Taos, New Mexico – Art, Architecture & History

A street in modern-day Taos, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

A street in modern-day Taos, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

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Taos Pueblo woman by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

Taos Pueblo woman by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

Taos, New Mexico, the county seat of Taos County, is located in the northcentral part of the state in the midst of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The town derives its name from the native Taos language meaning “place of red willows.” Its long history dates back hundreds of years and today proudly incorporates three cultures — Native American, Anglo, and Hispanic — into a beautiful city with a heritage of colorful people.

The Taos Valley, with its two great Pueblos, the old town of Fernando de Taos, and the still more ancient settlement known as Ranchos de Taos, is one of the most fascinating and historical points in the West.

Taos Valley, New Mexico by Sarowen - Flickr Commons

Taos Valley, New Mexico by Sarowen – Flickr Commons

Most of Taos County’s eastern boundary is occupied by the Taos Range of the Rocky Mountains, and Taos Valley itself is one of the most picturesque in existence. On the east, it is surrounded by a half-moon of mountains, with no foothills extending into the mesas to diminish the scene’s grandeur. Eleven streams issue from these mountains and across the valley in a westerly direction, and the Rio Grande cuts through it in a 500 feet deep canyon.

Long before European explorers discovered the region, it had been inhabited as early as 12,000 BC when early inhabitants roamed the area, hunting large mammals, such as mammoths, and gathering wild foods for subsistence. By 3,000 BC, the people began to adopt the idea of agriculture from neighbors in Mexico, which began to restrict their movements and develop long-term communities.

The ancestors of the Pueblo people, commonly known as the Anasazi, were the first permanent inhabitants of Taos Valley. Room blocks and pit houses in the Taos area testify to their presence since 900 AD. Around 1200 AD, they aggregated into small above-ground structures of 50-100 rooms. The Taos Pueblo that continues to stand today was probably built between A.D. 1300 and 1450.

Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Throughout its early years, Taos Pueblo was a central point of trade between the native populations along the Rio Grande and their neighbors to the northwest, the Plains Tribes. Taos Pueblo hosted a trade fair each fall after the agricultural harvest. This fair impressed the first Spaniards who made contact with the ancient pueblo. Eventually, trade routes would link Taos to the northernmost towns of New Spain and Mexico’s cities via the famed Chihuahua Trail.

The first Spanish visitors to Taos Pueblo arrived in 1540 as members of the Francisco Vásquez de Coronado expedition, which stopped at many of  New Mexico’s pueblos searching for the rumored Seven Cities of Gold. At the time, Hernando de Alvarado described the pueblo as having adobe houses built very close together and stacked five or six stories high. The homes became narrower as they rose, with each level’s roofs providing the floors and terraces for those above. Surrounded by a low defensive wall, the community had two main clusters of buildings, one on each side of the Rio Grande, which provided water for the residents and their crops.

Juan de Onate

Juan de Onate

The first Spanish-influenced architecture appeared in Taos Pueblo after Fray Francisco de Zamora came there in 1598 to establish a mission under orders from Spanish Governor Don Juan de Oñate.

The village of Taos, first called Fernando de Taos, was established in about 1615, following the Spanish conquest of the Indian Pueblo villages by Geneva Vigil. Initially, the relations of the Spanish settlers with Taos Pueblo were amicable. Still, resentment of meddling by missionaries and demands for a tribute to the church and Spanish colonists led to several revolts. Taos would become the center of many of the pueblo rebellions against the Spanish, the first of which almost occurred in 1609 when Governor Don Juan de Oñate was accused of throwing a young Taos Indian from a rooftop. However, Oñate was soon removed from office. Another small revolt was quickly subdued in 1613. But, these small insurgencies did not stop the determined Spanish priests and colonists. Around 1620, the first Catholic Church in the pueblo, San Geronimo de Taos, was constructed.

