TAOS, THE MOST ANCIENT CITY IN AMERICA
Taos, Santa Fe and El Paso-these
were to the Southwest what Port Royal, Quebec and
Montreal were to French Canada, or Boston, Salem and
Jamestown to the colonists of the pre-Revolutionary
days on the Atlantic. El Paso was the gateway
city from the old Spanish Dominions of the South.
Santa Fe was the central military post, and Taos was
the watch tower on the very outskirts of the back-of-beyond
of Spanish territory in the wilderness land of the
Before Santa Fe became the terminus
of the trail for American traders from Missouri and
Kansas, Taos was the terminus of the old fur trader
trail, in the days when Louisiana extended from New
Orleans to Oregon. Here, such famous frontiersmen
as Jim Bridgar and Manuel Lisa and Jedediah Smith
and Colonel Ashley and Kit Carson came to barter beads
and calico and tobacco and firewater for hides and
fur and native-woven blankets and turquoise and rude
silver ornaments hammered out of Spanish bullion into
necklace and bracelet. What Green’s Hole
and the Three Tetons were to the Middle West, Taos
was to the Southwest. Mountains round Taos rise
14,000 feet from sea level. Snow glimmers from
the peaks more than half the year; and mountain torrents
water the valley with a system of irrigation that
never fails. Coming out of the mountains from
the north, Taos was the natural halfway house on the
trail south to Old Mexico. Coming out of the Desert
from the south, Taos was the last walled city seen
before the plunge into the wilderness of forests and
mountains in the No-Man’s-Land of the north.
“Walled city,” you say, “before
the coming of white men to the West?” Yes, you
can see those very walls to-day, walls antedating
the coming of Coronado in 1540 by hundreds of years.
No motor can climb up and down the
steep switchback to the Arroyo Hondo of the Bridge.
Cars taken over that trail must be towed; but from
the Bridge, you can go on to Taos by motor. As
you ascend the mesa above the river bed, you see the
mountains ahead rise in black basalt like castellated
walls, with tower and battlement jagged into the very
clouds. Patches of yellow and red splotch the
bronzing forests, where frost has touched the foliage;
and you haven’t gone very many miles into the
lilac mist of the morning light-shimmering
as it always shimmers above the sagebrush blue and
sandy gold of the Upper Mesas-before
you hear the laughter of living waters coming down
from the mountain snows. One understands why
the Indians chose the uplands; while the white man,
who came after, had to choose the shadowy bottoms of
the walled-in canyons. Someone, back in the good
old days when we were not afraid to be poetic, said
something about “traveling on the wings of the
morning.” I can’t put in words what
he meant; but you do it here-going up and
up so gradually that you don’t realize that
you are in the lap, not of mountains, but of mountain
peaks; breathing, not air, but ozone; uplifted by
a great weight being taken off spirit and body; looking
at life through rose-colored tints, not metaphorically,
but really; for there is something in this high rare
air-not dust, not moisture-that
splits white light into its seven prismatic hues.
You look through an atmosphere wonderfully rare, but
it is never clear, white light. It is lavender,
or lilac, or primrose, or gold, or red as blood according
to the hours and the mood of hours; and if you want
to carry the metaphor still farther, you may truthfully
add that the hours on these high uplands are dancing
hours. You never feel time to be a heavy, slow
thing that oppresses the soul.
As the streams laugh down from the
mountains, ranches grow more and more frequent.
It is characteristic of the West that you don’t
cross the acequias on bridges. You cross
them on two planks, with risk to your car if the driver
swerve at the steering wheel. All the houses are
red earth adobe, thick of wall to shut out both heat
and cold, with a smell of juniper wood in the fireplaces
of each room. Much of this land-nearly
all of it, in fact-is owned by the Taos
Indians and held in common for pasturage and cultivation.
Title was given by Spain four centuries ago, and the
same title holds to-day in spite of white squatters’
attempt to break down the law by cutting the wire of
the pasture fences and taking the case to the courts.
It was in this way that squatters broke down the title
of old Spanish families to thousands and hundreds
of thousands of acres granted before American occupation.
To be sure, an American land commission took evidence
on these titles, in the quarrel between Yankee squatter
and Spanish don; but the squatter had “friends
in court.” The old Spanish don hadn’t.
He saw titles that had held good from 1540 slipping
from his neighbor’s hands; and he either contested
the case to lose out before he had begun, or sold and
sold at a song to save the wreckage of his fortunes.
