Gran Quivira – Salinas Pueblo Missions


Atop a small hill in the middle of New Mexico’s nowhere, stands the ruins of an ancient city. Perhaps as far back as 700 years ago, Pueblo Indians began building their homes here, with stone walls forming dozens of tiny rooms. Their stable agricultural society thrived here until the final years before they left the area, and abandoned their homes, in the 1670’s.

The Gran Quivira unit of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is located about halfway between US 60 and US 54, on NM Rte. 55, south of Mountainair, NM.

Gran Quivira is just one of three sites protected by the National park Service in this area. Within a half-hour’s drive are Abo and Quarai. All three are units of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.

Even if you only have a passing interest in the Native Americans who lived here hundreds of years ago, the ruins are still worth a visit. It’s amazing to see structures that have survived for centuries.

As you visit, there are a few things worth noting: first, the cluster of small apartments that were home to, likely, hundreds of people (thousands more lived elsewhere in the surrounding Salinas Valley).

You’ll also see several round pits, known as kivas, which were used for sacred ceremonies and rituals. Long ago, these kivas were covered with a timber roof, and included a hole to allow smoke to escape, and Native Americans to climb in.

You may read or hear about a place called Pueblo de Las Humanas. These ruins are part of the ruins at Gran Quivira, specifically the buildings constructed before the Europeans arrived. Quivira refers to a mythical city of riches, which the Spaniards hoped to find in the new world.  Aside from this pueblo, communities in Texas and Kansas are also associated with the mythical land, though Francisco Vásquez de Coronado never specified exactly where he found it.

The most striking ruins at Gran Quivira were built after the arrival of Europeans. The San Buenaventura Church was completed in 1636, less than four decades after the natives’ first contact with Spanish explorers (don Juan de Oñate in 1598). Missionaries strongly encouraged the locals to abandon their religion and embrace Christianity. They weren’t especially thrilled with changing religions, partially because it was so tightly intertwined with their social structure.

The clash of Native religions with Christianity wasn’t the only problem facing the pueblos in the mid-1600’s. Raids by Apache tribes wiped out part of the population, followed by a drought and famine that killed even more people (450 at Gran Quivira alone). Epidemics swept through the population, since the native people had little resistance to European diseases. By the 1670’s, with only a few hundred residents remaining, Gran Quivira and the other nearby pueblos were abandoned. In 1680, pueblos north of this area united, and expelled the Spaniards from New Mexico.
The ruins of the San Buenaventura church at Gran Quivira featured high ceilings (up to 20 feet) and large rooms. The walls were plastered, and there was even a choir loft.

From the backside, you can see the large rooms of the church…

… and appreciate the architecture that went into its design.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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