Reports from the period indicate that the native people of Taos resisted the building of the church and the imposition of the Catholic religion. Throughout the 1600s, cultural tensions grew between the native populations of the Southwest and the increasing Spanish presence. In 1631, another event occurred in the rebellion of the Spaniards when a resident missionary and the soldiers who escorted him were attacked and killed. Tensions continued to grow, and in 1640, the Taos Indians killed their priest and several Spanish settlers and fled the pueblo. The people would not return to their pueblo for more than two decades, in 1661.

Spanish Conquistadors

Spanish Conquistadors

In the 1670s, drought swept the region, which caused famine among the pueblos and provoked increased attacks from neighboring nomadic tribes. Due to the number of attacks, the Spanish soldiers were not always able to defend the pueblos. At about the same time, European-introduced diseases were ravaging the pueblos and greatly decreasing their numbers. Becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the Spanish, the Puebloans turned to their old religions, provoking a wave of repression from the Franciscan missionaries. While the missionaries had previously tended to ignore the occasional pueblo ceremonies as long as the people made some effort to attend mass, the Puebloans renewed vigor towards their religions caused Fray Alonso de Posada to forbid Kachina dances by the Pueblo Indians and ordered the missionaries to seize every mask, prayer stick, and effigy they could lay their hands on and burn them. Furthermore, the Indians were forbidden, on pain of death, to practice their native religions. When some Spanish officials tried to curb the Franciscans’ power, they were charged with heresy and tried before the Inquisition.

In 1675, the tension came to a head when Governor Juan Francisco Treviño ordered the arrest of 47 medicine men and accused them of practicing witchcraft. Four of the men were sentenced to be hanged – three of those sentences were carried out, while the fourth prisoner committed suicide. The remaining men were publicly whipped and sentenced to prison. When this news reached the Pueblo leaders, they moved in force to Santa Fe, where the prisoners were held. Because a large number of Spanish soldiers were away fighting the Apache, Governor Treviño released the prisoners. Among those who were released was a medicine man from the San Juan Pueblo (now known as Ohkay Owingeh), named Popé, who would soon become the leader of the Pueblo Rebellion. Popé then moved to Taos Pueblo and began plotting with men from other pueblos to drive the Spaniards out.

Pueblo Revolt

Pueblo Revolt

Before long, a well-coordinated effort of several pueblo villages was established in August of 1680. Throughout the upper Rio Grande basin north of El Paso to Taos, the Tewa, Tiwa, Hopi, Zuni, and other Keresan-speaking pueblos, and even the non-pueblo Apache planned to rise against the Spanish simultaneously.

On August 10, 1680, the attack, known as the Pueblo Revolt, was commenced by the Taos, Picuri, and Tewa Indians in their respective provinces against 40 Franciscans and another 380 Spaniards, including men, women, and children. The Spaniards that were able to escape fled to Santa Fe and the Isleta Pueblo, one of the few pueblos that did not participate in the rebellion. Popé’s warriors, armed with Spanish weapons, then besieged Santa Fe, surrounding the city and cutting off its water supply. New Mexico Governor Antonio de Otermín, barricaded in the Governor’s Palace, soon called for a general retreat. On August 21st, the remaining 3,000 Spanish settlers streamed out of the capital city and headed for El Paso, Texas. Believing themselves the only survivors, the refugees at the Isleta Pueblo also left for El Paso in September. In the meantime, the pueblo people destroyed most of the Spanish homes and buildings. The Taos Indians again destroyed San Geronimo and killed two priests.

Governor Diego de Vargas

Governor Diego de Vargas

After the Spanish Reconquest of 1692, Taos Pueblo continued armed resistance against the Spanish until 1696, when Governor Diego de Vargas defeated the Indians at Taos Canyon. He soon persuaded the Taos Pueblo Indians to drop their arms and come back out of the mountains.

In 1723, the Spanish government forbade trade with the French, and limited trade with the Plains Tribes only to Taos and Pecos, thereby giving rise to the annual summer trade fairs at those locations where ComancheKiowa, and others came in great numbers to trade captives for horses, grain and trade goods from Chihuahua.

