Climate Change Doomed the Historic Settlements at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
The ruins at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument near Mountainair, New Mexico, do more than just remind us of Spain’s shattered dreams of empire in the American Southwest. They also remind us that climate change is an old phenomenon that has powerfully influenced human well-being through the centuries.
Salinas Pueblo Missions is an old park, having been established by presidential proclamation on November 1, 1909, exactly 99 years ago today. Initially designated Gran Quivira National Monument in recognition of the park’s best known ruin, the park acquired its present name through redesignation on 28 October 1988. Originally 160 acres in extent, it was enlarged at least three times in the interim (1919, 1980, and 1981), absorbing two New Mexico state monuments along the way and bringing it to its present size of 1,071 acres.
Salinas Pueblo Missions is situated east of the Manzano Mountains in the Estancia Basin of central New Mexico where it preserves the best existing examples of the 17th century Spanish Franciscan mission churches and convents built in this country at about the same time that the Pilgrims arrived in New England. Preserved in this unit are the ruins of four of America’s six remaining 17th-century Spanish mission churches as well as the ruins of three of the largest Pueblo Indian villages.
Annual attendance at this park has been about 33,000 in recent years. There is much to entertain visitors, especially those with a nuanced appreciation of Spanish colonial history, Native American cultures of the Southwest, and archeological research.
The park’s feature attraction is the Gran Quivira Ruins, which includes the largest Christian church ruin in the entire Southwest. The site has a parking lot, a small visitor center, a half-mile interpretive trail, the ruins of an uncompleted mission church, and the partially-excavated remains of the Las Humanas pueblo (long known as Gran Quivira), which may have had as many as 2,000 residents in its heyday. There are also preserved church ruins at the Quarai and Abó sites. The main visitor center is at the Shaffer Hotel (corner of Broadway & Ripley) in Mountainair.
For an artist's conception of what Gran Quivira might have looked like four centuries ago, see this site.
Growing public awareness and concern about climate change has highlighted a facet of the Salinas Pueblo Missions story that deserves much more attention that it has heretofore received. The stark truth is that the missions and pueblos that this park commemorates were abandoned because a drought of extraordinary ferocity and duration made life unbearable for the Spanish and the Indians throughout the Salinas Jurisdiction. The region’s once-thriving Native American communities and the Spanish missions established there at such great sacrifice withered and died. Explorers entering the region after the late 1670s found it utterly depopulated.
Here, as at Mesa Verde National Park and various other places where the ruins of dead civilizations speak to us, we are reminded of a great verity: In the never ending game of man versus nature, nature always bats last.
Post Script: Historians continue to speculate about the origin of the name Gran Quivira. Hypotheses abound, but no one can nail down an explanation that historians can all live with. Dating to the days of Coronado, who led the first Spanish expedition to penetrate the region, the name “Quivira” was linked to rumors of a mythical (and very wealthy) city said to be situated somewhere in the eastern Great Plains. It’s conceivable that explorers who entered the area after the 1670s attached the name to the abandoned pueblos and church ruins of the Salinas Jurisdiction because they thought they had found the remains of the fabled city.