It’s not popular knowledge that New Mexico is one of the oldest states in the United States.
The oldest is Florida, when in 1513, the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon discovered Florida on his search for the legendary Fountain of Youth. But about 85 years later, New Mexico was colonized by the Spanish in 1598 as part of the Imperial Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain and, as you’ve probably assumed, the story from here gets a bit tumultuous and touchy.
But, New Mexico, although you wouldn’t guess by looking at it, has been strategically placed since the boom of our human movement across great plains and towering mountains, built with our ideas of trade and barter.
El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the Royal Road of the Interior Lands, is one of the longest and oldest of trails in the history of the Americas. All 1,500 miles of it paved its way through Mexico, Texas and New Mexico; from Mexico City to El Paso, and finally to the San Juan Pueblo in Northern New Mexico.
Along this spanning trail were healthy mining communities, haciendas, palaces, and parajes (also known as “official rest stops”) that became famous and popular destinations. This was and is a path shaped by the migrations of Native Americans and what has become known as the “American territorial corridor”.
One such paraje is El Rancho De Las Golondrinas or “Ranch of the Swallows”, which is located just outside of Santa Fe. It was sold in 1933 by the Pino family and purchased by the influential Ms. Leonora Curtin, who from Pasadena, California, loved the high elevation of Santa Fe and its year round pleasant and arid climate.
Her intent with the ranch was to turn it into an educational experience that preserved the dying and disappearing Spanish culture, and that’s exactly what she did.
Over a period of many years, Ms. Curtin and her family collected authentic moldings and doorways, purchased old and historical buildings, disassembled them from all over the state and brought them to Las Golondrinas to be displayed as a living history museum.
Opened in 1972, the ranch is today situated on 700 acres, there are 54 significant archaeological sites on the premises; three of which are located in the parking lot: a 1930’s schoolhouse, for example, and the oldest structure on the property is the chapel on the hill, which is presumed to have been built sometime in the early 1700’s.
A funny story about this chapel is that the museum paid for someone to do the dendrology of its vigas, which is a method to count tree rings and thus calculate how old the tree is… but that’s exactly what the results revealed: how old the trees are and not necessarily the building.
But let’s not be mistaken, the ranch isn’t some figment of the imagination or a mock presentation of old things that represent a history that took place elsewhere. No, this ranch was a functioning paraje during the period of Territorial America and even served significant historical figures such as Don Juan Bautista de Anza, a New Mexico governor (1777-1787) for the Spanish Empire.
It is said that roughly 35-50 people, probably an extended family, lived here at one time; consisting of women, children, servants, and slaves. Everyone, including the children, had a role on this ranch; during a time when the infant mortality rate was 50%, a viable kid was something you would have needed to keep the ranch running smoothly.
Indentured servants and slaves were also assets; they were usually native children, often they were girls because the boys would run away, who had been captured by another tribe and sold to the Spanish.
During the early 1700’s, the King of Spain allowed indentured servitude; wherein so long as the servant worked off their selling price, they were free to go. These servants, typically turned slaves, would be called “Genizaros”: they were biologically Native American, but culturally Spanish because they spoke Spanish and were catholic by the practice of their live-in families.
When Spanish girls would marry, they were often given a genizaro as a wedding gift to help with the household.
At the basin of the ranch’s adjudicated acequia (1639), in a green clearing framed by imposing cottonwoods, twisting junipers and rocky slopes, is a mountain village, Sierra Village, displaying various roofed structures.
A flat-roofed building, built sometime in 1850, is significant because it shows it probably never existed in the mountains, but rather in a dry plains area where there is zero chance of snow that could, perhaps, cave in the roof.
Inside, the walls are painted with whitewash and stamped with decorative butterfly designs with wings that glitter with crushed mica and mixed adobe clay: a product called “tierra amarilla”; a technique used so that a person could sit against a whitewash wall and fear not of their clothes turning white from transfer.
The doors, short, narrow and elevated by a foot-difference in floor level, are defensive. Attackers during this time were the indigenous Comanches, Kiowas, Utes and Apaches; some of these tribes made their living by raiding. One couldn’t just run in without ducking their head without simultaneously watching their step.
Catty-corner to this structure is an A-framed/peaked-roof home that was built sometime around the 1870’s and which probably did exist in the mountains; its sloped roof allows snow to shed.
Nestled behind wild desert flowers and a garden of malva is an adobe house that was constructed onsite in 1970-1972. With archived photos used as reference, the home was built to represent a cabin in Mora.
It features a medicinal herb room where dried bushels of yellow flowering weeds hang in handmade ringlets from the ceiling. The weed is called “cota” or “Navajo tea” or “Indian tea” and when brewed, can cure a stomachache.
Also found here are pilings of the osha root, which grows in the mountains at 9,000 ft. or higher and is used as a pain reliever and anti inflammatory.
In the living room stands a table propped before a windowpane, a large doily is draped over it and the wooden floor on which the table stands is pock faced with open knots reinforced with tin plates. On the table lies a sprawled card game, it’s called “three-card Monte”, and it’s a game one learns to play by losing a lot of money.
This unsuspecting display tells the story of a woman from Santa Fe who lived during the middle of the 19th century; during America’s Territorial Period. Her name was Dona Tules and she was literate, shrewd, and an independent businesswoman who had amassed wealth and power as a Mexican woman. She ran a successful establishment; you know, with gambling, whores, whiskey and the sort, but of all the things with which she did well, she was the best at Monte.
There is a story about Dona Tules that speaks profoundly of her savviness acquiring wealth and at what length she went to get it; the story goes like this:
The Army had just come to Santa Fe and the soldiers’ payroll was still en route from wherever it was coming. Knowing entirely well that Dona Tules had the cash upfront, the Army decided to dabble in business with her; they asked her to front the payroll; the Army was to refund her as soon as the payroll arrived in Santa Fe. Of course, Dona Tules agreed and thus the soldiers were happy and their wealth showered the city with endless activity; the establishment girls were busy with their one-night lovers, the whiskey was drunk with hearty swigs, and the men played Monte until their cash piles ran out. By the time the Army officials and their expected payroll made it to Santa Fe, however, Dona Tules had doubled her money; yes, all from the same source, but now of different color.
When Dona Tules died, it was the biggest funeral service ever seen in Santa Fe and nothing since has compared.
Next to the cards are blue and white Talavera pottery from Mexico; a remnant of the trade days when the Spanish colonists would import from Mexico until 1821, when the King of Spain cut off anything coming from Europe into Mexico and from Mexico into Texas and New Mexico. With this export/import ban, traders started to smuggle items into the territory, often caught and sent to Mexico City from where it would take them 2-3 years to return to Santa Fe.
The following year, a tradesman by the name of William Becknell used his wagons to forge a mule train which started the Santa Fe Trail; coining Becknell the “Father of the Santa Fe Trail.” History says that for every dime he invested in trade, he took a dollar home in Spanish silver. The Santa Fe Trail flourished until 1880 when the railroad killed trading by mule and wagon.
From the village, routes a long and dusty trail that connects one to Creek Crossing, from which a little further northeast a blacksmith’s workshop sits huffing and puffing with a busy buzz and clanging clamor, and from which to the southeast El Molino Grande de Sapello, or “big mill” as it’s called, winds and grinds with its squeaking wood rigging and iron bolts… but you’ll have to read part two of this series to know their interesting histories and how they came to be at El Rancho De Las Golondrinas.
The museum is open for self-guided tours June 1 through October 1, Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission fees for self-guided tours: $6 Adults, $4 Seniors (62+) and teens (ages 13-17), and FREE for children 12 years and younger.