio de las Trampas. There is no evidence that Cristobal de la Serna actually settled on his lands, although he probably did use them for grazing stock. Serna was killed in the ill-fated Villasur Expedition to the Platte River in 1720. In 1724 his heirs sold his lands to Diego Romero, who was a Mestizo settler and official of the government living in the Taos valley. Diego Romero and his family were the first non-Indian settlers on the Serna Grant. Romero himself settled on the northern boundary of the grant, the Rio de Don Fernando, closer to the Pueblo and the present site of the town of Taos.
His son, Francisco Xavier Romero, alias El Talache, appears to have been the first settler upon the Rio de las Trampas, establishing his hacienda known as "Talachia" there in the 1730s. However, El Talache was not alone in living on the Rio de las Trampas, for the area was the ancestral home of certain clans of the Taos Indians, and continued to be utilized by the Indians in the colonial era. Archaeological remains and documentary evidence indicate Indian settlements near the present site of Ranchos de Taos on the Rio de las Trampas well into the eighteenth century. There was also a settlement of friendly Jicarilla Apaches, who professed an interest in Christianity, established on the Rio de las Trampas in the 1720s and continud to live there intermittently until at least the mid-1760s. By mid-century small numbers of Genízaros - detribalized Plains and Taos-Plains mixed-blood Indians – had settled in the area. Contemporary oral tradition in Ranchos de Taos attributes the founding of the community to Taos Indians who later either moved back to the Pueblo or in some cases were assimilated into the Hispanic population. By the 1760s there was a small frontier community on the Rio de las Trampas, made up of several distinct ethnic groups: Taos Indians, Jicarilla Apaches, Genízaros, Mestizo families of whom the Romeros were the most prominent, and several families of Hispanos of Español status. This community called Las Trampas de Taos (now Ranchos de Taos), was already dedicated to San Francisco de Asís (St. Francis of Assisi) by 1765, if not earlier, as it still is today.
The pattern of settlement on the Rio de las Trampas and elsewhere in the valley was the favorite one of New Mexican colonists of the period: ranches were spread out along waterways close to the arable lands rather than being clustered into defensive plazas, the primary purpose being to protect farm lands and stock, above all other considerations. In the Taos valley the settlements conformed to this pattern: sizable haciendas, each on its own land and each attempt¬ing to provide, through towers and other fortifications, for its own defense. However, a severe Comanche attack of 1760 and a series of succeeding raids over the next decade finally forced the settlers to abandon their homesteads in the valley and retreat to the Taos Pueblo. By 1770 all the settlers in the valley were residing for the sake of security, with¬in the walls of the Pueblo. Thus the 1770s represented a complete hiatus in the Hispanic settlement of the Taos valley; no com¬munities outside of the Pueblo were viable for nearly a decade. During this period the authorities in Santa Fe and in Mexico expressed their displeasure with the dispersed pattern of settlement so popular throughout northern New Mexico. It was frowned upon because of its vulnerability to attack (as demonstrated by the situation in Taos) and because it allowed the colonists too much freedom from the supervision of the authorities. In 1772 Governor Pedro Fermín de Men¬dinueta strongly restated the government policy requiring that the settlers form defensive enclosed plazas as the centers of their communities, along the lines of the Indian Pueblos. Thus the settlers of the Taos valley were obliged to give up their former dispersed settle¬ment pattern, when they again, in 1779, took up residence away from the Pueblo. A large enclosed plaza was built in that year on the Rio de las Trampas; it was, because of its sufficiency of water and fertile lands, the first community in the valley to be resettled after the hiatus of the 1770s. It was this plaza which became the center of the present town of Ranchos de Taos.
Soon after the establishment of this com¬munity in 1779, more Hispanos began to settle there, and gradually it was transformed into a typical New Mexican village in which the Spanish element was dominant in both cultural and economic affairs. By the 1780s the threat of Comanche raids was greatly reduced, due to the decisive victory of Juan Bautista de Anza over the Comanche chief, Cuerno Verde. The sparsely populated but fertile Taos valley was now safer for settling and quickly attracted both Hispanos and mixed-bloods from the more crowded villages to the south, and the community of Las Trampas de Taos rapidly spread beyond the confines of its original plaza. Hispano settlers were never fond of living in the close quarters of defensive plazas, and with the Comanche threat abated, a new pattern of disper¬sion took place in the last decades of the 1700s and in the early 1800s. The settlers once again spread out along the waterways and fertile lands of the Taos valley; however they also maintained a defensive system: a number of small defensive plazas were established to form the nuclei of these new com¬munities. Now, instead of a series of dispersed haciendas along the waterways, there was a series of plazas, which allowed the settler to be close to his fields and yet be able to mobilize fairly quickly within the plaza for mutual defense. The town of Taos known as Fernández de Taos was established in the late 1700s; the license to build its church dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe was not granted until 1801. It gradually became the largest settlement in the Taos valley, because of its close proximity to the Pueblo. Among the other new plazas established in the Taos valley in the early 1800s were Rio Chiquito, Ranchitos, Los Córdovas, Arroyo Seco, and Arroyo Hondo.
