Home > History, Native Americans, the Southwest, The West, War > Take Me Back to Taos

Take Me Back to Taos

A recent conversation turned to traveling, and destinations in the Southwest came up. I don’t recall if someone mentioned Arizona or New Mexico, but I quickly offered my opinion that Phoenix is a hellhole I could easily never visit again, and that one of my favorite places in the world is northern New Mexico, specifically Taos.

On the High Road from Santa Fe to Taos

One of my tablemates had never heard of Taos, which I guess is not surprising if you’ve never been to the region. Home to barely 4,000 souls, it probably only registers for culture mavens, students of US history, and skiers.

The pueblo

For most tourists, the main attraction is the Taos Pueblo, just a few miles out of town. Some times when I’m relaxing, I imagine taking that drive from the center, bearing right, heading past the tiny “casino,” and pulling into the parking lot. To your left is a cemetery and ruins of a church (more on that later), while the center is filled with the original adobe pueblo. Behind it is part of the Sangre de Christo Mountains and the unseen Blue Lake, a sacred site said to be the birthplace of the Taos Indians. To the right is another part of the pueblo. The pueblo’s claim to fame: It has been continuously inhabited for 900 or so years, longer than any other spot in the country. About 150 people live in there year round, eschewing electricity and other modern conveniences as they remain true to their culture. Other tribal members live near the pueblo and spend time there during the summer.

The people of Taos are sometimes called Pueblo Indians, along with the other Indians of the region. They trace their roots to the Anasazi and Mogollon of centuries past. The native New Mexicans speak three different but related languages; Taos and several other pueblos nearby use Tiwa. The Taos and tribes from the other pueblos nearby greeted the Spanish when they explored the region in 1540. Unfortunately for them, the Spanish were looking for more than just a hearty welcome. Gold topped the list, along with converts to Catholicism. Suffice to say, as in Florida and just about everywhere else the Spanish came ashore in North America, the visitors did not bode well for the Pueblo Indians.

And again

The Spanish largely ignored New Mexico until 1598, when the first settlers trekked north from Mexico. Under the leadership of Juan de Onate, they subdued various Pueblo tribes. By 1680, the Indians were feeling less hospitable, and Taos and the other pueblos united in a successful, though short-lived, rebellion. The leader, a shaman named Popé, lived for a time in Taos. The people there had shown their resistance to foreign rule even earlier, killing a missionary decades before. But after the Spanish reconquest of northern New Mexico, the Taos and their neighbors remained under Spanish rule for almost 150 years. Only to see another bunch of white-skinned outsiders seize power during the Mexican War.

The remains of the mission church

Among many US leaders of the 1840s, taking Mexican lands, especially the much-coveted California, was part of America’s grand “Manifest Destiny,” a mission from God much less entertaining than the one Blues Brothers undertook. In 1846, soon after the Mexican War began, US forces quickly took control of northern New Mexico. Charles Bent, an American trader who lived in Taos, was named the governor. Local Indians and Spanish New Mexicans joined forces to resist their new rulers, killing Bent and other Americans. The rebel leaders, along with civilians, holed up in the Taos Pueblo mission church, where a much-better armed American force carried out a retaliatory attack. The remains of the church and the graves nearby still remind the Taos of their introduction to US rule.

In later years, another American who lived in Taos, Kit Carson, did his part to endear the Americans to the Native Americans of the region. He carried out bloody attacks against the Navajo, as the US government tried to force them onto reservations. You don’t often hear as much about that as you do his exploits as a frontiersman. His house is in downtown Taos (such as it is) and serves as a museum.

New Mexicans, whether Spanish or Indian, were not too respected by the incoming Anglos. That’s one reason why it took so long for New Mexico to become a state, as American leaders doubted their ability to practice democracy. But finally, the territory joined the Union in 1912, and soon artists discovered the natural beauty of northern New Mexico. Socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan built a home in Taos and invited artists to work there. Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams were just two who accepted the offer, drawn to the light and the mountains and allure of the high desert. D.H. Lawrence came too, and he later bought land outside Taos (of course O’Keefe became the most permanent transplant of all, settling down in not-too-distant Abiquiu).

