Last summer when my mom came to visit, she bought me a present: Juan Rivera’s Colorado, 1765. Fresh off my trip to OKC where my Spanish colonial history obsession was kindled by stops in Santa Fe and at the Pecos pueblo I had stopped in at Ouray’s Buckskin Bookseller to find a copy of the journals of the Dominguez-Escalate expedition. The owner pointed out this new release from Western Reflections Publishing (yes, I’m still slowly purchasing their entire catalog).
Steven Baker scrupulously traces Rivera’s expeditions to southwestern Colorado. Apparently there was some controversy about whether Rivera had gone to Moab or to Delta. I loved the detailed tracing of his route. I’m a map and geography nerd and the territory traveled by Rivera is my home ground. He passed by Chimney Rock then, on his fall expedition, up through the Dolores River canyon to what is now the west end of Montrose County and then over the Uncompaghre Plateau to Delta. I find myself just astounded by what they were able to accomplish with such limited information!
This beautiful hard cover wasn’t cheap (thanks Mom!) but it is filled will gorgeous maps drawn by Gail Sargent of each section of the journey as well as photographs of many locations with notations of trails traversed by the expedition.
I’m so glad that this book has joined my library. I think it’s incredibly important to know the history of the area where you live and I learned so much (and added a few hikes to my list and … bonus! they’ll be spring accessible!).
This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own.
Sometimes when people tell you that they know of a book you should read you just nod and say that your list is really long because their suggestion just isn’t your style. This latest book, Blood and Thunder, wasn’t one of these books. I was sitting around telling my friend Chris about immersing myself in a whole bunch of books about The West this summer and he immediately suggested that I read it. Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides was simply fantastic.
I didn’t know anything about Kit Carson. I didn’t know anything about ho he fit in with the Mexican War, New Mexico’s history, and the Navajo Long Walk. He was just a name that was famous in the west not one that had been involved with a huge swath of the southwest becoming American soil.
Furthermore, Sides weaves Carson’s story with that of John C. Frémont, Steven Watts Kearny, the governors of New Mexico, Navajo leaders, and more. All the stories are carefully woven together and create a wonderful picture of New Mexico and Arizona in the mid 1800s.
While I enjoyed The Earth Is Weeping, it wasn’t wasn’t as readable as Blood and Thunder. I started this book just before going to Washington and given some uninterrupted reading time on planes from Montrose to Seattle, I devoured the book and finished it just as my plane landed back in Denver. (I didn’t have any time to read while I was in the Pacific Northwest.)
A sign of an excellent book about history is that it leaves you feeling like you got a pretty complete picture of the topic at hand while also adding to your list of books to read because it raised other ideas and questions that were tangential to the topic. Sides’s Blood and Thunder more than met the standard. In this case, I was quite happy that the next book on my shelf is a biography of Frémont!
I continued my foray into understanding more about how the American West came to be settled by diving into Peter Cozzens’s The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. I’d picked this up shortly after it’s publication at a bookstore in the midst of my bookbuying freeze of 2016 (that has long since ended, perhaps problematically for my bank account). After having learned about the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, returning to this book seemed like the right thing to do.
Clocking in at a hefty 450+ pages (plus notes and index) Cozzens delves into a generation of fighting between the army and the tribes of the West. Cozzens explicitly tries to show both the Native American and the white perspectives on the events of the 1860s through 1891. I found this perspective really interesting. While Cozzens is certainly sympathetic to the tribes, looking at the motivations of the army officers was absolutely fascinating.
My main quibble with this book was that some of the descriptions of skirmishes and battles between the tribes and the army were dense. The book does include some maps of the battlegrounds but I still had trouble getting the visualization right (and I find detailed descriptions of military movements kind of boring, I just want the summary).
Another thing I really appreciated about this book is how it put many of the battles and people that you may have heard of (Little Bighorn, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, etc.) into context with each other. It was interesting to see army officers move throughout the country facing different tribes.
This book is definitely not just casual reading and probably won’t appeal to most people but if you’re happy to nerd out with a pretty balanced look at some sad history, its a pretty solid read.
