County History


A History of Rio Arriba

By Raymond Ortiz and Lauren Reichelt


A River Runs Through It

The name “Rio Arriba” means “Upper River.” The County is so named because the Rio Grande, the lifeline of the state, runs through it.

Under Mexican rule (established in 1821) New Mexico was divided into two territories. Rio Abajo, the “Lower River,” comprised everything south of Santa Fe. Most of New Mexico’s landed gentry traced their ancestry directly from Spain and lived in Rio Abajo. Rio Arriba, the forgotten “Upper River,” evolved into a creative, diverse, isolated, shunned, independent, self-reliant and quirky cultural mix.

The Cultural Crucible

Tewa-speaking Pueblo Indians arrived four centuries prior to Europeans in 1200 CE. Descendents of Colorado’s Anasazi migrated to the fertile riparian valleys of north central New Mexico where they developed complex dry land farming systems, supporting corn, squash, beans, melons and cotton, as well as distinctive styles of pottery and weaving. Native architecture included cliff dwellings, and pueblo-style communal dwellings. A 13th century drought spurred the Pueblo peoples to build small irrigation and water diversion networks to farm floodplains, sustaining settlements in the Rio Chama, Rio Grande and Santa Cruz watersheds. The Puye Cliff dwellings were built at this time.

A few wayward Spaniards happened across New Mexico in search of silver prior to the sanctioned expeditions of the 16th century. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked on Tampa Bay in 1528. He spent eight years wandering by raft and foot, traversing Southern New Mexico before finding his way back to Mexico in 1836. Only two members of his crew survived the ordeal. One of Coronado’s captains, Fransisco de Barrio-Nuevo journeyed as far north as Taos, marveling at the dwellings of the Pueblo Indians. In the late 1580s, Gaspar Castaño de Sosa grew frustrated with unproductive silver mines in the town of Almadén where he served as alcalde, or mayor. Castaño de Sosa, who had been born in Portugal, took a partner of suspicious ethnic origin and 170 people, oxen, materials and tools on an unauthorized expedition, venturing into Rio Arriba. He made contact with Tiwa and Tewa Indians. Unfortunately for him, Portuguese birth was equated with Judaism as many Jews fled there to escape persecution. He and his friend were tried by the Inquisition, found to be Jews, and shipped in chains to the Phillipines.

In 1598, Juan de Oñate entered New Mexico with a cohort of Spanish colonists and Mexican Indians. Oñate, a man of independent wealth married to a granddaughter of Herman Cortez, received royal approval to colonize New Mexico. He assembled four hundred men (of whom 130 brought families), equipment and livestock. The colonists marched northward up the Rio Grande. Searching for the best land and meeting no opposition from Tribes, they reached the Pueblos of Yuque-Yunque (modern day Ohkay Owinge) the same summer. The Spanish settlers renamed the pueblo San Juan de los Caballeros. The new settlement extended the Camino Rael (then the world’s longest road), becoming the first capitol of the new territory.

Many of Oñate’s party had reason to seek out isolation in the rugged, mountainous north. The Spanish crown expelled Jews and Muslims in 1492, establishing the Office of the Holy Inquisition to route out religious heterodoxy among conversos. Captives of the Inquisition were subjected to torture and a potentially fiery death. Juan’s brother Alonso returned to Spain in 1604 to recruit craftsmen and other talent at Juan’s request. When he arrived in Veracruz, Andrés Menéndez de Bovela y Soliz, an Inquisitor, boarded his ship, haughtily demanding to examine the crew’s luggage. Menendez was searching for forbidden Holy Books. Alonso assaulted him, forcing him to flee, and immediately set sail for El Norte with luggage intact to the relief of hidden Jews and other sequestered refugees. Rio Arriba also became a magnet for genizaros, nomadic Plains Indians who had been purchased as slaves, and who could achieve status as vecinos, or landowners, by settling remote outposts.

