The Rock and Pueblo of Acoma, New Mexico

Acoma Pueblo

Pueblo of Acoma Showing Reservoir
Pueblo of Acoma Showing Reservoir

Reaching the open plain, we came within view of the rock of Acoma, and were in a little while watering our horses at the reservoir over which the pueblos are quarreling. The water was very low and there wore evidences of recent neglect. The rock of Acoma, bears the pueblo of that name. It seems unreasonable that such a site should have been selected by its founders for a habitation except for protection against the more warlike tribes that infested the great plains, roaming at will, preying upon their fields, and later their herds. The distance to wood and water, the enormous daily labor required to provide for the necessaries of life, could not have been endured through all the ‘centuries the Indians have lived there but for the absolute security the natural fortress gave them. Its walls of sandstone rise 200 feet out of the plain and are studded with deep recesses and grottoes that look more and more gloomy and forbidding as they are approached. Arriving at the southwest side of the rock, we left our team in the shadow of one of the towering monoliths that have been separated by erosion from the parent mesa and took a short cut along the ridge of an immense sand hill, the upper end of which banks against the rock about halfway up. Originally there was but one path that led to the top, the larger one of two now used; the other has been made practicable by the sand drift which has formed in recent years. The climb from where the sand stops is steep and difficult, and in some places steps have been cut out of the solid rock. 1

The pueblo of Acoma consists of several long rows of 3-storied buildings, all facing the south, built of flat stone, and rubble. The upper stories are used for dwellings, the lower for storage. From the sides they present the appearance of 3 giant steps, the lowest reached by a forest of ladders. There are narrow partition stone stairs that lead to the upper stories. These landings are the private front yards and balconies. In one of the upper dwellings we got dinner. We sat on the floor. The first course was watermelon, then came a kind of mutton stew, with vegetables, mostly chili, and piping hot, served in large bowls, and a kind of hard graham bread, served in one of the curious Apache willow baskets, The coffee, made of parched pease, over which boiling water was poured and allowed to stand for a time, was very pleasant. North of the town is a great natural reservoir, where the people obtain the water ordinarily used. That part of the mesa is slightly lower than the town and receives the rainfall of a considerable area, through which source and melting snow the reservoir is supplied, Their drinking water is obtained from springs far away from the rock, though I was told many of the families used that of the reservoir, which must, be very unhealthy. On the southern side of the pueblo, commanding an extended view of the country below and beyond, stands the old Spanish mission, facing the east. It is built of adobe and is wasting away.

The Rock and Pueblo of Acoma, New Mexico
The Rock and Pueblo of Acoma, New Mexico
The elevation on the top of the rock is the pueblo

The walled yard in front of the church has been the burial place since the edifice was raised, and many thousand bodies are said to be interred there. The natives in earlier times invariably buried pottery, ornaments of silver and beads of shell and turquoise, and other kinds with their dead. The church was locked, but we found a door within an annexed building, which admitted us to the gallery. The hour was getting late, and the diminishing light would not permit of our seeing distinctly the altar and decorations at the other end of the long auditorium. We met a young, intelligent looking Indian as we left the churchyard, who speaking in good English, asked to talk with us. He said he was educated at Carlisle and had returned to Acoma, his former home, to live, but had taken up a temporary abode at the small station 14 Miles north on the railroad, called McCarty. He desired to live and dress as white people did. He had long been convinced that education was the only salvation of his people, and sadly regretted that a large majority were opposing the efforts to enlighten them. He said that his brother and he owned a herd of sheep and goats; that his brother believed in the new road, but would remain at home and look after their joint interests while he went out into the world to further improve himself; that it was his intention to take his young wife to Albuquerque and put her in the government school there; that he would find work at his trade; slating, and devote his leisure time to mathematics: He hoped his people would open their eyes to the new condition and throw off their old ways. At this moment a pretty little Indian woman rode up astride a burro with gay trappings. He told us site was Iris wife, which she understood, and gave in acknowledgment a graceful nod of the head and cue of the sweetest of smiles,

Continuing, he said, it if you can say a good word for us do so, please; we ask no other assistance, for we both are young and can look after ourselves”. Shaking hands, he jumped on the burro behind his wife, and they soon disappeared down the trail. We descended by the old trail and met numerous herds of horses, burros, sheep, and goats coining tip, followed by their attendants, who made the rock walls ring with occasional song and merry laughter.

Mr. Robert Marmon, who enumerated the Zuñi for the Eleventh Census, gave me a paper containing seine complaints and requests which the Zuñi desired he should make known to the proper authorities in Washington, which I afterward gave to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs while journeying from Fort Wingate to Koalas Canyon.


