History, Trip reports

Pecos National Historical Park

Pop quiz: which national park helped create modern archaeology, was once owned by a 1940s movie star, is the site of a decisive Civil War battle, and interprets 2,000 years of Pueblo Indian history? Let’s put it this way: I didn’t expect the first three of those when I arrived at Pecos National Historical Park on a gloomy day with spitting rain and chilly wind. When locals say April weather in New Mexico is unpredictable, they aren’t kidding.

Like any good national park visitor, I headed straight for the auditorium and the orientation film. Whoa. This one was seriously dated, replete with soft-focus reenactments, melodrama, and a voice-over straight out of the 1940s, a throaty female Cary Grant-esque purr. Who was that narrator? As it turns out, it was Greer Garson, a major movie star from, naturally, the 1940s. Okay, but what was Greer Garson doing narrating the old-timey visitor center film at Pecos NHP?

Here’s where Pecos started to get a little unusual. I’d come expecting to learn about the Pecos Puebloans who lived here until the mid-1800s, and they were the focus of the visitor film. But there was something about the Civil War, too, and archaeological techniques, and a rancher… history lies thick on Pecos National Historical Park, and I spent a few hours sorting it out.

Let’s start chronologically, with the Puebloans. Pecos Pueblo, originally called Cicuye, is built above Glorieta Pass, an important trade route through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. One of dozens of pueblos scattered across the Rio Grande country, Pecos was prosperous and powerful. Its location was a natural fortress, with views into the Pecos River valley and to the pass.

Area map of larger Pecos region
Area map of New Mexico showing various pueblos and settlements. Note Pecos’ strategic location. (Lauren Danner photo of NPS map)
View toward Glorieta Pass from Pecos Pueblo
Pueblos had long views of the Pecos River valley and Glorieta Pass, a major trade and travel route. (Lauren Danner photo)

The Pecos people controlled much of the surrounding region, but the arrival of the Spanish in 1541 upended the Puebloan way of life. Armored soldiers and Franciscan friars set up shop at the pueblos, building churches on top of the Puebloans’ kivas and requiring the people to pay tribute to the Spanish with food and labor.

Church remains at Pecos Pueblo
The interpretive panel shows the outline of the original, pre-revolt church built atop Pecos Pueblo. The remains of the smaller, post-revolt church still stand. (Lauren Danner photo)
Spanish church at Pecos NHP
Remains of Spanish church at Pecos NHP. (Lauren Danner photo)

Not surprisingly, the Puebloans didn’t much like this situation, and in 1680, using an ingenious calendrical system designed to ensure simultaneous action at the far-flung pueblos, they revolted. At Pecos and elsewhere, Pueblos destroyed churches, the main symbol of Spanish oppression, and killed or expelled friars and soldiers. It remains the only time native peoples have successfully expelled invaders on North American soil. The revolt lasted 13 years, during which the Spanish retreated south and plotted their return. Realizing that brute force hadn’t worked as hoped, this time the Spanish promised to respect native traditions and beliefs and to pay Puebloans for their labor and food. The Spanish came back in 1693, and with help from the Pecos people eventually built a much smaller church at Pecos. Today, the pueblo embodies a mixture of cultural traditions, with the Spanish church cheek-by-jowl with several kivas, and a Spanish livestock corral built near the pueblo proper.

Reconstructed kiva entrance at Pecos NHP
Reconstructured kiva entrance at Pecos NHP. (Lauren Danner photo)
Interior of reconstructed kiva, Pecos NHP
Interior of reconstructed kiva. Note the hole just behind the ladder. It leads to a ventilation shaft that drew smoke out of the kiva. (Lauren Danner photo)

Fast forward a hundred years, and disease, drought, Comanche raids, and migration had decimated the Pecos people. The few remaining at the pueblo moved 90 miles west in 1838 to Jémez Pueblo. Pecos was mostly forgotten, becoming a curiosity stop for Santa Fe Trail travelers, some of whom resupplied at the nearby Kozlowski Trading Post.