After I’d finished reading about Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco and the Pueblo Revolt, I wanted to know more about Dominguez and Escalante and their explorations that had been the basis for my favorite Miera y Pacheco map. I knew that Western Reflections Publishing had a couple of books about the expedition so I headed to my local bookstore to pick one up. Turns out the book I was picturing was the actual journals (which they didn’t have) so I ended up with Wilderness Wanderers: The 1776 Expedition of Dominguez and Escalante by Ken Rehyr.
I ate up this slim volume.
Dominguez and Escalante were both Franciscan friars charged with finding a more northerly land route to the Californian settlements (essentially avoiding the el Camino del Diablo, I think?). They also set out to convert as many of the Native Americans along the way as they could (while recognizing that this would be a first contact and that more missionaries would be needed for more long term conversion efforts later).
As it turns out, Dominguez and Escalante’s route remarkably overlaps with my home range. They traveled from Santa Fe up to Durango, then north through Dolores, Egnar, and Nucla before following a Ute guide over the Uncompahgre Plateau to Montrose. They continued over Grand Mesa from Hotchkiss to Battlement Mesa (all these places I know!) before turning west down the Colorado. They headed north through the Book Cliffs to what is now the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation. They continued on to Utah Lake, near what is now Provo.
Leaving Utah Lake, they headed down what is today the I-15 corridor. Along the way, near Delta, the missionaries decided that they needed to head south to Santa Fe instead of trying to find their way to California. The weather was turning cold and they were not prepared.
They struggled their way across the Northern Arizona deserts finally finding a crossing of the Grand Canyon at Crossing of the Fathers (submerged under Lake Powell). Once across the Colorado, they managed their way across northeastern Arizona reaching the Oraybi pueblo on Third Mesa where they obtained enough supplies to reach the western most Spanish missions.
I found the story of Dominguez and Escalante incredibly inspiring. Lewis and Clark seemed to have much more of an idea of what to expect than these earlier missionaries. I can’t wait to dive into their journals … but I should probably put a pause on my book buying binge.
I recommend checking out this book while meandering around the greater Four Corners region, especially if you’re not overly familiar with the area. I really enjoyed my visual imagery of each of the places they passed through. I was also super inspired by how the author of the book had visited and rode his horse on much (all?) of the friars route. How cool is that?
I’ve passed through Santa Fe several times but my trip down to the WCWS was the first time that I had time to stop and absorb some of the history in the Plaza. After leaving Santa Fe, I stopped somewhat impulsively at Pecos National Historic Park where I learned more about Pueblo culture of New Mexico and tried to relate it to Chimney Rock.
As I was leaving Pecos, I made a stop in the bookstore and bought Miera y Pacheco: A Renaissance Spaniard in Eighteenth-Century New Mexico since I was pretty sure I would finish Under the Banner of Heaven during the trip (I wasn’t wrong). I’d learned about Miera when I visited the Telluride Historical Museum’s map exhibit last winter and fell in love with his 1778 map of the southwest he complied after the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition.
While the text of Kessel’s text is a little on the dry side I definitely made a list of places that I want to visit next time I’m in Santa Fe. I didn’t realize that in addition to being a cartographer, Miera also made altar screens and other religious objects. (It seems that there’s still a couple in the area.) I also learned a lot more about how Santa Fe was established and how the relationship of New Spain to New Mexico worked.
Not surprisingly, Miera y Pacheco made me want to know more about all the things he was involved in, especially the Dominguez-Escalante expedition (for which Domniguez-Escalante National Conservation Area and their canyons are named). It’s easy to forget that colonial Spanish history really did affect this area and I’m excited to continue to learn more.
Also driven by visiting Pecos (and then a little bit by reading about Miera and his historical context) was needing to know more about the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Pecos Pueblo had a very large mission church before the Revolt but after the “bloodless” return of the Spanish a much smaller mission church was built. Wanting to know more about how that revolt came to be and how it affected the colonization of New Mexico, I ordered a copy of David Robert’s The Pueblo Revolt: The Secret Rebellion That Drove The Spanish Out of the Southwest.
