Taos County, New Mexico
This page contributed and copyrighted by Karen Mitchell.
Though not as distant from Santa Fe in actual miles as some other pueblos,
yet on account of its mountainous situation and difficulty of access,
Picuris is really the most remote of the entire nineteen pueblos of New Mexico and the
one least visited by tourists. This very fact not only adds to its
interest, but to its actual antiquarian value, because it is least changed
by contact with outsiders and least demoralized by constant visits of
curio collectors and dealers. In many respects Picuris is unique among the
Only in this pueblo in New Mexico are there any structures
built, not of adobes, but of earth properly prepared and poured into
moulds to form the walls, in much the manner of modern concrete
construction. This method of building is found in the Casas Grandes of
Arizona and other ancient ruins, and is still employed by some Pueblo
Indians and Mexicans in constructing walls around fields or corrals, but
apparently has not been used in the erection of houses since the use of
adobes, or sun-dried bricks, has superseded the more ancient system.
Also conspicuous among the articles on public exhibition are
the scalps taken from their enemies generations ago. While the custom
which made such spoils of war possible has passed away long ago, yet these
are cherished as evidences of the valor of the people and of the victories
which they achieved when the pueblo was strong and powerful. They are
constantly on exhibition in what is commonly called the "scalp-house," an
ancient one-story structure with a sort of tower in the center, making
that portion two stories high. In this open tower, where they are visible
from all sides, the score or more of human scalps constantly swing in the
breeze. They are only taken down on great festival days, when they become
the most conspicuous feature of the procession.
In the earlier history of New Mexico, Picuris is almost always associated
with Taos. Being in close proximity and using practically the same
language, they are naturally grouped together. In the arrangement of
missionary districts, immediately after Onate's colonization, these two
pueblos with their surroundings constituted one district under Francisco
de Zamora as the missionary.
Soon afterwards, about 1620, Fr. Martin de Arvide was in charge, before
going to Arizona where he suffered martyrdom. In the well known report of
Benavides, in 1629, he states that the pueblo had a church and a convento,
the latter showing that it was the headquarters of a resident priest who
probably served a dozen smaller villages around.
The people, however, were always very independent, as might be expected of
those living in such a rugged and defensible locality; and in the
testimony taken in relation to the great Rebellion of 1680, they are
mentioned as being "very rebellious." At that time the pueblo is said to
have contained 3,000 inhabitants, which was no doubt a gross exaggeration,
although the real number probably reached half that figure.
Tu-pa-tu, one of the principal leaders in the revolt, was a native of
Picuris, and after the slaughter of all resident Spaniards, led the
warriors of the pueblo to Santa Fe to take part in the siege of Otermin.
The Indians not only massacred the priest, whose name was Matias Rendon,
and burned the church and surrounding buildings, but they killed every
individual Spaniard living in the valleys of the vicinity. There is no
record of the escape of even one to tell the tale. When the reconquest
took place, quite a fraction of the population, not reconciled to renewed
subjection to the Spaniards, emigrated to Cuartelejo, on the plains of
western Kansas, but they gradually returned when matters became settled
and their fears had subsided.
Many of the larger houses in Picuris are vacant and in ruins, giving proof
of the diminution in the population of the pueblo. Among the most
interesting buildings is one known as the Cuarteles, in the northern part
of the town, which is peculiar in several of its features. The ceilings of
the rooms instead of being laid on a considerable number of
vigas, or round timbers of equal size, are supported by only two or three
very large vigas made of gigantic pine trees, and on these are laid
transversely a great number of small vigas of poplar which penetrate the
walls at each end. Resting on this upper row is a covering of willow twigs
or split wood, and above that is a thick layer of adobe earth.
The pueblo has four estufas instead of the usual two; and these are
excavated to such a depth that the roofs are on a level with the regular
surface of the ground, and have two openings instead of one, one for the
ladder by which to descend and one for the escape of smoke.
