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Taos Pueblo:
San Jerónimo

1617; c. 1626; 1706; c. 1850? (new site)

The two tower blocks of Taos pueblo have left an indelible impression on the memory of any visitor who has ever seen them. In the direct application of adobe and mud plaster, the simple logic of structural stacking, and the symbiotic formal relationship to the surrounding mountains, the form of the pueblo can only be regarded as "appropriate." The pueblo in its multistory form is said to date to the fourteenth century, almost to the time of Anasazi emigration from areas such as Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. The first recorded European impressions are those of Pedro de Casteñeda, who wrote about the year 1541. He described the south and north blocks divided by the river that both binds and separates them. "In this village they do not raise cotton or breed turkeys: they wear the skins of deer and buffalo entirely. It is the most populous village in all that country: we estimate there were 15,000 souls in it."[1] Even given the usual number inflation that stems from fleeting impressions, Taos was no doubt still an expansive and impressive community. The quotation also illustrates the pivotal position the settlement occupied as the northernmost of the Rio Arriba pueblos and as a transitional community between the pueblos and the Indians of the plains.

The first mission for the Taos valley was founded at the end of the sixteenth century but floundered until the mid-1620s, when the first recorded church was built. By the time of Benavides's visit in 1629, the mission had a secure home and was thriving. "Another seven leagues farther to the north is the pueblo of Taos, belonging to the same language group as [Picuris]," Benavides wrote. "It has 2,500 baptized Indians, with its convento and church." He credited Fray Tomás Carrasco with the construction of "a good church of fine architecture" and its "marvelous choir of wonderful boy musicians."[2] From that time on settlement in the area hovered between destruction and rebuilding. In 1640 the church was razed and its friar killed. Twenty years later the restored mission was burned again.[3]

More than a century later at the time of Tamarón's visitation, the situation had not changed significantly. The church and convento still stood, and relations between the pueblos and the Comanche remained volatile. Settlements in the valley had been abandoned, and the colonists were concentrated in the pueblo. As he approached Taos pueblo, Tamarón found

encampments of peaceful infidel Apache Indians, who have sought the protection of the Spaniards so that they might defend them from the Comanches. It is the last and most distant of the pueblos of that kingdom . . . at the foot of a very high sierra. . . .


Taos Pueblo
Aerial view of the pueblo, showing north and south dwelling blocks; San Jerónimo is center left.
[National Park Service Remote Sensing, 1979]


This pueblo has 159 families of Indians, with 505 persons. There are 36 families of Europeanized citizens, with 160 persons. There is a very decent and capacious church.[4]

The bishop was somewhat disappointed that the Indians knew the catechism and could confess only in Spanish when official policy dictated that the priest be able to confess and converse in the native language. Tamarón was also critical that the pueblo was built in several blocks. His comments, in retrospect, sound almost ludicrous: "This pueblo is divided into three many-storied tenements. It would have been better, as I told them, if they had been kept together, for one is on the other side of the river about two hundred varas away."[5] If we judge on the basis of today's Taos, his advice was neither heeded nor implemented.

Church construction in northern New Mexico shared certain parallels with native building techniques. Earlier indigenous construction applied mud using puddled or rammed earth techniques. The Spanish certainly did not introduce mud technology, but they did codify wall construction in standard units. The pueblo dwelling block comprises separate cells that have been added to and modified in the course of time. There is no formal master plan, nor is there any preordained geometric shape to which the pueblo form aspires. It is an architecture of exigency that reflects the growth and decay of the social fabric of the village. The huddling together in multistoried arrangements continues the defensive, almost fortified tradition of the settlements of the Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon peoples. Originally without doors or windows on the ground floor, the dwellings could be reached only through the roof from the floors above. Timbers laid across the walls formed the supports for the roof, and because these were difficult to cut with the stone implements available, final adjustments to exact spans were rarely made: the beams were cut sufficiently long and allowed to extend through the walls. When walls deteriorated or were abandoned, these log beams, or vigas, could be reused, a practice that contributed to the rapid deterioration of mission ruins after their abandonment.