Of all the Spanish land grants originally partitioning
off what is now New Mexico, I know of only one held
by the family of the original grantee; and it is now
in process of partition. It is an untold page
of Southwestern history, this “stampeding”
of Spanish titles. Some day, when we are a little
farther away from it, the story will be told.
It will not make pleasant reading, nor afford a bill
of health to some family fortunes of the Southwest.
Perjuries, assassinations, purchase in open markets
of judges drawing such small pittances that they were
in the auction mart for highest bid, forged documents,
incendiary fires to destroy true titles-these
were the least and most decent of the crimes of this
era. “Ramona” tells what happened
to Indian titles in California. Paint Helen Hunt
Jackson’s colors red instead of gray; multiply
the crimes by ten instead of two; and you have a faint
picture of the land-jockey period of New Mexican history.
Something of this sort is going on at Taos to-day among
the pueblos for their land, and down at Sacaton among
the Pimas for water. Treaty guaranteed the Indian
his rights, but at Taos the squatter cut the pueblo
fences and carried the case to court. At Sacaton,
the big squatter, the irrigation company, took the
Pimas’ water; so that the Indian can no longer
raise crops. If you want to know what the courts
do in these cases, ask the pueblo governor at Taos;
or the Pima chief at Sacaton.
It is late September. A parrot
calls out in Spanish from the center of the patio
where our rooms look out on an arcade running round
the court in a perfect square. A mocking-bird
trills saucily from his cage amid the cosmos bloom.
Donkeys and burros amble past the rear gate with loads
of wood strapped to their backs. Your back window
looks out on the courtyard. Your front window
faces the street across from a plaza, or city square.
Stalwart, thick-set, muscular figures, hair banded
back by red and white scarfs, trousers of a loose,
white pantaloon sort, tunic a gray or white blanket,
wrapped Arab fashion from shoulders to waist, stalk
with quick, nervous tread along the plaza; for it is
the feast of Saint Geronimo presently. The whole
town is in festal attire. There will be dancing
all night and all day, and rude theatricals, and horse
and foot races; and the plaza is agog with sightseers.
No, it is not Persia; and it is not Palestine; and
it is not Spain. It is just plain, commonplace
America out at Taos-white man’s Taos,
at the old Columbia Hotel, which is the last of the
old-time Spanish inns.
As you motor into the town, the long
rows of great cottonwoods and poplars attest the great
age of the place. Through windows deep set in
adobe casement and flush with the street, you catch
glimpses of inner patios where oleanders and roses
are still in bloom. Then you see the roof windows
of artists’ studios, and find yourself not only
in an old Spanish town but in the midst of a modern
art colony, which has been called into being by the
unique coloring, form and antiquity of life in the
Southwest. A few years ago, when Lungren and Philips
and Sharpe and a dozen others began portraying the
marvelous coloring of the Southwestern Desert with
its almost Arab life, the public refused to accept
such spectacular, un-American work as true. Such
pictures were diligently “skied” by hanging
committees, and a few hundred dollars was deemed a
good price. To-day, Southwestern art forms a school
by itself; and where commissions used to go begging
at hundreds of dollars, they to-day command prices
of thousands and tens of thousands. When I was
in Taos, one artist was filling commissions for an
Eastern collector that would mount up to prices paid
for the best work of Watts and Whistler. It is
a brutal way to put art in terms of the dollar bill;
but it is sometimes the only way to make a people
realize there are prophets in our own country.
Columbia Hotel is really one of the
famous old Spanish mansions occupying almost the entire
side of a plaza square. From its street entrance,
you can see down the little alleyed street where dwelt
Kit Carson in the old days. His old home is almost
a wreck to-day, and there does not seem to be the
slightest movement to convert it into a shrine where
the hundreds of sightseers who come to the Indian dances
could brush up memories of old frontier heroes.
There are really only four streets in Taos, all facing
the Plaza or town square. Other streets are alleys
running off these, and when you see a notary’s
sign out as “alcalde,” it does not seem
so very far back to the days when Spanish dons lounged
round the Plaza wearing silk capes and velvet trousers
and buckled shoes, and Spanish conquistadores
rode past armed cap-a-pie, and Spanish grand dames
stole glances at the outside world through the lattices
of the mansion houses. In some of these old Spanish
houses, you will find the deep casement windows very
high in the wall. I asked a descendant of one
of the old Spanish families why that was. “For
protection,” she said.
“Indians?” I asked.
were not supposed to see, or be seen by, the outside
The pueblo proper lies about four
miles out from the white man’s town. Laguna,
Acoma, Zuni, the Three Mesas of the Tusayan Desert-all
lie on hillsides, or on the very crest of high acclivities.