In 1776, at the time of the American Declaration of Independence, there were an estimated 67 families with 306 Spaniards in the Taos Valley. At that time, the Ranchos de Taos area was the most populous. That same year the first Spanish church was built in Ranchos de Taos. A few years earlier, the first church in the area was being built in 1772. The Franciscans supervised the construction of the historic San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church that was finally completed in 1816.

During the 1770s, Taos was repeatedly raided by Comanche, who lived on the plains of what is now eastern Colorado. Juan Bautista de Anza, governor of the Province of New Mexico, led a successful punitive expedition in 1779 against the Comanche.

San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico still serves a congregation today.

San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, still
serves a congregation today. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The erection of the church at Fernando de Taos was begun in 1796, but it was not completed until 1806. The ancient church at the Pueblo, which was ruined during the Taos Revolt in 1847, was the headquarters of the Roman Catholic diocese. Spanish/native relations within the pueblo became amicable for a brief period as both groups found a common enemy in the invading Ute and Comanche tribes. However, resistance to Catholicism and Spanish culture was still strong. Even so, Spanish religious ideals and agricultural practices subtly worked their way into the Taos community, largely starting during this time of increased cooperation between the two cultural groups.

Between 1796 and 1797, the Don Fernando de Taos Land Grant gave land to 63 Spanish families in the Taos valley. A more formal settlement was established to the northeast of Ranchos de Taos, with a fortified plaza and adobe buildings, surrounded by residential areas. Homes were built in large quadrangles that offered a fortress-like structure. Hostile raiding Indians from outside the Taos area were thwarted in their attempts to enter the village. Sentries stationed at the corners of the fortified village kept vigil day and night. A huge gate offered the only means of entry and exit to the Plaza. The enclosure served as a refuge for livestock at night, and merchants used the area to display their wares during trade fairs.

Taos was, for many years following the American occupation, the chief political storm-center of the Territory. The presence there of such men as Charles Bent, the first Governor; Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson, the famous scout and guide; Colonel Ceran St. Vrain, the well-known merchant; “Don Carlos” Beaubien, one of the original proprietors of the notorious Maxwell Land Grant and the first Chief Justice of New Mexico; Father Martinez, a demagogue, traitor, conspirator against peace and as great a rascal as ever, who remained un-hanged in New Mexico, whether viewed from a political or moral standpoint — such individuals as these gave the community a position in Territorial affairs equal to that of Santa Fe, the capital.

Kit Carson

Kit Carson

Along with these famous names, there were dozens of other French, American, and Canadian trappers operating in Taos County. A brisk fur trade began, bringing yet another element — the mountain men — to the Taos trade fair. By that time, the Taos Valley was well populated with livestock, agriculture, and people who supplied Mexico with inexpensive goods. Goods also came into Taos, such as the first printing press west of the Mississippi River in 1834, to print books for the co-educational school, which Padre Antonio Jose Martinez founded. In 1835, the padre began printing the first newspaper, El Crepusculo, which was the predecessor to The Taos News.  In 1840, some 20,000 Rio Grande wool blankets were exported south to Mexico.

In 1842 Padre Martínez, after giving him instruction, baptized Kit Carson as a Catholic so he could become engaged to marry Josefa Jaramillo. The following year, Kit and Josefa married, and Kit purchased a house from the Jaramillo family as a wedding present for his new bride. The house, built in 1825, served as Carson’s home until 1868, and today is the Kit Carson Home and Museum. Three years later, in 1846, Colonel Stephen W. Kearny with his “Army of the West” occupied New Mexico for the United States. Charles Bent of Taos was appointed as the first American Governor. That same year, business remained brisk in Taos as 1.7 million dollars in beaver and other furs were traded through Taos.