On top of these beams was laid roofing of smaller saplings or split logs called latillas to support the weight of the roof above. Reed or grasses constituted the succeeding layer, and on these was placed a foot or more of adobe mud. A parapet extended around the exposed sides and directed the rain water through scuppers (canales) to retard the erosion that began even before construction was complete.

Church construction in adobe differs little in principle from that of the residential and storage cells of the pueblo, the principal distinction being in the size of the unit being constructed. Indeed, that is the key distinction: the pueblo created minimal rooms for storage or human occupation as an extreme measure. For the most part life took place on the roof, in the fields, or in the spaces around the pueblo. The collective effect was that of a cellular mass.

The religious edifice, however, was not erected so much to sanctify the ground as to create a sanctified internal space. Consider, then, the Indians' regard for construction as a part of natural law, as a participant in a world of sacred space. The European tradition claims space, divorces itself from the surrounding land, and thereby creates a focus and a spiritual connection between God and human. The altar is the focus of the space, its point of transaction. The church building reflects a loosely concentric, axially arranged progression from the most to least holy: the altar, the nave, the facade, the campo santo or burial ground/entry court, and the surrounding land with the settlement in between. This hierarchy to sanctify was foreign to the native sense of religion. Indian building was the making of form and external spaces such as the dance plaza. European building in New Mexico was the creation of space through mass and light.

The first Taos church of San Jerónimo, still visible in a greatly deteriorated state, lies to the northwest of the two main pueblo blocks. Its position betrays exclusion. Grudgingly admitted into the presence of the pueblo, it was but an adjunct to Indian life. Both the pueblo and the church had similar materials, but in its forms and bulk the church was distinguished from the native structure. The church was good sized with massive walls and a tower on its south facade. At the time of its destruction in 1847, it had withstood both cannon fire and direct attack, bearing witness to its defensive capabilities.

The original mission was founded in 1617, but its position as a going entity was always tenuous. Taos was a continual hotbed of insurrection and almost always a part of any scheme to oppose the Spanish occupation forces. The first church was "suppressed there before 1626, rebuilt, but was destroyed again in 1631 or 1639."[6] Nor were the Taoseños bystanders in the great revolt of 1680: the two priests who resided there were killed, and presumably the church suffered considerable damage. How much was left of the church and in what condition it remained are not known, but in 1696 Vargas visited the site and found the church used as a stable—a common practice during the revolt. He ordered it torn down on


San Jerónimo
Twin towers added after 1939 elaborate the facade and bear greater resemblance to the churches at Ranchos de Taos
and Las Trampas than to earlier versions of San Jerónimo.


the grounds that no efforts could resurrect it. "In 1706," Kubler continued, "a new church was in construction, and it is probably the edifice of which the ruins stand west of the pueblo buildings."[7]

Domínguez, just sixteen years after Tamarón, found Taos pueblo circled by a mud wall; the pueblo was so heavily fortified that he remarked on its resemblance to "those walled cities with bastions and towers that are described to us in the Bible."[8] The uneasy relationship among Taos, Apache, Comanche, and Spanish still had not been ameliorated. Spanish settlers were living within the pueblo precincts because their safety was not assured living in their preferred scattered ranchos. At Ranchos de Taos the village being built took the form of a fortified plaza, more easily defended from Indian attack.

An inscription on the clerestory beam of the church credited the construction, completed in 1726, to Fray Juan de Mirabal, although whether this concerned a substantial renovation or completely new structure is not known. The choir loft was in its "usual place," and two "poor" windows faced east. Domínguez was less favorable in judging the extension of the church: "In the corner where this cemetery meets the church there is a hideous adobe buttress with a tower buttress rising from it and a small tower with four arches on top."[9] Ironically, it is this element that remains the ruin's most prominent feature. The interior furnishings were acceptable, if scant, and certain ornamentations, such as those on the image of the Virgin, elicited considerable description. The pulpit was "very pretty." Of course, all these evaluations were relative and must be weighed against the typical mission inventories.