Taos is the exception among purely Indian pueblos.
It lies in the lap of the valley among the mountains,
two castellated, five story adobe structures, one
on each side of a mountain stream. In other pueblo
villages, while the houses may adjoin one another
like stone fronts in our big cities, they are not
like huge beehive apartment houses. In Taos, the
houses are practically two great communal dwellings,
with each apartment assigned to a special clan or
family. In all, some 700 people dwell in these
two huge houses. How many rooms are there?
Not less than an average of three to each family.
Remnants of an ancient adobe wall surround the entire
pueblo. A new whitewashed Mission church stands
in the center of the village, but you can still see
the old one pitted with cannon-ball and bullet, where
General Price shelled it in the uprising of the pueblos
after American occupation. Men wear store trousers
and store hats. You see some modern wagons.
Except for these, you are back in the days of Coronado.
All the houses can be entered only by ladders that
ascend to the roofs and can be drawn up-the
pueblo way of bolting the door. The houses run
up three, four and five stories. They are adobe
color outside, that is to say, a pinkish gray; and
whitewashed spotlessly inside. Watch a woman
draped in white linen blanket ascending these ladders,
and you have to convince yourself that you are not
in the Orient. Down by the stream, women with
red and blue and white shawls over their heads, and
feet encased in white puttees, are washing blankets
by beating them in the flowing water. Go up the
succession of ladders to the very top of a five storied
house, and look out. You can see the pasture
fields, where the herds graze in common. On the
outskirts of the village, men and boys are threshing,
that is-they are chasing ponies round and
round inside a kraal, with a flag stuck up to
show which way the wind blows, one man forking chaff
with the wind, another scraping the grain outside
Glance inside the houses. The
upstairs is evidently the living-room; for the fireplace
is here, and the pot is on. Off the living-room
are corn and meal bins, and you can see the metate
or stone on which the corn is ground by the women
as in the days of Old Testament record. Though
there is a new Mission church dating from the uprising
in the forties, and an old Mission church dating almost
from 1540, you can see from the roof dozens of estufas,
where the men are practicing for their dances and
masked theatricals. Tony, the assistant governor,
an educated man of about forty who has traveled with
Wild West shows, acts as our guide, and tells us about
the squatters trying to get the Indian land. How
would you like an intruder to sit down in the middle
of your farm and fence off 160 acres? The Indians
didn’t like it, and cut the fences. Then
the troops were sent out. That was in 1910-a
typical “uprising,” when the white man
has both troops and courts on his side. The case
has gone to the courts, and Tony doesn’t expect
it to be settled very soon. In fact, Tony likes
their own form of government better than the white
man’s. All this he tells you in the softest,
coolest voice, for Tony is not only assistant governor:
he is constable to keep white men from bringing in
liquor during the festal week. They yearly elect
their own governor. That governor’s word
is absolutely supreme for his tenure of office.
Is there a dispute over crops, or cattle? The
governor’s word settles it without any rigmarole
of talk by lawyers.
“Supposing the guilty man doesn’t
obey the governor?” we ask.
“Then we send our own police,
and take him, and put him in the stocks in the lock-up,”
and he takes us around and shows us both the stocks
and the lock-up. These stocks clamp down a man’s
head as well as his hands and feet. A man with
his neck and hands anchored down between his feet
in a black room naturally wouldn’t remain disobedient
The method of voting is older than
the white man’s ballot. The Indians enter
the estufa. A mark is drawn across the
sand. Two men are nominated. (No-women
do not vote; the women rule the house absolutely.
The men rule fields and crops and village courtyard.)
The voters then signify their choice by marks on the
Houses are built and occupied communally,
and ground is held in common; but the product of each
man’s and each woman’s labor is his or
her own and not in common-the nearest approach
to socialistic life that America has yet known.
The people here speak a language different from the
other pueblos, and this places their origin almost
as far back as the origin of Anglo-Saxon races.
Another feature sets pueblo races apart from all other
native races of America. Though these people have
been in contact with whites nearly 400 years, intermarriage
with whites is almost unknown. Purity of blood
is almost as sacredly guarded among Pueblos as among
the ancient Jews. The population remains almost
stationary; but the bad admixtures of a mongrel race
We call the head man of the pueblo
the governor, but the Spanish know him as a cacique.
Associated with him are the old men-mayores,
or council; and this council of wise old men enters
so intimately into the lives of the people that it
advises the young men as to marriage. We have
preachers in our religious ranks. The Pueblos
have proclaimers who harangue from the housetops,
or estufas. As women stoop over the metates
grinding the meal, men sing good cheer from the door.
