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16. Ibid., pp. 114-115.

17. U. S. Congress, Senate, Reports of Explorations and Survey* to Ascertain the
Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the
Pacific Ocean, 83d Cong., 2d Sess., Ex. Doc. 78, 1856, p. 58 of the Itinerary, A. Whipple'a
Report.



GEOGRAPHY OF MIDDLE RIO PUERCO VALLEY 257




CABEZON




\



j



Ctfro Cobezon



EXTENT OF
FORMER IRRIGATION

PART I



LAND FORMERLY IRRIGATED
OLD COMMUNITY DITCH
SITE OF DIVERSION DAM



Fig. 16



258 NEW MEXICO HISTORICAL REVIEW

land. The xerophytic vegetation of the Puerco area is evi-
dence to the most casual observer that here is a land naturally
suited only for grazing as an economic activity. Semi-desert
grasses and shrubs cover the valley and much of the upland
adjacent to it. The grasses do not form a complete sod cover,
except in a few small locations at the mouths of arroyos. The
shrubs are mostly greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus),
saltbush (Atriplex sp.), sagebrush (Artemisia sp.), and
snakeweed (Gutierrezia sp.) , all plants of low grazing value.
Several species of cacti are also found in the area. These and
the shrubs are scattered throughout the grassland in greater
or lesser abundance, depending on local conditions. 18 The
grass cover of many large areas has been ruined by over-
grazing and replaced by Russian-thistle (Salosa kolitenu-
folia). In some areas a weed known as pingue (Actinea
richardsoni) has also become well established. This plant has
toxic effects on livestock. 19

Natural vegetation in and near the Puerco valley was ex-
tremely varied even before the entrance of white settlers.
Nineteenth century travelers reported dense stands of sage-
brush in some areas and "good grazing" in others. 20 It is also
apparent, however, that there have been changes and varia-
tions in natural vegetation of the valley due to the use of the
land by settlers. For example, there were once several loca-
tions of the valley floor where native grass was sufficiently
thick and tall to be cut for hay. 21 Cottonwood trees and wil-
lows commonly grew along the river banks. Today the tall
grass has completely disappeared and many of the trees are
dead. Some of the flood plain is now completely bare. There
can be little doubt that vegetation in the Puerco area has
decreased in quantity and quality in the historic past, with
resultant increases in erosion and surface runoff. The "most
serious conditions of vegetation depletion and erosion on the

18. Dortignac, op. cit., p. 6, Fig. 2 ; Renick . . . , op. cit., p. 9.

19. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Survey Report . ... op. cit., p. 181.

20. Luna B. Leopold, "Vegetation of Southwestern Watersheds in the Nineteenth
Century," Geographical Review, XLI (April, 1951), 301-305.

21. Bryan, op. cit., p. 278.



GEOGRAPHY OF MIDDLE RIO PUERCO VALLEY 259

Rio Grande watershed [above El Paso] are encountered on
the Rio Puerco watershed." 22

The streams, climate, topography, soils, and vegetation
of the Rio Puerco valley all combine to create a natural land-
scape in which human settlement can barely exist. Even the
most complete and ingenious use of the valley's resources
cannot raise occupance above the subsistence level, a level at
which poverty and hardship are characteristics of everyday
life. And even under these conditions, only a few people can
be supported by the land. The inherent paucity of resources
has made it impossible for a large population to live in the
valley, and will probably continue to make it impossible.

Settlers have occupied the middle Rio Puerco valley twice
within the last 200 years. The first of their periods of settle-
ment was short-lived and ended abruptly; the second was
longer and came to a gradual end through many years of
population decline. 23 The two periods were separated by al-
most a century, during which there were no settlements any-
where in the valley ; yet the characteristics of the occupance
of these people were much the same in each period, so that in
describing the occupance the two periods may be considered
without differentiation.

In the 1870's, small farms and villages were again estab-
lished along the flood plain of the river, and this time even
alongside the little creeks that flow out of the mountains to
create the Puerco. There were probably a few more settlers
in the upper and middle parts of the valley this time, but the
lower valley, as before, remained unoccupied. Resettlement
of the valley took place quickly, largely because the Indian
danger had been suddenly removed.

