At midpoint in a passage through the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the ruins of a Pecos pueblo and Spanish mission share a small ridge. Long before Spaniards entered this country this village commanded the trade path between Pueblo farmers of the Rio Grande and hunting tribes of the buffalo plains. Its 2,000 inhabitants could marshal 500 fighting men. Its frontier location brought both war and trade. At trade fairs here Plains tribes - mostly nomadic Apaches - brought slaves, buffalo hides, flint, and shells to exchange for pottery, crops, textiles, and turquoise of the river Pueblos. The Pecos Indians were middlemen, transmitters and partakers of the goods and cultures of the very different people on either side of the mountains. They became economically powerful and practiced in the arts and customs of two worlds.
Cultural blendings did not change the essence of their life. The Pecos Indians remained Puebloan in culture, practicing an ancient agricultural tradition borne north from Mexico by the seeds of sacred corn. By the late Pueblo period - the last few centuries before the Spaniards arrived in the Southwest - people in this valley had congregated in multi-storied towns overlooking the streams and fields that nourished their crops. In the 1400s these groups gathered into Pecos pueblo, which became a regional power.
A Spanish conquistador described the pueblo in 1584: on a "high and narrow hill, enclosed on both sides by two streams and many trees. The hill itself is cleared of trees...It has the greatest and best buildings of these provinces and is most thickly settled...They possess quantities of maize, cotton, beans, and squash. [The pueblo] is enclosed and protected by a wall and large houses, and by tiers of walkways which look out on the countryside. On these they keep their offensive and defensive arms: bows, arrows, shields, spears, and war clubs."
Like other Pueblo groups the Pecos enjoyed a rich cultural tradition with inventive architecture and beautiful crafts. Their elaborate religious life, evidenced by many ceremonial kivas, reached out to the nurturing spirits of all things, animate and inanimate. Their finely tuned adjustments to their natural and cultivated world rested on a practical science infused with spirituality. By story and dance tradition-bearers conveyed the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of centuries past. Regulation of individual, family, and social life stemmed from a religion that bound all things together and counseled balance, harmony, and fitness as the highest ideals.
Ideals did not always prevail. Warfare between Pueblo groups was fairly common. The frontier people of Pecos had to be vigilant with nomadic Plains Indians, whose intent - trade or war - could be unpredictable. Neighboring pueblos viewed the Pecos as dominant. The Spaniards soon learned that the Pecos could be determined enemies or powerful allies.
Pecos National Historical Park is 25 miles southeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico, off Interstate 25, exits 299 or 307.
Text and map from National Park Service publication GPO:2001--472-470/40017 Reprint 1997.