New Mexico has been continuously occupied for thousands of years, as evidenced by the relics found since then and the buildings still standing in its ancient Indian and Spanish villages. At the heart of this incredible history is Sandoval County, which is home to 12 of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos, as well as the ancestors of Spanish Conquistadors, who arrived here 4oo years ago and more recent settlers, including artists and nomads. Fortunately, there are several sights and monuments around the region to help preserve the history of such a fascinating region.
Before anyone occupied the region now known as Sandoval County, it experienced some seriously dramatic change to its landscape, including the eruption of a supervolcano, Valles Caldera NationalPreserve is a great place to learn about and witness the fallout of the multiple explosive eruptions that permanently changed the landscape a million years ago. Only slightly smaller in size and strength to a more famous caldera called Yellowstone, Valles Caldera is not likely to blow again anytime soon. It is still active, though, as evidenced by the many hot springs in the area. Soda Dam, slightly north of the Village along NM-4, is another geographic wonder worth visiting. Forming over several centuries and consisting of a buildup of mineral deposits, this unique natural dam blocks the Jemez River.
It wasn’t until almost a million years later that dramatic social changes started to occur in this region, too. Prehistoric artifacts have been found that date back thousands of years and lead archaeologists to believe "Sandia Man" lived and hunted in the area more than a thousand years before the Pueblo Indians. Regardless, the Puebloans were the first known inhabitants of the region and are still here today. At world-famous Bandelier National Monument, you can view Ancestral Pueblo ruins and 12th-century Pueblo cliff dwellings.
One of the better-known tribes in the area was the Jemez, which you can learn about at The Pueblo of Jemez. While the pueblo itself isn’t open to the public year-round, visitors are allowed during feast celebrations. The visitor center offers a great deal of knowledge about the Pueblo culture, which thrived for centuries before Coronado and his men arrived in 1540.
With the arrival of Coronado came mass chaos and dramatic change to the area. At the Coronado Monument and the Kuaua Pueblo ruins, you can learn more about this clash of cultures and what became a devastating historical event for the native people. Coronado was searching for the alleged "Seven Cities of Gold," but instead found dozens of thriving villages with prosperous farmers. Had the Pueblo not helped him, his 500 soldiers, and 2,000 Indian allies from New Spain, they would have surely perished.
The stone-built fortresses that housed the Jemez Indians were massive—sometimes three or four stories high—and contained as many as 3,000 rooms. They’re considered some of the largest archaeological ruins in the United States. Because they were located in high elevations and separated by valleys and hills, the Jemez had what are now called "runners" to help communicate important messages and deliver necessary goods. Due to this ancient tradition, the Jemez have become world famous for their mountain running skills, as thin mountain air makes for tough lungs. They have gained attention in recent decades for being the fastest mountain runners in the country and some of the best long-distance runners in the world.
In fact, it was these runners who became vital to the famous Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Pueblo communities all over the region were isolated by hundreds of miles and serious language barriers, so the religious leader Popé sent runners with yucca cords containing knots with decoded secret messages in them. When the Spanish caught two of the runners, the revolt officially started a day earlier than planned, on August 10, 1680.
While the Pueblo Revolt is not a well-known piece of American history, it was one of the most sophisticated military uprisings in history. Before the revolt, there had been decades of conflict between the Jemez and the Spanish for being forced into slavery and to abandon their spiritual life and traditions to adopt the beliefs of the Spanish.
The Pueblo successfully expelled the Spanish from the New Mexico territory through strategic, collaborative, and quite brilliant efforts from all the Pueblo Nations. There was relative peace and self-governance by the Pueblo until 1690 when the Spanish began to re-conquer the area. The Jemez were completely subdued, placed under the rule of clergy and military, and moved to the single village of Walatowa, where they still live today. A must-see stop on any visit to New Mexico, this is where one of America’s most important battles occurred.
After the Pueblo Revolt, Spanish settlers continued to build and thrive in the area. During this time, they brought new traditions, built churches, and even introduced wine to the area. In fact, New Mexico is the oldest producer of wine in the U.S., and Sandoval County is home to several wineries that have carried on their family traditions for 400 years. You can visit many of the wineries by joining the Corrales Wine Loop tour.
Coronado and his men also brought thousands of sheep, which revolutionized the fiber art industry, making New Mexico a Mecca for weaving and fiber art. In fact, some would say the last 400 years of New Mexico’s history revolve primarily around this industry.
To learn more about the rich history of the Spanish settlers, Casa San Ysidro is a great place to start. Back in the 1950s, a couple turned this late 19th-century building into a classic ranch-style house. They actually lived there for many years before turning it into a living museum, which has a large collection of vernacular art, furniture, and decor, including tinwork, weavings, carpentry, Pueblo pottery, Navajo and Apache textiles, and basketry. With the help of a passionate tour guide, visitors can get a feel for what life was like in the 1700s and 1800s, when this region was still relatively isolated from the rest of the world. To learn about more modern history, take a drive along the famous Route 66.
Don’t miss the ruins of an established mission church from around 1621, which are visible at the Jemez Historic Site located in the Village of Jemez Springs, just eight miles north of Jemez Pueblo along the Jemez Mountain Scenic Byway. According to legend, locals realized the value of the hot springs when one of them erupted into a geyser in the late 1800s. Since then, Jemez Springs has become known for its natural mineral hot springs. (You can still see the original spring at the Plaza today, surrounded by a rock wall and gazebo!)
There’s almost too much to see in New Mexico to fully appreciate its long history. Sandoval County is a perfect place to start, though, as it has seen major change over the centuries and has, luckily, preserved as much as possible so those ancient traditions, rich cultures, and dramatic changes aren’t forgotten.
Written by Melanie Hamlett for RootsRated in partnership with New Mexico.