Most of the new villages were built in the same locations
as the old ones and, in some instances at least, the settlers
were heirs of the original settlers. A survey map of 1877
shows four villages in the old Montano grant. One of these

22. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Survey Report . . . , op. cit., p. 8 ; also Leo-
pold, op. cit., pp. 295, 305.

23. By 1950 the middle valley was almost deserted, bringing the second period of
settlement to an end. But in the upper valley, where the environment is more favorable
to settlement, there still exists a considerable population.



260 NEW MEXICO HISTORICAL REVIEW

was La Cueva, doubtless located on the site of La Cueva of the
first period of settlement. The three others were San Fran-
cisco, Duran, and San Ignacio. 24

Farther south, Los Quelites was re-established at the
mouth of the San Jose, and still farther south was a new
village known as Los Cerros. It was located a little way
downstream from the present railroad crossing of the Puerco
and was the southernmost of all settlements in the valley. 25

North of the Montano grant there were established the
villages of Casa Salazar, Guadalupe, Cabezon, San Luis, La
Ventana, and Cuba. Casa Salazar may be at the site of the
old Lagunites, San Luis is at the location of the old Ran-
ches de los Mestas, and Cuba is at the site of Nacimiento.
The others have the same names as in the first period of
settlement.

Above Cuba the settlers and their farms were widely
scattered along the watercourses at the base of the moun-
tains. There was lacking here the village type of organiza-
tion characteristic of the middle valley ; La Jara and Regina
had only slight semblance of being villages.

Both the physical environment and the historical necessi-
ties of the people shaped the areal pattern of settlement in
the middle Puerco valley. The physical environment, on the
one hand, made desirable a pattern of scattered settlement,
whereas such centuries-long characteristics as common use
of rangeland, community irrigation systems and defense
against Indians tended to bind the settlers into compact vil-
lage units. Taken as a whole, the pattern of settlement illus-
trates a series of compromises between these opposing forces.

Population of the Puerco villages, a first consideration
in the pattern of settlement, was always quite small. Limited
by the dearth of natural resources, probably none of the vil-

24. Kirk Bryan, "Historic Evidence on Changes in the Channel of the Rio Puerco,
A Tributary of the Rio Grande in New Mexico," Journal of Geology, XXXVI (1928),
276-276. The New Mexico Principal Meridian, located near the Puerco valley, was sur-
veyed in 1855 ; and the notes of this and later surveys were used by Bryan in investi-
gating these villages. One of these surveys noted the ruins of an additional town in the
Montano Grant, San Fernando ; but apparently the old town of San Fernando was not
re-established in the second period of settlement, and the ruins were those of the original
village.

25. Ibid., p. 277.



GEOGRAPHY OF MIDDLE RIO PUERCO VALLEY 261



EXTENT OF
FORMER IRRIGATION

PART 2




Fig. 17



262 NEW MEXICO HISTORICAL REVIEW

lages in the middle valley ever contained more than about
200 persons. 26 In 1877 the population was estimated to be
100 at San Francisco and 150 at San Ignacio. La Cueva and
Duran were still smaller, as there were reported to be only
three occupied houses in each of these villages. At that time,
however, both these villages were already past their peaks.
San Francisco and San Ignacio, in contrast, may have grown
a little larger, as indicated by the number of ruins visible in
1909 and at present [1957] , 27 The village of Los Cerros was
reported to have a population of 50-60 persons in 1881. 28
More recent population figures for the villages of San Luis,
Cabezon, Guadalupe, and Casa Salazar reveal a decline from
a total of 411 in 1930 to 20 in 1957.

Cabezon was the largest town in the middle valley, and
is said to have once had four stores, four saloons, and three
"dance halls." Cabezon, San Luis, Guadalupe, and Casa Sala-
zar, at least, each had a small school and church, and there
was long a post office at Cabezon and another at Guadalupe.

Each settlement consisted of little clusters, groups, or
strings of adobe buildings. Some of the villages were quite
compact, such as San Francisco and Guadalupe, while in
others a row of houses extended two or three miles along a
main irrigation ditch, as at San Luis. Topography of the val-
ley and the land use associated with it made desirable a
"stringing out" of the villages. The main factor in the layout
as well as the location of each village was the presence of
easily irrigated bottom land. Such land was found only here
and there, and usually in narrow strips adjacent to the river.
Where there were several hundred acres of this irrigable
land, there was likely to be a village. Houses were often scat-
tered along the upslope edge of the irrigated area, located
as near as possible to the fields.

