Reading and Writing Early New Mexico


The people who lived in the area that is now New Mexico began leaving powerful images chipped on rock a very long time ago — long before the Mayflower sailed or the conquistador Juan de Oñate arrived to establish a colony for Spain. Most of the images, depicting events, animals, humans and religious symbols, were made by Puebloan people around AD 1300. A few date back to 2000 BCE. Chipped on rock, they remain.

While some of the petroglyphs are now indecipherable, the effort to tell stories is clear. Drawn to the beauty of the land, the expansiveness of the skies and the hope for a better life, Native people, Spanish and Anglo settlers, and passersby kept their stories alive through the oral tradition of storytelling. A select few wrote their thoughts and observations down, where they remain unchanged — like the chipping on the rocks.

One of the first to relate his adventures, Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá (1555-1620) was born in Mexico but earned a bachelor of letters at the University of Salamanca in Spain. By 1598 he was a captain in the Oñate expedition that founded Santa Fe. Villagrá participated in some of the most brutal episodes of Spanish subjugation of Native people, including the Battle of Acoma, but failed to attain the position he desired due in part to his execution of two deserters from the Oñate expedition. He returned to Spain to seek redress, in 1610 writing Historia de la Nueva Mexico — an epic poem about the entrada and the land — as a petition to King Philip III for an appointment. He received his appointment and died on the ship returning to New Spain. His work is celebrated as the beginning of Latino literature in the NewWorld.

The first white man to record the wonders of the West, Zebulon Pike (1779-1813) lived a very full life in only 34 years. His first foray started in 1807, when Thomas Jefferson sent 15 men to explore the Louisiana Purchase and Colorado Territory. On the journey, Pike

met Native Americans and reported on the peak later named for him. Captured by Spanish colonists, he fortuitously got a tour of the territory, including the pueblos and Albuquerque. Along the way, he wrote a fascinating journal that described the agriculture, military, trade, economy, culture, laws and peoples of the area. He recognized these people as a mixture of Spanish, mestizo and Indian. The local settlers treated him well, village priests greeted him and he attended banquets as an honored guest. He noted that the churches were filled with art and santos, although they were rough adobe on the outside. His diary is a comprehensive record of life in NewMexico in the early 1800s.

A consumptive and dyspeptic, Josiah Gregg (1806-1850) moved west on orders from his doctor. Joining a caravan in Arkansas, he arrived in Santa Fe in 1831. He learned Spanish, became a trader and traveled between Missouri and Santa Fe four times, also venturing deep into Texas, Mexico and California, where he discovered Humboldt Bay. He was possessed of an insatiable curiosity and intelligence, working as a teacher, law student, doctor, photographer, bookkeeper, wagon train leader, explorer, geologist, naturalist, merchant and author. Among other firsts, he brought a printing press to New Mexico in 1834, allowing publication of the first territorial newspaper. He also recorded an early view of life in what became the New Mexico Territory. Gregg’s two-volume The Commerce of the Prairies, published in 1844, describes every aspect of life in the land he traveled through. On his last expedition, his company dispersed and he fell off his horse in a state of starvation and died.

The 11th territorial governor of New Mexico, LewWallace (1807-1905) led a fascinating life as a Civil War general, a member of the Lincoln assassination military commission and a U.S. minister to the Ottoman Empire. He was also a writer. While most of us remember Ben-Hur as a movie, the story is based on Wallace’s book Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, purported to be the most influential Christian book of the 19th century. Wallace completed Ben-Hur in his spare time while serving as governor. Clearly he was a canny fellow, as this quote suggests: “All calculations based on experience elsewhere fail in New Mexico.”

Born in Switzerland and educated in the family banking business, Adolph Bandelier (1840-1914) found his life’s purpose in the study of Ancestral Puebloan dwellings. Inspired by

American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, he became an ethnologist, historian and archaeologist at a time when academic interest in Native tribes of the United States was practically nonexistent. Drawn to Santa Fe at the age of 40, he began his work at Salinas Pueblo and went on to study ruins all over the Southwest, Mexico and Central America, leaving an extensive academic record. His book The Delight Makers, published in 1890, was the first work to fictionalize the daily lives and rituals of the people who had lived in the ruins he documented.

