Gran Quivira — a part of Salinas National Monument

Church ruins at Gran Quivera Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks.
Church ruins at Gran Quivera

The Spanish gave this Anasazi village the name of Pueblo de Las Humanas (a thriving pueblo) when Oñate first approached it in 1598 to accept the oath of allegiance to Spain. Largest of the Salinas pueblos, it was occupied for nearly nine centuries, 800 A.D. to 1672 A.D. Later, Spaniards called it Gran Quivira, the object of Coronado’s and Oñate’s futile search for gold.

Coronado had taken his search for gold, rumored to be possessed by the Quiviras, almost to present-day Kansas City. According to “The Land of Poco Tiempo” by Charles F. Lummis, a classic written in 1893, the Quivira was a Teton nomad, a cousin of the Sioux, moving wherever there were buffalo, planting a little corn, and moving on, an aboriginal Gypsy. Lummis says, “it was not the end of the chimera” (wild or fantastic conception), because Oñate also chased the “Seven Cities of Cibola” story of gold. Lummis insists Gran Quivira was the pueblo of Tabira, one of the larger pueblos with about 1,500 inhabitants, and one of the three pueblo ruins in the Salinas National Monument. The other two, Abo and Quarai, are northwest of Gran Quivira.

The Gran Quivira was an important trade center before and after the Spanish entrada. Although the people resisted the newcomers representing Spain, they reconciled and borrowed freely from their culture. However, documents of the 1600s indicate strife between the Franciscan missionaries and the encomenderos. The latter were ranking citizens appointed by the Governor to provide protection, aid and education to Indians and military support for the government in return for collecting tribute. As is often the case, the system was abused.

In 1627, Father Alonso de Benavides toured the Saline Pueblos, so called because of the lakes where Indians once mined their salt. He called the Gran Quivira the Pueblo de los Jumanos, pueblo of the striped ones, because the natives decorated themselves with a stripe across their noses. Father Benavides claimed he converted all the Indians after one sermon in the plaza. A church was built in 1629, but it was replaced in 1659 by Father Diego Santander, who supervised the building of the huge church of San Buenvaventura with an adjoining convent. It was never completed.

Dwellings had evolved from pit-houses to adobe and finally to masonry communal buildings. One account says Gran Quivira was a group of three and four story stone houses separated by narrow alleys or streets. Apache raids, droughts and famine reduced the population to less than 500 in the 1670s and the pueblo was abandoned. The three pueblos are known variously as “The Cities that Died of Fear” or “Cities that Were Forgotten.”

Fodor’s New Mexico Travel Guide points out these churches are a century and a half older than the oldest missions in California, Arizona or Texas. It adds there were seven missions built before the Indian rebellion of 1680, and two have been restored and are in use in Acoma and Isleta Indian pueblos. The Jemez and Pecos missions are state and national monuments and Abo, Quarai and Gran Quivira are the other three.

The latter has been extensively excavated by teams from the University of New Mexico, and visitors can see the way generations of Indians lived. The ruins are huge walls of stone resembling some of the crumbling cathedrals in the United Kingdom. As you walk through the ruins you can sense the presence of these people who enjoyed the “sea of grass” of the plains and the dwellings built with their own blood, sweat and tears. To have had to abandon them must have been a bitter moment - and the question still lingers, where did the Anasazi go?

About Phyllis Eileen Banks