This distribution of houses and its variations are easily
seen in the village layouts of Casa Salazar, Guadalupe, Cabe-
z6n, and San Luis. At Casa Salazar, the farthest south of
these four villages, there were houses and fields on both sides

26. No census information about the valley is available except for the last few
decades, and only a few estimates were previously made.

27. Bryan, op. eit., pp. 275-276.

28. Ibid., p. 277.



GEOGRAPHY OF MIDDLE RIO PUERCO VALLEY 263

of the river. Some of the houses were grouped into a small
nucleus of settlement, but many others were widespread in
the valley. This distribution was made possible primarily by
considerable areas of land suitable for agriculture on each
side of the river. It was also possible for the people to con-
struct irrigation ditches on both sides of the stream. Houses
were built alongside the ditches, adjacent to the individual
fields. Usually the houses stood on one side of the main ditch
and the fields lay on the other. A close grouping of the vil-
lages was thus sacrificed for the convenience of living near
the family croplands.

At Guadalupe the layout was somewhat different. Here
most of the houses were on the west side of the river, clus-
tered around a little spring. In this case it was more impor-
tant to the settlers to be near the supply of domestic water
than to be near their fields, though most of these were also
within easy walking distance. A few other settlers were scat-
tered throughout this part of the valley where there were
small patches of irrigable flood plain.

Cabezon, largest and most important of the middle
Puerco villages, was located at the foot of a high bluff over-
looking the valley on the west. The buildings were closely
hemmed in between the bluff and the community's main irri-
gation ditch, for there was little space to be wasted in this
section. High ground pinched out the flood plain just above
and below Cabezon; and this limitation on cropland made
necessary the close spacing of the buildings. At one time there
were also some houses on the east side of the river at Cabe-
zon, but some of these were destroyed by widening of the
river channel; today the only buildings left standing are
those on the west side.

San Luis was the least compact of the villages described.
Houses were scattered along the community's main ditch for
a distance of more than three miles, located wherever the
flood plain seemed most suitable for cultivation. In this area
the flood plain on the west side of the river was comparatively
wide and uninterrupted, so that the settlement was not as
restricted in area as was Cabezon. On the other hand, houses
and fields at San Luis were all limited to one side of the river ;



264 NEW MEXICO HISTORICAL REVIEW

a slightly elevated area on the opposite side broke the flatness
of the valley floor and made ditches and fields impracticable.

Though the population and villages of the middle Puerco
area were seemingly thinly scattered, actually most of the
valley land suitable for agriculture was occupied. Compara-
tively short distances separated the settlements from each
other; and, for the most part, the unoccupied bottom land
between villages was too sloping, too rocky, or too narrow for
irrigation and crop raising. In brief, the settlers occupied
the valley to almost the maximum physical extent possible.

The presence or lack of good sources of domestic water
was a minor factor in the location of the Puerco villages. The
main settlement of Guadalupe had the advantage of being
located at a spring, but the other villages had no such con-
venient water supply. In the early days at least, some water
for domestic use was obtained from wells, and even river-
water was used. Later, after the entrenchment of the river
and consequent lowering of the water table below the depth
of most wells the people used rainwater drained off corru-
gated metal roofs and stored in barrels and cisterns. Some-
times it was necessary to haul water in barrels from the
spring at Guadalupe or from the Espiritu Santo spring sev-
eral miles east of the valley.

At all the villages the houses and other buildings were
constructed of adobe and stones, with either earth or metal
roofs. A few refinements such as glass windows were the only
major contrast with the eighteenth century period. Most of
the old houses are presently in ruins, and they lend an aspect
of desolation to the valley. This impression is heightened by
the old croplands, now slowly returning to brush and native
grass.

Livestock grazing and irrigation farming were the two
basic economic activities of the settlers. Grazing was prob-
ably secondary in importance, but much more land was used
for this activity than was devoted to agriculture. Large num-
bers of cattle, sheep, goats, and horses were fed on both the
unplowed lands of the valley and on the crop fields themselves
after harvest. In addition, the upland range was used for
miles on either side of the river.