With the establishment of the Mexican Republic in 1821, trade restrictions with the United States were relaxed and the Santa Fe Trail was opened to traders and trappers from the east. Taos soon became the center for the fur trade for the Southwest and Rocky Mountains, attracting many Anglo-American and French trappers and traders. The noted scout and guide Christopher (Kit) Carson began his career as a trapper. He came to Taos in 1826 and worked with mountain men and trappers such as Matthew Kinkead, Ewing Young, Thomas Fitzpatrick and others. Carson eventually settled in Taos, marrying an Hispanic Taoseña, Josefa Jaramillo.
Father Antonio José Martínez (1793-1867) was perhaps the most renowned Taoseño of the nineteenth century. He moved to Taos from Abiquiú as a child in 1804 and began serving as priest in Taos in 1823. He was appointed cura propio (tenured priest) by the Bishop of Durango in 1842, a position he held until1856 when he was suspended and later excommunicated by Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. After being excommunicated, Martínez, in defiance of Lamy, continued until the end of his life to celebrate mass in private chapels and to officiate at baptisms, marriages, and funerals for his family members and large circle of followers.
Along with Santa Cruz de la Cañada, Taos was one of the main centers of discontent during the Rebellion of 1837. One of the leaders of the rebellion, who became governor of New Mexico under the short-lived rebel government, was José Gonzalez of Taos. The ethnic background of Gonzalez has been debated over the years, with some calling him an Indian from Taos Pueblo and others claiming he was a Genízaro (detribalized, Christianized Indian). It seems most likely that he was of español status, that is, he was a vecino, a member of the Hispano community of Taos. He appears, like many other rural vecinos of the period, to have had little education (apparently he was illiterate) and made his living as a cibolero (buffalo hunter). In January 1838 troops under the leadership of Manuel Armijo defeated the rebels near Pojoaque and captured and executed Gonzalez, thus bringing the rebellion to an end.
In January 1847 the Taos Rebellion broke out in opposition to the American occupation. New Mexico Governor Charles Bent who lived in Taos and several other officials and American business men were murdered by the rebels in Taos and Arroyo Hondo. Father Martinez provided sanctuary at his home for several Americans fleeing the rebels and tried unsuccessfully to make peace. U. S. Army forces under Colonel Sterling Price marched north from Santa Fe, first defeating the rebels at Santa Cruz de la Cañada and Embudo. At Taos the rebels took refuge in the Pueblo church of San Gerónimo de Taos. The American forces, ignoring the sanctity of the church, bombarded and destroyed it killing most of its occupants. Later at least 20 of the rebel leaders were executed.
The American occupation brought yet another group to the ethnic mix of Taos. Large numbers of Anglo-American settlers came to the Taos valley after 1848, bringing not only their culture but also large quantities of manufactured goods from the eastern United States. The isolated self-sufficiency of Taos rapidly began to change from the establishment of the American merchant economy, from agricultural lands lost to unscrupulous speculators, and from the coming of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in the 1880s. In the late 1800s artists, led by Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips in 1898, began to settle in Taos, attracted by the scenic beauty of the area. Taos became in the twentieth century an important regional art colony, a reputation it till holds today.
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Grant, Blanche. When Old Trails Were New. New York: Press of the Pioneers, 1934.
Jenkins, Myra Ellen. “Taos Pueblo and its Neighbors.” In: New Mexico Historical Review vol. 41 (1966).
Kessell, John L. The Missions of New Mexico since 1776. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980.
Morrill, Claire. A Taos Mosaic. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1973
Simmons, Marc. “Settlement Patterns and Village Plans in Colonial New Mexico.” In: The Spanish Borderlands, Oakah L. Jones, ed. Los Angeles: Lorrin Morrison, 1974.
Wroth, William. The Chapel of Our Lady of Talpa. Colorado Springs: The Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 1979.
Taos Photographs ca. 1910
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