The Impermanence of Quarai: A Story of a Salinas Mission and Pueblo

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

Quarai Mission, New Mexico, photo Denise Ames

The Quarai mission ruins sat stoically under a brilliant, New Mexico-blue sky in early spring. Unlike the Abo ruins, about 10 miles away, Quarai had a softer feel. Perhaps it was because of the just-budding cottonwood trees lining a nearby stream bed that lent the space a more mystical atmosphere. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed the ambience.

There wasn’t as much excavation at Quarai, as the Abo site or the larger Gran Quivera complex that I would visit next. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to read a bit of the history about the relationship of the Catholic missionaries and the native Pueblo people.

Towering wall of the Quarai Mission, New Mexico, photo Denise Ames

Soon after Spain had conquered and colonized Mexico, tales of great wealth to the North drew explorers to New Mexico. In 1598 a party led by Juan de Onate came to New Mexico to plant a permeant colony. Onate does not have a good reputation in New Mexico, and deservedly so. The Acoma people (a pueblo people) killed 15 of Onate’s men during a raid, including his favorite nephew. In retaliation, Onate killed an estimated 800-1,000 Acoma. The Acoma still remember and tell this story.

Quarai Mission, New Mexico, photo Denise Ames

Onate called salt, which was abundant in the Salinas area, one of the four riches of New Mexico, but the other riches, especially minerals, were elusive. Agriculture too proved difficult in the harsh climate. Although Spain concluded that New Mexico would never be profitable, the Pope had charged the Spanish Crown with Christianizing the indigenous people. Therefore, the Spanish sent Franciscan missionaries with that task. Hence, the three missions in the area.

To defray some of the high costs of setting up the missions, the Salinas Puebloan people were saddled with heavy tribute payments to be paid to Spanish political officials and also the Franciscans placed demands on the pueblos to support the missions. But the pueblos considered some changes brought by the Franciscans to be beneficial. Wheat and wheat bread, fruit trees, and grapes were introduced. Also, cattle, goats, and sheep became a fixed part of the economy. Metal was also introduced.

Quarai Mission, perimeter path, photo Denise Ames

In the end cultural conflict and natural disaster devastated Salinas pueblos. The Apaches to the west were formerly trading partners but in the 1600s they raided the pueblos for food. The Apaches also sought revenge for Spanish slave raids on their people in which Pueblo Indians had participated. Interestingly and sadly, slavery was part of native people’s society before Europeans introduced African slaves to the Western hemisphere.  

After snapping some pictures of the main mission structure, I decided to enjoy the springtime air and hike around the perimeter of the main area. Well-marked trails wove through the dense cottonwood forest. When summertime rolled around and all the trees and bushes leafed out, the paths would be nearly impassable. Birds chirped to show their pleasure that spring was here and the next generation of their species was around the corner.

Stream by Salinas Pueblo Mission, photo Denise Ames

It was too cool for a picnic, but under a canopy of cottonwoods an ideal spot welcomed visitors to sit and reflect. As I sat in the shade of the towering cottonwoods, I wondered what they would have seen over 300 years ago. Would they have witnessed native children skipping to the creek to fetch water? Or would they see women pummeling their garments with stones in the creek bed as they performed their spring washing ritual. Or did they take in a scene of pueblo men venturing out in a hunting party to snag a deer to augment their daily intake of squash, seeds, and tubers.  

The missions had large gardens themselves and corrals of animals that were new to the Western hemisphere—goats, sheep, cattle, and horses. I imagine the missionaries would not have been able to completely rely on native people to tend the plants and animals alone, but they would need to do these chores as well.

Quarai Mission, New Mexico, photo Denise Ames

Despite the permanent looking stone and adobe mission structures, this way of life did not last many years. Recurring epidemics decimated native populations, which had little resistance to introduced diseases from Europe. Along with Spanish misrule and recurring drought, the Salinas and pueblos and missions were abandoned in the 1670s and the surviving Indians went to live with cultural relatives in other pueblos.

The scenario is another reminder of the impermanence of life and of human societies. History is strewn with societies and civilizations that grow and decline. We are more a part of nature and her cycles of birth, life, and death than we realize.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 9 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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