Tuesday, November 08, 2022

¿Qué es una ciénega?


Our former Connecticut neighbor Mark Twain was fond of saying, “if you don't like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” He should have added “or New Mexico.”

We began writing this issue of CMiNM on March 27 in sunny 70° temperatures. (Our thermometer in the sun on the placita (patio) actually read 100.) This was preceded by two days of the same – and followed by one more – then five days of snow showers, clouds and 50°. Three days before the heat wave it snowed enough to prompt outrage from school parents about the failure to cancel that day’s session. Being experienced New Englander drivers we however kept our 8:00 a.m. engagement that morning for breakfast with friends at an empanada restaurant a half-hour into town. The ice fog was a first-time experience for us out here. But the rest was, “been there, done that.” As this essay progressed from idea to draft to editing, the weather likewise has been inching its way spring-ward. And April 6 at 3:50 PM, MDT we saw our first official sign of that season’s arrival – the initial whiptail lizard of 2022 scurrying along one of our neighborhood sidewalks after having spent the winter hibernating in her shelter. (They all are female.) That night’s low was 28°. We hope the little lady didn’t jump the gun. But we’ll probably never know. They do all kind of look alike.  BTW yesterday was 49° and sunny with winds gusting up to 50 mph.

We’ve been having all-day training sessions at El Rancho de las Golondrinas on three Saturdays in March and one in April – mornings on Zoom and in-person afternoon tours of the property.

We took advantage of our time at the initial onsite to walk the Torreón Trail, one of our favorite parts of the 200-acre property. The pathway, which begins in a scenic portion of the property’s ciénega, was once part of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro and is the former site of a textbook Comanche raid in June, 1776.

Lots of unfamiliar Spanish Colonial stuff. Right? So first, who was this Torreón person anyway?

Actually Torreónes ("fortified buildings" or "towers") were circular defensive structures similar to English castle keeps or French donjons – and were a common sight throughout northern New Mexico during the Spanish colonial period. Some were scattered around the landscape for settlers to take shelter in during attacks when they were out working in the fields or otherwise away from their home base. Others were a tall safe-room in a hacienda. In both instances the structures also served as a lookout from which the watchman (usually a 12-14 year old boy) could see whether incoming groups were coming to socialize and do business, or raid and pillage. Archeological excavations confirm that the Torreón whose remains can be seen at the end of the short walking path at las Golondrinas was built in the 18th century.

What allowed New Mexico to be settled, and what kept it going for its first 200-plus years, was the two-way trade with Spain via Mexico on El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road of the Interior Land) – the northernmost of the four main Caminos Reales that linked Mexico City to its major cash cows in Acapulco, Veracruz, Audiencia (Guatemala) and Santa Fe. Long before the arrival of the Spanish, the Indigenous Peoples of the Valley of Mexico had established the route to support their own flourishing commerce in turquoise, obsidian, salt and feathers with customers as far away as the Rocky Mountains. Beginning in 1598 EVERYTHING that came into or out of Spain’s northernmost colony traveled on this 1,600 mile road, which actually ended at San Juan Pueblo (now known as Ohkay Owingeh) 25 miles north of Santa Fe. Travelers covered 8-10 miles day. Six months one way.

The roadway passed through what today are the neighboring Census-Designated-Places of La Ciénega and La Ciéneguilla in Santa Fe County. El Rancho de las Golondrinas is located in the former of these two unincorporated townships (just 15 minutes from the current site of “Casa Meehan.”) During the 18th and early 19th centuries the ranch was one of many “parajes” or stopping places along El Camino Real at which journeyers would rest, swap goods, replenish supplies, and prepare for the next leg of their journey. Like the long-running Italian tavern near the Hartford-Wethersfield line back in CT, las Golondrinas was the “First & Last” stop coming from or going to Santa Fe – but without the pizza and beer. It is generally accepted that today’s 1/4 mile Torreón Trail was its entry way to El Rancho.

The Royal Road roughly followed the path of the Rio Grande through New Mexico. Good enough for traveling. But a place with a permanent source of water – such as a ciénega – would have had any real estate developers in the caravan lusting for the land. As you can see from the name of its hometown, las Golondrinas was and is in such a place. So, ¿Qué es una ciénega?

“Ciénega is the Spanish word for ‘marsh,’ but it has also become an ecological term for a stable spring-fed wet meadow … in an otherwise, arid region – like an oasis in the desert. Arid-land spring ciénegas are very rare... Prehistoric and historic people of arid southwestern America have relied upon and exploited these uncommon sources of water and lush vegetation.” (streamdynamic.us) There are 169 identified ciénegas in New Mexico – most small and non-functional. The numerous springs and spring brooks within the one at las Golondrinas are created by igneous intrusions that force the aquifer to surface – most notably at the pond adjacent to the museum property in Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve from which El Rancho draws the water to power its large grist mill, and  at the small bodies of water that run along both sides of the Torreón Trail.

The ciénega also was something that the Indigenous Tano residents of Pueblo Ciénega (aka Pueblo Mesita) and Keres villagers at nearby Pueblo La Ciéneguilla took advantage of as early the 14th century. The exact site of the first-mentioned settlement is still uncertain. Remains of the latter have been found adjacent to mesas adorned with pre-Columbian native petroglyphs – now a hiking area under the control of the Bureau of Land Management. History tells us that both communities took part in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The drought, crop failure and famine, which were contributing factors to the uprising, did not however go away when the Spanish did. Many villages closed down and their occupants moved on to other Pueblos. It would seem that those sitting on a permanent water source should have survived. But Pueblos Mesita and La Ciéneguilla did not. The Spanish returned and reconquered New Mexico in 1692. King Philip V issued a Community Land Grant for La Ciénega in 1710 under which Miguel de la Vega y Coca and others established ranches that became known as El Rancho de las Golondrinas. La Ciéneguilla was begun under a Private Land Grant to Francisco Anaya De Almazan, but did not begin developing until the family sold the land in 1760.


