Pueblo Indians – Oldest Culture in the U.S.


Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

The Pueblo Indians, situated in the Southwestern United States, are one of the oldest cultures in the nation. Their name is Spanish for “stone masonry village dweller.” They are believed to be the descendants of three major cultures including the Mogollon, Hohokam, and Ancient Puebloans (Anasazi), with their history tracing back for some 7,000 years.

During their long history, the Ancient Puebloans evolved from a nomadic, hunter-gathering lifestyle to a sedentary culture, primarily making their homes in the Four Corners region of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Though they didn’t give up hunting, they began to expand into an agricultural culture, growing maize, corn, squash, and beans; raising turkeys and developing complex irrigation systems.

They also developed great skills in basket weaving and pottery making. It was during this time that they also began building villages, often on top of high mesas or in hollowed-out natural caves at the base of canyons. These multiple-room dwellings and apartment-like complexes, designed with stone or adobe masonry, were the forerunner of the later pueblos.

Despite their success, the Ancient Puebloans way of life declined in the 1300s, probably due to drought and intertribal warfare and they migrated south, primarily into New Mexico and Arizona, becoming what is today known as the Pueblo people.

For hundreds of years, these Pueblo descendants continued to live a similar lifestyle, continuing to survive by hunting and farming, and also building “new” apartment-like structures, sometimes several stories high. These structures were made cut sandstone faced with adobe — a combination of earth mixed with straw and water; or the adobe was poured into forms or made into sun-dried bricks to build walls that are often several feet thick. The buildings had flat roofs, which served as working or resting places, as well as observation points to watch for approaching enemies and view ceremonial occasions. For better defense, the outer walls generally had no doors or windows, but instead, window openings in the roofs, with ladders leading into the interior.

Each family generally lived in a single room of the building unless they grew too large, at which time; side-rooms were sometimes added. The houses of the pueblo were usually built around a central, open space or plaza in the middle of which was a “kiva,” a sunken chamber used for religious purposes.

Each pueblo was an independent and separate community, though many shared similarities in language and customs. Each pueblo had its own chief, and sometimes two chiefs, a summer and winter chief, who alternated. Most important affairs, such as war, hunting, religion, and agriculture; however, were governed by priesthoods or secret societies.

The Pueblo people continued to utilize irrigation methods to grow corn, beans, pumpkins, cotton and tobacco. In the beginning, they hunted with spears, rather than bow and arrows, but were never known to fish. The only domestic animal was the dog, which was used as a beast of burden. They also continued to make elaborate baskets and pottery, as well as becoming expert woodcarvers and decorating ceremonial clothing with shells, turquoise, feathers, and furs.

The vast majority of Pueblo tribes lived in a clan system, with many of the tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni, Keres, and Jemez, descending matrilineally. Thus, the women owned the house and garden, providing them with more respect than in other northern tribes of the times.

Their traditional enemies before Europeans began to inhabit the area were the Navajo, Comanche, and Apache tribes.

The Zuni were the first to become known to the Europeans in 1539 when Fray Marcos of Niza, a Franciscan, journeyed northward from Mexico, in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. When guides were sent forward, they discovered the Zuni settlement of Hawikuh. and though they were killed by the Zuni, Fray Marcos continued on, long enough to plant a cross and declare his “find” part of New Spain. He then returned to Mexico with glowing reports.

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado

Soon, a new expedition was organized under  Francesco Vasquez de Coronado was sent into the region arriving in July 1540 and taking the Zuni community before expanding into other parts of what is now New Mexico and Arizona. The Spaniards first found the Indians friendly, but after wielding their authority and forcing their religion upon the Native Americans, they begin to resist resulting in the Tiguex War during the winter of 1540-41. After putting down the Indians, killing thousands of them, Coronado continued in his journey as far as Quivira in central Kansas.

The war with the Indians in New Mexico and the many diseases that the Spanish brought later resulted in the abandonment of many of the pueblos. Afterward, Europeans were no longer welcomed at the pueblos and were often attacked. This; however, did not stop the Spanish missionaries and many new inhabitants who would come later.

By 1617, eleven Franciscan churches had been built and some 14,000 natives baptized and by 1637, 43 missions stood on or near the pueblos. However, in 1680, the Indians rose up again against the Spaniards in what is known as the Pueblo Revolt, which successfully expelled the Spanish for 12 years.

However, the Spanish re-conquered the pueblos in 1692 and aggressively began to civilize the Indians by again bringing in numerous priests and forcing Christianity upon them.

Though many of the Pueblo Indians were converted, their lifestyle changed little except for the addition of new animals and crops into their midst, including horses, cattle, sheep and goats; as well as agricultural products such as peaches, wheat, grapes, and apples.

With the re-conquest, most of the tribes settled down, though there was only minor intermittent resistance until June 1696, when about half of the pueblos rose again, killing five missionaries and a number of other Spaniards. The natives were once again forced into submission by the Spanish.

By 1800 there were only about eleven missions still in use and by 1811, only five missionaries in the nineteen pueblos of New Mexico. In 1821, Mexico became independent from Spain and though mission support further declined, some Taos Indians once again attempted a revolution but were soon defeated. The final revolt occurred in January 1847 when Taos Indians once again revolted, this time against the newly established American government, killing Governor Charles Bent, and about twenty other Americans. In retaliation, their pueblo was stormed by U.S. Troops who killed some 150 Indians, destroyed the San Geronimo Mission, and afterward, executed 16 Indians for their part in the revolt.

Today, the inhabited pueblos are governed by their tribes and though the vast majority, with the exception of the Hopi of Arizona and about ½ of the Laguna members, remains Catholic, they also adhere to their ancient rites.

Numbering about 35,000 tribal members, today’s Pueblo Indians live primarily in New Mexico and Arizona along the Rio Grande and Colorado River. Most of the pueblos are open to the public and many of their ceremonies can be attended. Each pueblo has its own rules and etiquette Fill Your Medicine Bagfor visitors, which should be reviewed before visiting.


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated October 2019.

Also See:

Ancient & Modern Pueblos – Oldest Cites in the U.S.

Ancient Cities of Native Americans

Ancient Puebloans of the Southwest

Pueblo and Reservation Etiquette

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