Kit Carson House in Taos, New Mexico

Kit Carson House in Taos, New Mexico

New Mexico formally became a territory of the United States in 1847 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. However, many of the native Mexicans and Indians were not happy with this event. The Mexicans in the Taos area resented the newcomers and enlisted the Taos Indians to aid them in an insurrection. Mexican Pablo Montoya and Tomasito, a leader of the Taos Pueblo Indians, led a force of Mexicans and Indians who did not want to become a part of the United States. Charles Bent, the new American governor who was headquartered at Taos, was killed and scalped in January 1847 along with many other American officials and residents. The rebels then marched on Santa Fe, but the response of the American Army was immediate. A force of more than 300 soldiers from Santa Fe and Albuquerque quickly rode to Taos, and after battles in Santa Cruz and Embudo, the rebels were soundly defeated. The remainder of the Mexicans and Indians took refuge in the San Geronimo Mission Church. The American troops bombarded the church, killing or capturing the insurrectionists and destroying the physical structure. Around 1850, an entirely new mission church was constructed near the west gate of the pueblo wall.

In 1852, Taos and other counties in New Mexico were redefined from an earlier division made in 1846, which was based on an old Mexican government Partido and made Taos the county seat of Taos County.

Old Taos, New Mexico

Old Taos, New Mexico

Taos Valley flourished during this period as other cultures found their way into the territory. Taos was an excellent trade center for the region but, with honest merchants and families, also came criminals. Before the Civil War, it became a hotbed of many of the early conspiracies against the American government. After the Civil War, most criminals moved on, and the city of Taos was mostly peaceful. However, there was one great exception in a notorious character who went by the name of “Colonel” Thomas Means. A surveyor by profession, he came to New Mexico Territory soon after the inauguration of civil government by the Americans. He lived in Colfax County for some time, and for years was more or less identified with the tragic episodes which marked the early history of the infamous Maxwell Land Grant. He finally settled down in Taos, where he made life one continuous round of misery for all who were forced into contact with him. He exhibited an insolence and confrontational disposition that constantly precipitated him into trouble until he became such a nuisance to the more peaceably inclined inhabitants as to render drastic measures necessary. He would not only grossly insult and frequently attack anybody who came within his reach, but he beat his wife so badly on innumerable occasions that her life was in jeopardy.

Vigilantes

Vigilantes

Finding that their appeals to courts of justice were to no avail, in 1868, several citizens decided to organize that common frontier institution known as a Vigilance Committee and put an end to “Colonel” Means and all his meanness. Though the vigilantes warned him of his inevitable fate if he continued his violent actions, Means ignored the threat. On January 2, 1867, when he drew his knife, fired his pistol at several people, assaulted and nearly killed his wife following a “big spree,” he was soon arrested. That night, a group of 15-20 heavily armed men “in disguise” entered the room where Means was being held and forcibly removed him from the custody of his guards. The vigilantes then carried him to an adjoining room, which served as the county courthouse, and hanged him from a heavy rafter. The coroner’s jury described Means as “not deserving of the sympathy of anyone, being as he was altogether a dangerous character, continually threatening the lives of peaceable citizens, without distinction and even the lives of members of his own family and innocent children.” The conclusion was that Means had died at the hands of “persons unknown.” The next day was one of general rejoicing that the community had been summarily rid of one of its most disagreeable and dangerous factors. Thus ended the career of one of the most widely known, and at one time, one of the most influential men of northern New Mexico.

Gold Prospector in New Mexico

Gold Prospector in New Mexico

The 1880s brought a different type of newcomer to the Taos Valley when gold and rumors of gold, silver, and copper spread throughout the region. In 1866, gold had been found in Elizabethtown, New Mexico, some 30 miles northeast of Taos, and in the 1870s, miners began searching for gold in the Red River area. The fever spread, and from 1880 to 1895, the Rio Hondo, which begins high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near what is now Taos Ski Valley, was actively searched by placer miners. Mining, however, was not productive in the Taos area.

In 1898, two young artists from the East named Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips discovered the valley after their wagon broke down north of Taos. They decided to stay, captivated by the beauty of the area. As word of their discovery spread throughout the art community, they were joined by other associates. This was the start of Taos’ history and reputation as an artist’s community.

Downtown Artists' Community in Taos, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Downtown Artists’ Community in Taos, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

In 1912 New Mexico became the 47th state. Three years later, in 1915, the Taos Society of Artists was formed, which unwittingly helped found one of Taos’ leading sources of revenue in the 20th century — the tourist trade. In 1917, Socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan arrived and eventually brought to Taos creative luminaries such as Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Thornton Wilder, and Thomas Wolfe.