Taos sunset on my last visit

Today Taos still has its cultural scene and a counterculture feel. The three influences – Pueblo, Spanish, and Anglo – live side-by-side, if not always comfortably. I’m drawn to the region because of that blending, because of the history, and because of the spiritual sense I feel as I look at the mountains or watch the sunset. After my first visit, travelers’ Stockholm syndrome took hold: I was ready to sell most of my possessions and move there. I didn’t, but I still think about it. In the meantime, I visit whenever money allows, And when I meet people who have never heard of Taos, I quickly tell them of all its splendors.

  1. December 19, 2009 at 4:56 am

    I have several personas on the web. One is that of my father’s daughter and collaborating with him on his memoir or life stories, “Big Brother is Watching Me,” a work in progress. My other persona is using my mother’s family name, which is how most people in New Mexico know me, and I say “amen” to your fine sketch of Taos.

    I’m on the board of directors of the Abiquiu Library, a neighbor of the Taos community, and am working hard to keep the library doors open while supporting the Farmers Market in nearby Espanola too (www.espanolafarmersmarket.blogspot.com).

    Historical awareness and roots go deep in New Mexico, and everywhere else if you dig deep enough. I visited Sweden many years ago and was impressed by their “Dig Where You Stand” movement. If you dig into your family roots, you become a “History Nerd” without realizing it. Dig into your community, and it’s the same thing. Find out who lived in your house before you moved in, and be prepared to stand in awe of what you have uncovered. We’re all history nerds at the core.

    Go for it!

  2. mburgan
    December 19, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Marguerite–Thanks for reading and commenting. Praise from a local means a lot. And I’ve sensed that awareness of history in New Mexico as I’ve traveled there and done research for books about the state (I’ve written three for educational publishers, and I first learned about Taos while doing a project for a client almost 15 years ago). I’m amazed at how few people outside the region, and especially here in New England, realize the richness of the history there. And I agree that we can uncover fascinating history about any spot, or our own family. I’m always saddened to hear that too-common complaint: history is boring. History is life, everything that made us and the moment we’re in what we are.

    I went to Abiquiu on one of my travels, trying to peer over the fence that guards the O’Keefe house. And I’ve driven through Espanola. The whole region, as you can tell, captivates me, with both its natural beauty and the depth of its history. Good luck with the library and your father’s book, and thanks again for reading.

  3. Diane
    January 8, 2010 at 12:43 am

    So I was just sitting here at my desk day dreaming of my next vacation when I came across your blog. I spent the week of my 50th birthday (3 years ago) in Santa Fe and Abiquiu after reading everything I could get my hands on regarding O’Keeffe. That lead me to other great books about Stieglitz (of course)Paul Strand, John Marin, Mabel Dodge Luhan, DH Lawrenece, Willa Cather etc ect. I was supposed to make Taos on the same trip but spent too much time in Santa Fe/Ghost Ranch/Abiquiu. I plan on going back late summer/early fall 2010. (Wish I could leave today) I thought the area was the most beautiful I haver seen and being there only once, I feel homesick for New Mexico if that makes any sense. This year I plan on starting in Taos and working my way to Santa Fe so I don’t miss anything I haven’t seen yet. I found the White Place in my last 15 minutes of day light on my last night in Abiquiu so that is also at the top of my list. I had some of the best food ever on this trip including finding a great little “local” restaurant in Santa Fe near the Indian School.
    I appreciate your comment on history. There is nothing better than real life. Reading about history and biographies “relieves” my bordom tremendously. Thanks for the blog and history lesson. I was surprised to learn that Kit Carson spent time there. Living in CA I associate him more with the Sierra Nevadas and JC Frmeont. Something new for me research!
    Anyway, thank you for the good read!

  4. mburgan
    January 8, 2010 at 1:51 pm


    Thanks for reading and the comment. Glad you liked it. I see you share my love of the area, and I perfectly understand the “homesickness.” Make sure you take the back-road drive from Taos to Santa Fe–truly stunning, and lots of villages with interesting history and Hispanic artistic traditions. I always look for cheap flights out there, even though I know I won’t be going anytime soon. But someday…

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