The Many Faces of Abiquiu


Dinosaurs are cool. Everybody knows that. And once upon a time, there were lots of the small, carnivorous biped known as Coelophysis running around the land dominated by the Pedernal.

The lone mountain called Cerro Pedernal is one of the jewels of the Abiquiú landscape. It rests a few miles west-southwest of Abiquiú, in the transition zone between the Colorado Plateau and the Rio Grande rift, according to a Web article by field geologist Shari Kelley of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources. It is capped by basalt and andesite thrown up by eruptions in the Jemez volcanic field about 8 million years ago. Below that distinctive cap are much older Cenozoic basin-fill sediments, and at the bottom you can see stratified rock from the Mesozoic Era.

The Mesozoic, which geologists say began about 251 million years ago and ended about 65 million years ago, was dinosaur time on this planet. One from this neck of the woods was Coelophysis, a fast-running dinosaur up to about 10 feet long. An amazing collection of their skeletons was discovered in 1947 at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiú. The buried remains included Coelophysis of all ages – it is believed they may have been killed en masse in a flood.

Perhaps a hundred million years later, humans first visited the Abiquiú area. In a 1976 story in The Santa Fe New Mexican, John Beal of the School of American Research (now the School for Advanced Research) said the Abiquiú area has been continuously occupied since about 3000 BC. In her book Valley of Shining Stone: The Story of Abiquiú, Lesley Poling-Kempes writes, “The historic village of Abiquiú was built directly upon the remains of the prehistoric pueblo of P’efu.” The pueblo’s Asa people left the area sometime in the 16th century and likely migrated south to the Rio Grande communities now known as Santa Clara and Ohkay Owingeh.

By the 1740s Spanish colonists had settled in a place next to the Rio Chama that they named Santa Rosa de Lima de Abiquiú, and within four or five years they had built a Catholic church in its plaza.

A history by William H. Wroth at the Web site of the State Historian ( says Fray Francisco Delgado and two other friars converted and brought 350 Hopi-Tewas back from Hopi villages to live at Jemez and Isleta Pueblos in 1742. About 24 of these Hopi-Tewas were resettled on the south end of the mesa at Abiquiú, forming the Plaza del Moqui – Moqui is the term used by Spanish authorities for the Hopis.

The people abandoned Santa Rosa de Lima in 1747 because of increasing raids by Ute and Comanche Indians. Three years later, the Spanish colonial government ordered it to be resettled, and among those returning were 13 Moqui people, probably survivors of the 24 who had gone to the mesa earlier.

The raids by Plains Indians continued, though. To protect the outpost, the governor in 1754 awarded a land grant to 34 Genízaro families for land on a mesa above Santa Rosa de Lima. These Genízaros, Poling-Kempes writes, were “full-blooded members of non-Pueblo, Plains Indian tribes who had been abducted during intertribal raids and later ransomed to the Spanish” – not half-breeds, as is often believed.

“Abiquiú thus became the location of a social experiment that was unique in New Mexico, promoting formal cultural change for a group of persons born into hunting-gathering societies,” she writes in Valley of Shining Stone. The residents of the new pueblo, called Santo Tomas de Abiquiú, included the Hopi of the Plaza del Moqui.

A more peaceful coexistence with the Utes and other tribes finally came in the late 1700s with the development in Santo Tomas de Abiquiú of a big, annual trade fair. Trade relationships became the new glue that engendered cooperation and prosperity, at least for a while. Relations became prickly in the 19th century and there was scattered warfare in the area until the coming of the American army mid-century.

The Anglo “invasion” of Northern New Mexico accelerated greatly with the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s. By the 20th century, the clashes between cultures had, for the most part, shifted from weaponry to ideologies.

A case in point was the church that replaced the 1770s Genízaro church, which had burned down in 1867. The new building was designed by Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem in the early 1930s. Trainees from a Works Progress Administration crafts program at the El Rito Normal School fabricated the building’s ornate woodwork, but the construction of the church itself was a contentious process.

“John Gaw Meem didn’t claim the Abiquiú church as one of his designs because the people wouldn’t stay with his plan,” said Isabel Trujillo, director of the Pueblo de Abiquiú Library and Cultural Center. “They wanted to keep it with the ancient ways, the Penitente beliefs. The newcomers wanted to put the church doors on the commercial side, facing the old general store. The pueblo people up here, the Moqui, wanted the doors to face the pueblo, to face the way people were buried and the way that kivas faced.”

In the end, the locals had their way. The church was completed in 1935, the same year the U.S. Government published a report about Depression-era conditions in Northern New Mexico. A field-survey program initiated by the U.S. Department of the Interior sent a team of rural sociologists, anthropologists, and economists to Abiquiú and more than 30 other villages in the Tewa Basin, as well as to Navajo country to the west.

