ABQjournal: Enchanting El Morro a Lasting Record of Past Travelers By James Abarr, For the Journal
EL MORRO NATIONAL MONUMENT — On the western slopes of the Zuni Mountains, 42 miles southwest of Grants, a golden sandstone mesa offers a unique tapestry of New Mexico’s yesterday.
For more than 250 years, the soaring cliffs of El Morro, rising 200 feet above the ancient Zuni Trail, beckoned travelers to rest in their shelter. It was an idyllic camping place in a small forest of juniper and pines beside a catch-basin, which trapped rainfall and melting snow runoff and never failed to provide ample water.
Through the centuries, these Spanish and American passers-by carved their names and a record of their deeds into the soft sandstone walls. The result is more than 1,000 inscriptions — a remarkable history book in stone which has been set aside as El Morro National Monument. …
If you go
WHAT: El Morro National Monument, administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior; telephone: (505) 783-4226.
WHERE: In west-central New Mexico, 42 miles southwest of Grants via N.M. 53.
HOURS: Open daily except Christmas and New Year’s; summer hours, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; remainder of year, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
FEES: $3 a person; children under 17, no charge.
FACILITIES: Visitor Center provides information, brochures and guide books, and a 15-minute video introduction to the monument.
A museum features exhibits covering 700 years of human presence at El Morro.
Campsites and picnic areas are located within the monument. An RV park is available near the monument entrance.
ACTIVITIES: Inscription Rock Trail, a paved one-half mile loop, leads past the major inscriptions at the base of the mesa.
Mesa Top Trail, a 2-mile-long roundtrip loop, offers panoramic views from the summit of El Morro and provides access to two prehistoric Anasazi Indian pueblos. One pueblo, which dates to the 13th century, has been partially excavated.
An ancient people
Long before the coming of the Spaniards and Americans, however, prehistoric Anasazi Indians had left their own mark on El Morro. The cliffs of the mesa display hundreds of their petroglyphs and sacred symbols.
It remained for Don Juan de Oñate, colonizer of New Mexico and its first governor, to begin the trend of later inscriptions.
In the spring of 1605, Oñate was returning to his capital of San Gabriel, near present-day Española, from an exploring venture to the Gulf of California when he and the 30 soldiers in the expedition camped beneath the cliffs of El Morro. Before resuming his journey, Oñate, or more likely one of his men, carved this inscription:
“Paso por aqui, el adelantado Don Juan de Oñate, del descubrimiento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605.”
Translated, the inscription proclaims:
“Passed by here, the expedition leader Don Juan de Oñate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South the 16th of April of 1605.”
While Oñate’s inscription is the oldest Spanish carving found on El Morro, he was not the first Spaniard to see the mesa. In March 1583, Diego Pérez de Luxan, chronicler of an exploring expedition led by Antonio de Espejo, recorded in his journal that the party had camped at a location he called El Estanque de Peñol (The Place at the Great Rock).
However, no record of the expedition’s passing has been found on the mesa.
Through the decades after Oñate’s visit, countless travelers plied the trail from the Rio Grande Valley to Zuni Pueblo and on westward. Many stopped to rest in the shelter of El Morro (The Headland), and following Oñate’s lead, they recorded their passing.
Many left only a name and date, but others were not shy about heralding their deeds, as in this inscription, which was in the form of a poem:
“Aqui llego el Señor y Gobernador
Don Francisco Manuel de Silva Nieto
Que lo imposible tiene ya subjeto
Su brazo indubitable y su valor
Con los carros del Rey Nuestro Señor
Cosa Que solo el puso en este efecto
De Agostos 5 (Mil) Seiscientos Veinte Nueve
Que se bien a Zuni pasa y la Fe lleve.”
In English, of course, the poem doesn’t rhyme:
“Here arrived the Señor and Governor Don Francisco Manuel de Silva Nieto whose indubitable arm and valor have now overcome the impossible with the wagons of the King Our Lord, a thing which he alone put into effect, August 5, 1629, that one may well to Zuni pass and carry the faith.”
Don Francisco, the seventh royal Spanish governor of New Mexico, was proclaiming that he had pacified hostile Indians in the western part of the province. Unfortunately, the peace didn’t last.