Rio Arriba’s culture grew into an amalgam of practices of Pueblo and Plains Indians, Spanish gentry, and Christian, Jewish and Moslem Spaniards fleeing the Inquisition. It is no wonder gentry in Rio Abajo looked down on the mestizos of the north! Rio Arriba’s valleys became a crucible for innovative thought and practice.

Towns, Farming, Communal Land, and Acequías

Typically, settlers established their pueblos beside indigenous villages. Settlements were built on high land around a plaza with few windows facing out, buildings closely packed. Most villages erected only one gate to admit pedestrians. Wagons and could easily be shuttered in the event of attack. In Spain, similar architecture repelled the Moors. The walled capitol grounds in San Juan de Caballeros consisted of a three story pueblo-style building with primitive artillery guarding the gates. These villages were constructed to defend against Nomadic Indians: Navajos, Utes and Apaches. Private tracts of farmland belonging to vecinos lay along rivers and acequias (irrigation ditches). Villages were surrounded by eijidos, the grants of common lands used by vecinos for grazing, wood-gathering, hunting, fishing and the cultivation of orchards. Most of a community’s land was owned in common. The Spanish monarchy codified laws and customs governing pueblos in La Reconpilacion de las Leyes del Reyno de las Indias (The Laws of the Indies).

Rio Arriba’s acequia network, built initially by Pueblo Indians, was extended. New crops including varieties of maize, beans, chile and wheat augmented agricultural diversity. Native and Hispanic villages formed alliances to extend and maintain acequías, or repel nomadic raiders. The Spanish built missions in Indian pueblos, and supplied priests to convert, colonize and minister to Native peoples.

Oñate’s Iron Fist

Oñate brought 7,000 head of sheep and cattle to Yuque-yunque, introducing grazing. Fransiscan priests accompanied the expedition. Fifteen hundred Native Americans were “recruited” to build a church which held services within three months. Oñate moved his Spanish settlement a short distance to the west shortly thereafter to avoid increasing conflict with Natives. San Gabriel survived its first winter with difficulty. Many abandoned the venture. Only Oñate and a small number of loyal settlers remained, joined by a few intrepid Mexican adventurers.

Because of the remote nature of the north, communities were left by the Crown to adjudicate disputes according to custom, often influenced by the particular mix of peoples in a locale. A mayor, or alcalde, mediated disputes and made rules. The alcalde issued certified copies of title papers to Spanish communal land grants. As no printing machines existed and documents became worn with use, the alcalde would painstakingly hand-reproduce documents, certifying that his duplicate agreed exactly with the original. Often, the alcalde’s certificate became the only surviving title. Few customs were codified, but instead made up local oral tradition or were written down as individual rulings. Important community matters were often decided through informal, consensus-based process.

            In addition to communal land grants, some conquistadores made grants of encomiendas, or forced Indian labor. An encomienda beneficiary could levy a tribute upon Natives. Oñate used the encomienda to attract settlers. Some Spaniards interpreted the encomienda to mean that they could avail themselves of the land, forcibly evicting prior inhabitants. Oñate sent out expeditions from his base in Yuque-yunque. In 1598, residents of Acoma Pueblo rebelled against Spanish rule, killing Oñate’s nephew Juan de Zaldivar and nine other men.

Oñate ruthlessly crushed the rebellion with an edict:

Males over age twenty-five to have one foot cut off and condemned to twenty years of personal servitude. Males twelve to twenty-five years old condemned to twenty years of personal servitude. Women over twelve years of age condemned to twenty years of personal servitude. Two Moquis captured in the Acoma fight to have the right hand cut off and to be set free to take home news of their punishment. Children under twelve [whom Oñate ruled free of guilt] to be handed over to Father Martinez ... for a Christian upbringing.

In addition, sixty small girls were parceled out to convents in Mexico City, never to return. The punishments were divided between pueblos to increase terror and deter future rebellion. Oñate remained as Governor until 1608; Pedro de Peralta succeeded him, moving the capitol to Santa Fe.

