DocumentCitationsKeywordsRelated Material

“Tierra Amarilla”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

The village of Tierra Amarilla lies in the Chama River Valley. Groups of hunters and gatherers lived in this valley as far back as about 5,000 years ago. Archaeologists know about at least ten significant pueblo sites along the Chama River, between present day Abiquiu and the Rio Grande. The valley was a major trade route between the San Juan River area and the Rio Grande Valley.

Eventually, some people from the San Juan River area to the west settled in the Chama River Valley. “Chama” is the Spanish name for a Pueblo site, “Tsama”, whose inhabitants were related to the people of present-day Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan) Pueblo. These early inhabitants were farmers who grew squash, pumpkins, beans, and corn. They had moved on to other sites by the time the Spaniards arrived in the region.

Trails“Trails,” Deborah Reade (Artist)

When the Spaniards entered the area in the late 1500s and early 1600s, Navajos had already built small settlements along the Chama River and used the Chama Valley route to travel south and raid the fields and villages the Spanish set up. Later, Utes moved into the territory and also fought with the Spanish. The Spanish settlers counterattacked their enemies. These continual conflicts among the Spanish, Utes, and Plains Indians made the area dangerous. Eventually, the Spanish developed a system of giving presents to the Utes in exchange for peace.

An early description of the area called Tierra Amarilla appeared in a document written by a Franciscan friar. Fray Velez de Escalante and Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez entered the region in 1776. They traveled from Abiquiu north along the Chama River looking for a route between Santa Fe and California. Escalante described the valley as having abundant pastures and water for irrigation and farming. The route to California was called the Spanish Trail.

The Spanish people who settled in the Tierra Amarilla area built their homes along a tributary of the Chama River called Las Nutritas (Little Beaver Creek), and their fields lay alongside the acequias (irrigation ditches) and roads. For this reason, these settlements, which eventually grew into the present-day town of Tierra Amarilla, did not have the central plazas typical of Spanish towns in the Americas. The Spanish Laws of the Indies of 1573 required settlers build their houses around a central plaza. But in towns like Tierra Amarilla that were so far away from the Spanish government in Mexico City, the settlers chose to build their houses close to their fields and acequias.

By the beginning of the 1800s, the settlers around the village of Santo Tomas de Abiquiu did not have enough land for farming and grazing. Indeed, the population grew throughout the region. Between 1790 and 1880, the Hispanic settlement of the valley grew from about 12,000 people to 80,000. In search of new lands, people began to move north through the valley, expanding the region of Hispanic settlements. Then, in the 1880s, they encountered other settlers moving into the area. These people included Anglo-Americans to the north, Anglo-Texans to the east, Chihuahuan Mexicans to the south, Navajos to the west, and Mormons to the northwest. The presence of all of these people restricted the expansion of Hispanic settlements.

The area became a center for many business ventures. Merchants arrived and the railroad came to the nearby town of Chama to the north. In the 1840s and 1850s, Tierra Amarilla became a staging area for miners traveling over the Spanish Trail to join the California Gold Rush. The area soon became attractive to land speculators and grabbers. In the later part of the 1800s, ciboleros, bison hunters, came to Tierra Amarilla to equip themselves for their hunting expeditions until the great bison herds were killed off.

All of this growth and the arrival of new groups of people led to conflicts over land. In 1860 and 1861 Francisco Martínez petitioned and received a land grant to Tierra Amarilla lands. Hispanic families had already been living in the area for many years. Newcomers eventually questioned the legality of the land grant. They claimed that the grant had been made to an individual (Mr. Martínez), not to the Hispanic community. If that was true, it meant that many of the inhabitants did not have legal title to their lands. For many years the original Hispanic families and their descendants fought legal battles trying to hold onto their lands. Meanwhile, outsiders moved in and tried to buy up the land, which involved them in court proceedings to nullify the original land grants. These conflicts climaxed in the 1967 Tierra Amarilla courthouse uprising and continue on into present times.