The church, as usual, is the most imposing structure, and while it is one
of the few old Missions still existing, its walls are kept in such perfect
repair that the first impression received is that it is comparatively
This church is dedicated to San Lorenzo--St. Lawrence--who is the patron
saint of Picuris, and who, it will be remembered, received his martyrdom
by being slowly burned to death upon a gridiron. This instrument of
martyrdom is therefore largely in evidence in the interior of the church.
The church itself, like many built at the same period,
is cruciform in shape, the nave being twenty-five feet six inches in
width. At the lower end, over the entrance, is a gallery which presents an
excellent specimen of the carved woodwork which was the principal ornament
of the old churches. An immense viga extends across the church nine feet
from the end wall, and this supports a number of smaller vigas which are
set in the wall and reach a couple of feet beyond their support, the
projecting ends being uniformly carved. Surmounting these is the floor of
the gallery and a carved balustrade.
In a square niche in the east wall near the door is a skull covered with
an old moth-eaten cloth. The ceiling is supported by the usual vigas which
are carved and ornamented more or less fully, the older ones being more
elaborate than some which have been inserted in more recent times. The
side walls are simply solid masses of adobe without any ornament whatever.
In each of the transepts is a rude altar of solid masonry, a peculiarly
frightful crucifix of crude Mexican workmanship being over the one in the
south transept, while on the north are two statues, each three feet high,
and representing San Jose and Nuestra Senora del Carmen. On the walls are
three old paintings, each four by six feet in size, one of which
represents the Virgin and Child, and the others are so far obliterated as
not to be distinguishable.
Over the altar is a wooden reredos occupying the whole width of the
chancel and filled with paintings which present a strange variety in their
degrees of excellence. The most of these are painted on wood in the
crudest Mexican style, and were reputed to be "very ancient" when first
seen by the oldest inhabitant of the pueblo. The upper row consists of a
painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the center, flanked by an archangel
and a saint on either side, San Rafael and San Antonio being on the right
and San Miguel and San Juan Nepomuseno on the left. The dragon of San
Miguel and the fish of Rafael are made very conspicuous. Below these and
immediately over the altar are three pictures occupying the same width as
the five above. The central one is a large modern canvas representing San
Lorenzo, in scarlet and gold vestments over a white surplice, carrying an
enormous gridiron with a long handle. On the sides are paintings of San
Francisco and San Antonio de Padua. On the side of the altar is an image
of San Lorenzo, with a small tin gridiron, and also a statuette of Santa
For many years the most interesting personality in the pueblo was Antonio
Vargas, the venerable sacristan of the church, who was born in 1819. He
was governor of Picuris many times and was fortunate enough to occupy that
position at the time when President Lincoln presented every Pueblo
governor with a silver-headed cane, inscribed with the president's name.
This cane or "baston" has since been the insignia of the governor's
office, taking the place of a mace and even of a certificate of election.
Its possession is the evidence of title to the office, and in the only
contested election case
which ever arose relative to the governorship of a pueblo, at Santa Clara
about 1881, the suit was brought in the form of a demand for possession of
the "baston." Vargas had a vivid recollection of the rebellion of 1837, of
the battle of La Polvadera, and of the killing of Governor Perez.
He occupied the position of sacristan of the church for many years, and
his son-in-law, Santiago Martin, now "reigns in his stead." This official
is particularly conspicuous in Picuris, because the bell, which can be
seen in the illustration, has to be rung by a man standing by its side,
upon the roof. It is one of the sights of Picuris to watch the stalwart
blows given to this ancient bell in order to bring forth the greatest
volume of sound.
The annual festival of Picuris is the "Fiesta de San Lorenzo," the patron
saint. This occurs on the 10th of August and is the day usually selected
by tourists to visit the pueblo. Those who are endeavoring to see
everything possible of pueblo ceremonials in a given time, arrange to
spend the 9th and 10th of August at Picuris and then proceed directly to
the pueblo of Santa Clara where the day of the annual festival is August
The exercises of the day are of peculiar interest, as they are entirely
different from anything to be seen in the pueblos in the Rio Grande
Return to the Taos County Home page, or use your BACK button
© Karen Mitchell