The chile, or red pepper, is pulverized between
stones the same as the grain. Though openly Catholic
and in attendance on the Mission church, the pueblo
people still practice all the secret rites of Montezuma;
and in all the course of four centuries of contact,
white men have never been able to learn the ceremonies
of the estufas.
Women never enter the estufas.
Who were the first white men to see
Taos? It is not certainly known, but it is vaguely
supposed they were Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions,
shipwrecked on the coast of Florida in the Narvaez
expedition, who wandered westward across the continent
from Taos to Laguna and Acoma. As the legend
runs, they were made slaves by the Indians and traded
from tribe to tribe from 1528 to 1536, when they reached
Old Mexico. Anyway, their report of golden cities
and vast, undiscovered land pricked New Spain into
launching Coronado’s expedition of 1540.
Preceding the formal military advance of Coronado,
the Franciscan Fray Marcos de Niza and two lay brothers
guided by Cabeza de Vaca’s negro Estevan, set
out with the cross in their hands to prepare the way.
Fray Marcos advanced from the Gulf of California eastward.
One can guess the weary hardship of that footsore
journeying. It was made between March and September
of 1539. Go into the Yuma Valley in September!
The heat is of a denseness you can cut with a knife.
Imagine the heat of that tramp over desert sands in
June, July and August! When Fray Marcos sent
his Indian guides forward to Zuni, near the modern
Gallup, he was met with the warning “Go back;
or you will be put to death.” His messengers
refusing to be daunted, the Zuni people promptly killed
them and threw them over the rocks. Fray Marcos
went on with the lay brothers. Zuni was called
“cibola” owing to the great number
of buffalo skins (cibolas) in camp.
Fray Marcos’ report encouraged
the Emperor of Spain to go on with Coronado’s
expedition. That trip need not be told here.
It has been told and retold in half the languages
of the world. The Spaniards set out from Old
Mexico 300 strong, with 800 Indian escorts and four
priests including Marcos and a lay brother. What
did they expect? Probably a second Peru, temples
with walls of gold and images draped in jewels of
priceless worth. What did they find? In Zuni
and the Three Mesas and Taos, small, sun-baked
clay houses built tier on tier on top of each other
like a child’s block house, with neither precious
stones, nor metals of any sort, but only an abundance
of hides and woven cloth. When the soldiers saw
Zuni, they broke out in jeers and curses at the priest.
Poor Fray Marcos was thinking more of souls saved from
perdition than of loot, and returned in shamed embarrassment
to New Spain.
Across the Desert to the Three Mesas
and the Canyon of the Colorado, east again to Acoma
and the Enchanted Mesa, up to the pueblo town now known
as the city of Santa Fe, into the Pecos, and north,
yet north of Taos, Coronado’s expedition practically
made a circuit of all the Southwest from the Colorado
River to East Kansas. The knightly adventurers
did not find gold, and we may guess, as winter came
on with heavy snows in the Upper Desert, they were
in no very good mood; for now began that contest between
white adventurers and Pueblos which lasted down to
the middle of the Nineteenth Century. At the
pueblo now known as Bernalillo, the soldiers demanded
blankets to protect them from the cold. The Indians
stripped their houses to help their visitors, but in
the melee and no doubt in the ill humor of both sides
there were attacks and insults by the white aggressors,
and a state of siege lasted for two months. Practically
from that date to 1840, the pueblo towns were a unit
against the white man.
The last great uprising was just after
the American Occupation. Bent, the great trader
of Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas, was governor.
Kit Carson, who had run away from the saddler’s
trade at sixteen and for whom a reward of one cent
was offered, had joined the Santa Fe caravans and
was now living at Taos, an influential man among the
Indians. According to Col. Twitchell, whose
work is the most complete on New Mexico and who received
the account direct from the governor’s daughter,
Governor Bent knew that danger was brewing. The
Pueblos had witnessed Spanish power overthrown; then,
the expulsion of Mexican rule. Why should they,
themselves, not expel American domination?
It was January 18, 1847. Governor
Bent had come up from Santa Fe to visit Taos.
He was warned to go back, or to get a military escort;
but a trader all his life among the Indians, he flouted
danger. Traders’ rum had inflamed the Indians.