Popé’s Revolt Against the Spanish

Eventually, Oñate’s practice of awarding encomiendas backfired. The normally peaceful Pueblos united under Popé in 1680, killing many Spaniards and expelling the remainder. In 1692, Don Diego de Vargas led the Spanish back up the Rio Grande. The Indians, wracked by internal dissension, once again acquiesced.

The Spanish established the village of Santa Cruz de la Cañada near the Indian Pueblo of Santa Clara (and the present-day town of Española). Encomiendas were abolished. By 1725, settlements appeared along the Santa Cruz River up to Chimayó.

Religious Heterodoxy Prevails in Rio Arriba

The Spanish developed outposts such as Abiquiú, Truchas, and Ojo Caliente, settled by Mexican Indians, mixed-blood Spaniards, and genizaros, to protect populations centers such as Santa Fe and Santa Cruz. The Spanish also brought individuals of Jewish and Muslim ancestry expelled from Spain, and a few of African descent into El Norte. Many converted Jewish settlers secretly practiced traditional Jewish ritual such as Sabbath candle lighting, leading to stories in the villages about brujas, or witches(derived from baruch atah, the first two words of the Hebrew blessing). Elements of Native American practice and Jewish mysticism found their way into Rio Arriba’s indigenous healing practice and ritual. New settlers continued to form alliances with Pueblo Indians to improve irrigation and defend villages, enriching Rio Arriba’s cultural discourse.

Because of the remote nature of Rio Arriba and the complex interweaving of traditions, villages were loosely incorporated into the religious governance of the Church. Membership in the global Franciscan order dropped from 225,000 priests in 1750 to 40,000 in 1850. Since the Spanish monarchy was supplying priests to facilitate colonization of Native Americans through conversion to Spanish religion, most clergy had no time for Hispanic villages. Many parishes received a clerical visit only a few days out of the year.


Each village could expect a visit from the priest on its feast day, which corresponded to its saint’s fiesta in the Catholic solar calendar. Important Catholic events supporting the extended family such as marriages, funerals and baptisms were unattended. Holy Week (still determined by the Jewish lunar calendar) did not fall on fixed dates in the Christian solar calendar. The Good Friday passion and death of Christ remained the cornerstone of practice, but priests remained in the parish church of the Indian pueblo. Families were the bedrock of culture, and could not be allowed to languish. Villagers developed lay leadership, Los Hermanos Penitentes (the Penitente Brotherhood), and their own enactment of the passion of Christ. The hermanos performed burials and cared for the families of deceased vecinos.


The Penitente brotherhood was especially central to village life in Rio Arriba, where it may have originally taken root. Bernardo Abeyta built El Santuario Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas in 1816. The shrine was erected on one of the four sacred mesas of the Yuque-Yunque. Legend has it that a local friar saw a light shining from the ground near the Santa Cruz River. He found a buried crucifix, which returned to the same spot, even after being paraded to the nearest village. The Santuario was built there in 1816. People traveling to touch the sacred earth were miraculously healed. Years later, soldiers returning from the Bataan Death March initiated the practice of the annual Good Friday pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo.


Bishop Jose Antonio de Zubiría was the first bishop to visit Rio Arriba in 70 years in 1833. He disliked the heterodoxy of the Penitentes who brought their saints into the fields before spring planting, and performed penitential ceremonies during Holy Week. The grassroots movement remained independent of Church hierarchy. When Bishop Zubiría arrived, he outlawed the brotherhood. Angry villagers ignored his edict. The Hermanos grew in number and their practice continued although, as in the days of the Inquisition, they became exceptionally secretive about ritual.


Mexican Rule and the Navajo Campaigns

Mexico separated from Spain in 1821. For thirty years, Comanches protected Rio Arriba from raids. But by the 1820s, when Mexico was developing its own government, the Comanches moved eastward, leaving remote Rio Arriba open to attack by the Navajo, Apaches, and tribes from the plains. As raids increased in frequency and intensity, Mexican support via arms, troops and other resources, including gifts or tribute to deter the raiders, dwindled. An 1821 edict of the newly established Mexican administration decreed that militiamen must turn war booty over to their commanding officers.


