Gran Quivira is a unit of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in central New Mexico. It encompasses the pueblo and mission ruins of San Buenaventura de Las Humanas that present an impressive physical record of the successes and trials of the people who once called this place home.
Gran Quivira’s history began in about 800 AD with a sedentary native population who lived in pit houses. Archeological evidence indicates that by 1300 AD, 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.
San Buenaventura de Las Humanas, the largest of the Salinas Valley villages, became 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 developed trade relationships with the Apache, Plains Indians, and other tribes.
The large pueblos attracted the Spanish when they first arrived to colonize the area in 1598. At that time, Don Juan de Oñate arrived at Las Humanas and administered an oath of obedience and subservience to the Spanish by the Indians. However, even though Las Humanas was the largest pueblo in the area, it would be years before missionary activities would begin in earnest. In about 1626, the Pueblo was designated as a missionary site under the authority of the San Grégorio de Abó mission. However, by 1629 Las Humanas had its own resident priest, Fray Francisco de Letrado, who began construction of the first permanent mission — the Inglesia de San Isidro, which was started in 1630. Construction continued until 1635, with limestone quarried on site. When it was completed in 1635, the church measured 109 feet long by 29 feet wide and was very similar in design to the church at Abo. A campo santo, or walled cemetery, was attached to the structure just east of the church. In 1659 Fray Diego de Santander was permanently assigned to Gran Quivira. Soon after, construction on a new larger church, San Buenaventura, began.
The missions at nearby Abó and Quarai, as well as at Las Humanas proved successful until Spanish officials began dictating how the priests should convert the American Indians. The officials complained that the Pueblo peoples spent more time studying Christianity than providing labor and began pressuring the Franciscan Friars to accelerate the conversion process. Although the missionaries wished to influence the Indians gradually to give up their old religious traditions, they were less powerful than government forces. The authorities also captured Apache Indians for use as slave labor or for sale to the northern areas of New Spain, causing retaliatory attacks by the Apache on the missions.
Eventually, this conflict between church and state led the Franciscan friars to destroy the Kachina masks and burn all kivas, which were sacred places where the Puebloans performed rituals and prayed to their gods. Ultimately, attempts to suppress the Pueblo peoples’ ancient religious beliefs failed.
Although the Pueblo Indians were an adaptable people who could withstand environmental and social changes, what the Spanish brought, especially disease, proved too strong for them. As drought, epidemics, and natural disasters began to decimate the population of the Salinas Valley, the Pueblo peoples felt they had insulted the spirits, and when the Christian God failed to help the community, they returned to their old beliefs. As each Salinas pueblo fell victim to epidemics, the surviving Pueblo peoples began to leave the region and seek refuge with their kinfolk in neighboring towns.
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.
Afterward, the pueblo remained vacant for over a hundred years until a new wave of explorers rediscovered the imposing ruins of the mission and pueblo mounds. In 1773 to 1774 John Rowzée Peyton, a Virginian traveling up the Rio Grande Valley found his way to the east side of the mountains and left one of the first descriptions of Gran Quivira. The site fascinated early American travelers, such as James W. Abert in 1846 and Major James Henry Carleton in 1853, who would also visit the site and leave descriptions and views of the ruins complex. In 1883 archeological studies began with Adolph Bandelier who described, photographed, and mapped the ruins.
At some point, the pueblo and mission became known as Gran Quivira and in November 1909, President Taft established Gran Quivira National Monument on November 1, 1909, to preserve “one of the largest and most important of the early Spanish church ruins.” San Isidro was first excavated and stabilized in 1951 by the National Park Service.
Today, Gran Quivira is part of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. Visitors to Gran Quivira can see the remains of the two mission churches of San Buenaventura and San Isidro, the Convento, and an excavated ruins of the Humanos Pueblo, and visit the museum to examine tools and artifacts made by the people of Las Humanas. Interpretive trails lead visitors through the ruins of Gran Quivira, Abó and Quarai. Tourists can also explore the museums at the visitor centers and picnic in designated areas at Gran Quivira, Abó, and Quarai.
The Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is located 10 miles west of Mountainair, New Mexico off Route 60. The main visitor center for Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is located on the corner of Ripley and Broadway Streets in Mountainair. Admission is free at all times.
The Gran Quivira Ruins are located about 25 miles south of Mountainair.
Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
PO Box 517
Mountainair, New Mexico 87036-0517
Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, February 2019.