by Mike Smith
Back in the early summer of 2010, while exploring the ruins of a remote pueblo, a 600-year-old native village just north of the Sandias, I came across a panel of cowboy glyphs—ranch brands, names, and dates carved into a rock wall with buck knives in the 1920s and ’30s. Two weeks later, I returned to that area with two others, to a sandstone rock wall beside a mostly dry sand wash.
It had occurred to me that I hadn’t really studied the surface of all the rock in that area, and that there might be more carvings farther along the arroyo, and so I wandered off from my group, back to where I had seen the cowboy glyphs. Just to the side of a shallow cave, I found the carvings again, and began slowly walking up the broad stone-strewn arroyo, the lumpy ruins of the ancient pueblo at my back, scanning every area of the sandstone wall. Nothing, nothing, nothing, and then, right in the middle of the long wall, something. Something. Crosses. Really old-looking crosses. A whole wall of ornately decorated crosses, covered in carved ivy and topped with carved halos. And, just to the left of them, an inscription—a name: “Santa María.”
Once back home, research led me to believe that the inscription likely referred to Father Juan de Santa María, a Franciscan priest on the Chamuscado-Rodriguez expedition of 1581, the second expedition into what is now the state of New Mexico. That expedition was a missionary one, and its three priests were accompanied by nine soldiers, nineteen native servants, and literally hundreds of livestock animals, which were herded along with them for food. The soldiers, led by Francisco Sánchez—called El Chamuscado, or “the Singed,” for his red beard—came along to look for gold and silver and to do a terrible job of protecting the priests, all of whom would be dead by the end of the journey. Augustin Rodriguez, the priest in charge, had heard a story of natives who slept in houses and wore clothes woven from cotton, and seemed to think that, perhaps, this meant such people might be civilized enough to bother talking to.
The expedition left Santa Barbara, in Chihuahua, Mexico, on June 5, 1581, about 60 years after the expedition of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. By early September, the party arrived near the north end of the Sandia Mountains, northeast of present day Albuquerque, but then the indigenous province of Tiguex. There, Juan de Santa María grew restless and overconfident, and decided to return to Mexico. The others were upset over his leaving, sure he would be killed—and that his leaving would somehow get them killed too. But the locals liked him, he thought; he had learned much he was eager to share; and he would probably be fine on his own. Or, to quote an old Catholic newsletter, he may have had “a zeal for martyrdom.”
Regardless, Santa María left—and he was, of course, immediately murdered. Three days after his departure, locals from a nearby pueblo, either Pa’ako or Chílílí, found him sleeping beneath a tree somewhere to the southeast—in the foothills of what are now the Manzano Mountains—and set rocks on top of him until he died. They might have been afraid the priest had evil powers, or they may have been worried he was going back to Mexico to invite more people to join him—a distinct possibility.
Then about 429 years passed, and I stood gaping at what appeared to be Santa María’s name, carved into a natural rock wall in long-faded letters beside several elegantly decorated crosses. The crosses looked nothing like the more-modern carvings I had found before. And nothing like the area’s many Native American petroglyphs. They look, I thought, like something from El Morro. El Morro is a landlocked island of rock in northwestern New Mexico, a stark stone wall rising up from the desert that nearly everyone in the region’s early history stopped at and carved their names into.
Looking at the crosses in June of 2010, I barely knew anything about Santa María, or the expedition of 1581, but I did know that in 1540, members of Coronado’s expedition had at least known about the pueblos north of the Sandias. I remembered also a 1969 area report by archeologist Franklin Barnett that mentioned finding a copper pestle, the skull of a goat, and the jawbone of a horse, things that could only have come from Spanish contact.
I knew that this discovery might be something big.
I went home, buoyant. I emailed The Albuquerque Journal—reporter Oliver Uyttebrouck called me for an interview—and somehow, two days later, June 22, 2010, the discovery was the top story of the front page of the city’s biggest newspaper. “Inscriptions May Date to 1580s,” read the headline. “If Verified, Find Would Be Oldest Known Spanish Carvings in N.M.” And there, above the fold, was a picture of the crosses and Jason’s hands pointing to two of them. The Associated Press picked up a version of the story and papers all across the country reprinted it. Mentions of it appeared in USA Today and National Geographic, and old friends of mine called from Idaho and Massachusetts and Arizona saying they had read about it in their local papers.
Unfortunately, what I had thought was Bureau of Land Management land was actually San Felipe Pueblo land, Native American land, making verifying the inscription much more difficult. I sent letters, made phone calls, and gave lectures and slideshows. I saw the find written about in two different books—The Gentle Art of Wandering, by David Ryan; and Forgotten Tales of New Mexico, by Ellen Dornan—and came across two additional carvings in the area that may also be from the same time. The Albuquerque Journal ran an editorial urging the pueblo to let archeologists look at the inscription, but San Felipe Pueblo had and still has no interest in allowing a survey of the site to be done. There are cultural differences there that I don’t understand, so I’m not resentful, though I am disappointed.
Despite that, that discovery remains a high point of my life—a moment when I was able to experience the collapse of time—a moment when the past was with me as the present.
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