In 1833, Rio Arriba’s rural militia was called out to fight the Navajo. They had been increasingly unwilling to engage in Indian campaigns since the 1821 decree. Prior to the ruling, which benefitted wealthy Rio Abajo merchants and property owners, unlicensed trade stemming from war booty fueled the local economy (along with trade in furs and other resources brought by French trappers). The mestizos of Rio Arriba were subjected to an increasingly oppressive social structure, indebting them to Rio Abajo. In 1835 a new Governor, Albino Pérez, arrived in Santa Fe. He disbanded his regular troops to avoid paying them, and instead called out the Rio Arriba militia to fight the Navajo. Militiamen armed with pitchforks suffered frostbite and hunger while their villages and extended families languished. Officers from Rio Abajo mistreated them. Resentment grew.


Governor Pérez consolidated control over the territory. He proposed taxes to support his administration, attempted to dismiss alcaldes, and aligned himself closely with land speculators from Rio Abajo who were eying communal eijidos as a potential source of new capital. Under the Pérez administration, Mexico handed huge private grants to speculators. Land was increasingly viewed as an asset for economic exploitation. Pérez infuriated devout, family-oriented Norteños by throwing opulent parties and otherwise conspicuously flaunting ill-gotten gains.

Revolt Against Mexican Rule (and Land Speculation)


In 1837, residents of Santa Cruz, Chimayo and Truchas staged a revolt, killing Governor Pérez and his advisors, and temporarily overthrowing the government. Padre António José Martinez, an enigmatic figure who was believed by many to be a leader in the Penitente movement and instigator of the revolt, held a mass in Santa Cruz on the eve of the rebellion. (Later, Padre Martinez was threatened with excommunication by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, the first archbishop of Santa Fe, in an attempt to consolidate church control over the moradas, or neighborhood chapels.) Jose Gonzales, a genizaro from Taos who had many relatives in the Chimayo area, became the insurrectionary Governor. The rebels attempted to develop rule based on consensus, which they were apparently unable to achieve.


Members of the ruling class from Santa Fe and Rio Abajo quickly ended the revolutionary government. Pérez’ newly appointed successor, Manuel Armijo, executed Gonzales and the remaining leaders of the revolt, and killed or dispersed the rebels in a battle near present-day Pojoaque. Hispanic land speculators associated with the two Governors understood Norteños better than did either Pérez or Armijo, and declined invitations to play a direct role in squelching their revolt.

The American Invasion, More Land Speculation, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago


In 1846, General Stephen W. Kearny marched into New Mexico. Governor Armijo fled without a fight but with a great deal of wealth fueled by dubious land deals. The United States claimed possession of the territory. The majority of the people were unarmed farmers who could not defend themselves against well-equipped American forces. In Embudo, U.S. soldiers herded townspeople into a church, burning the packed structure to the ground. In 1848, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago, ending the U.S. war with Mexico. The Treaty promised that the U.S. would honor Spanish and Mexican land grants.

This did not occur. The notion of communally held land (and strong extended family) was foreign to the highly individualistic American way of thinking. Eijidos were not recognized in U.S. law. The Senate struck out Article 10, which specifically stated that the government would honor all Mexican and Spanish land grants before ratifying the signed treaty. Unscrupulous lawyers and land speculators (often lawyers were the land speculators) profited. Large swaths of land in Rio Arriba that had once been community-owned fell into private or Federal hands.

In 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago was signed, at least 1.6 million acres in mostly communal grants appear to have existed in Rio Arriba County. According to the Congressional General Accounting Office, thirteen Hispanic grants (not including grants to pueblos) were approved. Another six grants were either rejected or not pursued by villagers who did not understand the law. A number of villages such as Ojo Caliente and Petaca were awarded land for the village proper but stripped of common lands. In many cases, villagers who did not understand the new laws did not realize they had lost their land until it was restricted in later generations.