Koslowski Ranch, Pecos NHP
The National Park Service eventually plans to improve interpretation at the Kozlowski Trading Post. Right now it’s mostly a photo op. (Lauren Danner photo)

In 1861, the Confederacy set its sights on New Mexico Territory, raising 3,500 men in Texas to invade New Mexico. It planned to capture Fort Union, the most important supply depot in the region, take the gold fields in Colorado, then head west and gain control of the trade routes all the way to the California coast. This would establish the Confederacy as an economic powerhouse by opening West Coast ports for trade with Europe and Asia. Once established coast to coast, the Confederacy would be difficult to defeat.

Union Lt. Col. Edward Canby (I wrote about him in my Fort Union post) learned about the gathering of troops in Texas and began planning a defense, mustering 4,000 troops in preparation. In February 1862, the Union lost the first battle with the Confederates at Valverde, 100 miles south of Albuquerque. The Confederates went on to take Albuquerque on March 2 and Santa Fe on March 13. It didn’t look good for the Union.

Fortunately, about 950 Colorado volunteers had arrived at Fort Union on March 10, joining 800 Union regulars there. The Union troops readied at Fort Union, while the Confederate troops, which didn’t know that the Colorado troops had arrived, prepared at Santa Fe. Between them: Glorieta Pass, the southern crossing of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

By March 22, about 1,300 Union troops were camped southeast of Glorieta Pass. The Confederates thought the Union numbers were low and expected to easily defeat them. On March 25, four Confederate regiments camped at Glorieta Pass. The same night, Union troops camped at Koslowski’s Trading Post, about 12 miles away, and Union scouts captured a few Confederate scouts. The next day the two sides skirmished at Glorieta Pass, with the Confederates sustaining more losses (perhaps 200 dead, wounded or captured) than the Union soldiers (perhaps 30). On March 27 they agreed to rest and bury their dead.

Visitors can explore the Glorieta Pass battlefield, which abuts Interstate 25 a short drive from the main park unit, along a 2.3-mile trail. The ranger gave me the code for the locked gate and I purchased a trail guide. I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t prepared for the weather. I’d borrowed Mr. Adventure’s water-resistant windbreaker, but a quarter-mile in it was clear I was going to get soaked. I told myself I was experiencing the same conditions as the soldiers 155 years earlier and trudged on.

Despite the roar of trucks on the highway, hiking the battlefield trail was evocative. The landscape has changed dramatically. Mostly open ranchland when the Battle of Glorieta Pass occurred, it’s now forest. But interpretive markers and the trail guide make it just possible to imagine the scene.

Glorieta Pass Battlefield, Pecos NHP
Crossing a ravine at Glorieta Pass battle site. Soldiers used the crevasse as cover from enemy fire. (Lauren Danner photo)
Pigeon's Ranch, Pecos NHP
Union troops commandeered Pigeon’s Ranch, on the route of the Santa Fe Trail, as a field hospital. It’s at the base of the hill on which the primary battle was fought. (Lauren Danner photo)

On March 28, the battle pitched again. For more than six hours, the men fought hand to hand on the hillside above Glorieta Pass. The day ended in a draw of sorts, although the Confederates held the field when the Union soldiers withdrew to Kozlowski’s Trading Post for the night. However, Union commander  Major John Chivington (who became infamous for his role in the 1864 Sand Creek massacre) had taken a group of about 400 soldiers over Glorieta Mesa, skirting the pass, and destroyed the Confederate supply train parked at Johnson’s Ranch about seven miles southwest of the pass.

Without supplies, the Confederates couldn’t hope to win Glorieta Pass, much less the Southwest. On March 29, they regrouped at Pigeon’s Ranch, using it as a Confederate field hospital, then retreated to Santa Fe on March 31. From there, they began a long, hard walk back to Texas. By the end of July, the Confederacy had cleared out of New Mexico and relinquished any hope of winning the Southwest.