They had crowded in from their pueblo town to the
plaza of Taos. Insurrectionary Mexicans, who had
cause enough to complain of the American policy regarding
Spanish land titles, had harangued the Indians into
a flare of resentful passion. Governor Bent and
his family were in bed in the house you can see over
to the left of the Plaza. In the kraal were
plenty of horses for escape, but the family were awakened
at daybreak by a rabble crowding into the central
courtyard. Kit Carson’s wife, Mrs. Bent,
Mrs. Boggs and her children hurried into the shelter
of an inner room. Young Alfredo Bent, only ten
years old, pulled his gun from the rack with the words-“Papa,
let us fight;” but Bent had gone to the door
to parley with the leaders.
Taking advantage of the check, the
women and an Indian slave dug a hole with a poker
and spoon under the adobe wall of the room into the
next house. Through this the family crawled away
from the besieged room to the next house, Mrs. Bent
last, calling for her husband to come; but it was
too late. Governor Bent was shot in the face as
he expostulated; clubbed down and literally scalped
alive. He dragged himself across the floor, to
follow his wife; but Indians came up through the hole
and down over the roof and in through the windows;
and Bent fell dead at the feet of his family.
The family were left prisoners in
the room without food, or clothing except night dresses,
all that day and the next night. At daybreak
friendly Mexicans brought food, and the women were
taken away disguised as squaws. Once, when
searching Indians came to the house of the old Mexican
who had sheltered the family, the rescuer threw the
searchers off by setting his “squaws”
to grinding meal on the kitchen floor. Kit Carson,
at this time, unfortunately happened to be in California.
He was the one man who could have restrained the Indians.
The Indians then proceeded down to
the Arroyo Hondo to catch some mule loads of whiskey
and provisions, which were expected through the narrow
canyon. The mill where the mules had been unharnessed
was surrounded that night. The teamsters plugged
up windows and loaded for the fray that must come
with daylight. Seven times the Indians attempted
to rush an assault. Each time, a rifle shot puffed
from the mill and an Indian leaped into the air to
fall back dead. Then the whole body of 500 Indians
poured a simultaneous volley into the mill. Two
of the Americans inside fell dead. A third was
severely wounded. By the afternoon of the second
day, the Americans were without balls or powder.
The Indians then crept up and set fire to the mill.
The Americans hid themselves among the stampeding
stock of the kraal. Night was coming on.
The Pueblos were crowding round in a circle.
The surviving Americans opened the gates and made
a dash in the dark for the mountains. Two only
escaped. The rest were lanced and scalped as
they ran; and in the loot of the teams, the Indians
are supposed to have secured some well-filled chests
of gold specie.
By January 23rd, General Price had
marched out at the head of five companies, from old
Fort Marcy at Santa Fe for Taos. He had 353 men
and four cannon. You can see the marks yet on
the old Mission at Taos, where the cannon-balls battered
down the adobe walls. The Indians did not wait
his coming. They met him 1,500 strong on the heights
of a mesa at Santa Cruz. The Indians made wild
efforts to capture the wagons to the rear of the artillery;
but when an Indian rabble meets artillery, there is
only one possible issue. The Indians fled, leaving
thirty-six killed and forty-five wounded. No
railway led up the Rio Grande at that early date;
and it was a more notable feat for the troops to advance
up the narrowing canyons than to defeat the foe.
At Embudo, six or seven hundred Pueblos lined the
rock walls under hiding of cedar and piñón.
The soldiers had to climb to shoot; and again the
Indians could not withstand trained fire. They
left twenty killed and sixty wounded here. Two
feet of snow lay on the trail as the troops ascended
the uplands; and it was February 3rd before they reached
Taos. Every ladder had been drawn up, every window
barricaded, and the high walls of the tiered great
houses were bristling with rifle barrels; but rifle
defense could not withstand the big shells of the
assailants. The two pueblos were completely surrounded.
A six pounder was brought within ten yards of the
walls. A shell was fired-the church
wall battered down, and the dragoons rushed through
the breach. By the night of Feth, old men,
women and children bearing the cross came suing for
peace. The ringleader, Tomas, was delivered to
General Price; and the troops drew off with a loss
of seven killed and forty-five wounded. The Pueblos
loss was not less than 200. Thus ended the last
attempt of the Pueblos to overthrow alien domination;
and this attempt would not have been made if the Indians
had not been spurred on by Mexican revolutionaries,
with counter plots of their own.
We motored away from Taos by sunset.
An old Indian woman swathed all in white came creeping
down one of the upper ladders. They could not
throw off white rule-these Pueblos-but
for four centuries they have withstood white influences
as completely as in the days when they sent the couriers
spurring with the knotted cord to rally the tribes
to open revolt.