In February 1632, Fray Juan Letrado, a Franciscan missionary assigned to Zuni, was slain by members of his flock only a week after his arrival. Spanish soldiers sent to punish the pueblo camped at El Morro and left this inscription:
“Se pasaron a 23 de marzo de 1632 años a la venganza de muerte del Padre Letrado— Lujan.
In English, it reads:
“They passed on the 23rd of March 1632 to the avenging of the death of Father Letrado— Lujan.”
Twelve years after the Spanish were driven from New Mexico in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Spain moved to reconquer her lost province.
In 1692, Don Diego de Vargas, who would become one of New Mexico’s best remembered colonial governors, led a Spanish army north from El Paso. En route to Zuni, his troops camped at El Morro, and De Vargas told of the reconquest in this inscription:
“Aqui estuvo de Generál Don Diego de Vargas, quien conquisto a nuestra Santa Fe y la Real Corona todo el Nuevo Mexico a su costa, Ano de 1692.”
Translated it reads:
“Here was the General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico at his own expense, year of 1692.”
Deeds of vengence and conquest aside, El Morro is not without a touch of humor, as in this inscription:
“The 14th day of July 1736 passed by here the General Juan Paez Hurtado, Inspector.”
Immediately below is a second inscription in another style of lettering:
“And in his company, the Corporal Joseph Trujillo.”
One wonders if the general ever saw the addition.
An unhappy fate
Another Spanish traveler who, along with two companions, recorded his journey past the mesa was later executed by his countrymen. The inscription says:
“We passed by here el Sargento Majór and Captain Juan de Archuleta and Adjutant Diego de Martín Barba and Ensign Agustin de Ynojos, the year of 1636.”
Seven years later, Archuleta, who came to New Mexico with Onate’s colonizing expedition in 1598, was implicated in a plot to assassinate Gov. Alonso de Pacheco de Herédia. Archuleta was found guilty by a Spanish court and beheaded in the plaza at Santa Fe in 1643.
El Morro also tells of one of the first visits to New Mexico by a ranking Catholic clergyman from Durango, Mexico. The inscription reads:
“The 28th day of September of 1737, arrived here the illustrious Señor Don Martin de Elizacochea, Bishop of Durango, and the day following went on to Zuni.”
As colonists far to the east of New Mexico prepared to cast off the yoke of England in the American Revolution, a traveler left this inscription:
“By here passed Andres Romero, the year of 1774.”
No one knows who Romero was, but his is the last known Spanish inscription on the mesa.
Home to the Anasazi
Centuries before Oñate left his name on El Morro, the mesa was home to the Anasazi, who built two pueblos on the mesa summit and carved countless petroglyphs and symbols into the sandstone cliffs.
One of the pueblos, called A’ts’ina, a name which refers to the “Writing on the Rocks,” has been partially excavated.
Archaeologists are uncertain how long the Anasazi lived here before the pueblos, which may have housed 1,000 people at their zenith, were abandoned in the late 13th century. Researchers believe a major reason for the exodus was a population that had grown too large to be supported by the limited crops that could be raised in the short growing season at El Morro’s elevation of 7,200 feet.
Today, descendants of the El Morro Anasazi live in Zuni, about 40 miles to the west on the Arizona border.
At the close of the Mexican War in 1848, New Mexico became a U.S. territory, and the arrival of the Americans opened a new chapter in the mesa’s long history.
In 1849, Lt. James Simpson, an Army topographical engineer, and Richard Kern, an artist, were the first Americans to carve their names on El Morro. More significantly, however, Kern sketched many of the inscriptions and brought them to national attention.
After Simpson and Kern, many American wagon trains carrying emigrants to California passed the mesa. As the Anasazi and Spaniards did before them, they left a record of their presence.
However, the popularity of El Morro and the Zuni Trail would soon fade in the light of changing times. In 1881, Santa Fe Railway surveyors, searching for the best way through western New Mexico, staked out a route 25 miles north of the mesa, and except for local travelers, the Zuni Trail fell into disfavor.
In 1906, El Morro was set aside as a national monument. Inscriptions or other carvings on this national treasure are now prohibited, and federal laws provide stiff penalties for violations.
Visitors might wonder what compelled so many travelers to record their names here? Perhaps they saw in the sandstone cliffs a chance for immortality. If so, they were successful.
As a National Park Service historian wrote:
“Those wielders of stone and steel who reached out to future passers-by have left a rare gift, a variegated tapestry of the peopling of New Mexico.”