June 2015

Agua Fría: History of a Traditional Community

William Henry Mee


On the occasion of the 375th anniversary of Agua Fría Village, it is worth reflecting on our area’s history and importance to the capital city of Santa Fe. We are investigating claims of Francisco de Madrid, who settled the Madrid, New Mexico, area in 1603 and may have settled in the Agua Fría area around the same time, prior to the establishment of La Villa Real de Santa Fe, circa 1604-1610.


Agua Fría has always been considered an obscure place of settlement, living in the shadow of Santa Fe. However, without this tiny community, Santa Fe may not have prospered to the extent it has. Before 1945-1950, most of the wood that kept Santa Feans warm and many of the food crops that kept Santa Feans fed came off the backs of an Agua Fría burro or wagon. The land for the three major electric lines and the gas line entering Santa Fe, the major roads of Rodeo, Cerrillos, Rufina, Agua Fría, West Alameda, Zafarano and SR 599, as well as the sewer lines along Cerrillos Road, Rufina Street, Agua Fría Road and Santa Fe River north, were “donated” by the people of Agua Fría.


The village of Agua Fría became a place of modern recorded settlement when three officers in the “Reconquest” of New Mexico were given land grants, in 1693, by General Don Diego de Vargas for their service to the Spanish Crown. One specific grant was given to Captain—el Maestro del Campo and later Major—Roque Madrid for his service and because his parents and grandparents had farmed the Pueblo Quemado area prior to the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Figuring two 20-year generations back from 1680, we are calling the settlement date of Agua Fría as circa 1640.


Other land grants were given, and the acequias, or ditches, from the Santa Fe River were extended to carry precious water to the “flat lands” of Agua Fría, which became the “breadbasket” of Santa Fe. These flat lands sat on a natural alluvial plain—extending from present-day Paseo de las Vistas in the north and Cerrillos Road in the south—that the river carved out over millennia. It deposited rich topsoil and achieved a slight gravity flow, which made it perfect for farming.


Acequia de la Agua Fría started at the present-day State Land Office, in downtown Santa Fe, and ran across the New Mexico Supreme Court building’s grounds, where it is preserved today in a 12-inch-by-12-inch stone drainage channel, until the Santa Fe River diversion was obliterated by a huge flood in 1880 (the river channel was lowered some three to four feet in that area). The ditch ran on both sides of El Camino Real—today’s Agua Fría Street—about five miles into the village of Agua Fría.


To restore the water flow in the six acequias that served the village, resourceful Agua Fríans created three diversions of the Santa Fe River near present day Siler Road. Those diversions have all been obliterated by sand and gravel operations from the 1950s to the 1970s. The individual land grants of Agua Fría Village residents stretched from the Arroyo de los Chamisos—near today’s Santa Fe Place Mall—to the Arroyo de los Frijoles or Buckman Road/La Tierra subdivision, a distance of five to seven miles. Lots were narrower in width and may have been only 600 to 900 feet, or 200 to 300 yards/“varas”). As people inherited their land, a tract of 600 feet was divided by the number of male or adult children into 100-foot-wide lots, so each had equal access to the acequia.


The village population in 1776 was 29 families—257 people—according to a census by Fray Francisco Domínguez, commissioned by the Diocese of Durango, México, for purposes of church planning. The census identified the village of Agua Fría as “Quemado,” which refers to the pueblo on the north bank of the Santa Fe River, about equal distance between Henry Lynch Road and San Isidro Crossing, and also identified active springs in the area. It was not until the 1800s, however, that the small village was referred to as Agua Fría (remaining are one document from 1820 and Territorial documents of the U.S. Army starting in 1846). The church of San Isidro was built in 1835 and derives its name from the patron saint of farmers, an appropriate icon for the area’s predominant profession. The people asked for a mission to be created because it took so long to drive a wagon to Santa Fe’s Paroquia (later Cathedral).