GEOGRAPHY OF MIDDLE RIO PUERCO VALLEY 265

In the early days fences were few or non-existent, and the
range was used in common by all the settlers. There was
nothing to prevent each farmer from grazing his cattle
wherever he wished. The flocks of sheep and goats, while kept
under closer watch than cattle, were also pastured anywhere
and everywhere on the watershed. 29 Grazing was thus un-
restricted, yet the Puerco settlers were careful to cooperate
with each other. Likely they pooled not only the range but
their efforts in herding and managing their stock. A few
riders and herders would have been sufficient to control the
stock of each community, leaving the majority of the popula-
tion engaged in farming. This was only one of the ways in
which the settlers cooperated among themselves to make their
occupance of the middle valley more secure.

Livestock were watered from puddles in the river bottom
and from a number of earthen reservoirs. These reservoirs,
which were also more or less common property, were con-
structed by damming small drainage ways wherever it was
convenient often where they entered the flood plain from
the surrounding uplands. The more favorably located of the
reservoirs still collect small permanent pools of water, but
many others were failures. Usually the unsuccessful ones did
not collect the drainage from large enough areas, so that they
dried up in the summer. Much of the water was also lost by
seepage unless considerable efforts were made to give the
reservoirs impermeable bottoms.

In recent years several wells with windmills have been
drilled into the alluvium of the valley floor, and these, to-
gether with the river and the old reservoirs, adequately sup-
ply the present livestock.

The history of stocking by the Rio Puerco settlers fol-
lowed closely that of the entire Rio Grande watershed above
El Paso. Numbers of livestock reached a peak about 1900,
after which there was an almost steady decrease until the
present. In the Rio Grande watershed cattle decreased almost
sixty percent between 1900 and 1935. 30 Perhaps the most im-

29. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Survey Report . ... op. cit., pp. 149-150.
80. Based on information from U. S. Department of Agriculture, Survey Report
. . . , op. cit.



266 NEW MEXICO HISTORICAL REVIEW

portant factor accounting for this decrease was the depletion
of range vegetation. This factor must have been important in
the Puerco valley as well, but probably more significant here
was the decrease in available rangeland.

The animals and their products were used by the settlers
themselves and also were sold in the Rio Grande valley, thus
giving the people some cash income. But commercial market-
ing of livestock was not important enough to overcome the
basic subsistence economy. The only notable exception to this
economy was Mr. Richard Heller. He was one of the most
influential citizens of Cabezon (1889-1949) and is said to
have once owned 10,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle. He regularly
took stock to market in Albuquerque, 31 and probably also
served as an agent for other settlers of the middle valley.

The crop land of the middle valley, in contrast to the
range, was controlled by the head of each family. The hold-
ings of each family, however, were very small, usually little
odd-shaped tracts less than fifteen acres in size. Nevertheless,
these patches of irrigable valley bottom were the funda-
mental land resources upon which settlement of the valley
was based. On these lands the folk grew their staple foods
of corn, beans, chili, and wheat, and secondary crops of al-
falfa, oats, and vegetables. In addition, there were a few
orchard fruits apples, pears, plums, and cherries. For the
most part these were all subsistence and forage crops used
locally, but some of the wheat was hauled to market in Albu-
querque. In this regard it is reported that the Puerco valley
was once known as the "bread basket of New Mexico," 32 but
it is unlikely that such a poor area farmed by so few people
could fully warrant the title. At one time a small flour mill at
Cabezon served the local area, but it disappeared so long ago
as to be almost forgotten.

Tall native grasses were another commercial product of
the middle valley. At a number of locations along the river,
especially at the mouths of certain tributary arroyos, wild

31. Henry T. Gurley, "A Town out of the Past," New Mexico Magazine, XXXV
(April, 1957), 51.

32. Quoted by Mr. Richard Strong, Soil Conservation Service, Albuquerque. Also see
article by Mr. Strong in Albuquerque Tribune, September 11, 1957.