New Mexico author Marta Weigel resurrected the work in her book Hispanic Villages of Northern New Mexico: A Reprint of Vol. 2 of the 1935 Tewa Basin Study. The little books is full of fascinating facts about village life in those days. The predominant work in Abiquiú, which the original authors called “one of most picturesque Spanish-American villages in New Mexico,” was farming and stock-raising.

The average family had four acres in cultivation. “All farmers depend to a large extent on their gardens,” the researchers reported. “Most garden products are stored in vegetable cellars or dried in the sun.” In 1935 there were 543 acres of land farmed using acequias. A Mr. Gonzales had 60 percent of the farmland, which he rented out on a sharecropper basis.

The community’s livestock had been reduced by drought and a heavy winter in 1931. Now there were only 360 head of cattle, and 11,000 sheep – of which Gonzales owned 8,000.

At the time, there were 38 Abiquiú men away herding sheep in Colorado and Utah. “In former years up to 50 percent of the men would leave in the spring to work in beet and potato fields, and in the mines or sawmills of Colorado, Utah, or Nevada,” according to the Tewa Basin Study. “It is getting harder each year for them to find employment away from home…”

A center of village life was the Gonzales and Bode store, which carried food and hardware, and had the local post office and a power plant. The store, which was established in 1919, was doing 95 percent of its business on a credit basis during the Depression years.

The building that held the store is still there. At present, it’s owned by John Bosshard, who deals Asian imports from a shop in Santa Fe. He graciously gave a tour of the voluminous old adobe. Still there are the steel ladders on ceiling-mounted sliders, used in the store days to access high-stacked goods. At back there’s an ancient, wood and iron elevator, wonderfully solid and still in perfect shape. Goods were moved between two levels by means of ropes and pulleys. There is also a big, old Fairbanks grocer’s scale, anchored in the floor, and ledger books full of neatly handwritten sales entries.

At the new version of the store, just called Bode’s, Dennis Liddy was doing a steady business on a Friday morning. “We added more food and cut back on the hardware,” said Liddy, who bought the business from Carl Bode 15 years ago. “For the hardware now you have to be a member of the cooperatives like True Value.”

But there’s still a good line of knee-high rubber boots, fishing gear, blue-enameled camping cookware, rope, and a selection of nails in buckets in a corner.

Outside the store, Toni Cisneros of El Rito and her granddaughter, Shaynae, had a variety of home-baked pies, cakes, and tortillas, lined up on a portable table. The little bake sale is to help Shaynae’s fundraising for a trip to see Yellowstone through Mesa Vista Middle & High School (in Ojo Caliente).

Shaynae said kids in Abiquiú go to Abiquiú Elementary School through the 6th grade, then go on either to Mesa Vista or junior high school in Española.

Carl Bode, son of the original store owner, lives on the plaza up and off the main road. Nearby, across from the 1919 store building, is the 18th-century adobe home the famed modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe renovated with her friend Maria Chabot.

O’Keeffe first visited this area in 1934, and that was at Ghost Ranch, a dude ranch 14 miles north of Abiquiú. She soon began spending her summers in the area, painting the Pedernal, the Chama River and its bordering cottonwoods, and the red-rock formations and cliffs. She bought the Ghost Ranch residence called Rancho de los Burros in 1940.

The 21,000-acre ranch was part of the Piedra Lumbre land grant awarded by the King of Spain in 1766. The name “Ghost Ranch,” or the local name “El Rancho de los Brujos,” was derived from the many tales of ghosts and legends of hangings in the ranch’s history, according to the organization’s Internet site.

O’Keeffe moved from New York to New Mexico permanently in 1949. Four years earlier, she and her friend, Maria Chabot, remodeled an 18th-century house on the plaza of Santa Tomas de Abiquiú, and she took turns living there and at Ghost Ranch for the next four decades.

She died in Santa Fe in 1986. The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation owned the artist’s Abiquiú dwelling from 1989 until recently. The house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now run by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which makes it available for public tours on a limited basis.

Another small building on the old plaza houses the Pueblo de Abiquiú Library and Cultural Center. Its director, Isabel Trujillo, grew up in nearby Medanales and has been in Abiquiú for 25 years. She is currently trying to buy her grandmother’s home. “My mom’s parents, Santiago and Santana Herrera, built the house. This was one of the oldest families here,” she said. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was Spanish and my grandmother was Indian.”

Heritage is important to Trujillo, whether it’s family- or community-oriented. The Abiquiú Land Grant, she noted, would like to buy that old Gonzales and Bode store building, if it becomes available, “because of the story it holds.”

