Tracing The Tracks and Trails of Northeast New Mexico
Photo by Teresa Norris
A long lush memory is embedded in the windswept plains, on the mesa tops and in the secluded mountain canyons of northeast New Mexico. The land has kept a careful record of tracks and trails to present a multi-generational morality play, the ultimate American Western. Stand on top of Capulin Volcano, which erupted sometime between 56,000 and 62,000 years ago, for a reminder of the inevitable force of geography. An ancient inland sea with sandy beaches was the obvious place for plodding hadrosaurs and sprinting pterodactyls to leave three-toed tracks embedded in sandstone. Folsom Man had to cross an intercontinental ice bridge and half a continent to hunt bison and other game, only to leave his mark for a curious cowboy to find many centuries later. Droughts forced the Anasazi to migrate south and west to fertile river valleys, establishing grand settlements such as the now-abandoned Pecos Pueblo.
Northeast New Mexico is a history lesson of what happens when two empires meet. The older north-south Spanish Empire ended in Santa Fe and the younger, brasher east-west American Empire reached no further than Independence, Missouri. A grand 600-mile prairie lay in between, with mountains to pass and rivers to ford. Wagon after wagon would follow the Santa Fe Trail, leaving a legacy of tracks that can still be seen today.
When the railroads came, they left tracks of another kind. Both left deserted forts and numerous historic buildings, plazas and streets. Route 66 left traces of a different era of American history. Northeast New Mexico attracted the honorable and the infamous. Fortunes were made and lost; mansions built and abandoned; cultures thrived, then sometimes died. Northeast New Mexico history was dramatic, romantic, sometimes sad, but never boring.
As the wind sweeps through the tall grama grass today, if you listen carefully you can still hear the pterodactyls screech in frustration as they try to fly. The winds bring the whisper of Folsom Man's spears flying through the air, the clip-clop of horses carrying Spanish conquistadores searching for the Cities of Gold, the woody creaks of wagons following the Santa Fe Trail. Listen for the mournful wails of distant railroad horns and the thrum of '56 Chevies on Route 66. Does it seem that history in sleepy, dreamy northeast New Mexico is taking a siesta? Well, the edge is still here. So get out of your car and stay for a while. Be a part of history being made today in northeast New Mexico!
Early History of the Area: 8,000 B.C. - 1821
Ten thousand years ago northeast New Mexico looked much as it does today. Fields of grass waved in the breeze as bison leisurely grazed, interrupted by nomadic tribes hunting for food and clothing. Recognized only by the distinctive style of their stone artifacts, these early men went unknown until 1908, when a cowboy discovered some bison bones with embedded spear points near the present town of Folsom in northwest Union County. New Mexico Folsom Man, as he is called, traveled from Asia through Alaska to America during the last Ice Age. As the Ice Age ended, the climate in New Mexico changed, becoming hotter and drier. Folsom Man followed the bison and other game to the Great Plains leaving behind a void that was filled by migrations from the west.
These new people were more sedentary, at first living in caves, and later building dwellings and tilling the land. Commonly known as "Anasazi", they were known as "Ancient Ones" to the Navajo who were aware of their ruins. They developed into a vast, civilized culture stretching from northern Mexico to southern Colorado. However, by 1500 another migration had occurred, to regions with a more predictable water supply like the Rio Grande Valley and along the Pecos River. The Pecos Pueblo farmers commanded the trade path between Pueblo farmers of the Rio Grande and the hunting tribes of the buffalo plains. (See San Miguel County for more information on the Pecos National Monument.) Meanwhile, the Apache tribes had moved down from Canada to settle in northeast New Mexico, along with the semi-nomadic Jicarilla Apaches. By 1850, sizable camps had been established in Cimarron, Ute Park and along the Vermejo, and Cimarron rivers. In 1851 the Jicarilla Apaches signed a treaty with the United States but misinterpretation, or rather a lack of interpretation, by the government provoked a number of skirmishes. Finally, in 1886, the Jicarilla Apaches were assigned to their own reservation in the northwest part of the state, without hope of ever returning to their Cimarron homeland.
According to Ute legend, the Ute Indians have always lived in the area. Rock art from Utah and Colorado certainly suggests a long history of this nomadic tribe hunting and gathering in the Rocky Mountains. While their forays into northern New Mexico were less extensive, the Utes often banded with the Comanches of the Great Plains in raiding neighboring tribes like the Jicarillas as well as attacking settlers and soldiers. Not until the treaty of 1868, which forced some Ute bands into reservations in southwest Colorado and the "Washington Treaty" of 1880, which set aside land in eastern Utah, did peaceful relations exist between the Utes and their neighbors.
Throughout the 17th century, Spain established settlements along the Rio Grande Valley with only moderate success. The area had been discovered and partially explored during the expeditions from Mexico during the later half of the 16th century, but the object of their search, the Seven Cities of Cibola, was never found. The desire to spread Christianity and establish permanent settlements replaced the quest for wealth but the task proved more difficult than originally thought. By the end of the 17th century other countries such as Britain and France were starting to make serious inroads into the interior of North America and it became necessary for Spain to resettle her claim. In 1693 an expedition under the command of Don Diego de Vargas managed to retake the land along the Rio Grande as far north as the Espanola Valley. By the end of the following century the few hundred soldiers and family members who had accompanied de Vargas had grown to more than 10,000 and the trail from Mexico City to Santa Fe had become El Camino Real, the "Royal Road."
As new settlements grew into towns these towns sent out their own expeditions into the surrounding territories. Contact with Ute, Apache and other Indian tribes soon led to exchanges of goods between the Europeans and the Indians. El Camino Real, along which men and material moved north to support the new towns, now became a conduit for furs and hides heading south for export back to Spain. For some New Mexicans it proved more economical to simply hunt for antelope skins, beaver pelts and buffalo hides than to trade for them.
The greatest competition to the Spanish fur trade initially came from French trappers and traders whose primary interest in North America was in obtaining furs. But after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 explorers soon opened up trails and mapped new lands that shifted the fur trade to American hands. In 1804 Lewis and Clark set out to explore the Great Northwest. Two years later, Zebulon Pike roamed the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico. Other men like John Colter and Manuel Lisa traveled from Wyoming south to New Mexico to set up new trade routes. By the time William Becknell started his historic journey from Missouri to Santa Fe in 1821, St. Louis and Santa Fe had become two ends of a rich and lucrative fur trade throughout the west.
Much of this information came from a wonderful pamphlet produced under the auspices of the Cimarron Historical Society, which can be ordered by contacting the Cimarron Chamber of Commerce.