El Cuartelejo: A Place of Refuge
A Taos pueblo in New Mexico

The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico found themselves in frequent conflict with the Spanish conquistadors. The conquerors imprisoned or killed the native religious leaders, compelled the people to accept the religion of Spain at the point of the sword, and put them to work in labor camps.

Repeated uprisings brought the Indians little except bloody reprisals. Some felt that it simply was not worthwhile to risk their lives battling Spaniards and laid down their arms. Others did not.

Sometime around 1664, some Taos Pueblos decided on a bold move—they escaped New Mexico.

The Taos Years

The Pueblos journeyed northeast, traveling long and hard to avoid recapture. In fact, they went farther north than any of their tribe had ever journeyed before, north of the Arkansas River and right into present-day Kansas. Here they found sympathizers among the Plains Apaches. The Apaches allowed the Pueblos to settle among them and build new dwellings in peace, where they could resume their former lives away from the Spaniards.

The Pueblos promptly set to work building the adobe structure associated with their tribe, strengthened along the foundation with native stone from the nearby hills. The pueblo was located up on a hill, providing an excellent view of the valley below and offering a good way to look out for invaders. Down in the valley, the Pueblos planted crops and dug irrigation ditches just as they had in New Mexico, directing water from spring-fed Ladder Creek to their fields.

The arrangement was evidently quite satisfactory to the Apaches, as well. They continued to share the village, leaving regularly to hunt, but always returning to raise crops of their own and possibly to trade hides for Pueblo goods.

Unfortunately, the Taos Indians did not make good their escape. A few years later, Juan de Archuleta appeared on the scene and summarily marched the Pueblos back to New Mexico. The Spaniards named the village El Cuartelejo, or “the old barracks.”

The Picuris Years

El Cuartelejo: A Place of Refuge
A Picuris mission in New Mexico

The 1680s brought a Pueblo revolt to New Mexico. While the rebels were successful for a time, during the first half of the 1690s the Spaniards once again gained the upper hand. In 1696, a group of Picuris Pueblos repeated the attempt of the Taos people years before. They reclaimed the pueblos of El Cuartelejo.

For reasons that have been lost in time, the Picuris did not get along so well with their Apache neighbors. The Apaches enslaved the newcomers and evidently made their lives difficult enough that a Spanish labor camp seemed desirable in comparison. The Picuris asked the Apaches for permission to return to their homes in the Southwest, but were denied. After only a few years at El Cuartelejo, the Picuris chief, Don Lorenzo, sent a letter to Santa Fe pleading for rescue.

In 1706, Juan de Ulibarrí arrived on the scene. He collected all 62 of the Pueblos and escorted them back to New Mexico. Although he duly claimed the valley as a Spanish possession, he was careful not to needlessly offend the Apaches with violence. There was reason to believe that allies among the natives of the Great Plains would be necessary in the years to come.

Frontier Outpost

The Spaniards had previously claimed the Great Plains as their own, but did little to enforce that claim. French explorers and traders had taken an interest in the region, probably feeling it would be easy to take over an area that was so poorly guarded. Frenchmen began making friendly overtures to the Apaches at El Cuartelejo in hopes of winning their trade.

Rumors of French encroachment had reached Spanish ears, and this was one of the reasons that Juan de Ulibarrí had been sent to El Cuartelejo. While working to secure the release of the Picuris slaves, Ulibarrí had been careful to ask the Apaches about other white men in the area. The Apaches showed him a musket and reported that the French had been supplying their Pawnee enemies with such weapons.

In 1720, Don Pedro de Villasur set off for the Great Plains to discover the limits of French involvement. He spent several days at El Cuartelejo, then continued northward with some Apache allies to find out the limits of French involvement. He learned the hard way. His trek brought him all the way north to present-day Nebraska on the Platte River, where the French incited the Pawnee tribe to ambush and massacre his party.

For a time, there was talk among the Spaniards of building a permanent fort at El Cuartelejo, but the dangers of the location were great. Any small outpost constructed there would be isolated from reinforcements and liable to be overwhelmed by the Indian allies of the French.

During the 1730s, the pueblos were abandoned by the Apaches. Comanches and other stronger tribes had all but annihilated the little village, and the Cuartelejo Apaches fled to Texas to take refuge with another Apache band. El Cuartelejo became a camping spot and outpost for both the French and the Comanches.

In 1762, the French ceded the region known as “Louisiana,” including the Great Plains, to Spain by secret treaty. The French retreated from the area, leaving El Cuartelejo to crumble into ruins.

Next week: Rediscovery

Helpful Resource

“Ambushed at Dawn: An Archaeological Analysis of the Catastrophic Defeat of the 1720 Villasur Expedition”
More about El Cuartelejo and the ill-fated Villasur expedition.