Not too long ago, Trujillo and two other local people arranged a dinner theater, a benefit for the library, based on the book I Returned and Saw Under the Sun: Padre Martínez of Taos by E. A. Mares.

Antonio José Martínez was “one of the most important intellectual, spiritual, and political leaders of northern New Mexico in the nineteenth century,” according to the Web site of the New Mexico State Historian. Padre Martínez was born in Abiquiú in 1793 and went on to publish the first book in New Mexico and found a school for boys and girls while serving as a priest in Taos and surrounding villages.

Abiquiú holds many origins in the history of New Mexico. Trujillo said many of the Indians in Arizona trace their history to this place. “These were Indians who were brought here, then went back after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. We have a Moqui village right up behind this building. I don’t think many people are left there now.”

She is pushing for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe to release records of births and deaths in Abiquiú, based on the community’s understanding that such records become public after 50 years. She and the library’s technology administrator, John Ussery, are working with local children on a GPS project to map the cemetery and Abiquiú’s water resources.

They are getting help from Malcolm Ebright (director of the Center for Land Grant Studies and author of numerous books, most recently The Witches of Abiquiú: the Governor, the Priest, the Genízaro Indians, and the Devil) on a State Archives grant to transcribe some of the invoices from the old store that were donated by Bosshard.

“We also got a Technology Showcase grant from the New Mexico State Library to do a digital archive because we’re running out of room here,” Trujillo said.

“We’re trying to get people to come in so we can make copies of their old photos and other things, but they’re afraid about losing rights, so we’re in the process of developing policies and procedures.”

Trujillo said there is anxiety in the pueblo because the land grant doesn’t have an experienced, outside facilitator to help prioritize needs.

One is for improvements to the Joe Ferran Gym, which was financed by O’Keeffe and functions like a community center. Rio Arriba County provides staffing and lunches during the summertime, but Trujillo said the building is very hot and the lunches cold because of the lack of air conditioning and other facilities. “It’s really sad. Yet there’s all this tourism here and if they knew the stories, there could be more sympathy for support.

“The dances and songs that have come down, and continue in a very limited way… Dexter Trujillo in my opinion has kept both moradas going, as well as the fiestas, dances, songs, and drumming. He’s just about the only one now. The costumes and the songs and the dances – no one’s ever been sure of the meanings.”

She hopes they can learn more about these historical practices when, with the assistance of State Archives, they transcribe recordings of interviews done with local people in the early 1960s.

“If we want to advance positively and we can’t do it in a spiritual way, we have to do it in a social way, and that’s about making employment sustainable with agriculture and natural resources,” she said. “We have about 32 acres of land that will be dedicated on Aug. 15 from the Department of Game & Fish back to the land grant… It gives us opportunity but we need facilitation assistance, but neither Rio Arriba County nor the state want to act as fiscal partners.

“The outside world associates this place with O’Keeffe, and more recently Ghost Ranch, but to the people in the pueblo, ‘Abiquiú’ means the Abiquiú Land Grant. We’re separate from those outside the land grant but we do need to come together because when it comes to grants and advancing positively, and in comprehensive planning, we should be looking at the overall picture.”

The tourists she mentioned – who come from around the state and beyond its borders – have many reasons to visit. There is fishing and boating on Abiquiu Lake, a large impoundment basin formed by the Abiquiú Dam, which was constructed primarily for flood-control purposes and was completed in 1963.

Echo Amphitheater is an interesting rock formation, not too far north of Ghost Ranch, that is known for its beauty and the fact that it echoes voices. Also notable are the 23-year-old Abiquiú Inn, lavender farms, and Resting in the River, an organic farm founded by actress Marsha Mason.

These days, Ghost Ranch is operated as a conference and retreat center by the Presbyterian Church. And speaking of religion, there are three singular institutions in the Abiquiu area. At the end of a winding dirt road that takes off midway between Echo Amphitheater and the Ghost Ranch Visitors Center is the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. The Benedictine monastery was founded in 1964. A new monastic facility built in the 1990s by Burke Denman expanded the monastery’s existing emphasis on sustainability by employing straw-bale walls and powering the buildings with photovoltaic panels.

Closer to Abiquiú is Dar al Islam, a nonprofit founded two decades ago to promote American knowledge of Islam. A beautiful mosque and attached school were designed in traditional North African style by Egyptian Architect Hassan Fathy. And there is St. Michael’s Skete, an Orthodox Christian monastery in nearby Cañones.

Local artists hold the annual Abiquiú Studio Tour on Columbus Day weekend. This year’s event will see participation by more than 70 artists.