Learning New Mexico at Pecos National Historical Park
One of the things that attracted me to New Mexico, aside from the sunsets, the National Parks, the mountains, the food and a Buzzfeed quiz, was the opportunity to learn more about the history of the southwestern part of the United States. I can rattle off all sorts of history about Virginia. I can still name the original 13 colonies, know all about the native inhabitants of my home state and the states that surround it and can give a pretty solid account of the colonization of the entire eastern side of the United States. When it comes to the rest of the country though, I don’t know much, or at least not much detail.
In preparation for my trip to New Mexico, I reached into the vaults of my mind where I stuffed my high school history lessons more than 15 years ago. I remembered something about Spanish colonization, some random tidbits relating to the Wild West – Doc Holliday killed for the first time in New Mexico – and some vague recollections about something having to do with cliff dwellings and pubelos. And that’s about it.
Pecos National Historical Park proved a reasonable place to start filling in the details of New Mexico’s history. Declared a National Monument in 1965, Pecos expanded in 1990, when it was renamed as a National Historical Park. Today, the park includes around 6,000 acres. Within that are ruins and archaeologically significant sites from both ancestral Pueblos and Spanish colonists, part of the Sante Fe Trail and the Glorieta Pass Battlefield.
The first thing I explored at Pecos National Historical Park, was the main part of the park, the part that preserves the ruins of Pecos Pueblo and a Spanish mission. There’s a 1.25 mile loop that starts behind the visitor center. You can pick up a trail guide and go the self-guided route or explore the site with a ranger during regularly scheduled tours. Being on a solo adventure to New Mexico, I opted to go at it alone.
Basically, a pueblo is a multi-storied village of adobe structures built by Pueblo people. The first at Pecos was built around 1100 A.D. Eventually, it grew into a large village housing around 2,000 people. It became one of the most powerful pueblos in northern New Mexico and served as a key trading center between native nations.
Later, the Spanish showed up and eventually established a settlement at Pecos in 1598. Of course, this changed things. Missionaries came and destroyed the Pueblo’s religious symbols and built a mission church near the pueblo. In 1680, Pecos residents burned it down and built a kiva near the ruins. Kivas are underground chambers, used for spiritual ceremonies and political gatherings, sort of like a town hall. This pissed the Spanish off and, determined to take back control of the pueblo, they launched another conquest in 1693. Eventually, in 1717, the Spanish built another mission. The remains of this second mission, as well as remains of the kiva and the pueblo, are still visible at Pecos National Historical Park today.
In 1838, after a significant decline in the pueblo’s population, the last residents of Pecos moved to Jemez Pueblo.
After exploring the mission and pueblo sites, I went back to the visitor center to learn about the other parts of Pecos National Historical Park. I wanted to know more about the Glorieta Pass Battlefield. Living in Richmond, Virginia, I know a fair amount about the American Civil War. Except for how and why and where it was fought in the west.
Armed with directions from the rangers and a guidebook, I set out for the 2.35 mile Glorieta Battlefield hiking trail.
The Battle of Glorieta Pass was fought March 26-28, 1862. The first day included small skirmishes while the main battle took place on the 28th. Confederate troops, mostly from Texas, were on the way to Fort Union, which they hoped to take from federal forces.
The Confederates held their ground and forced the Union troops to retreat. But, Union forces managed to destroy the Confederate supply line, chasing off or killing all their horses and mules and burning their food, so the Confederate troops had to retreat as well. And that was that. Confederates eventually gave up trying to gain ground in New Mexico and eventually abandoned the territory. For that reason, the battle is considered decisive and has been called the “Gettysburg of the West.”
TIPS FOR VISITING PECOS NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
- Pick up a guide at the visitor center and explore the park on your own, or check the schedule and hop on a guided tour with a park ranger.
- Watch out for rattlesnakes. They’re a thing.
- To walk the Glorieta Pass Battlefield trail, pick up a guidebook, directions and the gate code at the visitor center.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Pecos National Historical Park is open every day from 8 a.m. – 6-p.m. The visitor center closes at 5:30 p.m. From Labor Day to Memorial Day, the park is open from 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. The visitor center hours are 8:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. Admission to the park is free.