View eastward from site of Battle of Glorieta Pass
Looking east from the site of the Battle of Glorieta Pass. The road in the distance follows the route of the Santa Fe Trail. (Lauren Danner photo)
Glorieta Pass battlefield, Pecos NHP
Once ranchland, the hill where Union and Confederate soldiers clashed is now a peaceful forest, part of Pecos NHP. (Lauren Danner photo)

Standing in the pouring rain on the crest of the hill, squinting to read dripping interpretive signs, my recurring thought was, “How did I not know about this?” I’m no Civil War buff, but I’ve got the basic outline down. The Pecos National Historical Park ranger told me that although it has taken a while, the battle is now commemorated with markers on the old road through Glorieta Pass, and National Park Service interpretation at the site tells the story well. Glorieta Pass was a decisive moment in the Civil War. I felt appropriately humbled.

Markers commemorate Union and Confederate sacrifices at the Battle of Glorieta Pass
Markers placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy (left) and the people of Colorado (right) commemorate the Battle of Glorieta Pass. (Lauren Danner photo)

What a day. I’d gone expecting Pueblo and Spanish history, and found a new-to-me chapter of the Civil War. But Pecos NHP wasn’t finished with me.

For 14 years starting in 1915, prominent archaeologist Alfred Kidder excavated the abandoned pueblo at Pecos. His career started at Mesa Verde, where he conducted surveys and photographed the ruins. Armed with a Harvard doctorate in anthropology, he returned to the Southwest and started excavating Pecos. Because the site had been mostly forgotten, its archaeological record was largely intact. Kidder found thousands of pots and artifacts from more than 2,000 years of human history. Some of these spectacular finds are on display in the visitor center.

Beyond the obvious addition to archaeological knowledge, though, Kidder is best known for associating changes in pot design and structure to changes in the culture and traditions of the people who lived at Pecos. He applied a chronological approach to archaeology, arguing that studying the layers of artifacts (a practice called stratigraphy) allowed researchers to understand artifacts in context. In other words, at Pecos, Kidder started modern archaeology as we know it.

Pots and artifacts at Pecos NHP visitor center
The Pecos NHP visitor center houses a fraction of the thousands of pots and artifacts recovered at the site. (Lauren Danner photo)
Pots in visitor center at Pecos NHP
The pioneering work of Alfred Kidder uncovered Pecos artifacts while adding another layer of history to this fascinating place. (Lauren Danner photo)

Having read Craig Childs’s House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest, a spellbinding account of what happened to the ancient Puebloans after they supposedly disappeared from the Southwest, I was floored by the variety and number of pots on display at Pecos. Most are on loan from Harvard’s Robert S. Peabody Museum, where Kidder sent them, but it is only a small fraction of what Kidders and others discovered here. Perhaps indicative of Kidder’s attachment to Pecos, he’s buried nearby.

That left one Pecos mystery unexplained: movie star Greer Garson’s voice in the visitor center film. In 1941, a Texas oilman named E.E. “Buddy” Fogelson purchased the Forked Lightning Ranch, which included the Kozlowski Trading Post, and quickly expanded his holdings to 13,000 acres. In 1949, he married Greer Garson. The English-born Garson was a major film star in the 1940s, earning five consecutive Oscar nominations for best actress and winning for her 1942 role in Mrs. Miniver. Apparently her five-and-a-half-minute Oscar acceptance speech led the Academy to institute a time limit, much to the dismay of some emotionally verbose modern thespians.

After their marriage, Garson and Fogelson spent time at their home in Dallas and at Forked Lightning Ranch, where they retired in 1967. Garson loved ranch life, writing a friend, “I’ve switched from bustles and bows to Levis and boots, and I think it’s definitely a change for the better.” After Fogelson died in 1987, Garson and Fogelson’s son inherited the ranch. She sold her portion to the Conservation Fund in 1991, and the nonprofit donated it to the National Park Service. Combined with Pecos National Monument, which President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed in 1965, the pueblo, battlefield, and surrounding lands became 6,600-acre Pecos National Historical Park in 1991.

And what a park it is. Easy trails, textured history, helpful interpretations, friendly and knowledgable rangers make Pecos National Historical Park well worth a visit. Spend several hours. You won’t regret it. Don’t forget a raincoat.