On May 9, 1932, the Taos County Courthouse and the other buildings on the north side of the Plaza were destroyed by one of a series of fires in the early 1930s. This led to the incorporation of the Town of Taos on May 7, 1934, and establishing a fire department and public water system. That same year, a new Spanish-Pueblo style courthouse was built with partial funding from the Works Progress Administration. In 1956, the Taos Ski Valley was established, bringing more tourism to the valley. Before long, other area ski resorts also sprang up nearby – Red River, Sipapu, and Angel Fire.

In 1965, the second-highest suspension bridge in the U.S. highway system was built spanning the Rio Grande Gorge. It was called the “bridge to nowhere” while it is being built because the funding did not exist to continue the road on the other side. However, its magnificence can be seen today along US Highway 64, heading northward to Colorado.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Taos became known for being a Hippie community. The city was the perfect place for the 1960s counterculture to express itself, as Taos had long been accustomed to blending cultures. Taos and the rest of New Mexico have long been known as an arty and spiritual place. By 1969 there were at least six communes in the Taos area, and some say as many as 25. One of the communes’ leaders took to the stage at the Woodstock festival in 1969, inviting all to his commune and beautiful Taos — and the came. Although the commune era peaked in the early 1970s, many “old” hippies gradually became part of the Taos community, and their sensibilities remain today.

Unfortunately, on July 4, 2003, the Taos area suffered a fire in the nearby mountains ignited by lightning. Called the Encebado Fire, it was within a mile of the historic Taos Pueblo buildings. It took more than a thousand firefighters 13 days to contain the 5,400-acre blaze. Fortunately, there was no loss of life or structures, but the Rio Pueblo watershed and the sacred pueblo land will take a generation to recover.

Rio Grand River in Taos Valley, New Mexico

Rio Grand River in Taos Valley, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Today, Taos is known worldwide by artists, outdoor enthusiasts, and historians. The center of the Taos Downtown Historic District is the Taos Plaza. Just west of that is the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. North of the Taos Plaza is the Governor Charles Bent House and the Taos Inn. Further north in Taos is The Bernard Beimer House. On the southwestern edge of the Taos Historic district is La Loma Plaza Historic District. East of the plaza on Kit Carson Road is the Kit Carson House and museum.

Only two miles to the northeast of Taos, under the shadows of great mountains and occupying both sides of Red Willow Creek, is the pueblo of Taos, with its great terraced buildings, presenting one of the most primitive illustrations of Indian architecture. It has been occupied for nearly a millennium by the Tiwa Indians, who occupy a fertile tract of 17,000 acres, a Spanish government grant. It was originally much larger, but for protection against the Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Ute, who formerly caused them a great annoyance, they gave the east part of their grant to Mexican settlers, with the understanding that the latter would assist them in repelling invasions from Taos Canyon. It is the most northern of the New Mexico pueblos, which in some places are five stories high and is a combination of many individual homes with common walls. There are over 1,900 people in the Taos Pueblo community, though many modern homes are nearby. There are about 150 people who live at the pueblo year-round. The Taos Pueblo was added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.

Ranchos de Taos is located about four miles southwest of Taos, is in the center of fertile agricultural and fruit lands, and once had several flour mills, schools, and missions.

Taos is now a community overflowing with a long, proud history that features numerous historic buildings, arts and culture, recreational opportunities, and about 5900 people.

© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2021.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Taos, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Taos, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Also See:

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

New Mexico – Land of Enchantment

The Tiwa Tribe – Fighting the Spanish

Pueblo Indians – Oldest Culture in the U.S.

Sources:

Anderson, George B., History of New Mexico: Its Resources and People, Volume 2,  Pacific States Publishing Co, 1907
National Park Service
New Mexico Magazine
Snow Mansion
Taos County Historical Society
Taos News
Taos Walking Tour
Tórrez, Robert J., Myth of the Hanging Tree: Stories of Crime and Punishment in Territorial New Mexico, UNM Press, 2008
Wikipedia