In recognition of the Torreón Trail’s historic status the National Park Service has placed signage along the route. The last one of which tells about the June 20, 1776 “Attack at the Torreón” when “a party of Comanche warriors swept through the Spanish ranchos of La Ciénega … and La Ciéneguillia … killing nine men and boys and taking two young children captive. Antonio Sandoval, the owner of El Rancho de las Golondrinas, lost his 19-year old son … and nephew … who were killed as they tended crops. Scenes such as this were typical on the northern frontier.”

The Comanche Nation occupied and largely controlled significant portions of the southern plains including North, Central and West Texas as well as most of New Mexico – an area larger than all of New England (over 72,000 mi².) Historians such as Pekka Hämäläinen argue that this “Comancheria” fit the definition of an empire.

Interestingly though there was no central tribal authority in the Comanche Nation, but rather a number of largely independent sub-tribes (bands) who would periodically join forces to attack their enemies. This decentralized organization was something that the Spanish and U.S. authorities never quite caught on to as they would negotiate one unsuccessful treaty after another with chiefs whom they mistakenly thought spoke for the entire tribe. Little difference – since in many cases the U.S. in particular never intended to honor the terms of the agreements anyway. And the Comanche were mostly in it for the door prizes (aka bribes) such as horses and armaments. Only Don Fernando de la Concha, New Mexican Governor from 1787-1793, was able to achieve a period of conciliation with the Comanche. “Through his imaginative use of balance-of-power diplomacy [he] consolidated peace with troublesome Indian groups and effected a decade of stability and modest economic prosperity in New Mexico,” according to “Balance of Power Diplomacy in New Mexico.” by Jack August published in digitalrepository.unm.edu.

The Comanche operated a highly successful “raiding economy” beginning in 1706 with sudden attacks on the Spanish colonies of New Spain that continued until the last bands of the tribe surrendered to the United States Army in 1875.

In his highly readable work “Empire Of The Summer Moon,” S C Gwynne writes, “no tribe in the history of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, and American occupations of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death. None was even a close second.” He describes in detail the “demonic immorality of Comanche attacks [in which] torture, killings and gang-rapes were routine … The logic of Comanche raids was straightforward, all the men were killed, and any men who were captured alive were tortured; the captive women were gang raped. Babies were invariably killed.” According to dailymail.co.u, “Texans, Mexicans and other Indians living in the region all developed a particular dread of the full moon – still known as a ‘Comanche Moon’ in Texas – because that was when the Indigenous raiders came for cattle, horses and captives.”

The Comanche became expert horsemen, taking full advantage of the equines that the Spanish had introduced to the Americas. The Natives initially acquired them by trading and raiding; then by taking possession of many of those left behind when the Spaniards were driven from New Mexico in the 1680 Pueblo revolt; then by more and more raiding. Just like in the movies the Natives were able to swing down to the side of their mount and shoot arrow after arrow from behind the protection of the steed’s neck. They brought spare rides with them on their forays – swapping from one to another as they made their escapes and sometimes riding as much as 100 miles with their captives before stopping. A Comanche War Chief’s status was measured by the number of horses he owned. All of which were destroyed upon his death.

Conflicts with the Comanche ended in 1875 when the last of the tribe surrendered to the United States Army – thus, among other things, making the Torreón Trail safe for our Golondrinas guests. Yet the pathway remains the least visited site at the museum. This, we believe, is largely due to its location at the top of what is labeled “steep hill” on the attached map. (Torreón Trail is the snake-shaped set of dashes to the right.)


The normal and recommended staring point for tours of the 200-acre museum is the 18th century Spanish Colonial Golondrinas Placita (#1.) From there guests exit through the back past the churro sheep pen (#13), into the 1820s Mexican Period Baca Placita (#s 15-18) and then down a gently-sloped incline across the creek and into U.S. Territorial times on the “far side" (31-46.) After the uphill and downhill trek on rocky terrain around the 1847-1900 loop, mostly in the unfiltered and un-abating New Mexico sun, our visitors choose between the more direct but also more strenuous “steep” hill, or the longer but more gradual path on which they came down earlier from the upper ranch. The majority opt for the latter, completely missing the opening to the Torreón Trail. Most of those that choose to storm up the big hill may see the small sign pointing the way to the defensive tower, but they are gasping too hard to have any interest in adding another half-mile to their day’s step-count. Or if not they are, as we say, all “museum-ed out” from trying to absorb 200 years of the past in 200 minutes in the sun and heat.

We point them to the nearest shaded area and make sure that they have enough hydration. And – since most of our guests do return – suggest that on their next visit they begin with a gentle stroll through our on-site oasis along the earliest Euro-American trade route in the United States out to the place that made 1776 such a special year in New Mexico history. A solitary saunter is nice. A partnered promenade is better. An excursion with one of our volunteer interpreters is best.

As Mark Twain tells us, “the true charm of pedestrianism does not lie in the walking, or in the scenery, but in the talking... the scenery and the woodsy smells are good … but the supreme pleasure comes from the talk.”

Especially when you are literally immersed in the subject matter.

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