The Gran Quivira: A Spanish Mission and Pueblo in New Mexico

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

Aerial map of Gran Quivira Mission and Pueblo ruins, New Mexico

It was a dry, hot, spring day in New Mexico, thankfully without the wind, as I pulled into the parking lot of the Gran Quivira, the largest of the three Salinas Missions (see earlier posts). Encompassing about 600 acres, it is situated in a remote area of New Mexico about 90 miles south of Albuquerque. The aerial map shows the extent of the structures, stretching across the arid and forlorn landscape.

I wondered if I would see any visitors venturing out to this remote site. But I was happy to see that there were about a dozen vehicles in the parking lot, ready to brave the elements to see what the past had to offer them. The glass-enclosed visitor center was closed, due to COVID, but the site was open and ready for sightseers.

Gran Quivira

Although I remember visiting the site over 25 years ago, when my mother and I traipsed through every imaginable archaeological site that existed in New Mexico, I didn’t remember how large it was. This was a formidable pueblo and mission.

Remains of pit houses, photo Denise Ames

Gran Quivira’s history began in about 800 CE (common era). A sedentary native population lived in pit houses that were dug into the earth for protection from the elements. Archeological evidence indicates that by 1300 CE, the area overlooking the southern Estancia Basin was inhabited by Tompiro-speaking peoples who built the culturally distinct pueblo masonry architecture.

From about 1000 AD to the 1600s, three villages at the site served as major regional centers of trade with Indians from the Plains, the Pacific Coast, and the Great Basin. The Puebloan people were both producers and middlemen between the Rio Grande villages and plains tribes to the east. They traded maize, pinon nuts, beans, squash, salt, and cotton goods for dried buffalo meat, hides, flints, and shells.

Gran Quivira, photo Denise Ames

San Buenaventura de Las Humanas, the largest of Gran Quivera villages, grew into a bustling community of 3,000 inhabitants with multiple pueblos and kivas. Living in a land with scarce water, these early peoples subsisted from hunting, gathering, and agricultural activities, and trade relationships.

I looked for a nearby stream that would provide water for the residents but there was none that I could locate. In fact, the village cleverly managed to derive their water from catch basins and cisterns located on the site.

Grand Kiva at Gran Quivira, New Mexico, photo Denise Ames

The pueblo people practiced an animistic religion in which dances and other rituals were intended to take the people’s prayers to the gods in hope of ensuring sufficient rain, good harvests and hunting, and universal harmony. Many of the rituals and prayers were performed in sacred kivas. These underground, circular structures were the heart of native religious beliefs and culture.

The Spanish missions were charged with converting the Puebloan people to Catholicism. This was not an easy task. Although kivas were allowed to remain at many of the missions, eventually, this conflict between the two religious beliefs led the Franciscan friars to destroy the kivas. Ultimately, attempts to suppress the Pueblo peoples’ ancient religious beliefs failed.

Gran Quivira ruins, photo Denise Ames

Recurring epidemics decimated the population, which had little resistance to European diseases. Along with deadly disease, in September 1670, the Apache raided Las Humanas and destroyed the mission and pueblo, leaving 11 dead and taking 30 inhabitants as captives. By 1672, the once thriving community of 10,000 inhabitants was reduced to 500 people. By 1678, the Spanish and Pueblo peoples had completely abandoned the Salinas Valley.

Mission church, Gran Quivira, New Mexico, photo Denise Ames

As I drove out of the historic site and into the barren lands of New Mexico, I reflected upon my experience walking through the site. For one, I was amazed at their resourcefulness in securing enough water to supply all their needs.

I was also struck by the fact that the cultural beliefs of a people are hard to change. A lesson for those who are eager to “reeducate” a group of people. Often, we hold on to our beliefs even though they may be against our best interests; they are part of us and deeply entrenched. Today, cultural and religious beliefs of many native people in New Mexico continue their traditional ways, even amidst our modern society. A true testament to the endurance of tradition. 

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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