The Pueblo Revolt didn’t contain as much information as I had hoped about the events leading up to the Revolt. It rehashed in a more condensed way the history of the Spanish in New Mexico (which was helpful!) and told the story of how the revolt occurred as well as how the Spanish reconquered New Mexico. Roberts very explicitly states that he isn’t necessarily trying to create a “balanced” tale of how the Spanish and the Puebloans both contributed to the bloodshed in the Revolt which I found refreshing; I find it pretty hard to buy that the blame should be evenly shared in this case.
I’ve purchased another couple of books as a result of my current colonial history obsession and I can’t wait to read them and share them with you!
(Clearly, I’ve released myself from book buying restriction because a) I’ve met some financial goals and b) because they only need to move across the yard next time…)
In early May, High Country News published a piece on the polygamous Mormon community of Short Creek. This reminded me of Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner of Heaven. I’d read this book a long time ago, back in college. I didn’t remember a whole lot about it and I’d learned much more about the history of the West, traveled through Mormon Country, and generally figured I was in a better place to absorb the book.
I wasn’t wrong. Getting deeper into Under The Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith was a lot easier for me now that I could picture the country on the Utah-Arizona border where Short Creek’s FLDS community is located. I’ve also read more about other exploration of the west. For example Krakauer suggests that perhaps Mormons who had been involved with the Mountain Meadows Massacre may have been involved with the killing of William Dunn and the Howland brothers who abandoned John Wesley Powell before they descended Separation Canyon (historians have long believed it was the Shivwits Band of Payutes who killed the explorers).
Also fascinating is the revisionist history of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) Church, more commonly known as the Mormons. I honestly found this uneasy relationship between fundamentalist Saints and the mainstream branch of the religion more fascinating than the central narrative of Ron and Dan Lafferty’s crimes.
Ron and Dan struck me as “typical” religious nuts of any stripe. Killing their sister-in-law, Brenda, and her daughter because God told them to was just the culmination of a descent into increasing extremism. Brenda had stood up to Ron and Dan as they attempted to rope her husband Allen into their delusions.
I devoured this book on my trip down to Oklahoma City. Despite being really tired (definitely recovering from the end of the school year!) I was pretty happy to find a quiet spot and do some reading. Like all good books, this one lengthened my reading list but I learned a lot about how pieces of western history fit together.
It’s always jarring when you’re on vacation to visit sobering memorials and museums. I don’t want to ever be the one that turns away from the darker parts of our past so I always force myself to go. While in Oklahoma City for the WCWS, we couldn’t skip the bombing memorial.
This memorial was interesting because I remember when the bombing happened. I was in third grade in the spring of 1995, my best friend’s birthday was in just a couple of days. We saw the pictures and knew it was horrible but that’s about all my 9 year old brain could comprehend. I was really curious to visit the museum and help bring all the pieces together.
As we stepped through the gates on the west side of the memorial, we were greeted with the giant reflecting pool on what had been Oklahoma City’s 5th Street. This now decommissioned street was where Timothy McVeigh had parked the now infamous Ryder truck.
Stacia, Andrea and I all agreed to start in the museum to give context to the memorial. This is one of the best museums I have ever been to. I have a low threshold of patience for museums with lots of video content and while I still felt there could be fewer videos (or at least shorter ones), the exhibits were put together excellently.
Back outside, we visited the survivor tree and then wandered over to the site of the federal building and saw the chairs representing those who died in the bombing.
We wandered around the grounds for awhile taking it all in. The memorial was really well done. If you’re in OKC, you can’t miss it, it’s hard but you must go.
After leaving Santa Fe, I knew I didn’t need to rush on to Oklahoma City so I started looking for things to visit. One of the things that immediately jumped out to me as I looked at my Gazetteer (yup, even with phones and technology, I travel with the red De Lorme atlases!) was Pecos National Historic Park. It wasn’t located very far off the interstate so I piloted Ruth that a-way.
This was yet another NPS unit that I knew nothing about when I showed up (just like Chimney Rock earlier in the trip). I was really excited to see the trail rules sign as I walked into the visitors center that said that dogs were allowed on the trail!