A Santa Fe network of lawyers, judges, politicians and businessmen involved with land grant speculation organized with the specific purpose of divesting Hispanic villagers of land. The speculators were nicknamed “the Santa Fe Ring” and admired by the press. Often, they would exchange services for interests in a grant to represent impoverished heirs who could not pay cash. The ring would then use their interest to force the sale of communal lands, acquiring the grant.

The situation stabilized somewhat with the conclusion of the Civil War. The Government was able to end Navajo raiding expeditions into Rio Arriba. On November 1, 1864, President Lincoln signed land patents to various Pueblos for their holdings, and personally presented ceremonial canes of office to Pueblo Governors at an observance in Washington, DC. But, while grants to tribes fit neatly into the American concept of reservations, there was nothing corresponding to the eijido: land owned by an unincorporated, loosely-organized community.

Many of the Spanish grants were eventually sold to the U.S. Forest Service. In 1912, when New Mexico gained statehood, huge chunks of land grants were fenced off from local grazing, watering, and wood-gathering. Villagers formed La Mano Negra, a secret posse that cut fences, and burned haystacks and buildings. The USFS obtained more land in the 1930s as part of a “Hispanic Land Grant Reform.” The intent was to acquire lands for the use of local villagers for grazing and resource-gathering, the difference being that ownership was vested in the Federal Government and not in villages. Tension continues to exist between villagers and the Forest Service over forest management practices. Villagers expect to use lands near their homes for pursuits such as grazing and wood-gathering. The USFS and Bureau of Land Management hire staff from “abroad.” They do not understand the concept of communal village land, favoring concerns of influential national industries such as recreation, hunting and mining.

Capitalism Comes to Rio Arriba (Sort of)

The railroad came to Rio Arriba in the late 19th century, bringing an influx of Anglo settlers and a measure of prosperity. Mining and logging became important local industries. In 1880 and 1881, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad came to Española (the new name given to a tiny village previously known as El Punto de la Vega de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe). The railroad was christened “The Chili Line” in deference to the exceptionally high quality of locall chile.

Small religious farming enclaves popped up throughout the Española Valley as the result of the railroad. Fairview was constructed as a Mormon outpost, since annexed by the City of Española. Today there are sizeable Methodist congregations in Española, as well as Presbyterian congregations in Chimayó and Embudo, and a small Mormon population in the Fairview area.

Most railroad towns were established in close proximity to Hispanic villages. Stores, businesses and large wealthy homes were built. Typically, if plazas existed, they became centers of commerce, hitherto foreign to Rio Arriba’s agricultural hamlets. Anglo newcomers remained segregated from traditional villages, drawing trade away, and occasionally miring them in poverty. This trend has grown more pronounced with the rise of the automobile and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in neighboring Los Alamos. While the Lab (which was established in 1944 to develop the atomic bomb and has since expanded to conduct scientific research) has brought opportunity to southern Rio Arriba, it has also exacerbated income disparity. Unprepared to fully participate in a wage-based industrial economy, Rio Arriba residents find themselves commuting to low wage jobs in Los Alamos and Santa Fe. Youth are left unattended during the day making them easy targets for gangs and drug traffickers. In addition, urban sprawl and attendant commoditization of water threaten to consume Rio Arriba’s agricultural land, a trend that could spell the end of the rich, creative culture dependent on it.

The Future

Commerce, the wage economy and capitalism have never fully taken root in the northern river valley, producing income disparity between Rio Arriba and its neighbors that resembles disparity often seen in the developing world. Rio Arriba’s heterodox culture has evolved over many generations as one based on a strong extended family, communally-held resources, consensus, and barter. If harnessed, Rio Arriba’s strengths can produce solutions to many modern problems facing humanity as a whole: global warming, food insecurity, health care, income disparity, and steadily dwindling resources in the face of increased population. But our strengths must first be respected.

Rio Arriba County government remains committed to a search for creative answers to problems posed, not just to our constituents, but also to the globe. We face many challenges in the days and years to come. We invite you to join us as we build on tradition to resolve problems threatening the security of our shared world.