El Morro National Monument is a tiny park tucked in remote western New Mexico. For this reason, it is one of the least visited National Monuments in the west. Ironically, El Morro is a park because it was once a travel hub—a source of year-round drinkable water amongst miles of dry scrub. Over many centuries, visitors came to the oasis and left their mark. Ruins of a 700 year old pueblo sit on the mesa top. Around the base, there are petroglyphs, signatures of conquistadors, and marks of early Americans traveling west. El Morro was scouted for the railroad, but it went 25 miles north. Now El Morro is a quiet place, a sandstone guestbook with centuries of entries.
Don Juan de Oñate
Don Juan de Oñate was the first Spanish colonial governor of New Mexico from 1598 to 1610. He founded the city of Santa Fe in 1610, eleven years before the Pilgrims first Thanksgiving. This carving at El Morro took place on an expedition to the Gulf of California.
Oñate is sometimes called the last conquistador. After the Acoma indians refused to give the Spaniards more food in the winter of 1598, a scuffle erupted that killed 11 Spaniards. Oñate’s retaliation killed 800 Acoma. Oñate enslaved the remaining population; men over 25 had their right foot amputated. Oñate was recalled to Mexico City for cruelty. He resigned his post in 1610 after the founding of Santa Fe. He was banished from New Mexico, although cleared of charges. Acoma Pueblo was rebuilt, and is one of the longest continually occupied places in the country.
Amazingly, people still honor Oñate. El Paso erected a 34 foot statue of him in 2007. Española, New Mexico has an Oñate monument with a bronze statue. In 1998, the 400th anniversary of his arrival in New Mexico, someone removed the statue’s right foot and left the note “fair is fair.” The foot was replaced, but the seam is still visible. Oñate deserves his place in the history books, but multi-million dollar statues seem unnecessary.
Standing in the presence of his carving reminds one of the vast history of New Mexico. The Salinas Pueblo Missions were a generation old at this point, to say nothing of the indian cultures they encountered. We think of the west as new, but this was all before the Pilgrims dined.
The Camel Corps
In addition to tragedy, the west is full of quirky, charming history, and the US Camel Corps is one of those bits. Desert animals like camels must have seemed ideal for the deserts of New Mexico. 25 camels traveled through El Morro in 1857.
The US gained the territory of New Mexico after the Mexican American War in 1848. (If you ever want an eye-popping historical read, take a look at the list of Mexican heads of state from 1821 to 1848. I thought US history from Jackson to Lincoln was chaotic, but wow. It makes telenovelas look plausible. It’s amazing the US didn’t take more land from Mexico considering the utter disarray of their government.) Several early expeditions took place, mostly with the goal of figuring out what to do with New Mexico.
The camels went to Camp Verde in Texas, which was taken by the Confederates at the beginning of the Civil War. Some of the animals were sold at auction, some went to zoos, some went to circuses, and some escaped. Camel sightings were reported in the west until the early 1900s. This charming postcard memorializes the Camel Corps’ visit to El Morro.
The walls of El Morro are full of inscriptions, tiny slices in the lives of people who altered the west, for better and for worse. Though they are just gouges in sandstone, it is humbling to stand and look at the names and know what extraordinary efforts those people took to reach this oasis. And I consider it a bit inconvenient because it’s 2 hours from Albuquerque. We who pass through are still altering the west, though we are warned not to do it by carving El Morro. If you really must, they have a sacrificial chunk of sandstone by the visitor’s center.