Pecos National Historic Park documents the Cicuye pueblo and the Spanish missions that came afterwards starting with Coronado in about 1540. (Yes, I typed that right FIFTEEN FORTY.) The mission came to be called Pecos. This was the site of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 (oh, don’t you worry, The Pueblo Revolt has ended up on my reading list, you’ll hear about it eventually).
Because of the revolt, the Spanish actually built two mission churches at the site. The first was bigger, its footprint is the rock wall surrounding the ruins of the smaller second church.
I really enjoyed visiting this park. The video at the Visitor’s Center felt a little dated but had a ton of information. I did inquire about how closely this pueblo was tied with Chaco culture and the answer I got was pretty… unsatisfactory? My curiosity was mostly roused after having left Chimney Rock that had both kivas and pit houses. There seemed to be a lot of things labeled as kivas at Pecos and nothing called a pit house so that sort of piqued my interest. Anyone know anything about that?
…guess I need to go visit Chaco Canyon…
After I finished up in Los Alamos, I made the short drive down to Santa Fe. It was really hot so it was clear that this was going to need to be a dog friendly adventure (aren’t they all?) but fortunately Santa Fe was super welcoming. I’m always a bit hesitant about walking into shops with Sprocket but honestly? no one has complained yet. (He usually just lays down and goes to sleep.)
I’ve passed through Santa Fe before but I’d never just wandered around the Plaza. The park in the middle was really pretty and I loved the old architecture. Unfortunately, I’m not super excited about either turquoise jewelry (or really any jewelry) or Native American art so most of the shops didn’t really strike my fancy.
We wandered up to the area around the St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral but I was afraid to go inside with Sprocket. (Yes, I appreciated the irony even in the moment.)
Next we explored a side street sort of randomly. I didn’t particularly have a game plan for this adventure so we were just wandering! Fortunately, it took me to the oldest church structure in the USA and the oldest house in the US!
While I was looking for a place to eat lunch with a patio and some good New Mexican food, I stumbled across 109 East Palace, the Santa Fe base of the Manhattan Project where arrivals visited before heading up “The Hill” to Los Alamos.
It took a little deciding but I finally sat down for lunch at La Casa Sena. Sprocket and I were treated excellently, I greatly enjoyed my jalapeño-cucumber margarita and my lunch was fantastic. It was nice to sit in the cool patio and enjoy my book!
I was really drained after lunch. I’m not sure if it was the heat, the driving, or just the residual school year catching up with me but when we headed up into the mountains near town to find a camping spot, I promptly climbed in the back of the Jeep about 4:30pm and fell asleep. I managed to rouse myself about 8pm to take Sprocket for a walk and went back to sleep for the night. I guess I needed a vacation or something, ha!
After I left Chimney Rock, I headed south through Chama where we stopped to stretch our legs and then continued south towards Los Alamos. I’d never been to the Atomic City but it seemed as good a time as any to check it out.
I started at the Los Alamos History Museum first thing the next morning. I knew a little bit about Los Alamos but only in the vague sort of way where I remembered that it was important from AP US History and what I gleaned from Elizabeth Church’s excellent novel The Atomic Weight of Love.
I certainly knew nothing about the history of the Los Alamos Ranch School and my New Mexican history in general is pretty shaky. I was pretty shocked by the pretty impressive list of alumni and other attendees.
Even though I knew a little bit more about the development of the bomb, it was really interesting to learn more about Oppenheimer and the rest of the scientists as well as how the social order worked in the early days. The museum gives an excellent concise but powerful picture of Los Alamos’s role in ending the war and the development of the atom bomb.
After I finished with the history museum, I headed down to the Bradbury Science Museum. Affiliated with Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Bradbury is free but honestly, I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as the history museum. The displays felt really busy which made reading them and following the story difficult. It was loud and I really just couldn’t focus so I decided it was time to move on.
Among the serious things I learned at the history museum I also learned this fun fact: Oppenheimer, called “Oppie” by peers, made a mean martini. I made sure to get a photo with him.