The convento, in the form of a square, adjoined the church to the east and in places rose to a second story. The concern of its builder extended beyond the residential and ecclesiastical functions. "The ascent to the church and its tower is over the flat roof," Domínguez wrote. "From all this there is a good view of the Taos plain in all directions, and it is surrounded by a good railing and embrasures for defense."[10] His census reported 112 families totaling 427 persons.

There was one time of relative peace each year in the Taos area: the month of June. Strangely, but following worldwide patterns of honor amid absolute barbarity, the various parties would gather to indulge in trading, although remaining at mercilous war for the rest of the year. Tamarón discussed the fairs at length, seeming as much surprised by the ease with which they were accomplished as we might be today.

Taos Pueblo
The ruined walls of the earlier church, destroyed in 1846, now serve to enclose
the cemetery.


When I was in the pueblo two encampments of Ute Indians, who were friendly but infidels, had just arrived with a captive woman who had fled from the Comanches. They reported that the latter were at the Rio de las Animas preparing buffalo meat in order to come to trade. They come every year to the trading, or fairs. The governor comes to those fairs, which they call rescates (barter trade), every year with the majority of his garrison and people from all over the kingdom. They bring captives to sell, pieces of chamois, many buffalo skins, and, out of plunder they have obtained elsewhere, horses, muskets, shotguns, munitions, knives, meat, and various other things. Money is not current at these fairs, but exchange of one thing for another, and so these people get provisions.[11]

Unfortunately, the fairs often had subsequently unhappy endings as citizens found that horses they had purchased at the fair might be stolen several days later. Tamarón was warned: "The character of these Comanches is such that while they are peacefully trading in Taos, others of their nation make warlike attacks on some distant pueblo. And the ones who are at peace, engaged in trade, are accustomed to say to the governor, 'Don't be too trusting. Remember, there are rogues among us, just as there are among you. Hang any of them you can.'"[12] An extended description of a subsequent attack then followed.

Fray José Benito Pereyro, in an addendum to an inventory of 1815, claimed credit for the decoration and repair of the church, which ranged from a new "baptismal font and blue satin dress for the Holy Virgin" to a niche and image of Jesus. To the religious structures he added "a porter's lodge, kitchen, four doors, two windows, a balcony," a cloister, and a storage room. Three years later when Bishop Guevara visited New Mexico, he was impressed neither by Pereyro's energy nor his accomplishments and even less by his maintenance of the mission enterprise, both sacral and secular.[13] Taos became one more bit of evidence against continuing the Franciscan presence in New Mexico.

With stability gradually increasing, settlement in the valley expanded cautiously. A license to construct Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe at Fernandez de Taos was granted in 1801. The church was ministered by the priest at Taos pueblo until 1833, when its status as a parish church and the administrative center for the Taos valley was confirmed.[14]

By 1846 a new set of conflicts had arisen, this time between the Hispanic citizens and the new government of the United States territory of New Mexico. Kearny had occupied the province, taking possession for the United States, after which he continued westward to perform a similar duty in California. In his wake he left a new government in Santa Fe, with Charles Bent, from the Taos area, as the interim governor. There was sufficient antagonism against the Anglo government in the district to form the beginnings of a threatening insurrection, a group augmented by anti-Anglo sentiments from Taos pueblo. Bent died at the hands of the insurrectionists, who also killed several friends of the new government—no doubt regarded as traitors—and all the Americans in the nearby settlement of Arroyo Hondo.

Word of this substantial Mexican and Indian force reached Santa Fe, where Colonel Sterling Price, who had been left in charge of the territory, found himself in an awkward and somewhat dangerous position. Price was able to muster about three hundred troops, which marched north for battle. The rebellion had to be stopped before it appeared to be a winning proposition since those marginally allied to the Americans might join the rebellious faction. The first fight took place near Santa Cruz; the insurrectionists were forced back to Embudo and then to Taos, where they barricaded themselves in the mission church. By this time Captain John H. K. Burgwin's troops had augmented the tired American forces from Albuquerque, and Price continued the battle.

