Archaeologists have determined that the ultimate cause of El Cuartelejo’s demise was fire, as testified by the remains of charred posts and corn seeds. The Comanches who later took up residence near the pueblo had a legend that the ruins were struck by lightning.
In any case, for the next hundred years, the walls slowly crumbled and vanished, leaving the pueblo to be buried in a grave of blowing soil. The location was eventually forgotten.
Enter the Steele Family
The Steele family arrived in 1888. They did not discover the fascinating history of their new homestead right away, but sometime in the 1890s the father of the family, Herbert L. Steele, ran across the irrigation ditches. These he quickly put to use watering his garden.
What Steele found next is still debated to this day. But when he discovered other artifacts up on the old hill, whether they were parched corn kernels unearthed by ground squirrels or a large collection of arrowheads and pieces of pottery, he quickly realized that he owned something unusual.
Accordingly, two archaeologists from the University of Kansas, S.W. Williston and H.T. Martin, paid the Steele homestead a visit in 1898. While probing the structure, they noted walls 18 to 24 inches thick, with no apparent openings for doors or windows. How would the inhabitants come and go from the building? There was one answer—through the roof!
The idea that this building might have been a pueblo was further confirmed by the discovery of charred post ends that might once have belonged to a ladder. The archaeologists also found broken pottery similar in style to that of the Southwest during the late 1600s and early 1700s, and they found pieces of obsidian, a volcanic stone common in the native lands of the Taos and the Picuris. Historians quickly realized the implications of the discovery—this might be El Cuartelejo!
While the Steele family made full use of their land, including the parts influenced by the Pueblo refugees, they were careful not to abuse it. They dreamed of someday creating a public park out of their homestead. Accordingly, in the 1920s they donated the pueblo site to the Daughters of the American Revolution, who in 1925 erected a granite marker on the ruins (literally; the marker was later moved). The D.A.R. still own the rights to the ruins. The rest of the Steele homestead went to the Kansas Forestry, Fish, and Game Commission in 1928. A dam for a recreational lake was built the next year.
Not all historians were willing to accept the theory that the ruins discovered by the Steele family were part of El Cuartelejo. Based on daily marching distances listed in the expedition diary of Juan de Ulibarrí, some hypothesized that El Cuartelejo was actually in eastern Colorado.
In 1939 and 1940, Smithsonian Institution archaeologist Waldo Wedel paid a visit to the site. He turned up additional artifacts that further confirmed the identity of the ruins. For example, he discovered pieces of pipes, decorated in a style similar to that of Southwestern work of the late 1600s and early 1700s.
However, Wedel found far more Apache artifacts than Pueblo artifacts on the site, including some otherwise distinctly Apache ware that was tempered with mica, similar to the custom of the Southwestern tribes. Therefore, he concluded, the pueblo did not belong to Pueblos, but to Apaches who had contact with Southwestern Indians and who mimicked their customs. If there were Pueblos at the site, either they must have adopted Apache tools or they had remained for a very short time.
However, no evidence for a pueblo in eastern Colorado could be found. Nor was there much evidence of French and Spanish activity in that area. While Spanish records did not pinpoint El Cuartelejo precisely at the location of the Scott County ruins, the Steele discovery fit far better with the maps and descriptions in existence than any other site that had been found or proposed. Furthermore, the Scott County location for El Cuartelejo corresponded with various well-traveled Native American trails that the Spaniards likely would have used.
Unfortunately, El Cuartelejo was still not preserved as the Steele family might have wished. Local artifact collectors did some amateur work on the ruins, but turned up little of value. Furthermore, these would-be archaeologists did considerable damage to the pueblo, digging through the floor and destroying more subtle features. The landmark also continued to deteriorate due to weather for several decades.
El Cuartelejo was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1964, opening new doors for restoration possibilities.
Further excavation was carried out under the supervision of Tom Witty of the Kansas State Historical Society beginning in 1969. The entire floor was disinterred, revealing hearthstones and posts, not to mention more potsherds. Witty was more thorough than the archaeologists before him and revealed the complete outline of the pueblo, only partially found up to that time.
While examining artifacts, archaeologists also started work on an interpretive exhibit, putting El Cuartelejo into historical context. The walls were rebuilt and stabilized up to a height of one or two feet to clearly show the floor plan of the pueblo, consisting of seven rooms. Signs were put up to explain the site for park visitors.
But the previous restoration efforts have failed the test of time. The National Park Service listed El Cuartelejo as an “at risk” site in 2004. The walls continue to crumble in the unforgiving Kansas weather.
All agree that the ruins must be preserved. What the future will bring to El Cuartelejo is yet to be determined, however, as the Kansas State Historical Society, the Scott County Historical Society, and the present-day Picuris tribe continue to iron out a solution.
“Ambushed at Dawn: An Archaeological Analysis of the Catastrophic Defeat of the 1720 Villasur Expedition”
Chapter 4 of this thesis makes a solid case for the Scott County location of El Cuartelejo.