Best known for her novels of the Great Plains, Willa Cather (1873-1947) captured a breathtaking sense of place in Death Comes for the Archbishop, inspired by several visits to NewMexico in the 1920s. Her story of Bishop Lamy (fictionalized as Latour in the book) hews close to the facts, and her straightforward yet descriptive language captures the feel of a place that seemed frozen in time. Cather paints the scenes of everyday life in a simple yet imaginary style: “The pueblo, indeed, seemed to lie upon the knees of these verdant mountains, like a favoured child. . . . In front of the village, the Spaniards had camped, exacting a heavy tribute of corn and furs and cotton garments. . . . It was from here . . . that [the Spaniards] set forth . . . on their ill-fated search for the seven golden cities of Quivera, taking with them slaves and concubines ravished from the Pecos people.” Cather’s treatment of the state’s three cultures is more observant than judgmental, unusual for the times, and her rendering of Latour’s spiritual struggle to reconcile his Christianity with the beliefs and rituals of the Native people is handled with great sensitivity. She won a Pulitzer Prize for the book in 1923.

In her bestselling book No Life for a Lady (1941), Agnes Morley Cleaveland (1874-1958) describes growing up wild, riding free on the range, herding cattle and shooting grizzlies ( before they were extinct here) on her family ranch near the middle of nowhere. Born in Cimarron, New Mexico, Cleaveland attended high school in Philadelphia and college at Stanford. Later she lived in California but often returned to New Mexico. Cleaveland’s book is a timeless read, thrilling in expressing the amount of freedom that she and her siblings exercised.

A descendant of Spanish pioneers, Cleofas Jaramillo (18781956) was born in Arroyo Hondo and educated at Catholic boarding schools. As a young woman she married a wealthy businessman, but fate was cruel, and she survived her husband and all three of their

children. She was an energetic and able person, and when she saw the old Spanish customs dying or being subverted by newcomers, she founded La Sociedad Folklorica de Santa Fe (Folklore Society of Santa Fe), which still thrives and puts on a fashion show each year at Fiestas. To record the traditional food of New Mexico, she wrote The Genuine New Mexico Tasty Recipes/Potajes Sabrosos

(1939), an eye-opening view into what was still a culture very connected to rural practices like butchering, cheesemaking and collecting wild greens for the table. Three other books remind us how close New Mexico is to its Spanish roots: Spanish Fairy Tales/Cuentos de Hogar, Shadows of the Past/Sombras del Pasado

and Romance of a Little Village Girl.

Wealthy Mabel Dodge (1879-1962) was better known for attracting talented and glamorous notables to her homes than for her writing. She began her career hosting well-known artists, writers and musicians at the former D’Medici Villa Curonia in Florence and then created one of the most famous salons ever in New York. She became a nationally syndicated columnist for the Hearst newspapers, at the same time feeling overwhelmed by what was then called manic depression. Following the advice of a famous psychiatrist, she began to write as therapy. Around 1919 she and her husband, Maurice Sterne, a painter, moved to Taos with a friend. They started a literary colony in a place where Dodge could totally reinvent herself. She met Tony Luhan of Taos Pueblo, who camped out in a tepee in her front yard and drummed at night to attract the married Dodge. Luhan, who was also married, managed to supplant Sterne and convinced Dodge to buy 12 acres on the east side of Taos. They married and built a house that eventually spread to 17 rooms. Soon people like D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), his wife, Frieda, and painter Dorothy Brett were there stirring things up. The list of the guests at the artist colony is impressive, and the patronage and encouragement of great talents may be Dodge’s strongest legacy. Her book Intimate Memories (1933) details her bisexuality.

As a ploy to keep them around, Dodge gave the Lawrences her ranch in San Cristobal, the only home they ever owned. Unable to accept such a large gift for nothing, they in turn gave Dodge the manuscript of Sons and Lovers. At the ranch, which belonged to Frieda until her death, D.H. wrote much of St. Mawr and The

Plumed Serpent over the course of two visits. He found the beauty of NewMexico inspiring, writing, “The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend. . . . In the magnificent fierce morning of NewMexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly and the old world gave way to a new.” He later died of tuberculosis in Italy.

There’s nothing more telling about a culture than its food, and Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert (1898-1991) understood that. An educator, nutritionist, activist and polyglot, she wrote Historic Cookery, published in 1914, revised in 1946 and distributed throughout NewMexico by the agricultural extension service. Born in Las Vegas before the 20th century, Gilbert taught home economics for the extension service and held classes in seven different counties and some pueblos, where she learned to speak both Tewa and Tiwa. Recruited by the United Nations, she created housekeeping demonstration centers for Tarascan Indians in Michoacán. Her books record New Mexico rural culture in all its plainness and simplicity. She wrote in The Good Life (1949) of folklore and folkways, and in We Fed Them Cactus (1954) of Spanish pioneering on the Llano Estacado. She also wrote a weekly column for the Santa Fe New Mexican for 20 years.