The first round of attacks proved fruitless as musket shots, and even cannon and howitzer fire, were absorbed by the church's thick walls with little more than a dull thud. The walls, three to seven feet thick, were seemingly impenetrable. Price retired his forces for some much-needed rest. The attack commenced with renewed vigor the following morning. This time the Americans were able to approach certain parts of the church that were blind to those within and began to chop away at the walls with axes. At the same time ladders were made, allowing the assailants to set the roof on fire from above. In Price's words, "In the meantime, small holes had been cut in the western wall, and shells were thrown in by hand, doing good execution."[15] The insurrectionists, undaunted, kept firing, perhaps as much in desperation as dedication, while the cannon widened the breaches that the axes had commenced. In time the holes became openings, and amid the smoke that filled the church from the smoldering wooden superstructure, the American forces stormed the building and took the insurrectionists captive. So ended the battle of Taos pueblo and the Mexican insurrection of 1847; and so ended the mission church of San Jerónimo.

Today erosion has continued what the axes and


San Jerónimo
circa 1885
The church appears more typical of small village churches than the structure does today.
[George E. Mellen, Museum of New Mexico]

San Jerónimo
Throughout the 1930s the church retained its flat facade, although a stepped pediment
retained the look of the late nineteenth century.
[New Mexico Tourism and Travel Division]


San Jerónimo
circa 1935
The bell arch has been recast as a wooden turret.
[T. Harmon Parkhurst, Museum of New Mexico]


San Jerónimo
Seen today from the northeast, San Jerónimo appears longer and lower despite its painted striping in orange/brown and white.


cannon began; only the melted remains of a single tower and some fragments of the nave wall remain. These demark a cemetery dotted with scores of wooden crosses with simple descriptions. Today, too, there is a new church of San Jerónimo located to the south and east, fronting the plaza south of the north tenement block.

The church was constructed some time after the 1847 destruction of the preceding church. The earliest photo of the current structure dates from about 1885 and illustrates a church rather different in form from that seen today. It is a far simpler structure, at least in its facade; it is plain, with slight shoulders that would acquire a distinct profile in the 1930s and suggest those of the nearby Picuris church of San Lorenzo. By 1900 the upper part of the facade had disappeared, leaving the bell suspended from a wooden beam. The layout of the recent church is familiar, with a single nave and a stepped profile that indicate the existence of a transverse clerestory. Two wooden posts support the choir loft over the entry. Corbels set into the adobe shoulder the round vigas.

The windows that line both walls have slight Gothic flourishes that suggest a rebuilding as early as the late nineteenth century, when Neo-Gothic elements began to affect the ecclesiastical architecture of New Mexico. Nevertheless, the modifications do not appear in photographs from the 1930s, suggesting that these revisions might have been part of building programs in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Somewhere around 1920 a single turret with a wooden cap appeared, similar to the protective devices used at Ranchos de Taos at the lower end of the valley. In photographs from the 1940s a plain facade remains on the church, and only in photos taken after 1962, or by 1962, do the twin towers found today appear. The tower scheme found its prototypes at nearby Las Trampas and in pueblos such as Santo Domingo and San Felipe. The colors of the walls, however, and their striped arrangement bear no relation to any other pueblo church structure—perhaps these are used to suggest the presence of bays in the building's form, breaking up the long thrust of the low nave.

The walled campo santo with its single cross is paved with flagstones, but some graves within the nave are still visible. The church now occupies a more prominent position in the community; no longer relegated to the back of the pueblo, San Jerónimo is now part of the main plaza. In scale, however, the building remains a subsidiary to the community, and the ambiguous position of the earliest missions is still reflected in San Jerónimo's form and siting.

San Jerónimo, Plan
[Source: National Park Service Remote Sensing,

San Jerónimo
The church from the southwest, with the sacred mountains beyond.


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