January 2017

La Bajada from Early Settlement to the Dawn of the 20th Century

Ancient Pueblo, Permanent Campsite, Spanish/Mexican-era Land Grant, U.S.-era Farming and Ranching Enclave


Hilario E. Romero



In recent years, a great deal of attention has been focused on the area surrounding La Bajada, largely because of a persistent gravel-mining proposal reviewed by the Santa Fe County Commission, most recently in 2015. The public outcry, particularly from citizens living in and around the area, convinced the commissioners to decline approval and also to create an ordinance outlining a new process for mining applications. Predictably, the developers have filed a suit in District Court in Santa Fe, challenging the county’s decision.


In addition to its fascinating geography, La Bajada’s rich human history encompasses the pre-European/ancestral pueblo, the Spanish colonial-era village of La Bajada, subsequent developments during the brief Mexican era (1821-1846) and land struggles in the Territorial era (1848-1912).


The early history laid the foundation for eventual loss of land and rights-of-way for native pueblos and Spanish-era settlements and for the evolution of the historic Camino Real de Tierra Adentro—from a Native American footpath to a corridor for Spanish explorers and settlers to a caravan road in the late Spanish colonial period, to a wagon road and then a highway for motorized vehicles. A comprehensive history of this evolution has yet to be written. What follows traces its outlines.


Early Pueblos

Looming above El Cañón de las Bocas are volcanic-capped mesas and high, fluted rocks known as Peñasco Blanco or, more currently, La Bajada Mesa—where abundant springs and productive soil allowed a large pre-European pueblo village to prosper. Once known as Tzenatay, most likely a Queres-speaking pueblo, it was later referred to as Pueblo Quemado (Burnt Pueblo), like so many abandoned sites in the region.


While excavating the northwest quarter of La Bajada Pueblo (known as Tse-nah-teh in Tewa) in 1915, archaeologist Nels Nelson located black-on-white pottery related to pueblos in the Santa Fe region that dated to the late 1200s and early 1300s. The room blocks he excavated totaled 500. His finding indicated that nearby sandy grasslands had been put to agricultural use early on. He also noted another agricultural area on top of the mesa above the pueblo, which had been abandoned about A.D. 1400, then temporarily resettled prior to the arrival of the first Spanish explorers in 1540.


In order to irrigate their crops, pueblo-dwellers diverted the river and dug ditches (the Spanish would call them acequias), utilizing both shores of the stream. They may have also used a series of check-dams to distribute the water that flowed down from the mesa during rainstorms. Above the mesa they built waffle gardens similar to those at Zuni Pueblo, which depended solely on rainfall. As the pueblo grew, so did its agriculture. Its location was also blessed by cold-water springs situated near what would eventually be called El Río Santa Fe, scarcely two leagues east of El Río del Norte (Río Grande).


La Bajada was the southernmost pueblo of a series that extended further upstream. Trade flourished amid the mutual protection of several nearby pueblos. The presence of the springs made it a sacred place. Cochití and Santo Domingo villagers acknowledge their abandoned ancestral pueblo near the village of La Bajada.


Spanish Exploration and Colonization

After a century and a half, explorers from the south appeared: the scouting party of the Coronado expedition. Passing through the area between 1540 and 1541, they confronted the difficulty of scaling the massive escarpment. Taking their chances, they entered El Cañón de las Bocas and moved upstream through the canyon until reaching Tzeguma and Guicú pueblos—the upriver location of today’s La Cieneguilla and La Ciénega.


Abandoned to the elements, the remains of the early pueblo would have been visible to the Spanish explorers, who likely camped on or near the site. Explorer Antonio de Espejo came through the area in 1582; prospective settler Gaspar Castaño de Sosa in 1590. Espejo’s journals of 1582 mention both occupied and unoccupied pueblos near the mesa. According to Schroeder and Matson in A Colony on the Move: Gaspar Castaño de Sosa’s Journal, 1590-1591, they came close to this site.


