Thursday Travel: Taos New Mexico – History writ large.

I have to admit – if asked to name places in the US to spend a few days, Taos New Mexico may not immediately spring to mind.

And yet, our short stay (3 days) surprised me with its arts, its enviro-greenie vibe and its laid-back charm – and most of all, it’s history.

We stayed in Taos primarily because we had time-share in the desert city, and because it was relatively near the Albuquerque Balloon Festival which was taking place as we were due to pass through.

As it turns out, we never did get to the balloon festival – because ‘relatively close’ on the map actually translated to nearly three hours of pre-dawn driving.

So it didn’t happen 🙂

But we DID get to explore an area we knew nothing about, and find some history that was tragic but fascinating.


Typical was the story of the Taos Pueblo massacre.

The Puebloans are the indigenous people of the area – and they had begun construction of what became the Taos Pueblo around 1000 years ago.

They lived in conflict with others in the region, including the Navajo, who would often raid the village.

Then after the Spaniards arrived in the mid 1500s, there was more conflict when the Spaniards built a church to spread their Catholicism.

The Puebloans resisted and by 1660 they had destroyed the church and killed the resident priest.

The church was rebuilt – and again destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

Eventually, by the end of the 18th century, the church had been rebuilt for a third time – and this time, relations between the Taos Pueblo residents and the Spaniards had become amicable.

But peace wasn’t to last.

The US annexed New Mexico in 1847 – but the cavalry which had been sent to support the new governor were, by most accounts, brutal, rapacious, and undisciplined.

So unpopular were they (and the new Governor) that there was yet another uprising in New Mexico: this time leading to the assassination of Governor Bent.

The cavalry, rightly blaming the Taos Puebloans and their Mexican allies of leading the rebellion, tried to take the Pueblo.

The story visitors to the Pueblo are told goes like this: The adobe walls of the Pueblo proved impenetrable – and the able-bodied men of the village took up defensive positions to hold off the cavalry.

Meantime the old, the infirm, the mothers and the young were all placed into the church, to give them sanctuary from the expected fighting.

In what today would be called a war-crime, the soldiers of the US army aimed their cannons at the walls of the church, probably the weakest part of the Adobe wall – and killed everyone inside.

The ‘official’ version is that the church was filled with insurgents. The Puebloan version is that it was filled with non-combatants.

But in any case, the original church was never rebuilt – because it could never again be considered a place of peace, or spiritual strength.

Instead its forecourt became a graveyard where the remains of the massacre victims were placed – along with the soldiers also killed in the uprising, and generations of Taos Pueblo residents who followed.

Today, the cemetery is full, and is no longer in use – but it (and the remnants of the church behind) remain a stark reminder of a bloody past.

The Pueblo itself is still in use – a village just outside the city or Taos, made up of adobe houses.


Adobe in Spanish literally means ‘mud brick’, and typically adobe bricks are made from mud, straw, and other organic materials. They are mixed in a slurry and then laid out in frames to create bricks – which are then sun-dried and used to build all sorts of structures.

In the Taos Pueblo, most adobe structures are multi-level – and are, in fact, like apartments with multiple families living in separate homes within the same structure.

The traditional home had doors either on the roof or at the least on the second floor – access was via ladders which could be pulled up in case of attack.

Today, of course, convenience has led to ground-floor doorways although not all homes have them.

Adobe bricks are relatively light, very sturdy, and cheap to make. But there is a down side.

Being sun-dried, they are susceptible to weathering, which is why adobe structures are covered with an outer coating of mud, giving them their smooth, brown appearance.

That mud, too, is subject to weathering. And so regular maintenance is required.

Of course, there are homes that are much older in the region that also require maintenance: cavates that were used by the ancestors of today’s Puebloans.

Until recently, Ancestral Puebloans were known as the Anasazi but that is actually a Navajo term meaning “Ancient Enemy”, and so it is considered insulting – to define a people by their enemies, rather than on their own terms.

(The legend of the ‘mysterious disappearance of the Anasazi’ is in fact just that – a legend. After the arrival of Europeans, many of the the Ancestral Puebloans religious and cultural rites were simply sublimated by the influence of the conquerors but there are still many echoes observed by modern Puebloans)

In any case, the Ancestral Pueblo people inhabited this region of New Mexico along with parts of Arizona, Utah and Colorado, for thousands of years – they supplanted nomadic hunter-gatherers and began formal agriculture (with corn, beans and squash being the staples) – and began building self-sustaining villages, with brick-and-timber buildings dug into the earth .. and cave-dwellings which are the hallmarks of their society.

Bandelier Cavates


The remnants of one such village is at the Bandelier National Monument, just a mushroom-cloud away from the nearby Los Alamos.

It’s an amazing site and well worth driving 90 minutes or so from Taos.

There you will find the remains of the village of Tyuonyi (pronounced Qu-weh-nee) – which might have housed a hundred people or more in its main structure, and more in the avates (small cave-rooms) carved into the Tuff, or volcanic-ash rock walls of the cliffs overlooking the village.

While these cavates aren’t as impressive as the full-blown Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde in Colorado, they are still quite awe-inspiring.

Which is why it is disappointing that one of the cavates – a ceremonial kiva, or place of learning, has to be ‘re-smoked’ each year to blacken the walls and ceiling – to cover up the graffiti left by modern visitors.

As I say, Taos may not immediately leap to mind as a tourist destination but it is certainly worth a few days.

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