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By Don Bullis
Don Bullis is a history writer who resides in Rio Rancho. 

 Modern knowledge of Kuaua pueblo and the other communities of the Tiguex province dates back to 1540 when Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado made his way north from Compostela, Mexico into what was then known as la tierra incognita (the unknown land) in search of the seven golden cities of Cíbola.  With him were nearly 300 soldiers, 1,000 Indian allies, including some slaves, and about 1,500 head of livestock.1  This assemblage spent the winters of 1540-41 and 1541-42 at Puaray—also called Coofor and Alcanfor—which is south of Kuaua.

Ancient knowledge of Kuaua dates back to virtual infinity.  In pre-recorded history, 2,000 or so years ago, people were hunting game and gathering plant products for food, plus other naturally occurring materials for clothing and shelter, in the precincts of the middle Rio Grande Valley.  By 600 A. D., Pueblo Indian ancestral cultures were building pit houses close to where the Kuaua ruins stand today.  The beginnings of the village probably date to around 1300 A. D. when members of ancient societies living in what is now eastern Arizona and southwestern Colorado were forced, perhaps by drought, to seek the watered valley of the Rio Grande.

The village grew, probably continually as the population grew, until it reached about 1,200 rooms, which were all connected together in a kind of irregular L shape around three plazas.  Each of the plazas contained at least one Kiva; semi-subterranean chambers which were used for social and ceremonial purposes.  Nature provided sustenance for the Pueblo people.  Game was abundant in the area, as were edible wild plants.  They also cultivated corn, beans, squash and cotton.

The initial meeting between the Spaniards and the Pueblo people must have been a stunning event, particularly for the Indians.  For the first time they saw armed men—perhaps wearing armor—mounted on horses; they saw other animals previously unknown to them: cattle, sheep, goats and swine.  They heard a strange language. The Spaniards, too, must have been awed by the discovery of a functional society on a primitive frontier; the artistry of the paintings on Kiva walls must of amazed them.2

Mutual curiosity didn’t last long.  The Spanish decided that they would simply occupy one of the twelve villages of the Tiguex province, and the Pueblo people agreed.3 But other problems arose.  The soldiers required food and they took it from whomever they chose, and they were otherwise arbitrary in the way the dealt with their hosts. There was at least one reported rape.4  The Pueblo people revolted against their oppressors, and began the warfare by killing Spanish horses with arrows.  The Spanish soldiers retaliated with great force using harquebuses5 and crossbows.  Many of the Indian people were killed: some in the normal course of the conflict, but others burned to death or drowned.  As one historian has said, “The Tiguex Pueblos … were subjugated with such severity as to incur Indian hostility to the Spaniards for generations.”6

 Coronado and his army departed for Mexico in the spring of 1542, leaving three Franciscan padres behind.  Juan de Padilla, Juan de la Cruz and Luis de Escalona were all martyred within two years.  The Spanish ignored the middle Rio Grande Valley for the next 56 years, until they returned to colonize the region under the leadership of Don Juan de Oñate in 1598.

A program initiated by the Franciscans padres who accompanied Oñate was called reducción.  It provided that the Pueblo people of Tiguex would be consolidated into a few villages where mission churches could be constructed and work to convert the Indians to the Roman Catholic religion could be facilitated.  Kuaua was probably abandoned under this edict by 1625.  There is archaeological evidence that the village was resettled about 100 years later, but the later occupants may have been Spanish people.  Whoever they were, they didn’t stay long and the place was abandoned again and the walls were crumbling badly by the end of the 19th century.

During the 1930s, in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of Coronado’s entrada into New Mexico, archaeologists working for the Museum of New Mexico, the School of American Research and the University of New Mexico began work on two projects; Kuaua and another ruin about two miles south of it.  What they hoped to discover was evidence of where Coronado actually spent his two winters in New Mexico.  When numerous murals were discovered in a Kiva at Kuaua in February 1935, the research effort shifted there exclusively.

These murals turned out to be a significant find.  One source says their discovery “rocked the archaeological world.”7  Researchers discovered that there were 85 separate layers that created a wall lamination almost two inches thick.  Among the layers were 17 which had been painted with images of Pueblo Indian life.  Innovative techniques were soon devised to separate and preserve them.

Similar murals have been found at other locations—the Hopi ruin of Awatovi, Pottery Mound southeast of Albuquerque, and other pueblos—but the Kuaua murals are important because they are the only ones that are available for viewing by the public.

The partially restored Kuaua ruin was established as Coronado State Monument in 1940 in time to participate in the Cuarto Centennial celebration of Coronado’s visit.  The visitor center, designed by famed architect John Gaw Meem, one of the foremost proponents of the Pueblo Revival style of building, was constructed the same year.8 

Today the site offers visitors an opportunity to walk among ruins and Kivas and imagine what life might have been like at much as 700 years ago.  Thirteen of the Kuaua murals are on display allowing visitors to examine some of the finest example of pre-Columbian art in North America.

Coronado Monument—Kuaua Pueblo—is truly a New Mexico gem.


1  These numbers vary depending on the source.  Francis and Roberta Fugate in their Roadside History of New Mexico (Missoula: The Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1989) report 336 Spanish soldiers and only 100 Indian allies and slaves.  Paul Horgan in Great River (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1984) reports 340 men-at-arms.

 2  No report by the Spanish explorers refers specifically to the wall paintings at Kuaua.  Gaspar Perez de Villagrá, who accompanied the Oñate in 1598, described the paintings he saw at Puaray: “…we were able to see through the whitewash, paintings of scenes which made our blood run cold.”

 3  This was probably not Kuaua.

 4  Horgan, page 116.

 5  A harquebus or arquebus, was a primitive portable firearm used in the 15th and 16th centuries.

 6   Quoted from The WPA Guide to 1930s New Mexico, with Foreword by Marc Simmons, originally published by the Coronado Cuarto Centennial Commission in 1940 as New Mexico: A Guide to the Colorful State, page 61.

 7  “Kuaua Trail Guide” Museum of New Mexico, Coronado State Monument, page 7.

 8  Meem, who came to New Mexico seeking a cure for his tuberculosis, was named University of New Mexico architect in 1933.  He is responsible for the unique design of campus structures.  He also designed the Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos and many other New Mexico buildings and churches. 

NOTE: The pictures used on this page are from the Museum of New Mexico, Department of Cultural Affairs, Coronado State Monument Visitors Brochure.