Juan de Oñate’s expedition of 1598 arrived at La Boca at the beginning of August and might have camped there before deciding whether to go upriver through the narrow canyon, or head north to Po’Wo’Gue’Owingueh (San Ildefonso Pueblo) along La Cañada Ancha through what was later the Caja del Río Land Grant eastern boundary. Having glimpsed the vast plains below the looming mesa capped with volcanic rock, the Oñate expedition chose the easier route. After exiting the canyon, the exhausted party followed the trail north along La Cañada Ancha to its final destination, Okeh’Owingueh Pueblo, north of today’s Española.


The Early Colonial Period

For the next eight decades, Spanish caravans from the south passed through this area as they approached the end of their protracted journey. A paraje (permanent campsite) near La Boca (the mouth of the Río Santa Fe) likely offered fresh water before carts, mules, oxen, cattle and herds of smaller domestic animals were herded through the canyon into La Villa de Santa Fe, founded by 1610. Before long, mule teams began to scale the mesa, following a faster, less dangerous route to Santa Fe via La Majada’s grassy mesa to the top of La Bajada Mesa at La Boca. Whether they took the mesa or the river canyon routes, they still passed through the pueblos of Tzenatay, Tzeguma, Guicú, Pindi and Pueblo Quemado de las Cieneguitas.


In August 1680, the Pueblo Revolt halted all activity along El Camino Real. Governor Otermín and approximately 2,000 Spanish and mixed-race settlers made their escape south along—or parallel to—“La Bajada” en route to El Paso del Río del Norte, where they would struggle for survival until the 1692 scouting expedition and the 1693 resettlement effort—the second Pueblo Revolt, instigated by Gov. Diego de Vargas.


La Merced de La Majada de Domínguez Land Grant

With the return of the Spanish to New Mexico in 1693, caravans of supplies and settlers began moving north once again. On Feb. 10, 1695, Gov. Diego de Vargas granted Jacinto Peláez La Merced del Ojito (the little cold spring land grant). Conferred as a majadal (pasturelands for stock) La Majada (corral for stock near the majadal) in compensation for services rendered as a soldier during the reconquest campaign, the property was bounded “on the north, by a line running from east to west one league north of the spring on said tract known as El Ojito de la Laguna de Tío Mes, on the east by Las Bocas de Senetu; on the south by the northern boundary lines of the Indian Pueblo of Santo Domingo, and on the west by El Río Grande” (J.J. Bowden,  Private Land Claims of the Southwest, 1969, p.385-389).


Three years later, Jacinto Peláez had to petition Gov. Pedro Rodríguez Cubero for a revalidation of the original land grant (J.J. Bowden, Vol. II). In December of 1698, the governor validated the grant and ordered the mayor of Bernalillo to give Peláez possession of the land, but Peláez died before taking possession. Part of the northern portion of the grant was subsequently given to Nicolás Ortiz and Jacinto Sánchez, with a portion of the southern boundary ceded to Santo Domingo Pueblo. The extensive grassland plains were still intact on Jan. 10, 1710 when Ensign Ygnacio de Roibal, guardian of Peláez’s minor daughter María, petitioned Gov. José Chacón to override the concessions made to Sánchez and Ortiz in favor of María (The Majada Grant, No. F-224, Miscellaneous Records of the Surveyor General of New Mexico, 1895).


In 1728, Juan Fernández de Pedrera, husband of María Peláez, filed a protest on behalf of Jacinto Peláez’s minor daughter, María, complaining that the Indians of Cochití Pueblo were trespassing on the grant. As mentioned above, the Cochití recognized ancestral ties to the area, and even though the former pueblo had been abandoned for several centuries, they likely continued to conduct traditional ceremonies in the area. There was no indication of a resolution to this protest.


Favored by springs, river water, fertile soil, grazing land for stock and protection from the escarpment, the village at La Bajada would continue its slow growth. Settling at the base of the large mesa at Las Bocas del Cañón shortly thereafter, families protected the ojito frío, dug acequias and built their houses, thereby creating a permanent village at the former paraje site. In 1737, with the help of Franciscans, they built a small church dedicated to San Miguel de Domínguez de La Majada (uncatalogued papers at the Archives of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe).