GEOGRAPHY OF MIDDLE RIO PUERCO VALLEY 267

grasses once grew two to three feet or more in height. The
grass was cut annually in these comparatively well-watered
places, and was sold in Albuquerque as "wild hay/'

All planted crops in the middle valley were grown under
irrigation, but not the Indian type of flood-water farming.
No evidence exists that the settlers practiced this primitive
type of irrigation. On the contrary, they irrigated their crops
with water diverted directly from the Rio Puerco though
the Puerco was always a poor stream for such a purpose. The
occasional flow of water in the river meant that crops could
be irrigated only occasionally. However, it was possible, in
time of summer flashflood in the river, to give the fields a
good soaking, and one that would last until the next flood. No
estimate can be made of the amount of water that was actu-
ally delivered, in an average year, to the crop lands. For maxi-
mum yields, however, the land would have needed about 1.5
to 3 acre-feet per acre per year. 33 This optimum was prob-
ably rarely achieved.

In the years before the river had entrenched itself deeply,
it was relatively simple to divert water for irrigation. Many
farmers built small dams and ditches of their own. A settler
at San Ignacio stated that "low brush dams were thrown
across the channel during later phases of the flood, and the
water was diverted into ditches or simply warped over the
land." 34 Also, when there were unusually large flash floods,
the water left the river channel and inundated large areas of
the valley floor. Apparently this flooding was gentle enough
that there was little destruction of crops. When the floods
occurred, according to one investigator, the soil became so
saturated that crops grew with no further irrigation during
the year. 35

Despite the ease of irrigating the land, most of the irriga-
tion carried on in the middle valley was not done by the farm-
ers as individuals, but by community effort. Probably from
earliest times the settlers used "community ditch systems,"

33. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Division
of Land Economics, Water Utilization Section, Water Facilities Area Plan for Upper
Rio Puerco Watershed, Sandoval and Rio Arriba Counties, New Mexico, 1939, pp. 44-46.

84. Kirk Bryan, "Flood- water Farming," Geographical Review, XIX (1929), 454.

35. Ibid.



268 NEW MEXICO HISTORICAL REVIEW

which were common features of New Mexico. In establishing
these systems each community (sometimes two adjacent com-
munities) constructed one or two large irrigation ditches.
Water was diverted from the river into these ditches by dams
located short distances upstream from the settlements. Both
dams and ditches were community property. From the
ditches each farmer was allowed to take water to irrigate his
fields, and in return was required to help keep the dams and
ditches in repair. Each ditch system was governed by a com-
mission of three men and an executive major-domo who were
elected annually. Duties of these men were to apportion the
water and see to it that every water-user contributed the
necessary amount of labor to the upkeep of the ditch and
dam. 36

Though the community ditch system did not originate in
the Puerco valley, it may be viewed as definitely an adapta-
tion of the occupance to the environment of the valley, for
it made the most economical and efficient use of the river
water that could be devised. In a wider view the system also
illustrates the community efforts found necessary by the
Spanish in settling the arid parts of America.

But despite their utility and comparative efficiency, the
community ditch systems were still much less than perfect.
The first trouble was that the community dams were not made
to hold water in storage for any length of time, but only to
divert it when the river ran. This was because the settlers
had neither materials, finances, nor, perhaps, ability to con-
struct water-tight structures. Even further beyond their con-
ception were large reservoirs capable of watering crops
through an entire season. What was possible to build, on the
contrary, were small log and stone structures that could di-
vert only a fraction of the ephemeral floodwaters. At first
these structures were very small, but as the river channel
enlarged they necessarily became larger also. Eventually they
were structures of considerable size and major importance.

A second trouble with the ditch systems was that irriga-
tion methods were always very poor. Even now, in the few

86. New Mexico, Eighth Biennial Report of the State Engineer of New Mexico,
1928, pp. 227-237.



GEOGRAPHY OF MIDDLE RIO PUERCO VALLEY 269

systems still in use in the upper valley, water is usually ap-
plied to crops in a wasteful and inefficient manner. "Irriga-
tion systems are poorly laid out, land has not been properly
leveled or terraced, and substantial quantities of water are
lost down road ditches and natural drainage-ways." 37 The
ditches were usually built without being properly surveyed,
and were of uneven grade and cross-section. Perhaps as much
as 50 percent of the water carried in them was lost in one
way or another before it could be delivered to the fields. 38

Each of the community ditches in the middle valley ex-
tended more or less parallel to the river channel for several


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