Acoma Pueblo - Ancient Sky City
Strategically built atop a 357-foot
sandstone mesa for defensive purposes, the Acoma Pueblo
is more familiarly known as Sky City. Believed to be the oldest
continuously inhabited city in the United States, the pueblo was built
sometime between 1100 and 1250 A.D.
The name "Acoma"
means "People of the White Rock" in the
Puebloan Kersan dialect. The
pueblo, covering some 70 acres, is actually comprised of several
villages including Acomita,
McCartys, Anzac and Sky Line.
The site was chosen, in part, because it
provided a defensive position for the tribe against raiders. Access to
the pueblo was difficult as the faces of
the mesa are sheer and before modern times, it could only be accessed
by a hand-cut staircase carved into the sandstone.
For centuries the
people have farmed the valley below the Acoma Pueblo
using irrigation canals in the villages closer to the Rio San Jose
River. They were also actively involved in trading, not only with
neighboring pueblos, but,
also over long distances with the Aztec and Mayan peoples.
photograph by Ansel Adams, about 1942.
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The pueblo was already well established when
Francisco Vasquez de Coronado was the first European to lay eyes
on it in 1540, describing it as: "One of the strongest ever seen,
because the city was built on a high rock. The ascent was so difficult
that we repented climbing to the top."
Almost fifty years
later, Sky City was almost destroyed in 1598 when Governor Juan de
Ońate, under orders from the King of Spain, invaded
and began staging raids on
American pueblos in the area, taking anything of
value. When the Spanish soldiers arrived in the area, they made their
headquarters at the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, formerly called the San Juan
Pueblo, located about 25 miles north of
Santa Fe. Upon their arrival,
they removed the
tribe who lived there and used it as a base to stage more raids on other
Native American pueblos in the area.
In December, 1598, a
party of Spanish soldiers seeking food arrived at Acoma. Initially,
they were welcomed and treated in a friendly manner until the soldiers
turned aggressive and began to demand grain from the Acoma
storehouses, which was needed for the tribe to survive the winter. Provoking a furious reaction, the Acoma attacked the
soldiers, killing 13 of them, including their commander, Juan de Zaldivar, who was a nephew of Juan de
In response, Ońate
resolved to make an example of Acoma, and dispatched 70 of his best
men, under the command of Vicente de Zaldivar, to attack the Acoma
Pueblo. On January 21, 1599, the Spanish troops came into view of the
pueblo and the tribe fanned out from
their village to guard the edge of the mesa. As the Spaniards drew
closer, the defenders unleashed a barrage of rocks and arrows down on
them. Despite the defensive barrage coming from atop the mesa, the
soldiers fought their way to the top over the next three days. During
the battle, the Spaniards brought a small cannon up the back of the
mesa and began firing into the village. The battle then became a
massacre and when it was over, as many as 800 Acoma people were dead
and their pueblo in ruins.
Afterwards, the survivors were marched to
the Santo Domingo Pueblo (now known as the
Kewa Pueblo), where all males over the age of 12 were
condemned to 20 years' servitude. Of the few dozen Acoma men of
fighting age who were still alive after the battle, they were
sentenced to have one foot cut off. The surviving children under the
age of 12 were taken from their parents, and given to Spanish
missionaries to raise. However, most of them, as well as the
women were sold into slavery. Ońate was later tried, convicted of
cruelty to Indians and colonists, and was banished from
However, he appealed the ruling and was later cleared of all charges.
He lived out the rest of his life in Spain.
In the end,
the approximate population of the 2,000 people who had lived at the Acoma Pueblo was reduced to approximately 250 survivors. In time, some
of the Acoma people managed to escape and made their way home, where
they began the long process of rebuilding. Since that time, it has
been continuously inhabited and never again fell to an invader.
Decades later, In 1629, as a "gesture of
peace" and to attempt to Christianize the
Indians, the Spanish began to build the San Estéban del Rey Mission,
which included a church, convent, and cemetery. All of the building
materials, including some 20,000 tons of earth and stone, were hand carried
or hauled up the steep slopes of the mesa. The mission’s 30-foot beams were
carried 30 miles from Mount Taylor and Kaweshtima. Under the guidance
of Friar Juan Ramirez the pueblo was
finally completed in 1640. However, according to Acoma oral tradition,
the people were forced by Ramirez to build the mission.
These abuses of power
by both religious and political authorities eventually led to the
Pueblo Revolt. On August 10, 1680, some 17,000 thousand
Puebloans, including 6,000
warriors rose up in vengeance against 2,500-3,000 colonists. The
tribes struck mission churches, killing 22 of 33 friars and
demolishing and burning many of them. Warriors attacked isolated farms
and haciendas, killing entire families. The Acoma participated in the
Revolt by killing the Spanish friars who were living at the mesa at
the time, but, did not destroy the church. It was one of the few
Spanish missions to survive the revolt intact. The Puebloans were again forced to
submit to Diego de Vargas in 1692. The Acoma joined in another
uprising in 1696, but, were again subdued in 1699.
Acoma Pueblo about 1900, by the Detroit Publishing Company.
Image available for photo prints & editorial downloads
Today, the San Estéban del Rey Mission
church houses the largest inventory of early 17th century building
material of any structure in New
It features a large collection of Spanish colonial ecclesiastic art,
an original hand-hewn circular staircase, hand-carved rails, and
Acoma is, along with
the Hopi town of Oraibi, the oldest inhabited settlement in the United
States. A federally recognized Indian Tribe, the Acoma Pueblo now has
a land base covering 431,664 acres and is home to 4,800 tribal
Both the San Estéban del Rey Mission and the pueblo
itself have been proclaimed National Historic Landmarks.
people continue the traditions of their ancestors who they trace to
the former inhabitants of older ruins to the north and west of their
present-day pueblo. Some also practice their ancient religion
while others converted to Catholicism long ago when the first Spanish
settlers arrived in the 1500's. Throughout the years
celebrations and feasts are held for religious and historic occasions. While visitors are allowed to attend, they are encouraged to be
respectful and aware of local protocol.
Today, fewer than 50 of the 3,000 Acomans
live at the pueblo, the remaining residents choosing to live in the
The Acoma Pueblo is known for its amazing pottery
and a permanent exhibit,
One Thousand Years of Clay,
is housed in the Visitors Center located at the base of the mesa along
with native food and crafts shops.
The tribe also operates the Acoma
Interpretive Center just off I-40 and the Acoma
Commercial Center. In addition, the pueblo also offers fishing for a
fee at its newly built Acoma Lake.
The pueblo is located 60 miles west of
Albuquerque on Interstate 40 and 12 miles south on Indian
Route 23. From
is just 12 miles east on I-40. The pueblo is open for guided tours between
March and October. A fee is required and no cameras are allowed without
license. Check with the Sky City visitor center at the base of the mesa.
of America, updated March, 2017.
P.O. Box 309
888-759-2489 or 505-552-6604
Revolt - Rising Up Against the Spaniards
Cities of Native Americans
Ancient Puebloans of the Southwest
- Oldest Culture in the U.S.
Pueblo and Reservation
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