It was during this period that the royal horse herds belonging to the Santa Fe Presidio were grazed on La Majada Mesa near Las Bocas by order of Gov. Enrique de Olavide y Michelena (Linda Tigges, “The Pastures of the Royal Horse Herd of the Santa Fe Presidio, 1692-1740,” in All Trails Lead to Santa Fe: Anthology for the 400th Anniversary of Santa Fe, 2010). These official orders made it difficult for the villagers of San Miguel de La Majada de Domínguez to graze enough stock for their own subsistence. Meanwhile, the caravans came and went, offering villagers continual opportunities to trade.


Sixteen years later, Gov. Joaquín Codallos y Rabal granted a request from Bartolomé Fernández, who claimed that his father, Juan Fernández de la Pedrera, had given him possession of his interest in La Majada Grant, and was seeking permission to sell it. Once his request was granted, he sold his interest to Paulín Montoya.


The location of San Miguel de La Majada de Domínguez near Cochití Pueblo helped the villagers deal with raiding parties that moved through the area during the 1700s. At times the village was abandoned because of raiding and drought, replicating earlier indigenous pueblo experiences. Apachi, Nabaju and Comanche raids along El Camino Real caused the yearly caravans to and from Chihuahua to cease. Two archbishops from Durango—Benito Crespo, who passed through La Bajada in 1730, and Martín de Elizacoechea, who came through in 1737—most likely were camped/lodged at La Bajada.


In 1742, La Caja del Río Land Grant, overlapping the northern portion of La Majada de Domínguez Land Grant, was given to Nicolás Ortiz in reward for 49 years of service as a soldier and officer in the Spanish militia. When Gov. Tomás Vélez Cachupín arrived in 1750, he set out to protect the caravans that sought to make yearly trips from Santa Fe to Chihuahua. In 1760, Archbishop Pedro Tamarón y Romeral passed through La Bajada village en route to Santa Fe. 


La Majada Land Grant went through more changes as prominent individuals became interested in the area. In November 1785, Bartolomé Fernández the younger conveyed his interest in the grant to Manuel Ortiz. The following year, Juan de Abrego, husband of Juana Fernández, the daughter of Bartolomé Fernández junior, conveyed her interest in the grant to Manuel Ortiz. On behalf of his father, Paulín Montoya, Francisco Montoya petitioned for a judicial partition of La Majada Grant in February of 1804, approved the next year by Gov. Fernando Chacón. La Majada Grant was consequently divided into four tracts owned by Paulín Montoya, Miguel Otero, Pedro Gonzales and Juan José Silva. Manuel Ortiz claimed interest in the grant, which he estimated to contain 20,000 acres, because he was one of the legal representatives of the original grantees.


Developments under the United States of North America

In 1854, six years after the conquest of New Mexico by the United States of North America, the Surveyor General’s Office conducted surveys of all the land grants in the newly acquired territory. Meanwhile, El Camino Real continued to be used as the principal road between Santa Fe and Chihuahua, and caravans continued to pass through La Bajada. By 1883, however, its course above La Bajada village was altered. On the U.S. General Land Office map of 1895, it was renamed “La Bajada to Santa Fe Road.”


La Majada Land Grant was not surveyed until after it was validated by the Court of Private Land Claims on Sept. 24, 1894. In October of 1895, Deputy Surveyor Albert J. Easley surveyed the grant at 54,404.10 acres (Journal 231, Miscellaneous Records of the Court of Private Land Claims). Clear title suits were brought before the Santa Fe District Court in 1903 because the Santo Domingo Pueblo, Cochití Pueblo,  La Majada and Caja del Río grants overlapped in the survey made by the Surveyor General’s office. Heirs to La Caja del Río Grant relinquished 1,221.58 acres of Cochití Pueblo Land. A patent covering lands within La Majada Land Grant was finally issued on Oct. 26, 1908.


The residents of San Miguel de La Bajada continued to struggle; their story will be recounted in the February edition of Green Fire Times.



Hilario E. Romero, a New Mexican mestizo (Spanish/Basque/Jicarilla Apache/Ute), is a former New Mexico state historian. He spent the past 42 years in higher education, as an administrator and professor of History, Spanish and Education at the Community College of Denver, Northern New Mexico College, University of Colorado-Denver, New Mexico Highlands University and UNM.




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