An outsider who fell in love with NewMexico, Oliver La Farge (1901-1963) was born in New York and raised in Newport, Rhode Island. He lived much of his adult life in Santa Fe, basing many of his books, both fiction and nonfiction, on the history, anthropology and culture of the Southwest. His foreword to a 1962 edition of Laughing Boy talks about his younger self, who wrote the book in 1927-1928 while he was finishing his anthropological studies: “Among them he had seen something that had moved him greatly, and this was his way of recording it. . . . For the writer and the Navajos that was an age of innocence. . . . The beginning anthropologist who went among them could believe, as they did, that their general condition and model of life, with all its hardships, simplicity, and riches, could continue indefinitely if only they were not interfered with.” Laughing Boy, a book that grabs readers by the heart and doesn’t let go, was written with all the earnestness that a young man could muster. It earned La Farge a Pulitzer Prize in 1929.

Frank Waters (1902-1995), whose part Cheyenne father died when Waters was just 12, developed a deep connection to Native culture. Born in Colorado, he spent most of his life in the West, moving between states and jobs and marrying three times. Eventually he moved to Taos, became friends with Tony and Mabel Dodge Luhan and worked as the editor of a bilingual (English and Spanish) Taos newspaper. From 1930 until his death in 1995, he wrote many novels, articles and nonfiction works about the Southwest, including The Man Who Killed The Deer in 1942 and Book of the Hopi in 1963. In The Man Who Killed The Deer, Waters writes in the cadence of Native speakers as he recounts their struggle for identity. He describes Martiniano, a tribal member who is sent to boarding school because of government “kwotas” and finds that he has lost his place on his return to the pueblo. His parents are dead, and he is caught between the traditional way and the white man’s way. Hungry, he kills a deer out of season, which makes trouble on both sides.

Paul Horgan (1903-1995) held 19 honorary degrees and mastered both fiction and nonfiction in more than 50 books — two about Josiah Gregg. He won two Pulitzers — the first for Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History and the second for Lamy of Santa Fe: His Life and Times. Born in New York, he moved with his family to Albuquerque when he was 12. He became friends with Peter Hurd and J. Robert Oppenheimer, helped found the American Opera Company and served in many capacities with Wesleyan University. Great River, published in two volumes — the first Indians and Spain, the second Mexico and the United States— tells the history of the explorers, settlers and cultures along the Río Grande, from the ancients to the electrified modern world.

Born into a privileged family in New Mexico Territory at a place near Watrous, Peggy Pond Church (1903-1986) grew up exploring Native ruins and riding in Pajarito Canyon. When her father turned his elite hunting club into the Los Alamos School for Boys, she and her sister were sent away to boarding school. While she won prizes for her poetry at Smith College, she longed to return to the plateau. When she did, she married Fermor Spencer Church, a master at the school. She also became a member of the far-off artists’ colony in Santa Fe. Wrenched by the U.S. government’s takeover of Los Alamos to create the Manhattan Project, the Churches fled to Taos. The House at Otowi

Bridge: The Story of Edith Warner and Los Alamos is a double memoir of Church and Edith Warner, who ran a post office and shop at Otowi Bridge and was friends with important scientists as well as Santo Domingo Indians. Church also published This Dancing Ground of Sky (her collected poetry), Bones Incandescent (her collected journals),

Wind’s Trail: The Early Life of Mary Austin and two bilingual children’s books: The Pancake Stories/Cuentos de Panqueque and

Shoes for the Santo Niño/Zapatitos Para El Santo Niño.

One of the foremost Hispanic historians of NewMexico, Fray AngelicoChavez (1910-1996) was born in Wagon Mound, the oldest of 10 children. He was ordained as a Franciscan priest and served as a military chaplain in the Philippines in WorldWar II. An eminent presence in Santa Fe for many years, he was an authority on the customs and history of the area and the church. He wrote 22 books (including two books of poetry), ranging from the genealogical bible of the state, Origins of New Mexico Families, to an account of the hidden spiritual practices of the northern mountains, My Penitente Land: Reflections on Spanish New Mexico.

Environmental activist, park ranger, teacher, cult hero, poet and author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey (19271989) earned a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of New Mexico. He fell in love with nature after a stint at Arches National Park and began his lifelong fight against the destruction of the environment. After he visited the Four Corners area, he described “a vast and silent emptiness smoldering with heat, color, and indecipherable significance, above which floated a small number of pure, clear, hard-edged clouds.” He continued, “For the first time, I felt I was getting close to the West of my deepest imaginings, the place where the tangible and the mythical became the same.” Abbey compiled his first book, Desert Solitaire (1968), from notes on his stay at Arches National Park and went on to write both fiction and nonfiction. Two of his novels, The Brave Cowboy ( Lonely Are the Brave) and Fire on the Mountain became movies. In the end, he asked to be buried in a sleeping bag, in a place where he could go back to nature. His last words, “No comment,” were carved onto his headstone by friends.

What’s Inside





Santa Fe New Mexican