The state engineer’s 1914 acequia maps show that 170 fields were under cultivation, indicating that at least 170 families occupied the area, but 93 percent were less than five acres, each of table crops, or vegetables. A complete survey of alfalfa and irrigated orchard grass areas shows some 3,500 acre-feet of water being used. The study entitled The Village of Agua Fría: Ours Today, Ours Tomorrow (May 12, 1983), by Jane Whitmore, and submitted to the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division, illustrated the traditional village’s strong multigenerational attachment to the land and connection to the Santa Fe River. These were a simple and humble people. They made adobes to sell in the summer. In the fall, they sold firewood and piñón nuts from the Caja del Río Grant to people in the Villa de Santa Fe.


In December 2012, I submitted a final report, entitled Agriculture in Agua Fría Village: How a Traditional Community Was and Can Be Self-Sufficient, to the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area for a grant. From oral-history interviews of residents, I was able to document some of the ancient farming techniques and technologies. Elders of the village knew how long to leave animals on fallow land to receive the right blending of horse-, cow-, goat- and sheep manure, something totally lost to us today. The Spanish tradition of agriculture was completely lost during the 700-year Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula and had to be relearned after their Reconquest. This was documented by Juan Estévan Arrellano’s translation and republication of the book The Art of Agriculture (Obra de Agricultura) by Gabriel Alonso de Herrera in 1513. The Hispano experience of agriculture was indeed a blending of Moorish, Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Mayan methods.


In the arid and challenging—that is, high altitude, short growing season with heavy frosts—areas of New Mexico and Agua Fría, agriculture must have also benefited from the two- to four-thousand-year history of the Pueblo Indians. In fact, Agua Fría is located on two abandoned pueblos. The early settlers moved into the area where Native American irrigation systems were still in place and just needed some river diversions and ditch cleaning.


The history of Agua Fría Village starts with the pre-Colombian era (“prehistory”). Native Americans inhabited two pueblos: Pindi Pueblo, at the present-day San Isidro Catholic Church property, near San Ysidro Crossing, abandoned circa 1250 A.D., a date that coincides with the regional drought that saw the abandonment of Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and Bandelier; and Pueblo Quemado, at present-day Pueblo Quemado Street, off West Alameda, and west along the Santa Fe River (burned during a raid in 800 A.D.).


Underneath Pindi Pueblo—which loosely translates to “Turkey Town” in English because it combines a Tewa word with a Spanish word—as found in the 2008-2009 archaeological dig, instigated by Santa Fe County’s sewer excavations down to a depth of 12 feet, were two earlier civilizations. Early reports stated that the oldest civilization dated to 3,000 B.C.E. and may be the “oldest, largest settlement in North America.” A 2010 presentation by Cherie Scheick’s Southwest Archaeological Consultants to Agua Fría Village residents included a photo of an adobe horno, or mud cooking stove. As it was excavated, they found a pot on top, and as they exposed more of it with small brushes—being ever so careful—there was a turkey in the pot! The domestication of turkeys enabled this society to move away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a permanent encampment. The photos in the December 2013 El Palacio magazine, in a story entitled “Pindi Pueblo Comes Home to Roost” by Stephen S. Post and Eric Blinman, show the 1930s’ excavations of turkey pens. Archaeological digs are continuing today at the Agua Fría Community Water Association’s water tank.


Native Americans chose this place of Agua Fría, originally named Ca-Tee-Ka—“cold water” in Tewa and Tano—because of abundant water and the alluvial plain, which made irrigation easy. Overlooking the fields, at a site by the nearby mesa, was a torreón, or tower, made of rock, from which a signal, such as a smoke signal, could be displayed to get people to safety in the event of a raid.


The people in Agua Fría were always connected to the abandoned pueblos in their midst. In pueblo mounds at Pindi Pueblo, some enterprising souls—suggested to be iterant sheepherders or Romani, also known as Gypsies—had cleared out one or two rooms to live in and then covered the structure with brush. The adobe dirt of the ruins and whole adobes sometimes were reused in the present village because this was the easiest thing to do when building. Both Native American and Spanish residents engaged in this practice, which would make them the original recyclers.



William Henry Mee, a retired state employee, is president of the Agua Fría Village Association and the Agua Fría Wellowners’ Association.




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1 thought on “Agua Fría: History of a Traditional Community”

  1. From Tamara Lichtenstein: a correction: I’ve asked Green Fire Times to please correct the attribution of the mosaic monument. I took the photo. I did not make the monument–that credit should go to artist Michael Bergt.