  1. Mr. C. F. Lummis, in Some Strange Corners of Our Country, 1802, page 203, thus writes of the pueblo of Acoma:

    “Of all the 19 pueblos of New Mexico, Acoma is by far the most wonderful. Indeed, it is probably the most remarkable city in the world, Perched upon the level summit of a great ‘box’ of rock, whose perpendicular sides are nearly 400 feet high, and reached by some of the dizziest paths over trodden by human feet, the prehistoric tows look far across tho wilderness, Its quaint terraced houses of gray adobe, its huge church (hardly less wonderful than tho pyramids of Egypt as a monument of patient toll), its great reservoir in tho solid rook, its superb scenery, its romantic history, and the strange customs of its 600 people, all are rife with Interest to the few Americans who visit the isolated city. Neither history nor tradition tells us when Acoma, was founded. The pueblo was once situated on top of the mesa Encantata (enchanted tableland), which rises 700 feet in air near the mesa now occupied. Four hundred years ago or so, a frightful storm swept, away the enormous leaning rock which served no a ladder, and the patient people, who were away at the time, had to build it new city. The present Acoma was an old town when the first European, Coronado, the famous Spanish explorer, saw it in 1540. With that its authentic history begins, estrange, weird history. In scattered fragments, for which we must delve among the curious ‘memorials’ of the Spanish conquerors and the scant records of the, heroic, priests. Cubero is the nearest elation to the most ‘wonderful aboriginal city on earth, cliff built, cloud swept, matchless Acoma. Thirteen miles south, up a valley of growing beauty, we came to the home of these strange sky dwellers, a butte of rock nearly 400 feet tall and 70 acres in area.”

    In A Tramp Across the Continent, pages 105-106, Mr. Lummis says:

    We were handsomely entertained in the comfortable and roomy house of Martin Valle, the 7times governor of the pueblo, a fine faced, kindly, still native man of 90, who rides his plunging bronco today as firmly as the best of them, and who in the years since our first meeting has become a valued friend. With him that day was his herculean war captain, Faustino. I doubt if there was ever carved a manlier frame than Faustino’s, and certain it is that there never was face nearer the ideal Mars. A grand, massive head, outlined in strength rather than delicacy; great, rugged features, yet superbly molded withal; an eye like a lion’s, nose and forehead full of character, and a jaw which was massive but not brutal, calm but inexorable as fate. I have never seen it finer face for a man whose trade is war, that is. Of course, it would hardly fit a professor’s shoulders. But it will always stand out in my memory, with but 2 or 3 other’s, the most remarkable types I have over encountered. One of the council accompanied us, too, a kindly, intelligent old man named Jose Miguel Chino, since gone to sleep in the indeterminate jumble of the gray graveyard.

    In a “street’ paved with the eternal rock of the mesa were a hundred children playing jubilantly. It was it pleasant sight, and they were pleasant children I have never seen any of them fighting, and they are as bright, clean faced, sharp eyed, and active as you find in an American schoolyard at recess. The boys were playing some sort of Acoma tag, and the girls mostly looked on. I don’t know that they had the scruples of the sex about boisterous play. But nearly every one of them carried a fat baby brothers or sister on her hack in the bight of her shawl. These uncomplaining little nurses were from 12 years old clown to 5, Truly, the Acoma maiden begins to be a useful member of the household at an early age!

    “Coming back from an exploration of the great church, with its historic paintings and the dizzy ‘steno ladder’ where the patient moccasins of untold generations have, worn their imprint 6 inches deep in tho rock, I found the old governor sitting at his door, indulging is the characteristic ‘shave’ of his people. He was impassively packing away at his bronco cheeks and thinking about some matter of state, The aborigine does not put a razor to his face, but goes to the root of the matter, plucking, out each hairsute newcomer bodily by pinch of finger nails, or with knife blade against his thumb, or with tweezers, The governor’s ‘razor’ was a unique and ingenious affair. He had taken the brass shell of a 45-60 rifle cartridge, split it nearly to the base, flattened the 2 sides, filed their edges true, and given them a slight spread at the fork. Thus he got a pair of tweezers better adapted to his work than the American style. With this he was coolly assaulting his kindly old face mechanically and mechanically, never wincing at the operation.

    “As we talked in disjointed Spanish, I saw a very wonderful tiling, such a thing is probably not to be seen again in a lifetime. An old crone came in carrying a 6 months’ babe. She was 100 years old, toothless (for a wonder, for Acoma teeth are long lived), snow haired, and bony, but not bent. She and the infant were the extremes of 6 generations, for it was her great, great, great, great grandchild that dangled in her shawl. I saw the grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother of the child afterward, the mother being absent at Acoma. Poor old woman! Think of her having cared for 5 generations of measles, croup, cello, such cholera infant!

    “There was a wonderful foot race that day, too, between half a dozen young men of Acoma and an equal number from Laguna, There were several hundred dollars’ worth of ponies and blankets upon tho race, and much loud talking accompanied the preliminaries. Then the runners and the judges went down to the plain, while every one else gathered on the edge of the cliff. At the signal the 12 lithe, clean faced athletes started off like deer. Their running costume consisted of the dark blue patarobo, or breechclout, and their sinewy trunks and limbs were bare. Each side had a stick about the size of a lend pencil, and as they ran they had to kick this along in front of them, never insulting it with the fingers. The course was around a wide circuit, which included tile mesa of Aroma and several other big hills. I was told afterward that the distance was is good 25 miles, The Acoma boys, who won the race, did it in 2 hours and 31 minutes, which would be a goad running, even without the stick kicking arrangement.”[]

Department of the Interior. Report on Indians Taxed and Indians not Taxed in the United States, Except Alaska at the Eleventh Census: 1890. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1894.

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