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Best of the West

DODGE CITY. TOMBSTONE. DEADWOOD. Cody. Virginia City. Fort Worth. Bodie. Scattered across the map like a spray of buckshot, you’ll find towns and cities pivotal in the settlement and expansion of the American West.

They’re fun to visit for the traveler, interesting to explore for the curious, and informative for the history buff. You can walk the streets where cowboys, lawmen, outlaws, miners, gunfighters, mountain men, cavalry soldiers, and other iconic Old West characters walked.

Some of these places are ghost towns now. Others linger, with lonesome populations barely hanging on. Some have been rebuilt and restored to cater to tourists. And some have been overwhelmed by the growth of the modern cities they have become.

HLAUUMA—NORTH HOUSE-AT TAOS PUEBLO HAS BEEN CONTINUOUSLY OCCUPIED FOR A THOUSAND YEARS.
SOUTH HOUSE—HLAUKWIMA—IS SEPARATED FROM NORTH HOUSE BY RIO PUEBLO DE TAOS. 
RUINS OF THE ORIGINAL SPANISH MISSION DE SAN GERONIMO CHURCH, BUILT AROUND 1620, STILL STAND AT TAOS PUEBLO.

But there is still one place where life continues much as it did in the days commonly considered the Old West—and for hundreds of years before that time. When explorers under the command of Spanish conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján, searching for the mythical seven cities of gold stumbled upon Taos Pueblo in 1540, the community was already hundreds of years old. Over the years, Spanish soldiers and Catholic priests wormed their way into the lives of Indians throughout the Southwest, often by force, attempting to “civilize” the people they considered savages and infidels. By 1620, Catholic priest Fray Francisco de Zamora had built a church, Mission de San Geronimo, ruins of which still stand in the pueblo. The original church was destroyed in 1640 and again during the Pueblo Revolt around 1690. The third mission, rebuilt by Fray Juan Alvarez, lasted until destroyed by the U.S. Army in 1847, and was replaced by the present San Geronimo Chapel in 1850.

Taos Pueblo includes two clusters of homes separated by a small river, Rio Pueblo de Taos. Dominating the Pueblo are North House, Hlauuma, and Hlaukwima, South House. Each rises several stories and contains numerous apartments, the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the country; North House also being the largest existing “high rise” Pueblo structure. The large adobe buildings housed numerous families in separate apartments. While windows and doors now penetrate the walls, originally, entry was only through the roofs, accessed by ladders pulled up for safety. Those same adobe walls still stand, preserved by constant care and refurbishing.

Spanish rule proved a burden too heavy to carry for the people in New Mexico’s nineteen pueblos, and in 1680 they rebelled. Popé, a San Juan Indian but living at the time at Taos Pueblo, planned and coordinated the uprising. Runners were dispatched to pueblos throughout the Southwest, each carrying a length of rope tied in a series of knots. One knot was to be untied each day, and with the untying of the final knot, pueblo dwellers were to attack and kill or drive away the Spaniards.

Popé’s plan almost failed when the Spanish were warned of the pending attack with two days to spare. But the clever Indian advanced the revolt a day, preventing the occupiers from preparing a defense.

The bloody uprising led to some 400 deaths among the Spaniards; men, women, and children alike. Most of the Catholic priests were among the dead. Within days, surviving Spaniards were fleeing their ravaged villages, seeking safety in Santa Fe. Finding no safety there, the outcasts fled south along the Rio Grande for El Paso del Norte.

ANCIENT GRAVES AT THE SITE OF THE ORIGINAL MISSION DE SAN GERONIMO. CENTURIES LATER, TAOS PUEBLO LIVES ON.
THE HOUSES NOW HAVE WINDOWS AND DOORS, BUT ORIGINAL ACCESS WAS THROUGH THE ROOFS, REACHED BY LADDERS.

The Spaniards came back years later to reconquer the pueblos, but neither they nor the Mexicans nor the Americans whose rule followed ever displaced the people of Taos Pueblo. Today, the community controls a reservation covering nearly 100,000 acres, including tracts of the Sangre de Cristo mountains where the sacred Blue Lake lies. About 150 people live within the wall of Taos Pueblo today, with other tribal members living elsewhere on the reservation and in nearby communities. In keeping with tradition, the homes in Taos Pueblo are not electrified, and the only running water flows between the banks of Rio Pueblo de Taos. In 1960, the pueblo was listed as a National Historic Landmark by the United States government, and in 1992 the United Nations declared it UNESCO Heritage Site—the only place in America to enjoy both distinctions. There’s the Old West. And there’s the even older West. Then there’s Taos Pueblo—the oldest Western community we have, which places it firmly among the Best of the West.

—Rod Miller is a four-time winner and six-time finalist for the Western Writers of America Spur Award. He is also winner and finalist for the Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award. Information about his fiction, nonfiction, and poetry can be found at www. writerRodMiller.com.